In Southern California (SoCal), square dance clubs have been following the same model since the early eighties: teach new dancers the PLUS program, and host periodic dances featuring guest callers. The central focus for clubs differs. Some emphasize socialization more than others. Some enjoy a little more of a challenge in the dancing. Whatever the focus for any particular club, no one will argue that recruitment is not becoming increasingly more difficult.

There is active discussion taking place in other forums about the reasons why attracting and retaining dancers is so tough. For the moment, let us set aside the problem of recruitment and focus on keeping the rare few who make it through a 30+ week class to become so-called PLUS dancers.

Clubs seem to believe that the average dancer can be trained to dance PLUS in the time they allot for their classes. Yet, their new dancers often experience a big shock when they graduate from class and attend the club dance on a Friday or Saturday night. They quickly learn to one degree or another that they have to struggle to keep up, or that they cannot, in fact, do so.

Realizing that the size of the shock might make the difference between keeping or losing those precious new dancers, clubs are beginning to dumb-down the initial dances their new dancers are expected to attend. Some clubs shift between levels at their dance, offering alternating tips of MAINSTREAM and PLUS. Some simply instruct their guest caller to coddle the new dancers with “easy” material. Some do both. This has the potential of being dissatisfying for everyone.

New dancers pay for an entire dance but are able only to dance the “MAINSTREAM” half even after graduating at PLUS, which implies that they should be able to dance the “club level”. The more capable “club dancers” — who may want a little challenge — are placed in the position of being bored with “easy MAINSTREAM.” Less capable “club dancers” may experience some difficulty with the “easy MAINSTREAM” and begin to distrust the caller. For, after all, they are PLUS dancers and should know MAINSTREAM. They serve to lock the “floor level” far below the abilities of the more capable club dancers and limit the available choices the caller has to make the dance more interesting. A caller will find it difficult at such a dance to please everyone. By nature, the dance lacks continuity, and a guest caller with a cool bag of tricks may find it near impossible to guide the dancers through the “cool material.”

One feature of the activity that has been shunned in SoCal and yet might offer some benefit, is the employment of competent Club Callers. In SoCal, clubs hire teachers for their classes, but instruction often ends at the conclusion of the class. Even if the class is extended with a workshop, the teacher, by necessity, is concerned with exercising new or weaker dancers in hopes of preparing them for success on a “real dance floor.” There is little or nothing available to promote experienced dancers’ growth! Considering the fact that weaker dancers learn faster and better when allowed to dance with skilled dancers, skill development of any club that wishes to remain healthy should be a high priority. A club caller is ideally positioned to handle this task, and it can be handled in an atmosphere that is much more like a dance than a class!

Club callers are the norm in Northern California, and some folks like Lawrence Johnstone, club caller for the Santa Rosa Singles and Pairs, have hardly experienced anything else. The club caller calls for the club on a weekly basis and can provide a sort of continuity that is missing in the South. A typical “club night” structure might begin with a new dancers’ class, transition into a brief workshop for graduate club dancers, and wind up with a club level dance. The club caller features something new in the workshop each week, providing variety that can keep a club from becoming stagnant. In contrast to the format normally seen in the South, all activity occurs on the same night. Where in the South, some club members might not attend the class night, preferring instead to show up only at the weekend dance, Northern new dancers have a chance to mix with all of the club members who attend their regular club night’s dance.

The club caller is intimately familiar with the pulse of the club and can guide and encourage it toward good health. Skilled dancers can be encouraged to dance with the weaker and then be rewarded later during the more advanced portions of the evening. Northern clubs spend a good deal of their time hosting their club night in which their club caller is featured. However, they also host special dances from time to time in which guest callers are employed. The club caller often attends these dances, or at least pays close attention to dancer feedback. Anything that caused difficulty, or that the dancers found interesting (or perhaps a bit confusing), is work-shopped on a subsequent club night. Thus the club caller strengthens the skill of the club as a whole. The club caller encourages comfort and success, for even if dancers have trouble with another voice, they can return to the familiar whom they know has their best interests at heart.

In the South, clubs market classes on their weekly club nights. The class teacher is concerned primarily with training new dancers to join the club and perhaps enjoy some success at regular weekend club dances. In the South, laying the foundation for success is a typical goal. Dancers really learn to dance on the open dance floor. If the new dancers are lucky, skilled club members take them under their wings and usher them through the initial discomfort of live open dances. The class teacher often must contend with graduate club members possessing skills that leave much to be desired. Often in their zeal to be helpful to the new dancers, they do more harm than help. The teacher is familiar only with the strengths and weaknesses of those who attend the class, and if the teacher is able to glean more by attending open dances with the club, opportunities to correct observed problems are limited since the primary purpose of the class is to instruct new dancers not improve overall club skill.

Southern clubs market dances that feature guest callers as their primary club activity. Classes are often seen as important but secondary to the club’s primary function, which is to dance — to guest callers. The guest caller knows little or nothing of the club’s class activities, nor the strengths and weaknesses of the club’s abilities to dance any particular material. All that must be determined early in the dance. The wise guest caller seeks to call near the ability level of the entire floor. Some push a little beyond that ability line. Some keep just below it – others far below it. The guest caller is interested in entertaining, and providing as enjoyable an experience as possible for the dancers. Often times as a result, choreographic challenges are approached warily or abandoned all together.

Even so, with dancers possessing weak skill sets, invariably a sequence is called that gets the better of them. Some feel foolish. Some egos are bruised. Some simply cease to have fun. The guest caller is simply trying to provide the best experience with a general knowledge and a set of expectations for the dancers’ abilities. After all, the guest caller would like to be hired again. The dancers’ are simply experiencing the moment, taking in what was fun, and racking up failures like bruises. With nowhere to turn for relief, eventually, some draw away from the activity as a whole. A club caller can provide that relief with: 1. familiarity, 2. a program of skill improvement, and 3. a stacking of success upon success. A club caller may also become a point of contact for a guest caller with whom information could be exchanged in order to program a dance tailored for success.

Adoption of programs that are built around the idea of a club caller might improve the situation somewhat in SoCal. There are clear problems with the activity as it exists today, and competition for the attention of new people is fierce. A competent club caller could help ease the transition from new dancer to veteran. A competent club caller could tend to and nurture a club to ensure that their skill level is well positioned for success and pleasant experiences on the dance floor. The clubs’ overall education should not be neglected after class if we intend to go on with the same sort of models that prevail today.

The real elephant in the room seems to be the level. The number and complexity of the calls dictate a class and learning culture. As a collective, California Modern Western Square Dancing does not provide enough venues for all programs. Entry level typically requires at least 30 weeks of instruction, and dances provided in the interim too often vanish after classes move forward. Consider the lack of appreciation for the MAINSTREAM Program. Even at dances that offer alternating MAINSTREAM tips, the program is not emphasized, and dancers rarely experience its merits! Dancers are simply not trained to dance MAINSTREAM properly. There is a preconceived notion that PLUS must be the standard, and yet almost everyone has a rip-roarin’ time at a good half-way dance! Is it a secret that half-way is typically composed of the BASIC program?

By the time half-way dances roll around, new dancers are weak yet able to execute most of the basics from standard positions. Experienced dancers fill in the gap and help them cope with new voices and different presentations. These basics serve as the foundation for just about everything else that follows in other programs, and yet pressure is levied to move forward before these calls are mastered. With time being such a precious commodity to a club during a class, consider that many calls that draw time and attention in instruction are rarely (if ever) used.

There are a few bright points — many clubs are willing to try new things, and are bringing creativity into their activities. Perhaps some would be willing to examine our sense of values and open the doors of the activity a little wider. The adoption of club callers may not be an overall solution to every problem that faces a club, but it could be a step in the right direction. Perhaps something important can be learned. As a collective, we will either continue cult-like and embrace the rare few initiates with the stamina to make it through our 30+ week rituals, or perhaps through the leadership of a few good club callers, we can begin to provide aspects that have been far too neglected — like entry level programs achievable in 1/3 the time.

Clearly, the ultimate solution lies in the hands of both clubs and callers. Perhaps it’s high time the two got together more formally.