I think the key to success at a club dance is to have a solid foundation with the Basics along with the ability to listen, trust, and react to directions from the caller. Most of the time these “directions” are simply the calls, but it has become increasingly fashionable for guest callers to alter the calls in some manner in order to provide more interest. Is there an unspoken assumption that a program’s calls cannot stand alone?

Based on the character of many dances called by the best in the business, these days, one might think so. A popular trick is to borrow calls from a higher level program and present them in terms that are appropriate for the program being danced. A caller can get away with this because practically any call from any program can be described as a collection of basic maneuvers.


In fact, I might go as far to say that just about any call can be described as a sequence of turns (with an arm or hand hold), circulates, trades, runs, individual quarter turns, and some sort of circular motion. These are the foundational building blocks for all modern square dancing, and most every call uses one or more as components. This allows a caller the use of plain English to guide dancers through complex maneuvers that might actually compose a call from a higher level program. If you can confidently execute these building blocks well, you’ll be in great shape for a club dance anywhere. In this edition of The Drawing Board, let’s take a look at the Turns.

Most of us probably encountered arm turns when we were first introduced to square dancing. Left Allemande is a specific use of the Arm Turn that includes an optional facing direction. If you’re not facing your Corner directly, you turn up to ¼ (90°) to face, and then execute the Left Arm Turn. The distance that you need to travel during any Arm Turn is the most important thing.

If you start as facing dancers, no distance should be specified. The next call determines how far you need to go. For example, from the squared set, suppose the caller calls, Men Star Left In the middle of the ring, Meet your Partner, Turn her with a Right Arm ‘Round, back to the Corner … Left Allemande! The direction, “back to the Corner,” tells you how far to turn that right arm. You turn until you are facing your Corner and can step forward to execute the next call, which is Left Allemande.

A distance is usually specified, however, if you start a turn from a mini-wave. The mini-wave is a formation in which two dancers are side by side and facing opposite directions. Callerlab generalizes the Arm Turn definition to include this case, but I like to think of it as a hand turn. Distance can be implied by the next call or stated explicitly as a fraction: full, ¼, ½, or ¾. Just how far is a quarter? How about 50 cents worth?
One way to understand this distance concept is to think of a circle, like a cherry pie, divided into fourths. As you move around the circle, you gobble up one piece of the pie for each quarter traveled! You can also think of a clock face. Your starting point is the zero or 12 o’clock position. Now, use the hand hold between you and your mini-wave partner as a pivot point. Walk around the circle until you return to your starting foot prints, and you’ve danced a full turn – once around. That’s four pie pieces – oh, the gluttony! The ¼ stops in between are the boundaries for the fractional distances – and the edges of the pie pieces. Gobble up half of the pie (2 pieces) if the caller says, Turn ½. In other words, move from 12 o’clock to 6 o’clock.

In the figure below, each stage is a ¼ turn, and the numbers are given for the red dancer. You can also think in terms of walls: 1 wall is equal to one quarter. I have found, however, that dancers have a tough time keeping track of walls while they are dancing. After all, the action is in the square!


When Arm Turn is actually called, take a forearm grip and turn the appropriate distance. Be prepared to let go of the hold and step forward to do the next call, although it’s not a requirement in every case. I mentioned that turns are building blocks for other calls. The majority of the time, you’ll be working with them as components of other calls like, Swing Thru. In the call, Swing Thru, for example, those who can Turn ½ by the right, and then those who can Turn ½ by the left. Mini-wave turns are a very natural sort of thing to do in ocean waves as the call, Swing Thru, illustrates. Other calls from waves, like Spin Chain Thru, are more complex in their series of turns (½, ¾, ½, ¾). After distance, the next important thing to consider is styling.

Dancers can’t seem to agree upon which hand hold to use despite the fact that most calls define the preferred style. It is far easier, in my opinion, for dancers to turn around a stable pivot point. Hands Up and Forearm styles offer stability. Arm Turns specify a forearm grip, as do calls like Scoot Back and Turn Thru. Calls that work with mini-wave turns usually specify Hands Up styling. Swing Thru, Spin the Top, Spin Chain Thru, and Touch ¼ all work well with the Hands Up style. You’re likely to see a Handshake Hold (hands down) offered for any call that involves a turn of some sort. If so, don’t panic. One good turn deserves another. Just think of how many slices of cherry pie you need to gobble up, and you’ll come out a winner.

Sheesh I’m getting hungry just thinking about all of this. I think I need a full turn – à la mode!  We’ll continue when we get back to The Drawing Board.