Reflections on My First Techno Contra

Tags: calling

Last weekend, I called my first techno contra (as part of a double dance at CDNY to celebrate the wedding of two of our lovely dancing humans 😍). It turns out, to no one’s surprise, that calling techno is a fair bit different from calling a regular evening dance. Here are my reflections on calling my first techno (including a bunch of great advice from folks on SharedWeight’s Callers’ Listserv).

+ If you can, listen to the tracks in advance!

I worked with DJ Flourish (Mark Moore) from Philly—he’s great! Among other things, he sent me his tracks in advance, which meant that I could get extra precise with the dance/track pairing—super helpful because it’s harder to request specific track features (like “balances in the A”) from your DJ than from a band. Also, I knew how many potatoes to expect for each track, if they were at all fake-out-y, etc. (Important note: it is not a given that your techno tracks will have exactly four potatos—check with your DJ!)

(However, for my next techno, even if I’m not fitting dances to specific tracks, I still plan to program in advance. I’m very used to tossing together programs on the fly for a regular evening of contra, but the constraints on a techno are juuust different enough that I would trip myself up trying to just pull dances out of my box the way I usually do.)

+ Choose easy, idiomatic dances

I got cocky in the second half and programmed some stuff that was above the level of the crowd, and had to fall back to something super basic when a weird box circulate dance fell apart. Whoops.

In general, you should pitch your techno contra difficulty a little lower than your regular evening difficulty: it’s dark and loud, harder for dancers to see and harder to focus, the phrasing of the music is a little harder to follow (see below), and honestly, your dancers probably just want to groove. Techno contra is probably not the time to push the limits of what my people can do—I want to just let them coast and have a good techno time.

One more piece of the puzzle was that I as a caller couldn’t get a read on the hall because it was so dark. If I’d been better able to see how ropy the previous dance had been, or that a lot of the experienced people had left at the break, I would have been better able to adjust my program. So there’s another point in favor of calling easier dances—not so much that they dancers can’t handle it, as a rule, but rather that you as a caller can’t tell as easily whether the dancers can handle it.

+ Don’t plan on giving demos

When I asked the callers’ listserv about whether or not I could demo figures, just about everyone warned me away from it, and I agree! It’s dark and hard to see people doing stuff on the floor, and dancers just want to groove. Chuck Abell said it well: “If you need a demo for it, the dance is probably too hard.”

+ Techno music has funky phrasing / Keep calling

Techno mixes won’t necessarily have the clarity of phrasing we’re used to the contra world. Even having listened through the tracks multiple times, I couldn’t always tell if we were in the A or the B, and sometimes had to check back in with the dancers for a clue. Depending on the track, even the 16- or 8-beat phrases can be fuzzier than normal, and if the dancers are trancing out to techno beats, well, they might not know when one move end and another starts.

I got the great advice to keep calling longer than I could have normally—by the end of the dances, my calls were all one beat, but I was often still calling at least some moves. The point was not to reminder dancers what came next, but when. Unless your dancers all have A+ internal metronomes, when the music is smooth and trancy, a well-placed call might be the only thing indicating when one move ends and another starts.

In particular, Jonathan Sivier points out that dancers will tend to swing too long—everyone likes swings, and if the phrasing is unclear, that’s the first move that’ll tend to spill over. I definitely observed this on the floor, and so was particularly careful to prompt the moves that came after swings.

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