The Chatty Dance Hall


Folks say that the toughest part of calling isn’t calling the dance itself, but teaching the dance beforehand. And while I agree, lately I’ve been noticing an unfortunate fact: it doesn’t matter how good a teacher you are if nobody’s listening to you as you teach. The first step for any caller, then, is to get the attention of the hall so that they can start the walkthrough. As anyone who’s ever been to a contra knows, however, this is easier said than done.

The first question to ask, given a chatty and inattentive hall, is: why aren’t the dancers paying attention? Have they been given too little time to socialize between dances, so they’re making up for it in line? Or, conversely, have they been given too much socializing time, and now the dancing has lost its momentum? Gauging the appropriate interval between dances is a matter of intuition and guesswork, and depends greatly on circumstances and ✨vibe ✨. When folks have drifted into hands-four and there’s a natural lull in the conversation as everyone looks to the caller, it’s time to start the next dance.

But, what if it’s a chatty hall and that lull never falls? When do you start corralling dancers? I still haven’t figured out the formula for this, and would love to hear others’ thoughts. And of course, sometimes—say, a dance hall on a tight schedule and you promised two more dances before the waltz—you can’t wait for that natural lull, and have to plow ahead whether the dancers are ready or not.

Getting Their Attention: Do’s and Don’ts

Trying to get people’s attention from the mic is a slippery slope, because if you as a caller talk too much, the dancers will start to tune you out, which means you need to talk more to get their attention, etc. If dancers expect unnecessary verbiage, or know that anything important will be repeated later, they assume (maybe even subconsciously) that they don’t have to listen the first time. I’m chatty by nature, but when I call, I make a conscious effort to say only what needs to be said; if I’m delivering an anecdote, to do so deliberately and for good reason (say, to stall while the one wonky set gets themselves back in order); and, most importantly, I try my best not to speak when people aren’t listening. Even anecdotes and asides should be delivered when you have the whole hall’s attention, or else you’re training inattentive dancers to tune you out.

I’ve found that if I repeat the same thing enough times, the hall will eventually quiet themselves down. (My favorite phrases for this are “This dance begins with…” and “Do we have hands-four at the bottom?”) It’s kind of like a teacher pulling the old “I can’t start until everyone’s quiet” trick: you make allies of the dancers who actually want to start, and they, not you, do the dirty work of shushing those around them.1 I particularly like this tactic because I never need to repeat any key information, so dancers don’t start expecting a second shot if they were zoning out the first time.

Another way to get the attention of a delinquent hall is, of course, to just start calling something. Some callers favor a circle left all the way. Those that comply end up right back where they started, and those that aren’t ready will see the movement in the hall and scramble to make hands-four. (I once tried this at a dance, and all the folks who hadn’t taken hands-four yet got angry at me for starting the walk-through without them… So, this method isn’t foolproof.)2

And of course, there’s always the option of redirecting the hall’s attention in a way that’s hard to ignore—e.g. starting up a round of applause for your sound people (appropriate at any time). Just getting folks to do something as a group points their attention to the same place; when the applause (or whatever) is over, you have all the dancers focused and not chatting, and can begin your walkthrough.

The Nuclear Option(s)

Sometimes, though, you have the perfect storm of chatty folks, advanced dancers who don’t think they need the walkthrough, new dancers who don’t yet know the etiquette and are only seeing bad examples from the experienced folks around them… You get the idea: people are just not listening.

Here’ what not to do: do not, under any circumstances, chastise the dancers. They’re here to have fun, and admonishments are a great way to raise everyone’s hackles. The caller and the dancers are supposed to be on the same team. The minute the caller scolds, “Please be quiet,” or, “Stop talking and listen to the walkthrough,” there’s a power dynamic instead of a big happy family.

I’ve seen a caller say something like the above to a particularly chatty crowd, and the change of attitude in the room was palpable. The dancers did not take kindly to being admonished like that. What’s more, this approach feels like it’s about the caller and their ego than about the dancers.

Conversely, the best I’ve seen this sort of situation handled was when dancing to the incomparable Beth Molaro. When none of the standard tricks were working and the crowd was still chatting away, she said lightly, “You know, the walkthrough is for you guys. I know how the dance goes.” There was enough humor in her voice that no one got offended, but the point came across: by yakking instead of listening, you’re impeding your own dancing. Which may seem like an obvious point, but when you’re in line catching up with a friend you haven’t seen since NEFFA last year, sometimes it bears repeating.

I think Beth’s tactic is especially effective because of its reminder of the communal nature of contra: the walkthrough is for the whole hall, and even if one individual doesn’t think they need the walkthrough, the hall as a whole does. Also, important, it gets a laugh—infusing humor into your refocusing tactic helps dancers not feel attacked.

Helping From the Floor

So what can you do as a dancer to help your caller out, make sure they never have to pull the Beth Molaro Maneuver, and keep the dance more enjoyable for everyone? I’d advise against literally shushing people—loud angry “shh’s” may bet the job done, but they seldom go over well, and dampen the atmosphere of the whole hall. Dancers get just as defensive when being called out by other dancers as when being called out by the caller, so keep it light and polite if you’re trying to help quiet people down.

I tend to not use words at all in this situation, to avoid adding to the clamor. Instead, I’ll very deliberately take hands-four and turn my body towards the caller; smile politely but not respond when people try to chat at me; and catch the eye of others in my foursome with a nod towards the top of the hall to redirect their attention. Just by setting a good example—being quiet and doing what you’re supposed to—you’re a force for good on the dance floor, and I think I speak for all callers when I say, thank you for your service.

These are some of my thoughts, tactics, and experiences in re: getting the attention of the hall. I’d love to hear yours: please share!

Thanks to Jeff Kaufman for beta-reading!
  1. Did I just compare a dance floor to a group of unruly children? Nope, definitely not, why would you think that? 

  2. Along the same lines, Jeff Kaufman suggests (for very sparing use) asking the band to just play four potatoes; it will sure get everyone’s attention, and you can make some joke about “ah, they just got excited!” and proceed with teaching the dance.