Phrase Craze

(a workshop presented at the 2010 CALLERLAB Convention)

Clark Baker and Jim Mayo, March 2010

This workshop will explore the relationship of patter and singing calling to the musical phrase. We start with a brief definition of terms, and move into some dancing. Does a style of delivery in which the caller gives the dancers the first beat in a phrase better? How often can a skilled caller "hit the phrase"? How can you acquire this skill? What are some examples of strongly phrased music. This will be a laboratory in which we are counting on you, as dancers, to help determine which variables really matter.

Clark conceived this talk so he will start.

As most of you know, I was drawn to the choreographic complexity aspect of square dance, moving through the various dance programs and ending up mainly dancing and calling the Challenge programs. While I was eventually able to hear, dance to, and call with the beat of the music, I did not hear or make use of the phrase of the music. Sure it was mentioned occasionally in caller meetings and at CALLERLAB, but it didn't mean anything to me.

In the mid-1990's I started to attend the local contra dances, and gradually began to hear and appreciate the music, the strong phrasing present in the music, and how the dance routines were put together to match that phrasing. Before we go too far, we should define what we mean by phrase. Jim Mayo's 1966 Calling For Modern Square Dancing has a fine definition:

Phrase: Each four steps the dancer takes makes up a sub-phrase and two sub-phrases (8 steps) make a phrase in square dance music. The first beat in each phrase is a little bit louder (or heavier) than the other seven and in most recorded square dance music you can hear these heavy beats quite plainly. Your dancers can hear them too. With rare exceptions all square dance music is made up of 8 beat phrases. Usually, there are 8 of these phrases (64 beats) in a musical pattern and after every 64 beats, the musicians go back to the beginning and play the same pattern again, repeating as many times as necessary. The 64 beat musical unit is called a chorus and is found in both patter and singing call music.

My contra dance experience has allowed me to better hear the phrase while calling patter, and I have become more interested in this subject. Last year we offered a workshop on Beat Math (do the timing numbers really work?) and this year I though it would be interesting to do some experiments around phrasing.

First let's look at some examples from callers who understand phrasing. Dick Leger was interviewed in 1996 and had the following to say:

"I learn so much about the fact of giving them the music, giving the number 1 beat of music to the dancers to move to. And this is what I been doing and this what ties in the whole crowd so they move, in other words, you're moving, you're telling them what to do when you know. You're telling them what to do, but the music is telling them when to go. And once they go then it's your job to give, always give them the next call just before they need it. So they are still using the music and people don't get tired dancing that way. And what I call it is like pre-cueing. It's like a round dance really and this what eventually developed into my style of calling. It's that I could pre-cue the call and still sing the song. And even in the patter calls I could pre-cue and then, I have it now so it's almost second nature. And the system of running Caller Schools, teaching timing is that you can put it down so they can actually get it. And ah, you know the number 1 beat, the phrase of music is so great to dance to that when a caller starts calling to it, he wants to use it to, to call to. And it just common sense the caller has to say well, the dancers are paying the bill so that the dancers really deserve that number 1 beat. So he has to back up his calls to 5, 6, 7 or 8."

"I think that we got, we got so much of an insight actually moving to the music and phrasing and when I dance I kind of pick and chose because I don't like to be cheated music wise. I don't like to say, hear someone say Side Face Grand Square off the phrase so I can't move to the number one beat. ... And just multiply this times how many basics you do where you really enjoy putting them together and work out to the phrase and I really feel the best dancing is the preplanned. When Callers will set down preplanned, it's OK to use split phrasing but put it with something that adds up the 16 or put it with something that's adds up to 8."

Dance a Dick Leger patter tip

The goal of phrased calling is to give the call so the dancers start moving on beat 1 of the 8-beat phrase. When the dancers execute 8-beat calls, they will start the next call on beat 1, also. This type of connection with the phrase of the music enhances the dance experience.

Dance Riverboat or other phrased singing call

Keeping with singing calls, while much of the figure may not be phrased, it can certainly start on the phrase if the caller pre-cues (or prompts) the first call. Also, the Weave The Ring, Swing, and Promenade should be on the phrase as the caller sings the words of the song.

Jim calls a singing call showing the above

Play the following video and counting the phrasing, and notice how the call delivery relates to beat 1 of the phrase

Let's consider patter calling, especially as square dancing is called today. Certainly all the calls aren't 4 or 8 beats long, and the timing generally won't line up so as to give the dancers beat 1. However, Jim Mayo has told me that he believes that some callers manage to have the dancers get beat 1 more often and this gives a better dancer experience, even in their patter tips. To be more explicit, here are some quotes from him, interviewed in 1996:

"I danced as a teenager with Ralph Page three nights a week all summer long. I did that for several years. I loved every minute of it. And there was hardly ever a word changed in his entire evenings program. We danced the same thing over and over again. But, we danced it to live music. We danced it on the beat. It was unthinkable that a call should be given other than prompted before the phrase of the music."

"One of the striking things that everybody that came to New England commented on was the Alamo Style figure that rattled the rafters. And every dancer's foot hit the floor at the same time because it was never called off the phrase."

"We no longer worry about the phrase. In fact, most callers take the first beat of the phrase for themselves. They start their calling on the first beat of the phrase which guarantees that the dancers never get it, or at least if they do it's an accident."

"Most callers will tell you, 'Well we can't maintain choreographic variety and pay attention to that phrase.' I think that's hogwash. I believe if even a moderate caller gave the dancers the first count of the phrase for the first step, they would get it much more often throughout the rest of the dance than they do if the caller takes it for himself on the first phrase."

So, we come to the crux of our experiment. Does phrase matter in the patter portion of Modern Western square dance tips? Do the dancers notice?

Experiment #1: Find a caller who believes he "hits the phrase" when he can and analyze his patter tips. Then we will know how often he gives the dancer beat 1.

Experiment #2: Record that caller delivering a good tip, recording voice and music on separate tracks. Create new tips with the music shifted 4 beats ahead, 2 beats ahead, and 3 beats ahead. Ask a square to dance these 4 different versions (delays of 0, 2, 3, and 4 beats) and see if they notice anything, especially about how the dancing feels.

I made three attempts to perform experiment #1. I recorded our local caller, Ted Lizotte, who we feel calls well timed choreography and really knows his music. He doesn't claim to hit the phrase, but was willing to have me analyze some patter tips and tell him what I found. While not the tip I analyzed, you can watch one of his patter tips here:

You can see that most of the dancers are very synchronized with his delivery.

Listen to audio of the Ted tip I recorded. Perhaps count by 8's and see if calls align on beat 1.

Question, can we hear the music? Yes. Can we hear the phrase in the music? Yes, but not super strong. Are some calls delivered so the dancers get beat 1? The initial 4 Ladies Chain and Chain The Back were on the phrase. The Teacup Chain was not and after that it was hit and miss, mostly miss.

Listen to audio of JDS (tips #1 and #12). Count by 8's

Can we hear the music? Yes. Can we hear the phrase? Yes. Does his call delivery relate to beat 1? Not really.

Listen to (and perhaps watch) Jim's 1994 patter

Can we hear the music? Only OK. Can we hear the phrase? Not well. Does his call delivery relate to beat 1? Not really.

At this point in the experiment, I have the following observations:

  • Dancers are taking one step for each beat of the music.
  • Callers are calling with the beat of the music.
  • Caller is not tied to the phrase of the music.
  • Much of our patter music does not emphasize the phrase.
  • Dancers are tied to the caller, not the music for phrasing.

    Because of these results, I am unable to perform experiment #2.

    Where do we go from here? I have some observations.

    1. Using the phrase is a second order effect. Its benefit is entirely lost with dancers who don't move with the music or callers who exhibit stop and go delivery. We believe that these happen way too often and perhaps we should be working to eliminate them first.

    2. Phrasing can be provided by how the underlying beats are delivered and emphasized. It can also be provided by the melody line.

    3. Much patter music found on square dance records has subdued phrasing. This allows it to provide a beat, but not interfere with the caller's delivery. Often the phrase is only 4 beats long. Even if a caller gives the dancers beat 1 on this type of music, the enhancement effect is minimal.

    4. The music has to be played loud enough that the dancers can hear more than the beat. Too many times, all we hear is the caller with some music playing in the background. We can dance to the beat, but can't even recognize the tune playing.

    5. My contra dance experience has allowed me to be aware of the phrase in my square dance music while calling. I can tell when I happen to deliver a call and hits the phrase. I don't really control this, but I am aware when it happens. Being more in touch with your music can't hurt.
    If we have time: