Stanford Quads

Square Dance Club

What Makes a Good Dancer

by Bill van Melle, April 7, 1996

There is more to square dancing than just knowing the calls. Yes, many of you recent graduates still have your hands full remembering how to execute some of the calls, and that is certainly important. In fact, at an APD/DBD club like Quads, it is important that you know the calls more than just vaguely. Do you know that SLIDE THRU involves the boys turning right, the girls left, or do you always just Quarter In at the end? If someone asked you to define SPIN CHAIN THE GEARS, could you express it in words?

Nonetheless, there are other considerations that are important for a successful dance--the way you move in a square, interact with its members, and how you think about what you're doing. The following notes have been culled over the years from discussions with various dancers. While these points are helpful for Plus dancers, they're absolutely essential for anyone considering dancing any higher level.

Touch hands. Dancers should touch hands every chance they get, especially between calls. Touching hands helps set your formation, and keeps people oriented and working as a team. It's vital if you're to complete the next call and one person in your square is lost. If at the end of a call, you are next to another dancer in your square, take his/her hand. Failure to take hands is a common source of dancer disorientation and hence error. For example, after FLIP THE DIAMOND, if the new centers don't take hands, they'll be likely to be confused if the next call is FAN THE TOP.

Give the other dancers some hand pressure so they really know you're there. You should provide structure to the square rather than just going along for the ride. On the other hand (as it were), too firm a handhold is at least as bad as too little; the dancer holding on with a death grip is not in a position to be flexible about where he moves on the next call, and may impede those he grips.

Changing your handhold to reflect the current call can also be helpful. For example, suppose you are in facing lines, and the caller says "Centers..." Even before you hear what the centers are supposed to do, if you drop the hand between the center and adjacent end, you'll focus your attention on the center four and won't try to do the call in the outside four.

You may have noticed by now that most dancers at Quads prefer to hold hands near waist level, as is common in the Challenge community, rather than up in the air, the usual standard at Plus. One of the many reasons for this is that it makes the hand coordination discussed above much easier, and the square dances better as a result.

Move with a target in mind. Before you move, you should know where you plan to end up. You should also know what kind of formation you'll be in, and which position in that formation you'll occupy. (This is related to the Sybalsky meta-rule, "If you don't know where you're going, don't go there."

Point where you're going. On calls like TRADE THE WAVE, you should first point where you're going to end up and make eye contact with the person you're trading with. Not only does this help you get to the right spot, it assures that the dancer you're trading with does, even if he or she wasn't sure to start with. The same goes for calls like BOYS TRADE (DOWN THE LINE) or THOSE FACING PASS THRU.

Dance small. At Quads, and indeed most Plus clubs, squares tend to spread out. That makes for sloppy formations, causes you to take longer than necessary to complete calls, and can make it hard to find the people you should be working with. A square can dance in 12 feet square without undue discomfort. This is a hard habit to pick up, but it pays off well.

What these first four points really come down to is "formation awareness." Notice that in each formation, there are 8 specific spots on the floor which you can be in, and 4 walls you can be facing. For example, in a 1/4 Tag (the name of the starting formation for PING PONG CIRCULATE), there is a wave down the center, and a couple on the outside. The couple should be lined up with the center of the wave and holding hands. If you aren't in the wave and aren't in the couple, or are facing a corner of the room, something went wrong with the previous call. If the formation is waves or columns, the dancers should be standing in a perfectly rectangular 2x4 array, not skewed, or with people sticking out. This is especially important in a T-bone formation (some dancers facing head walls, some side walls).

One thing to do to improve your dancing is practice knowing exactly what formation you are in. After each call, think "I am now number 3 in the column," "I am the in-facing end of a right-hand wave," or "I am now the rightmost end in the line." This is particularly useful when you get yourself into a tidal wave.

Thinking about the formation may also help you to keep it smaller by anticipating the little adjustments needed to get rid of the excess space in your square. For example, from 1/4 Tag, most people tend to dance the call EXTEND THE TAG by having the centers walk forward to the ends. However, once you realize that it ends in parallel waves, you'll know that the ends have to walk forward an equal distance toward the centers.

This leads into an advanced topic in formation awareness, what Challenge dancers have come to call "square breathing" the expansion and contraction of the square as calls put more or fewer dancers into the same space. Failure to "breathe" is a common reason that squares grow too large. For example, on RELAY THE DEUCEY or SPIN CHAIN THE GEARS, the square starts in waves (ideally close together), but expands (breathes) to accommodate the intermediate 4- or 6-person wave that forms at right angles to the original formation. But by the end of the call, the formation is again parallel waves. So as the call ends, the square should contract to pull those waves back close together. If it doesn't, and the next call is something like FOLLOW YOUR NEIGHBOR, the in-facers have a long way to walk to find the person they're to cast with.

Identify. If the caller says "Heads" or "Boys" (especially at Quads, where people sometimes dance arky), and you are one of the named people, raise your hand. That way, those who need to know who they are working with will have a better idea of what they are supposed to do. On SPIN CHAIN THE GEARS, the people who are to trade in the very center after the star turns should raise their hands so they notice each other. More importantly, on SPIN CHAIN & EXCHANGE THE GEARS, those same people should raise their hands to make sure the rest of the square knows who's leading the exchange.

Work as a team. Square dancing is not an individual sport, it's a team sport. If a square is acting as a team, it can generally enjoy success even on challenging choreography; if it isn't working as a team, it can be broken down by seemingly easy calls. Note that this does not mean pushing people! It means being at the right spot yourself, making eye contact, and touching hands. It also means that the people who have the easy parts of calls watch out for those who are doing the hard parts. For example, a common failure on the call SPIN CHAIN THE GEARS (and to a lesser extent, SPIN CHAIN THRU) is just before the final cast off 3/4: the dancer who should be standing still (the easy part) waiting to meet a center starts to wander. Not only should she not wander, she should be watching for that center to show up, and extend her hand to make clear which of the three dancers on that side of the square wants to cast with him.

Move in time to the music. Some people have a tendency to hurry up and wait. That ruins the flow of the dance, making it less pleasant. Worse, it causes failures of synchronization (getting to your next spot before the people you need to play with are there), which can take the square down. You can almost always move in a smooth continuous movement. The proper dance step is closest to walking, not prancing. Moving with smoothness will help keep the square together. Note that "flow direction" is frequently the correct direction to go for the next call; after all, the caller isn't attempting to give you bad flow. Being cognizant of flow, or at least not resisting it, should also make the call ROLL easier.

Last updated Wednesday 8 August 2007