Square Dance Caller Advice: Patter Calling by Mel Wilkerson

This is a guest blog post by Mel Wilkerson.


This is a long post regarding calling patter for the first time around. Of the six or seven new callers I am corresponding with, this is an issue that frequently comes out and newer callers often feel disheartened that they are not sight calling and get lost when trying to remember long patter sequences.

I say, “Don’t.”

You already know long sequences but you know them in short bits. This is from a training exercise in one of my caller schools where we had the callers break down and create a full patter call using only two modules (every caller used the same ones), and two known singing call figures). No other moves were allowed except moving dancers into a single resolution technique if the callers got lost. It is quite basic but, for experienced callers, it is also quite challenging to go back to basics.

Before you read on however, I am a very strong proponent of sight calling, extemporaneous calling and resolution, even though this exercise may not seem like it. Remember it is a training, confidence building and learning exercise.

Starting Out Calling Patter – Two Singing Calls and Two Zeros Only

There are many books, texts, modules, organisational workshops, caller schools and other resources available to all callers at any level. Nevertheless, when virtually all callers start (yes there are a few exceptions), they begin to practice their first patters by using the known. This usually takes two forms:

1. Just calling random movements to feel the rhythm of patter and working the music.

  • One benefit of this is you learn to adapt phrasing and flow of word annunciation with the music.
  • One big drawback is that you are not actually using the music timing of movements and body flow to incorporate into your patter.

2. The second and more common thing that happens is that most new callers know about 1-5 singing calls and draw on that memory of the figures to adapt their patter routines into flowing and successful flow

  • One benefit of this is that the timing is known usually for the movements and the body flow is accurate usually to a resolution. It is comfortable and easy. It is also a good way to adapt patter phrasing and flow with the music.
  • One drawback is that your patter becomes redundant and you tend to rely on the same flow figures over and over again.

HOWEVER, the second method is a very valuable tool.

I have been asked by many new callers that I have taught, “”How do you sight call and still remember so many zeroes and combinations and modules?” Part of the secret is to accept that PURE SIGHT CALLING IS A MYTH – IT DOESN’T EXIST.

How is that for a controversial statement? The truth is patter calling is much, much more than just moving dancers around the floor successfully. I have yet to meet a caller that does not have memory modules and tools in the toolbox to draw from. Sight calling is little more than knowing your basic three tools and expanding the toolbox beyond one or two known formations comfortably. As you grow and practice, so too does the tool box and so too does your ability to sight call, move dancers without memorised sequences and the ability to resolve from anywhere.
As callers get better and more practiced, their ability to randomise the flow and move the dancers comfortably around the floor in a seemingly random flow increases. The reason for this is that they have learned to use the tools effectively and have learned to build bigger and better things with the tools and resources available. Nevertheless, pretty much all of them start with three basic tools

THE THREE BASIC TOOLS THAT A NEW CALLER NEEDS IN THE TOOL BOX

1. Understanding of the square dance movement. Knowing how the movement works – where it starts and where it finishes.

  • This does not mean knowing where everyone is or what the name of this or that formation is or even who is specifically with whom. All of that will come in time.
  • This refers to things like from a static square – heads square thru puts me in a box. OR a pass thru from a line of four takes me from a face to face position to a back to back position but still in a line – simple things.
  • If you understand those basics and your movements for the level you are learning (hopefully starting at basic and mainstream) then you will quickly learn that when I call this movement, I end up in this type of position and I can call something appropriate from the new position.

2. The caller must learn ONE GUARANTEED RESOLUTION TECHNIQUE and practice it until you own it.

  • Once you own a resolution technique, then you can confidently state that it doesn’t matter where the dancers are at any time you can get them home.
  • Knowing that you know this is the greatest confidence builder in the world.
  • It means that you will never get lost and you can move dancers around and if you lose your place, you will always be able to get them back home without having to call – “FIX IT”..or “Star promenade pick up your original partner and promenade home – etc.
  • Don’t laugh: even the very best callers have done this at one time or another
  • PS: once you know one resolution technique – you can call yourself a sight caller because the first two tools are really all sight calling is.

3. The caller must learn at least ONE MODULE ZERO FROM A LINE and ONE MODULE ZERO FROM A BOX

  • The reason I say this is that these two zeroes are your breathing time to relax and gather yourself when you lose your place on the floor.
  • Trust me it will happen, but if you know your movements, it doesn’t matter. – you are always no more than three moves from either a line or a box no matter where you are in the square.
  • Once you get to either that line or box, you can use one of those two modules to gather yourself, whilst keeping the dancers moving.
  • This allows you to use your one guaranteed resolution technique to get home and start again.

The two module zeroes that I learned first were:

From a Box (two boxes actually one on each side of the square)

Swing thru – Girls circulate – Boys trade – Boys run – Bend the line – Touch 1/4 – All 8 circulate – Boys run

From a line (facing lines of four)

Pass thru – wheel and deal – double pass thru – first go left – next go right

Note that both of those have an interactive flow with the dancers throughout the square but do absolutely nothing other than move the dancers from one point, back to the same point without changing anything.

OK so now I have my three basic tools. I have to ask – how do I call?

Start easy. Move the dancers around using known stuff to make your patters. Let’s, for instance, start with a common singing call pattern from one of your known singing calls.

First – look at the full call and see what it does.

Heads Square Thru 4 – Swing Thru – Boys Run – Ferris Wheel – Centers Pass Thru – Slide thru – Square Thru 3 – Swing Corner and Promenade Home

Hmmmmm… This takes me from a static square to a corner swing. If I change the corner swing to an allemande left, I have a short patter sequence.

Now, let’s look at where this puts us with each movement we call, but at this point we are only going to look at lines and boxes. (Don’t worry the rest will come later as more tools get into your tool box.)

  • Heads Square Thru 4, – (from a static square to a box)
  • Swing Thru, (not a line or box – ignore it for now)
  • Boys Run, (two face line – but not a line of four or box so ignore it for now)
  • Ferris Wheel, (double pass thru position, not a line of four or box so ignore it for now)
  • Centers Pass Thru, (box)
  • Slide thru (line of four)
  • Square Thru 3, (line of four facing out – not a facing line or box so ignore it for now.)
  • Allemande left
  • Promenade

We can now incorporate our known line or box modules to make a longer patter sequence.

  • Heads Square Thru 4, – (BOX – insert box module)
  • Swing Thru, (not a line or box – ignore it for now)
  • Boys Run, (two face line – but not a line of four or box so ignore it for now)
  • Ferris Wheel, (double pass thru position, not a line of four or box so ignore it for now)
  • Centers Pass Thru, (BOX – Insert box module)
  • Slide thru (LINE OF FOUR – Insert line module)
  • Square Thru 3, (line of four facing out – not)
  • Allemande left
  • Promenade

Now with only one singing call figure, one line zero, and one box zero our full patter looks like this:

Heads Square Thru 4, – (Swing thru – Girls circulate – Boys trade – Boys run – Bend the line – Touch ¼ – All 8 circulate – Boys run) – Swing Thru – Boys Run – Ferris Wheel – Centers Pass Thru – (Swing thru – Girls circulate – Boys trade – Boys run – Bend the line – Touch ¼ – All 8 circulate – Boys run) – Slide thru (Pass thru – wheel and deal – double pass thru – first go left – next go right) – Square Thru 3, allemande left – promenade

At this point we have not done any sight calling. All we have done is used three memorised modules (the singing call figure, a box module and a line module).

Many new callers say at this point that yes but I only know one box module I need to know more. My answer to this is that you already do know. Let’s look at your singing call figure again.

Heads Square Thru 4 – Swing Thru – Boys Run – Ferris Wheel – Centers Pass Thru – Slide thru – Square Thru 3 – Swing Corner & Promenade Home

After the first heads square thru you are in a zero box (allemande left box). The swing thru – boys run – ferris wheel – centres pass thru – brings you back to this same box. Now you have two box modules that you can use at any time and you have not had to memorise anything else.

You also know that from any zero box (allemande left box) you can call two successful memorised resolutions to an allemande left. Both of these are in your singing call figure already.

The first (from a zero box – the entire singing call figure) Swing Thru – Boys Run – Ferris Wheel – Centers Pass Thru – Slide thru – Square Thru 3 – allemande left

The second is from the last zero box after the centres pass thru: Slide thru – Square Thru 3 – allemande left

Now most new callers have at least two singing call figures memorised so let’s add a second simple singing call to what we have already.

Heads Square thru – Right and Left Thru – Veer Left – Couples Circulate – Chain Down The Line – Star Thru – Pass Thru – Trade By – Swing and Promenade

As we did with the first singing call, let’s break it down only into boxes and lines of four, and change the swing and promenade to an allemande left and promenade.

  • Heads Square thru (box)
  • Right & Left Thru (box)
  • Veer Left
  • Couples Circulate
  • Chain Down The Line (line of four)
  • Star Thru (box)
  • Pass Thru
  • Trade By (box)
  • Allemande left and promenade

What I am going to do now is use the three zero modules that I have and insert into the sequences. Remember the three modules we have:

1. (Box) Swing thru – Girls circulate – Boys trade – Boys run – Bend the line – Touch ¼ – All 8 circulate – Boys run
2. (line) – Pass thru – wheel and deal – double pass thru – first go left – next go right
3. (Box zero module from first singing call) swing thru – boys run – ferris wheel – centres pass thru

Note that in this singing call figure there are two box formations, a line formation and then two more box formations. I will now take my second memorised singing call, and add the already known zero modules for the first box only then the line then the first box in the second part. I then have a patter sequence that looks like this:

  • Heads Square thru (insert box module ) Swing thru – Girls circulate – Boys trade – Boys run – Bend the line – Touch 1/4 – All 8 circulate – Boys run
  • Right and Left Thru
  • Veer Left
  • Couples Circulate
  • Chain Down The Line (insert line of four module) – Pass thru – wheel and deal – double pass thru – first go left – next go right
  • Star Thru (insert second box module) – swing thru – boys run – ferris wheel – centres pass thru
  • Pass Thru
  • Trade By (box)
  • Allemande left and promenade

For variety I can mix and match these routines by inserting the module after the second box modules rather than the first or choosing to ignore them entirely.

Also note that in the second singing call figure: the figure itself is a zero box module. After the Heads square thru I am in a zero box (allemande left box). From there, the rest of the singing call brings me back to the same allemande left box.

• (zero box) Right and Left Thru – Veer Left – Couples Circulate – Chain Down The Line – Star Thru – Pass Thru – Trade By (Zero box) – Allemande left and promenade

If you keep looking at what you know you will find out that you know a lot more than you think. With two modules and two singing calls and only adding in the zero modules at the box or line positions of the singing call figure I can now create – what I know at the box and lines I can make at least 8 different independent patter routines from the first singing call and 12 different routines from the second patter by only changing adding one box or line module – this increases exponentially if I add more than one box and one line in the same figure.

I have still not done any sight calling because at this point it is all been using two singing call figures and two modules. Remember the second tool in your tool box (ONE GUARANTEED RESOLUTION TECHNIQUE) if at any point you lose your place or where you are in the sequence, then you use your memorised resolution technique…the sight part is moving the dancers from where they are to match up your key couples and resolve. Simple, yes?

Good luck and hope this is useful to some new callers. Please remember that this is one opinion only. Do not just listen to one. Listen to all the experienced callers out there. Ask them questions and find out how they do things. Find out what is right and comfortable for you and make it yours. You only get better through practice and more practice.

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