Square Dance Caller Advice: Sight Calling by Mel Wilkerson

This is a guest blog post by Mel Wilkerson.

Benefits Of Sight Calling
Rich Reel 18 July 1999

  • Watch dancers 100% of the time (connect with them)
  • Catch and correct mistakes more consistently
  • Adjust level of difficulty instantly
  • Custom tailor workshop for problem calls and/or concepts
  • Resolve quickly when squares break down
  • Develop a mastery of choreography

I’ve already seen many of these benefits in my very first club calling experiences.

Things tend to go well when you prepare, and not so well when you don’t. Areas that you have prepared go much better than areas you haven’t. If you work on one area to exclusion of others, that one area is usually the only area you feel good about after you have called. You will feel disappointment in the other areas you have not prepared for.

Rich was a very smart man and given what he gave as axioms in 1999 I am posting about one more tool in the tool box.

One aspect of sight calling I get asked about a fair bit is what extemporaneous sight calling is. This is a term which often flies in the face of everything I say and most other callers say about preparation and practice and more practice with your calling. The term is probably the best appropriate misnomer that there is.

Extemporaneous – adjective
1. Done, spoken, performed, etc., without special advance preparation; impromptu: an extemporaneous speech.
2. Previously planned but delivered with the help of few or no notes: extemporaneous lectures.
3. Speaking or performing with little or no advance preparation: extemporaneous actors.
4. Made for the occasion, as a shelter.

Those are essentially what extemporaneous means: doing it on the fly without advanced preparation, being impromptu with no notes and no preparation on the delivery… basically everything that a good caller will tell you not to do.

The reality is that extemporaneous sight is essentially making it up as you go along… but that does not mean being unprepared.

  • You will have already practiced at least one resolution technique so you will never get lost again.
  • You will have already decided a focus movement for your tip (even quickly).
  • You have practiced and prepared in all the time you took learning to call and mastering your art.
  • You deliver your “unprepared” and “impromptu” seemingly made up on the spot choreography with no problems and everyone says, “WOW.”

Now that is sight calling.

Yes, it is, but there is a lot more that goes into it. Extemporaneous sight calling is memory calling, module calling, formation recognition and management (all put together and memorised), using zeroes and conversions, memorising resolution techniques – how to set them up and bring them back – and sometimes just getting plain lucky all thrown in one tip in a seemingly haphazard way without really caring who is with who until you are ready to get them home.
For the dancers, it is about smooth flowing, interesting and successfully challenged choreography and mainly fun and entertainment.

For the caller, it is mainly having practiced moving the dancers from one movement to another smoothly, recognising a few basic formations, and knowing how to resolve to get them back.
For example, I am visiting a club and the caller asks me to a guest tip. I have not prepared anything special for that evening but I always carry a few records or a thumb drive these days with me. I choose the move recycle and the song Ghost riders in the sky in my head. Nothing flashy or way over the top because I AM THERE AS A GUEST, NOT AS A FEATURE. I call smooth choreography and use the movement recycle a few times from a couple of different set ups and then use a figure known to me for the singing call that has recycle in it.

Well, that is a long winded introduction to the next posting in this sequence of tools in the tool box.

Here is another tool that you can use to make yourself better at sight calling. Some call it two couple dancing, others call it mirror image dancing and others call it isolated sight. I prefer the latter term but essentially they are all correct.

WARNING: Like all other tools, it is very useful but remember, you cannot build anything with only one tool.


Isolated sight is a calling technique used to isolate (or separate) two couples in a square. In theory, the methodology of isolated sight is to move the selected dancers through a series of choreographic sequences while keeping them separate from the other dancers in the square. As long as there is never another dancer (i.e. not one of the four you are working with) they are considered isolated and the techniques of isolated sight apply.

In keeping these two couples isolated, or separate from the other dancers in the square, it is possible to use a variety of choreographic manoeuvres and sequences. In basic terms, isolated sight is a two couple people mover technique used in conjunction with a complete square. (It is the application of two couple dancing; only it is done with a full square moving at the same time. You only work with two couples and ignore the others.)

1. The technique allows the caller and the dancers to concentrate on the specific nuances of selected choreography without having to worry about the rest of the square (Mirror image – what one half does the other half does)
2. The snapshot (often referred to as a burnt image) aspect of the technique allows callers a quick path to get-out resolution in case of difficulty with his/her choreography
3. It facilitates very easy teaching of movements which (as most do) only requires two couples.
4. It gives the caller the advantage of two couple concentration, whereby when using cross over movements (scoot back – Ferris wheel and pass through) the caller may concentrate on the isolated dancers while still giving the feeling of total interaction with the rest of the square.

1. It can very easily lead to overflow or redundant choreography if the caller is unprepared or if the dancer ability is limited
2. It is very susceptible to becoming a “caller crutch” and therefore predictable to dancers when new material is being introduced


Technique: The basic technique starts from a static square but may be modified to suit requirements as the technique is developed

STEP 1: Select Key Couples in a Square – Nominally couples 1 and 4

STEP 2: Use a “get-in” to set up a snapshot of the chosen four dancers. (Example: Sides Square thru 4…. Snapshot the image on key couple” – This position is a Zero Box)

STEP 3: Call your choreography stressing your tips emphasis calls, which moves the dancers through your dance, yet never separates the four.

STEP 4: When ready to resolve or return to a “known location” return your dancers to the “snapshot position”. It is important to not that when you move the key couple to the outside of the snap shot box, the square is zeroed.

1. A right and left thru is a great direction changer for eliminating overflow and setting up a new flow

2. Crossover zeros and equivalents are an effective interaction with the rest of the square without breaking the isolation of the four chosen dancers. (For example, from a zero box (the position you are in when you finish a “heads square thru”) swing thru, boys run, Ferris wheel, pass thru brings you back to the same position but the Ferris wheel creates a cross over interaction with the rest of the square.

3. Use flip-flops movements or modules to create square interaction without changing the isolation of the four chosen dancers. (Example: Eight chain four or relay the Deucey. Both these movements interact the dancers and flip-flop them to the exact same position only on the other side of the square)

Note: With practice, multiple snapshots become possible giving increased flexibility by moving and changing isolated couples

1. Set-up to a Zero Box = snapshot the position for isolated sight Chorography
Return to the Zero box (ZB) snapshot
2. Call: right and left thru, Pass thru, trade by (cross your fingers to remind you)
o You have just set up another snap shot (out of sequence Box(OSB)) for isolated sight choreography with other couples in the square
Return to the new snapshot position (OSB)
3. Call right and left thru, pass thru, trade by (uncross your fingers)

So to see how this all works lets go back a bit to my previous example of being asked to call a guest tip and I am a “newer caller”. I know the singing call figure from Ghost Riders and my caller-mentor who asked me to do a guest tip at his dance chose recycle for me to use.

Singing call figure: (H) square thru 4, swing thru, scoot back, ladies trade, recycle, sweep 1/4, square thru 3, cnr.

I want to use recycle in my patter and my singing call and I have practiced my resolution techniques however, I have not prepared a tip for this evening. My mentor surprised me. OH No!
Relax – just keep it simple yet interesting and use the moving techniques you know. You know at least one resolution technique so, if you get lost you know there is no real problem to get the dancers home.

Now you think, I want to use this movement recycle but I need to watch it – I know…two couple patterns (or that isolated sight stuff they talked about)

The heads are in a box so I will start with them… (heads at home is my snapshot)

Heads pass the ocean, ladies trade, recycle, slide thru – heads at home

Let’s do the sides now. (snapshot sides at home)

Sides right and left thru, ½ sashay, pass the ocean “boys in the middle trade”, swing thru, recycle, sweep ¼ (snap shot – sides are home)

NOTE. Those two quick heads and sides routines I made very short to avoid a lot of standing, but look: although those are quick and painless, by doing this, I just created two box zeros. Do not try to remember them now. Just focus on what you are doing.

Now to get the whole square moving…

Square thru four (Zero box snap shot only two couples – head man (left) side of the square will do)

Move these two couples around in relatively short sequences but make sure you break the flow by interacting with the other side of the square. For example:

(ZB snapshot) tch ¼, scoot back, hinge, ladies trade, recycle

Now I need an interaction with the rest of the square. I do not know where the dancers are in relation to my snapshot and at this point I do not care. I just want to change the body flow a bit, interact with the other side of the square and come back to my snapshot to get out.

Right and left thru, veer left, ferris wheel, centres pass thru –

That brings me back to my isolated four dancers. I want to quickly move the dancers back to my snapshot. I want to keep my focus on recycle.

Dosado, make a wave, ladies trade, recycle (ZB snapshot) flow is good left hand is free, why not? Allemande left and right and left grand.

This whole sequence is isolated sight.

  • It was not memorised.
  • It was not a module (other than the right and left thru, veer left, Ferris wheel, pass thru – to intermix with the rest of the square).
  • It kept the focus on my feature move – recycle.
  • It was not always the same way of getting there even though the recycle was done from the same right hand standard position.
  • I have used the figure focus for my singing call.
  • The choreography was varied and interesting for the dancers.
  • I did not try and outshine the host caller but gave a good show of myself to the dancers.
  • I have used the figure focus for my singing call.

I now have another tool in my tool box to help me become a better sight caller.

The entire sequence thus far, (about the first minute and a half of the patter tip looked like this.

(H) pass the ocean, ladies trade, recycle, slide thru, heads back away – Sides right and left thru and a half sashay, pass the ocean “boys in the middle trade”, swing thru, recycle, sweep 1/4, back away and the heads Square thru four, touch 1/4, scoot back, hinge, ladies trade, recycle, Right and left thru, veer left, ferris wheel, centres pass thru, Dosado, make a wave, ladies trade, recycle, Allemande left and right and left grand

Now that is not a bad looking sequence and personally, I think it would be a nightmare to try and memorise, but we do not have to because it is just a couple of isolated site sequences and a zero module intermix. Same sequence now in short. (ss = snapshot for two couple dancing, im = intermix memorised module)

  • (ss- heads) pass the ocean, ladies trade, recycle, slide thru, heads back away
  • (ss- sides) Sides right and left thru and a ½ sashay, pass the ocean “boys in the middle trade”, swing thru, recycle, sweep ¼, back away
  • Heads Square thru four,
  • (ss – zero box) tch ¼, scoot back, hinge, ladies trade, recycle,
  • (im to change body flow and mix with the rest of the square) Right and left thru, veer left, ferris wheel, centres pass thru,
  • (two couple movement to my snapshot zero box) Dosado, make a wave, ladies trade, recycle, (ss – Zero Box) Allemande left and right and left grand.

Have fun and play with this concept. Comments are always welcome.

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