Square Dance Caller Advice: Formation Management by Mel Wilkerson

This is a guest blog post by Mel Wilkerson.

Here is the latest post on formation management. Many callers will not agree and others probably will. That is probably because they either were involved in teaching me or I stole the material from them. lol. Please feel free to comment on any of these posts.


Credit for most of this information goes to Callers like Ken Ritucci, Tony Oxendine, Randy Page, Bill Harrison, Al Stevens, Bob Moffatt and many others too numerous to mention. It is an intermix of some of my own thoughts, some documentation from caller schools and workshops and other material happily begged, borrowed or stolen in the process of myself learning to call.
To all those that I have happily stolen from, it was done with their knowledge and permission with one request – usually the request of a good caller and mentor – pass it on, play with it and make it yours, and if you can help someone else along the way, give it to them as well.

The documentation on formation management extends in various books, manuals etc. to well over a thousand pages of technical mumbo-jumbo. This is not to say that such technical work is not valuable. On the contrary, it is exceptionally so. However for a newer or even an experienced caller, it can be very overwhelming. What I am trying to do here is to break formation management down to a more basic concept for ready and simplistic understanding.

Instead of asking what formations is this, and what formation is that, and what is the technical alphanumerical arrangement for this type of position or that funny shape and what to the technical terms like 1p2p or ZBOSD3c etc., etc., etc. mean for formations, TRY INSTEAD TO ACCEPT THAT the question of formation management can be reduced into a simple query.

Question: How do I get in and out of dancing situations while keeping the dancers moving, maintaining my program emphasis, challenging the dancers and having them succeed without my losing control of the squares?

Answer: Follow the calling process and utilise extemporaneous (not fixed or pre-written) formation management techniques.

So if the “Calling Process” is the answer – what is it? The calling process is essentially 8 basic steps. (Mind you step 8 applies to all the other steps)

Step 1: Learn the mechanics of square dance choreography
Step 2: Learn to use Modules – (zeros, conversions, flip flops etc)
Step 3: Learn to use 2 couple people mover techniques
Step 4: Learn to choose your key dancers and find them in a pilot square
Step 5: Learn a dependable formula for resolving the square
Step 6: Learn people mover techniques
Step 7: Learn to recognise and work formations

Remember: The ability to manage formations does not happen overnight!

Formation Recognition

Formation management is a skill that takes a long time to develop and must start with an analysis of square dance formations and the SIX arrangements in which is possible for them to occur.

While there are literally hundreds of possible formations, in general terms there are 20, which are the most commonly occurring. These are outlined below with a brief explanation of how to achieve them where warranted. Note they are formations only and do not denote boy girl relationships. This is important.

1. Facing in lines of four
2. Facing out lines of four
3. Eight chain thru position (Heads square thru gets you there)
4. Right facing two face lines (from a heads square thru box, veer left)
5. Left two facing lines (from a heads square thru box, veer right)
6. Right facing column (from facing lines call touch 1/4)
7. Left facing column (from facing lines call left touch 1/4)
8. Trade by formation (from a heads square thru box call pass thru)
9. Parallel right hand waves (from facing lines call pass the ocean)
10. Parallel left hand waves (from facing lines call Dixie style to a wave)
11. Starting double pass thru (the position you are in after a Ferris wheel)
12. Completed double pass thru (self explanatory)
13. 1/4 tag formation (Heads pass the ocean)
14. 1/4 Line formation (Heads star thru and veer left
15. 1/4 box formation or 3/4 box formation (column with 2 persons facing in – 2 persons facing out is a 3/4 box formation) From facing lines call touch 1/4 and the ends roll = 1/4 box)
16. 3/4 tag formation (an ocean wave between couples facing out – Heads pass thru, Sides pass the ocean)
17. Diamonds in general (from a two face line or wave, centres hinge)
18. Twin facing diamonds (from a line ends pass thru centres pass the ocean)
19. “Z” formation (From ocean wave, ends fold)
20. Three by one lines (Heads touch 1/4 and spread, sides step in and make a line.

Caller Lab lists over 79 different recognised formations such as individual circles, promenades and such but they are:
1. either heavily complex and transitory usually only seen at advanced levels and higher for formation recognition (you will get there); or
2. very simple such as facing dancers or back to back dancers or right and left grand circle or promenades, Alamo rings etc. which you should be able to recognise easily before you even thought about being a caller. Don’t ignore them they are important, but that is not where the focus lies at the moment.

The above 20 formations are essentially the basic building blocks of calling. While some of these are foundation positions (like lines or waves) others are transitory positions that are infrequent and only set up to move through quickly (such as a “Z” formation or 3/4 tag.
Learn the formations, learn to recognise them and see them when they occur.


Once you have a basic understanding of what the formations are it is time to become aware of formation movement. In simple terms this is described as moving around the square.

Fact: Each successive movement begins from a particular formation and that formation will be characterized by a particular boy-girl arrangement.

The caller must be able to determine what calls he/she can legitimately call from any given position and what he or she cannot call.

NOTE: Whilst some calls may be legitimate, be aware of body flow.

A caller must know what formations each successive movement called will put the dancers in, and develop the ability to anticipate, before the dancers get there, the arrangement and formation consequences of each successive call.

For example in the following sequence you must note (formation) which you choose a movement (call) which gives you an anticipated new formation (finish) – the (finish) then becomes the new formation for the next call. Follow the sequence below

Heads lead right, circle to a line, touch 1/4, all 8 circulate, boys run.

If my start is a static square (formation) and I call Heads lead right and circle to a line (call) I anticipate a finish formation of facing lines (finish). My new start formation is facing lines (formation) and I call touch 1/4 (call) my anticipated finish formation is columns (finish). My new start formation is a column (formation) I then call all 8 circulate (call) and my anticipated finish formation is a column (finish). My new start formation is columns (formation) and I call boys run (call) my anticipated finish formation is then an 8 chain 4 box (finish) and so on and so on.

Note: While this example (above) is a zero line (ZL) ending in a Zero Box (ZB), those specific things are not important for the concept of moving dancers. The importance is stressed more on knowing what the general formation is, and not the position of partners and corners or key couples.

Manage the dancer using movements that flow and change smoothly from one formation to another and keep them dancing

Do not worry about original partner and corner relationships until you are ready to resolve the square. It is not important yet.

One of the big mysteries in calling is that you hear everyone talking about FASR or any of the other new acronyms that describe where everyone is and what each person is and where in relation to the rest of the square

1. Is it important?

2. Do I need to Master it before I learn to call?

3. Do I have to know all of this for every call I make?

4. When do I have to be most aware of FASR?
F&A while moving the dancers around and S&R when it is time to resolve the square

5. Can I just know the basics and move up to learn the hard stuff later and still be successful calling?


Now that the dancers are moving, you must eventually decide to confront the challenge of getting them “home”. This is referred to as resolving the square. Although there are many methods of achieving this goal, start by learning only one and master it to form a basis to work from. (I personally prefer the friends and enemies technique but there are many. Find one you like and master it.

However, in order to approach a resolution technique, it is important to introduce the he/she relationship to formations. To achieve the get out, the caller must get the cancers from any formation/position into a known FASR position.

F (Formation) The geometric shape of the square
A (Arrangement) Position of boys and girls in the square
S (Sequence) Sequence of the dancers in the square
R (Relationship) Partner pairings of the dancers in the square

This sounds like a very complex process but in reality it is not. Although there are literally thousands of potential combinations possible, it is NOT necessary to be aware of them all, or in reality any of them beyond the basic level of pairing your key couple and seeing if his corner is paired.

The following method is highly structured and it is true that most experienced callers do not appear to follow the highly structured step-by-step method.

THIS IS IMPORTANT: It is important to know, AND BELIEVE, that the reason that highly experience callers do not appear to follow the step-by-step method, is that generally after using sure “get-out” techniques and people moving techniques, the experienced caller has developed the ability to recognise positions and placing on the floor from almost any formation (FASR state).
These callers have also developed the ability to seemingly “luck out” in finding a corner. Believe me, it is not luck. Practice has developed the skills to the point where the steps of the resolution become incorporated as part of the extemporaneous part of the patter routine. In many cases, callers see the pairing and use modifications of the basic method, or fixed memorized get outs from known and recognised FASR states when they happen.

HOWEVER: It is always important to remember that you as a caller need the basics to begin. If by chance you see that your dancers are in an unusual position, or somewhere where you did not expect them to be, you must trust and rely on your “sure resolution method” to keep out of trouble in any situation.

We as callers all know, and have experienced, losing our place on a cue sheet, or on a memorised module and having to start over. You know that heart wrenching new caller frustration when we make an error and start the dance over, etc. You know you have all done it at one point or another.

Knowing at least one sure fire resolution technique gives any caller the confidence to never have to do that, and never feel embarrassed or self-conscious about not being able to resolve. It’s the greatest lift and confidence booster to building choreographic flexibility there is.
So now we know the F (formation) we are aware of the A (arrangement) (boy girl pairing or not so that we can call the next movement) and we have been calling about a dozen or so movements… now we need to find that ever elusive corner for the “get out”

This is where your S (sequence) and r (Relationship) come into play. You have to pair them up and put them in the right order in order to call that allemande left.

Many callers will disagree with me on this statement, but in my opinion, until I am ready to resolve, the sequence and arrangement do not matter. MOVING DANCERS IS FORMATION AND ARRANGEMENT. GETTING THEM HOME IS ADDING THE SEQUENCE AND RELATIONSHIP TO THE FIRST TWO. DON’T WORRY ABOUT IT UNTIL THEN.

The next step in calling is the resolution technique that you have chosen to master. For new callers, find one, master it and use it effectively from different challenges until you are confident. Then learn another and so on.

As I said, the one I prefer as a basic method is the Friends and Enemies technique.


Friends: The four Key dancers in the pilot square (example couples 1&4)
Enemies The remaining four dancers in the square

Step 1: When ready to resolve the square, arrange the square in normal girl on the right boy on the left parallel (right couple facing in) 2-face lines
Step 2: Pair up the key man with his partner (Use circulates or trades) and if the key couple is not facing out, call couples circulate. (The end position is a 2-face line with the key couple paired up on the left side of the line facing out)
Step 3: Call “bend the line”. (The dancers are now in facing lines with the key man and his partner on the left end of the line)
Step 4: Check the friends and enemies. Identify the couple directly across from the key man and his partner.
Step 5: Call the appropriate get out resolution.


Step 1: When ready to resolve the square, arrange the square in normal girl on the right boy on the left parallel (right couple facing in) 2-face lines.

In order to form normal right facing 2-face lines the following solutions are helpful.

  • Box or ocean wave – call – swing thru; boys run
  • Facing lines of four – call – Star thru, veer left
  • Normal column – call – 8 circulate, boys run, veer left
  • Normal trade by – call – trade by; swing thru, boys run
  • Normal 1/4 tag – call – extend, swing thru, boys run
  • Normal Double pass thru – call – centres pass thru, swing thru, boys run

Step 2: Pair up the key man with his partner (Use circulates or trades) and if the key couple is not facing out, call couples circulate. (The end position is a 2-face line with the key couple paired up on the left side of the line facing out)

In two face lines, no dancer is ever more than 2 circulates away from the original partner. Use the circulates and/or trades as appropriate.

Note: be flexible, use combinations such as ends circulate & centres trade, or centres trade & couples circulate, or even use ends trade. Remember single use combinations are much nicer to dance than calling boys circulate, then girls circulate three times in order to achieve the desired end position of key couple paired up and facing out.

Step 3: Call “bend the line”. (The dancers are now in facing lines with the key man and his partner on the left end of the line)

There are many ways to get to this position and with experience callers often instantly recognise the pairing of key couple on the left of a facing line. This allows you to by-pass steps one and two. However, until you are ready and comfortable, force yourself to use the full 5-step method for confidence building.

Step 4: Check the friends and enemies. Identify the couple directly across from the key man and his partner.

The mirror aspect always assures that you have at least 2 couples paired and that caller knows their location because the caller is the one that put them there.

In simple terms:

1. The caller paired up the key couple, put them on the left side of the line facing in so thus knows where they are and does not have to think about them any more.

2. The mirror aspect of the square shows that the other half of the line and the other opposite couple are identical to the key couple half, thus you do not have to worry about them either.

3. Thus the only two dancers important to the resolution are the two dancers directly opposite the key couple.

The next part of step four is to believe that (because it is true) there are only 4 possible combinations opposite the key couple.

  • Combination 1: 2 friends – (the other couple you selected at the beginning)
  • Combination 2: enemies – (Neither of the dancers is part of the second selected couple)
  • Combination 3: Friend Boy/enemy girl – (Selected boy but he does not have his partner)
  • Combination 4: Enemy Boy/Friend girl (Selected girl but does not have her partner)

Unless the caller has been using asymmetric choreography, or the dancers have made a dancing error, these are the only four combinations possible.

Being able to do this smoothly requires practice, practice and more practice.

Recognition of who the paired couple is standing opposite your key couple becomes much simpler once you have developed the confidence to believe that the rest of the square is where you put them, and thus they no longer are important to resolving the square.


Step 5 Call the appropriate get out resolution.

There are only four line combinations possible as discussed above. In step five, each one of the four will be discussed, identified by its partner (friend/enemy) pairing. In each case there is a “FIXED” resolution for resolving to be used.

It is understood that there are literally hundreds, if not thousands of possible solutions that would work to resolve. However, force yourself to use these ones only until you are comfortable and confident with them. That way they are yours always, and you will know that as you grow as a caller, you will never have to worry about losing your dancers again. Once they are yours, then begin to expand on the technique and become one of those callers that seem to “luck out” and resolves from anywhere. Remember they were reading something like this document when they started, and got to where they are now by PRACTICE.

Position – Resolution Calls

  • 2 friends – call – Allemande left or star thru, square thru 3
  • 2 enemies – call – Star thru, pass thru, allemande left
  • Friend Boy/enemy girl – call – Pass thru, wheel and deal, centres square thru 3, allemande left
  • Enemy Boy/Friend girl – call – Pass thru, wheel and deal, centres pass thru, allemande left

As previously stated, there are literally thousands, if not millions of possible resolutions to a square. The only limitation is the imagination and creativity of the caller. You will build your repertoire with practice. HOWEVER, this system always works and makes a good start point for building.

Note: It is important to use variety and changes in get-out resolutions; otherwise the dancers begin to recognise the formations and the get-out process. They will begin to anticipate your calls and thus can become easily bored and ready. This could lead to you losing the “happy surprise” aspect of resolution and the dancers develop a feeling of being cheated from their success.

Nevertheless, It is essential to learn at least one sure fire resolution technique as a base. It is not a finish point; it is only a beginning to build from.

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