Smooth Dancing

Peter Höfelmeyer, 1999
Translation: Gero Teufert




From what I found in the dictionary as explanation for the term "smooth" I would start with the following thesis:

"Smooth Dancing allows the dancers to move comfortable to the beat of the music without abrupt changes of direction."


"Now why should it be one of our highest goals to let the dancers dance smooth?"

We find the following reasons:

  • Dancers feel better while dancing.
  • The dancing is less exhausting.
  • Dancing gets easier....
  • ....and hence even complex choreography can be done with greater success.
  • Through smooth dancing the dancers will get a great dance experience.
  • Visitors (even us callers) have a visual impression.


How can we achieve smooth dancing? For any achievement you always need a tool. The basic tools for smooth dancing are named timing and body flow. I will show you what to look after later, but first let me give you another train of thoughts to the subject smooth dancing.

In square dancing there is a communication between dancers and the caller. This process of communication is accompanied by music. If the caller is able to establish a communication that is free of disturbance and in harmony with the music, s/he reaches the goal of smooth dancing. Note that 100% smooth dancing at 100% of the time is impossible. To get pretty close to that ideal there are a several things to look after. First we will look at timing.





TIMING is the relation between the announcing of the calls and the execution of the dancers. It's measure is beats of music. In timing there are three different elements.


3 Elements Of Timing

  1. Command Time: The number of beats that are needed to say the call. (Almost all calls can be announced in two beats)
  2. Lead Time: The number of beats between announcing the call and the reaction of the dancers.
  3. Execution Time: The number of beats needed to execute the call. (see Callerlab's Timing List)


Command Time is different to the other two terms, because it always the same. Lead Time and Execution Time have to adjusted to the certain circumstances you have - more below.

Timing explains how to best communicate with the dancers in harmony with the music aiming to get the dancers the right dance feeling.





We can play the music in different tempos. The speed of music or tempo is measured in beats per minute (bpm). The average tempo for square dancing is 124 - 130 bpm. Tempo is not timing! The vital thing is how the two elements work together. Choosing a certain timing you can give the dancers the feeling that the dance "fast" at a slow tempo or converse.

Tempo should be adjusted to the various circumstance we find. E. g. consider the age of the dancers. When doing a workshop or if you have unexperienced dancers better choose a slower tempo. More advantages of a slower tempo are:

  • Dancers have more time to react
  • Callers have more time to place key words
  • Callers have more time to keep floor control ( e. g. to help broken squares)



1. Beat


Since we have the right tempo the next thing is to think about when to announce a call. Usually we are dealing with musical phrases that look like so: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8. The dancer's desire to start the action is the biggest on beat #1 and beat #5. Even if dancers are not aware of it consciously they feel best, when they start on beat #1. Of course this is not always possible, because many call's execution time is different than 4. But to allow it to happen as often as possible try to achieve it at

  • the beginning of patter sequence
  • at singing call at the start of every sequence (opener , figure, break and closer)

Especially at singing calls it is important to start a the first beat, if we do not we are stealing the dancers precious beats of music of a sequence measure for 64 beats. This is done wrong on many called records. Best is not to listen to the called side.


To better hear the beat #1 you can increase the bass of the music. You will then notice that the beat is much better to recognize. And since the dancers can better feel the beat they will dance more steady because now they really "dance to the beat of the music".



Extra Beats Lead-Time


There are several parameters that influence the quantity of lead time. How goo is the acoustic? How used are the dancers to the choreography? How much dance experience do the dancers have? Very often callers use complex or exceptional combinations of calls to provide variety. In those cases it is important to give about 2-3 beats more lead time. I. e. the key or helper words come 2-3 beats ahead. Since the combinations are unexpected the dancers need those extra beats to react and yet dance through the sequence fluently and successfully. Unexperienced dancers e. g. class dancers need more lead time as well.

It is a special challenge to find the correct time for mixed floors (i. e. experienced and unexperienced dancers together). Expect the dancers to have different reaction time (lead time) and the execution time for the figure vary. Hence you have to try to hit the golden section to allow smooth dancing for the whole floor.



Sources Of Timing Mistakes


Now after we learned how to use timing correctly we want to look on the back side of the medal. What can be done wrong? What will be the consequences? There are three essential sources of mistakes:

  • Saying calls too late: The result is the well known stop-and-go-dancing. In addition execution time will grow if dancers have to stop in between of the figures. The Callerlab Timing-List in only valid for fluent dancing.
  • Saying calls too early: Dancers are rushed if the next call is announced when there are still some steps left for the actual call. The dancers will try to short cut the figure. This leaves a feeling of uncertainty because the dancers get the feeling of not being able to follow the calls. They are rushing instead of dancing.
  • Clipped Timing: The caller does not give the dancers enough time to execute the calls, but takes away 1-2 beats of every call. This is not the same as saying calls too early. Clipped Timing reduces the dance impression since the figures cannot be danced comfortably. The dancing gets more straining.

Admittedly Clipped Timing can be used as a programming tool. At the same tempo you can create a feeling of fast dancing and produce enthusiasm. This so called hash-calling should be used for effect only. For all evening no dancer can bear it.



External Influences


At this point I want to talk about external influences, i. e. influences that callers have very little control of. E. g. if you are having an extremely slippery or extremely dull floor or a dance hall with little space you need a little more execution time. Acoustic problems probably have an influence on lead time. The further away from the loudspeakers the dancers are the less is the volume they hear. With acoustic problems the effect increases and execution time gets worse. Therefor we need to give the dancers more lead time, i. e. selectively use helper words at the right time.

Of course, a change of weather or a full moon has an influence on the reaction time of the dancers and hence to our calling. Even with same dancers and same combination of calls you have to set your timing to the given circumstances. Actually we cannot achieve 100% perfect time at 100% of the time. With the complex choreography that is in use nowadays, dancers are willing to cut back time for the sake of surprising sequences and choreographic effects. But indeed it is important that a caller always judges whether a certain effect is worth to draw back timing. No caller ever should disregard this thought and s/he should be aware of the fact that we are dealing with a compromise.



Body flow


The second major influence on smooth dancing is body flow. For good communication you need a well build language with a fluent syntax. The square dance language are the calls and you have to create a sequence that allows the dancers smooth dancing. the task. Heed to achieve that the dancers at the end of call are placed in a position that allows them to execute the next call without abrupt changes of momentum. Ideal is when ending position of the preceding call and start position of the following call are exactly the same. We know that this is not always so. E. g. the well known get out : ...centers square thru 3....allemande left corner.... After the square thru 3 the centers are a little bit offset since the last action was a pull by. Habit and anticipation allows this sequence to be smooth. But all callers be warned who take this as justification for un smooth choreography, because they think that only the dancers have to get used to it.

Not only the dancer's position is important to make the next call fluently executable. The hand needed for the call has to be free. To use hands alternating is not obligatory. E. g. the gnat.....square thru..... the right hand is perfectly placed to start the square thru. It is different when you call square thru ¾ and touch ¼. The right hands have to be pulled from back to front before they are in the right place to dance the call.

Basically we have to watch that the dancers are in the right position to get a fluent transition to the next call and that the hand needed for the call is free.

To avoid major injuries such as broken arms or backs we need to watch the dancers momentum. After a figure the body is in motion and it has a tendency to keep the same direction. For a change of direction there has to be enough time and space. It is part of callers preparation to know which figures match well after a certain call. And there we are again with overlapping abilities a caller should acquire. Hence for a good body flow a sincere formation management is indispensable.



Counter Dancing


To dance turns in a smooth way, dancers may help themselves by dancing with a certain tension in their bodies and put a little resistance in handholds. Therefor a handhold not only means touch but a help to work against centrifugal force. Another point of dancers responsibilities for smooth dancing is that the inactive dancers help/think and adjust their position. Of course this is a matter of experience. Experienced dancers usually dance smoother than beginners.





An important point for dancers' well being is to avoid overflow. Avoid turns of more than 270 (3/4). You are running the risk that dancers will loose their orientation. Several turns in the same direction can make some dancers dizzy. When you check your routines for overflow, follow each of the eight dancers. Sometimes only two or four of the eight dancers are affected. Watch out to avoid the so called sequential overflow. I. e. over a longer period of time the momentum (mostly to the right) does not change.

Observe the available space. It is less smooth to dance a Heads Swing Thru from a static square than a swing thru from a ¼ tag - formation. Best adjust the orientation of tidal ocean waves to the given circumstances unless you take into account to produce less smooth dancing.



Dancers' Anticipation


Another influence on smooth dancing is dancers' anticipation. This can be divided into three different categories:

[---Translation in progress.---]

  • Favored anticipation - Using certain filler words so the dancers will guess the next call. thru ... have a line....(now, of course) forward and back.. Or at a get out .......square thru comes corner ...allemande left.. Using rhymes can make the dancers anticipate the next call (forward and back you reel...pass thru .. and..wheel and deal). There lies a danger in that as well, see next point.
  • Conditional anticipation - When dancers get used to rhyming they react to it reflexive. Same happens with filler words. After you have a line I guess at least 80% of the dancers dance Forward and back. Hence if you use another call that is well applicable there is a cut and the smooth feeling is gone.( forward and back you reel....pass thru and bend the line ..... oops ?!)
  • Instinctive anticipation - The dancers have a certain momentum and a tendency to maintain it. As well when dancers are facing each other they are expecting to dance the next figure with each other. The more experienced a dancer gets the bigger his spectrum of different anticipations gets. Beginners do not know all the possibilities and they expect to dance what they got used to.


A few more words to the use of filler words or key words. Use filler words very rarely, because filler word become killer words very fast. Naturally this happens when you are not able to say the next call in time, because of all the filler words. More important: Giving the right key words (helper words) is much more important. But only as much as needed and at the right time (see lead time). It pays to think about how to say a call. E. g. you can say ...make a Right Hand Star..... or ....Star Right.... The latter can be mixed up with Star Thru. Again it is important how you say it and when (lead time). By saying key words on time you can avoid a false anticipation at the dancers and hence deliver smooth dancing.





In conclusion square dance contains many aspects. E. g. there are choreographic variety, intellectual challenge, or smooth dancing. A caller can set smoothness aside for the sake of reaching one of the other goals. An experienced caller would only do this if it the goal is worth it. It should be used use aimed and should not be overdone. The highest goal should be smooth dancing, because then your dancers feel good over a long time.

Give the dancers the first beat an let them flow though your choreography, then you are the winning part!

I do not want to leave untouched that you cannot reach good time while sitting at your desktop. You should learn theoretic fundamentals at home first and than practice, practice, practice. Smooth dancing is an ability you would not get over night. Always prove your calling is the method to progress.


Enjoy practicing - and always smooth and happy dancing !



last Update: 10.12.1999

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