Positional Calling

This article is about Positional Calling, where positional references are used instead of role identifiers.  It is written from a contra viewpoint (as that is the hardest to call positionally), but the principles apply to all forms of dancing in sets where you have a partner.  The aim of Positional Calling is not to eliminate roles, but to avoid referring to them.

It is primarly a discussion document, and to a large extent an intellectual exercise.

Why Bother?

Positional calling is the next step on from Gender Free Calling (where roles have labels that are unrelated to gender, e.g. Larks and Ravens).

One of the reasons I think we will need to move beyond gender neutral labels is because whenever you replace discriminatory terms with other terms, the new ones just become discriminatory. (Gypsy, Romany; N*****, Negro, Black, Person of Colour).  I’m not saying this is happening with Larks and Ravens (or that Larks and Ravens, or any other labels, are a bad idea), but I do think that over time they will come to be identified with the two genders.

Another is that Positional Calling opens up additional choreographic possibilities.  No contra dance I know has two men (or two women) swinging together, because the ending position is not defined (but does matter).  Also, how about a swing with the "Man" ending on the right?  Under positional calling, anyone can swing with anyone, and end anywhere.

What's Involved?

There are two things that need careful consideration, Swings and Role Specific Moves


Swing has an implicit “End in a couple with Man on the left, and facing across the set (unless told otherwise).”   These assumptions are important to the choreography (by which I mean you have to follow them in order to end up in the correct place).

Swings are thus the only move where your starting position does not define your ending position.  If there are no role identifiers, then you cannot end with "the man" (or the Lark, or the First Diagonals) on the left.

Why does it matter? For Partner swings it doesn't matter (from the point of view of the choreography), which side you come out of the swing, although if you want the dance to be the same every time through, you need to end on the same side every time.

For Neighbour Swings, however, it does matter.  If you come out "wrong" (on the side that is opposite to what the choreographer intended) then you will almost certainly not end up with your partner.

Swings on the side of the set always end up with the dancers swapping places or ending up in the same place - it's essentially two moves (swing and go round n times, or swing and go round n+1/2 times) with one outcome.  To do this positionally, we must separately identify the two different types. 

However, not all swings are on the side. From a standard contra set "face your neighbour, step to a wave, centres do half a left hand turn, swing your partner" has dancers swinging n+1/4.  In a very common case, "Swing your neighbour, end facing down the hall", one couple swings n+1/4, the other N+3/4.

Also, in contra the traditional swing hold is a ballroom hold, and the swing ends with the "point" of the hold opening out in the direction the couple ends up facing.  If roles are not referred to, who decides which way the "point" goes?  I can see three possible solutions to this: 1) change the swing, 2) unlearn that behaviour, and 3) define the swing by the direction of the pointing end.  More on that later.

Possible Ways to Deal with Swings

I have consider a number of possible approaches, and boiled them down to two contenders:

1) Recognise the two essentially different behaviours and have two "swing" moves with different names

2) Identify which way the "point" of a ballroom hold starts.

So from a standard contra set, "Face your neighbour, balance and swing" would become

1) Balance and Swing to Switch Places, and

2) Balance and swing, "points" start facing outwards

In reality you would need to find better ways of saying these, for example you could define “spin” as “swing and end where you started” and “switch” as “swing and swap places”.  I am struggling with a neat way to express the second option, but I'm sure one can be found.

Overall I think I prefer the second option.  The first has the advantage that it can be more concise but it has the downsides that it requires additional assumptions when dealing with situations such as a swing at the end of a hey, and it cannot cope with "swing, end facing down the hall".

The second method can cope with any combination of starting and ending positions: swing from a hey would be "Swing, points start facing (anti)clockwise", swing end facing down the hall from an initial contra position would be ""Swing, points start facing out of the set, end facing down the hall".  It also deals with the Ballroom Hold issue, and has the major advantage that once the swing has started, dancers do not have to remember which side they started on.

Role specific moves

Moves such as Right Hand Star do not cause a problem as all dancers are doing the same thing.  There are however many moves in which dancers do not all do the same thing.  Examples include Gents Allemande Left once and a half, and Ladies pass Right Shoulder to start half a hey. 

They require that the dancers doing or starting the move to be identified.  There is no reason that I can think of why this cannot be called positionally (On the left, Allemande left) but there is a lack of elegance and potential for confusion by using two directional terms for different purposes.

Ultimately two new terms are needed.  MWSD already has exactly this with Beaus (those on the left of a couple) and Belles (those on the right), but they are hardly gender neutral.  There are all sorts of requirements that such terms need to meet.  Ron Blechner complied a superb guide when looking for gender free (not positional) terms, but the same criteria apply,  His table is here and his accompanying notes here.  In a brief flight of fancy I wondered about Recto (Right) and Verso (Left), or possibly Dexter (Right) and Sinister (Left).

Minimising Positional References

It might seem strange using a gendered-called dance form such as MWSD as a example of best practice for something that goes beyond gender free-calling, but MWSD is actually very good at positional calling.  For any given move a couple may be normal (man on left), half sashayed (woman on left), both men or both women.  Thus (with 4 exceptions) moves are not defined with reference to role, but with reference to position.  Consider a Flutterwheel (from facing couples): The right-hand dancers go in to the center and turn by the right forearm. As they move adjacent to the opposite dancer, they reach out with the free (left) hand and, taking the right hand of the opposite dancer, each continues on around to the original right hand dancer's starting position, releasing arms in the center and turning as a couple to face the couple they are working with.  The definition is purely positional, and the definition of a Reverse Flutterwheel is simply: The same as flutterwheel except reverse the words "right" and "left".  Moreover, because of the way the move is defined, it is not necessary to say who starts the move.

Let's extend this to (for example) Ladies Chain.  We could define the move Chain as Right-hand dancers step forward, take right hands and pull by while each left-hand dancer steps to their right, holding out their left hand out to receive the incoming dancer's left hand for a Courtesy Turn.  Similarly, Reverse Chain could be the mirror image.  In reality you wouldn't need to be so precise when walking through the move.

If this seems a bit complicated and unworkable, think about being at a contra dance.  If I called "Chain Across", or "On the left diagonal, Chain", how many would go "but who chains?" and how many would just do it?

Similarly you could define a Hey as the right hand person going first, if it’s the left then it’s a reverse hey (and you start by the left shoulder).  Mad Robin?  How about Clockwise as the default?  Pousettes: Clockwise again.  I could go on...

Translating dances

Any dance can be translated to positional calling, and I suspect that after a bit of practice most could be done on the fly (i.e. during the walkthrough), rather than prepared beforehand.

Making it Happen

This is a far bigger step than going from gendered calling to gender free calling, as there is much more that needs to be "unwound".  The terminology needs to be defined, accepted, and understood by dancers.

This is a massive hurdle - getting any new system accepted by the dancing public (and the inevitable resistance of a large part of the dancing community who don't even like gender-free calling) will mean gradual change rather than a restart.  The Man / Lady roles are so ingrained both in the terminology and move definition, as well as the dancers themselves, that there is an uphill struggle to be had.

I have however learnt over many years that having seemingly impossible issues in the middle of a problem is not a reason for not starting on a solution.  Often as you get into the whole problem, your mindset changes and a solution presents itself.

Is it worth it?

I have no idea.  Ultimately I think it will make calling contra both simpler and more inclcusive, hence make the dancing more enjoyable.  The cost of transition will be high though.


Why MWSD calling is gendered

MWSD has very precise definitions of moves, including the move names and the identifiers that can be used for the roles.  The reason for this is that MWSD is truly Global, and wherever it is danced, it is called in English.  You can go to a MWSD event in Japan, despite not knowing a word of Japanese (nor they any English) and happily dance your socks off.  It would be possible to have gender-free role identifiers, but making the change would be a huge undertaking.  Personally I suspect it will come in time, but whether purely positional dancing does is another issue.

List of Gendered MWSD moves

Box the Gnat, California Twirl, Star Thru / Slide Through, and Brace Through (pass through, if normal do a Cal Twirl, otherwise do a U-turn back)