Hear the Caller – Eileen Thorsos

May 01, 2015

How did you get started calling for contradances?

I started dancing with Scottish Country Dance, and there I was drawn to becoming a teacher -- the SCD equivalent of a caller, although the roles are a little different. As I became dominantly a contra dancer I also was drawn toward calling: I like to help people learn new things, and I also love to share my love of dancing.

I moved to North Carolina in August 2004, and I went to a callers' workshop at Spring Dance Romance in 2005. Some workshops are chatty; that workshop was more active. Toward the end of it, I still hadn't tried calling a dance... It sure was scary! But Dean Snipes was there, and he nudged me and asked, "Aren't you going to call a dance?" Then he handed me a card, so I did. I sat in on such workshops for about five years -- interested but not yet ready to practice as much as it would take to become a caller.

In 2009, Jack Mitchell encouraged me to call my first individual dances, one dance at the MAD and another in an evening that he was calling. That fall I went to a weekend workshop in Virginia with Bob Dalsemer. Then Jack organized several callers' collective dances, events designed for callers to practice new skills that were perfect for me to build my dance repertoire. Early on, I would write out a chart for each new dance, drafting which calls I would use with each phrase of music. In the summer of 2010, TCD booked me and another new caller to split an evening -- my first gig, with Louie Cromartie providing very helpful guidance! Then in December, I called a full evening at the Vintage and stepped in last minute for Buz Lloyd, and my calling was under way.

Around that time, I also started editing recorded music tracks for my "electrotrad" contra dances. Because that music was novel, it helped me set up extra gigs that I wouldn't have been able to secure without the music -- and the practice helped. Along the way we've continued to hold periodic callers discussions that help me think about finer points of calling.

Now I'm five years in as a caller, and I love it. I'm grateful for all of the advice, guidance, and support from so many warm-hearted and talented people in our North Carolina community of callers.

How does being a caller affect your experience as a dancer?

I learn dances more easily than I did before (and I may already know the dance). Just by being in the right place a hair early, I can more quickly help stabilize a set that is uncertain.

During a dance I may think about how I would have taught or called a figure and about whether a dance was a good pick for the crowd. Thinking about teaching and programming helps me call better and better evenings, but sometimes I should shut off the analysis!

As a caller I also think about dynamics on the dance floor that help our community -- like joining on the shortest set, taking hands four immediately, dancing in different sets over the evening, and asking inexperienced dancers to dance. Many dancers who are not callers do these things too, but as a dancer-caller I particularly pay attention to these points because I have seen from the stage how helpful it is for dancers to support the whole floor.

What is the most difficult challenge you face as a caller?

Calling an evening that is fun for everyone is an ongoing project. I think carefully about structuring programs so that newcomers will find dances accessible while they build new skills and so that experienced dancers will find something interesting... hopefully even in easy dances. It's a fun challenge, and I think I'm successful at it, but it takes attention. It's even more difficult to program well for another community that I don't know as well as ours.

My weakness as a caller -- the first thing that I'll slip on once or twice if I'm having an off night -- is my timing with the music.

What else do you do besides attend/call dances (or, what is your day job)?

I work as a science communicator with a research group at Duke University. Our team studies the health effects of toxic chemicals like those found at Superfund sites, especially how prenatal or other early life exposure may affect child development. I help share results from our research with non-academics. I also support sustainability education in many disciplines at Duke. On the side, I teach aerial dance on fabrics.

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