Hear the Caller – Jack Mitchell

March 01, 2015

How did you get started calling for contradances? I had been dancing for about ten years when I moved to Knoxville in 2000. While I was there, I became interested in calling. Nick Boulet, a local caller, helped get me started. He gave me a few dances to start with and helped me practice teaching and calling. Over the next year or so, he and other local callers let me call one and then two dances on evenings when they were calling.

Just before I moved to North Carolina, I called my first full evening at the Boone Apple Barn (their booker having booked me after we met at the Knoxville Dance Weekend). Once in NC, Carol Thompson took a chance on me, having me call a few times at the Vintage Theater dance in Winston Salem. Once I had gotten some experience, TCD booked me to split the day-after-Thanksgiving dance at Pleasant Green with local caller David McMullen.

After that, I started booking gigs in various parts of the Southeast, aiming to call about once a month. More recently, I've done a few 3-6 dance tours each year, frequently traveling with the same band for the whole time. Last month, I called my first dances on the West Coast, starting in Seattle and ending up in San Francisco.

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

Being a caller makes me a lot more aware of how dances work (and don't work) overall. I now think a lot more consciously about how dances flow and what makes for a good dance or an awkward dance. As much as I can, I try to be the dancer that I would like to have on the floor when I'm calling: listening to the caller, trying to be on time, and taking care of the dancers around me. Sometimes, the hardest thing to do is turn off my "caller brain" and just enjoy the dance (and remember I'm not the one calling so I don't need to worry about happenings outside my own hands four).

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

Finding a balance between encouraging better, safer and more connected dancing (both to other dancers and to the music), and talking too much to the point of losing the dancers' attention. As a caller, I have a limited amount of capital with the dancers that I can spend. Overspend, and I lose the confidence (and generally the attention) of the dancers. Underspend, and I miss a chance to teach or give a style point or otherwise help make the dance better. Occasionally (much less often than I would like), I hit the sweet spot between the two.

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

I work with people with visual impairments to help them learn to use computers and iOS devices like iPhones, as well as specialty devices designed specifically for people with VI. I also provide tech support and computer training for these individuals. In the fall, I hope to be back in school getting a degree in Orientation and Mobility (teaching people with VI to navigate and get around). I also coordinate the music for the Taize evening prayer service at United Church of Chapel Hill, sing with the Duke Collegium (an early music choir), and ride both bicycles and equines (horses and ponies at my riding lessons, and a mule on a friend's farm).

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