Challenge Square Dancing: Myths and Responses
October 1995 (minor updates January 2005)
The following is my response to a set of myths proposed on an AOL square dancing list.
The vast majority of people I know do not dance the Challenge programs, and many people really know very little about these programs. In the absence of hard facts, myths sometimes arise. The following are some myths I've heard about the Challenge programs. (Don't know where I heard 'em, I just heard 'em).
Before you read my answers, you should think about each myth and what it would say about the people in that part of the activity if it were true, and if it were false. Why would such a myth get started? Why does it get propagated? Should anyone care if it is true?
Myth #1: At C-1 and above, most dance activities are secret and by invitation only, to prevent the problem of dancers showing up who can't do the calls.
I don't believe that this is true. Look in the dance listing section of any issue of Zip Coder (the magazine for Advanced and Challenge dancers and callers) and you will find many Challenge dances listed. Of course, the closed or invitation only dancers wouldn't be listed. At C-4, there are some invitation only weekends (less than 50%). I don't believe that the practice happens much in the other Challenge levels.
Your guess at the reason does have some truth. Each dance program (level) has dancers who shouldn't have progressed to that program. They remain there and make the dancing for others less than optimal. Escaping the turkeys is not a reason to learn the next level. There are turkeys at C-4. There is a wide variation in ability and success rate even at an invitational only C-4 dance.
Some C-3 and C-4 weekends use a number system to mix the dancers and tell you what square you are in each tip and when you sit out. By using numbers for a whole weekend, you dance with each couple the same amount.
Myth #2: The highest 'level' of modern western square dancing is C-4.
99% True. There was a C-5 weekend (invitation only) in recent history. The call and concept selection was mostly the same as C-4. However, it was written to be especially difficult. While not everyone invited went, those who did had a good time. Those who didn't can dance the audio tape of it.
Any level can be called over a wide range of difficulty. C-4 is no exception. The use of infrequently heard calls, tighter timing, less cueing, concepts, and nested concepts can make the "same old C-4 calls and concepts" very difficult.
Myth #3: In the C-4 program, you're responsible for every call that has ever been written, which would be about 5000 calls.
Not true. Typical C-4 dancers know 1000 calls and 100 concepts. If I called a Box Tag The Centers (a call chosen at random from Burleson) at my next C-4 weekend, not one dancer would know what to do. The whole floor would stop and wait for me to teach or cue it. What would be the point?
More on lists as part of my answer to a later myth.
Myth #4: There are only 12 callers in the world who can call C-4, but one of 'em quit calling or something, so now there are 11.
When we count callers and dancers, we have to be careful what it means to "call" C-4 or to "dance" C-4. If a C-4 caller is someone who calls several C-3 and C-4 dances and weekends each year, there are probably 12 callers. [www.ceder.net lists 27 C4 callers in 2005. This includes 6 from Japan.] The dancers at the National Advanced And Challenge Convention vote for the number of tips each C-4 caller will call. One could go by those votes (but note that not every C-4 caller attends the NACC). There are a larger number of callers who (perhaps with the aid of a computer program) write and call occasional C-4 tips and dances. [The NACC ran from 1967 to 2000.]
There have been some very good C-4 callers who have either stopped calling C-4, stopped calling in general, or died. The activity evolved into what we have today and many of them contributed strongly to the development of Challenge dancing. Some of them are probably appalled at where it ended up (too technical, too many concepts, too hard, too unattainable for the average dancer). Of course, we got to where we are today one new call and concept at a time.
Myth #5: There are callers who can call C-4 but cannot call Mainstream.
True. The skills necessary for creating C-4 choreography (almost all C-4 is written (as opposed to sight called)) and "reading" it are very different from those required at Mainstream. It is a rare caller who can entertain a Mainstream floor and a C-4 floor. The NACC has a problem because their elected staff has to call A-2 through C-3B. Some of the staff is much stronger at one end than the other. Only a few do equally well at A-2 and C-3B.
Myth #6: If you put all the C-4 dancers in the world in one hall, it would be about 6 squares.
I hope to have more than that at the upcoming C-4 weekend I call with Vic Ceder in the Berkshires. Usually we get 7 squares. When asked, I tell people that there are 12 squares of good, hard C-4 dancers in the world (2 squares in Japan), and another 12 squares of people who do just fine with "normal" C-4. There are lots of people on the fringes of C-4 who workshop it but don't/can't/won't/shouldn't dance it at weekends.
Myth #7: CALLERLAB defines programs C-1 and C-2. The programs above that are defined by a secret group of callers who actively call these programs.
Callerlab does define the C-1 and C-2 programs. [Since 1998 Callerlab also manages the C-3A program.] Ed Foote (the business manager and a caller at NACC) appoints a caller (usually one of the NACC staff) who calls a lot of C-3 to run the next C-3 ballot. It is open to anyone who regularly calls C-3A and C-3B. All the lists are updated every 2 years.
I used to create and publish a C-4 list, partially to get away from the "everything goes" attitude that many people express. An unusual part of my C-4 list is called C-4Z. These are a list of calls which aren't on C-4. I list them just so you know that I didn't accidentally forget to put it on my C-4 list. As calls drop off C-4, I put them on the C-4Z list. My C-4 list was a good starting point for people learning C-4. Learn the C-3X list first, then C-4A, and finally C-4B.
Recently, it was decided that my list should be what the dancers want me to call (I let them vote on it and only overrule the vote occasionally). Each C-4 caller has his own list. Kathy Godfrey maintains a unified list of all the callers' lists. There is good agreement on what C-4 is. You can see lots of this information at www.dosado.com/lists.
Would anyone like to validate or debunk these myths?
I have a few more you didn't mention.
Myth: Dancers at C-4 (or maybe any challenge level) don't look like they are having fun.
It is probably true that they don't look like they are having fun. However, if it wasn't fun, why would they keep on doing it year after year and spend lots of money flying to weekends?
The most fun I had was going to the first few dances after learning a new level. Next is going to NACC. Later various weekends. Now dancing with people new to the level and seeing their expressions and sense of accomplishment.
The least fun I have is dancing with people who move slow and seem to not enjoy what they are doing (at any level). Maybe it is all relative. Maybe there are different classes of slow movers and the faster slow movers get impatient with the slower slow movers. Who knows.
Myth: The higher the level the more nights a weeks you have to dance or workshop.
Totally wrong. Most of the C-4 dancers I know workshop once a week if they are lucky. Some go for months at a time and cram before a weekend. Some have been known to go to a C-4 dance having not danced in a year.
Myth: C-4 calls are harder than C-3, C-3 harder than C-2, etc.
Not true. Many C-4 calls were used as experimental calls at Mainstream and Plus. C-4 is somewhat a collecting place for lots of calls which the other dance programs drop. Recently we have been removing calls from C-4 which don't dance well and are only used because they were used last year. Many of the C-4 calls are easy and could be taught at a Mainstream dance. Some really are hard.
Myth: It takes a long time to learn C-4.
If you have an aptitude for it, you can learn the challenge levels at a good speed. The fastest we have seen is Mainstream to C-4 in a year. Recently a very good A-2 dancer memorized C-1 in a day and went to his first C-1 dance. These are unusual cases. I don't know any typical numbers. Maybe Mainstream to C-4 in 3 to 5 years. Please read Recommended Dance Time for CALLERLAB Dance Programs" available from www.callerlab.org.
I do know that self motivated learning with lots of practice works the best. The more ways you can think about the problem, the better off you are. Memorize definitions. Be able to recite definitions. Be able to follow dancers in your head. Be able to dance without all the dancers in the square. Be able to dance with one dancer walking around lost. Were you one of the few who thought that your Mainstream lessons were going way too slow? Perhaps Challenge dancing is for you.
However, do it for the right reasons. You aren't going to get an award for how fast you learned or how hard you worked. You will be appreciated for being a competent dancer who works with the square and is relaxed and has fun. Once you start going up levels there is no going back (c.f., Pandora's Box). Learning A-2 will change the way you think about Plus. If you aren't careful you may start pushing your caller to call harder Plus (which would probably be wrong), or to change to an A-1 club (which is also wrong). Once you learn C-2, A-2 won't be the same. Make sure you get enough enjoyment from each dance program before moving on.
Even at that, you will still see me back at my original Plus club having lots of fun. Plus is different from A-2 which is different from C-2 which is different from C-4. You go to each for different reasons.
I hope this helped answer some of your questions. I took lessons in 1974, have calling since 1977, and a member of Callerlab since 1981. I am the author of The Challenge Square Dancing Handbook (1978) and have written several computer programs which aid in the generation and analysis of choreography. In decreasing amount of material called last year, I called C-3B, C-4B, C-4A, C-3A, C-2, C-1, A-2, Lessons, Plus. I call weekends around the country, have called twice in Japan, annually in Germany, and weekly to a C-3B group. Hope to dance with you in a square sometime.
Clark M. Baker
2005 P.S. At the time this was written, I did not know who Nassar was. I now know him to be an excellent caller and clever writer. He posts provocative pieces on the sd-callers list, using humor to get people to think about his point. Currently we serve together on Callerlab's Board Of Govenors.