Jan 2024 – From Versailles to Victoria: A Calling Career


From Versailles to Victoria: A Calling Career

by Kathy Story, PCDC Board President

I enjoy English Country Dancing and at a recent PCDC ECD dance, I learned that David Macemon will be the caller at the Seattle English ball in February. I’ve never been to a ball and I wanted to learn more, so I sat down with David to talk about dancing, calling, and the Seattle ball.

Kathy Story: How did you begin dancing?

David Macemon: I’ve been dancing for 50 years. I started in high school in Versailles, KY, a small town in Woodford County. A middle school music teacher organized a performing dance group with high school students. My first year, we had 12 students and we became the Woodford County Dancers. By senior year, we had a team of 24, performing English, Contras, Appalachian big circles and squares, Danish, Morris, and Sword dances. We performed at schools, education conferences, and the Yulefest in Tennessee. You could even letter in dance at my high school, which I did for 4 years. 

I also attended the University of Kentucky weekly dances. Highlights of the year were attending the Berea Christmas Country Dance School, where I’ve recently been asked to be on staff, and the Berea Mountain Folk Festival weekend, a gathering of middle and high school students from around the region. Pre-COVID, I was thrilled to be able to take groups from Portland’s Renaissance School of Arts and Sciences. Back in the day we went to “the dance” with lots of forms, including English, contra, square, Appalachian big set, and Danish. Dancing has changed my life.  

KS: When did you start calling?

I started in high school, and then more through University of Kentucky dance. I started attending the Christmas School in Berea College as a sophomore in high school. They had a very vibrant teen program with a class on calling and my teacher, Jane Britton, sent me to calling class.

KS: Where have you called?

At first, I would show up at a dance in central Kentucky or John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina and call a dance or two. While I was living in Baltimore, I called weekly dances, was an organizer for ECD, and ran the rapper sword and Morris teams. Then I started calling at weekend dance camps, and called at the Berea Christmas Country Dance School for many years.

I’ve called Vancouver BC’s English ball, Hands Across the Water in Victoria, BC, the San Diego English Ball, various Pinewoods dance weeks, Buffalo Gap (CDSS camp in Virginia), the Bay Area Country Dance Society (BACDS) spring dance weekend, and the BACDS Hey Days ECD week. While Cynthia and I were living in Austin, Texas, we helped restart the ECD program there. Cynthia and I called and Mike and Bonnie Voss played music and danced. Of course, I can’t forget our local dances: the weekly PCDC Friday Night English Dance, the experienced dancer series, and the Portland English Country Ball.

I’ve really focused on calling for the last 15 years. I wanted to figure out how to express things in a way that would resonate with others.

KS: You and your wife Cynthia Stenger are both dancers and ECD callers, you serve on PCDC committees and the board, and now you’re secretary of the board after being treasurer. Why do you do all this for our community?

We both enjoy the opportunity to help. Cynthia started calling and organizing dances right after college with a friend. I enjoy calling. I enjoy taking something complex and communicating about it in a way that the audience can understand, execute, and find joy in it.

Calling involves lots of decisions and you’re always looking for trouble spots. Are dancers getting a pattern? Should I worry about 1 or 2 dancers not getting a pattern, or rely on the community to help them? Demonstrations can be very helpful. I talk while I walk, and then everyone walks. Timing is very important. How can I help dancers end the figure with the music, and not early? I try to help dancers hear the beat by the timing of the calling.

KS: For those of us who have never been, what is an English ball anyway? How is it different from a regular Friday night dance? 

Several things:

  1. Though typically not required, dancers dress up more: Fancy or formal dresses, and ties jackets, in the past. Dancers may wear historical costumes, depending on the region. 
  2. Less teaching. In the past, some balls had no teaching–no caller, even. But that was stressful. Now, the caller walks the dancers through the figures without teaching. Then the caller calls the figures for a little while once the music starts. Some balls feature “For those who know” dances that have no calling. At the Portland Ball, we typically include one or two no-walkthrough dances that have prompting only.
  3. Fancy snacks, sometimes meals. The St. Nicholas Ball in Southern California this year featured dancing, a catered dinner, and then more dancing to finish the evening.
  4. Different venue, decorations: The venue is different because ball attendance is larger. The venue is usually decorated. 
  5. Decorations: The venue is usually decorated. 
  6. More time. At the PCDC ball, waltzing starts at 7 pm, with ECD from 7:30 to 11 pm with a 15-minute break.
  7. Practice in advance. In Portland, we get the ball list of 18 or so dances from the caller who is calling our ball. Local callers decide which dances to work on and call those dances at weekly dances. We also do three ball workshops a year to work on style and get experience with some of the ball dances. Instructions for dances are online on our Ball website with links to videos. For the Portland ball, the caller sets the program of dances. Some communities set the program themselves. SF Bay area balls even have themes in the decorations and dances. 

    The first Portland English Country Ball, organized by Nan Evans, was in 1993. We’ve been doing them for 30 years, minus two years due to COVID. In 1996, the CDSS executive meeting was here and the execs called dances at the ball. Since then, we’ve hired local callers or callers from out-of-state.

KS: As the caller, how do you prepare for a ball?

My prep starts as soon as I’m asked. I begin by asking how the community does their ball. Do they walk through once, prompt, and drop out as soon as possible? I ask for a history of their ball dances. Are they difficult/easy, old/new, familiar/unusual? The local community suggests the specific language they use for dance terms.

Then I plan the structure of the evening to figure out the flow. I need to look at the dance music: the key, the time signature, the mood. Is it lyrical or driving? At the end, do I want to rev up the dancers or send them away calm and floating? For a ball, I submit a list of dances to get feedback from the band and community organizers. I also send my directions to them. On the Seattle English ball site (see https://seattleball.org/ — there is still space available), there is a list of the dances, with dance instructions and links to videos. The local community often publishes a ball booklet with the instructions for each dance; the dancers receive their booklets about a month in advance so they can study the dances and carry them at the Ball, if desired. On our ball website, we also provide a full-size version of the dance booklet that contains a lot more information than is contained in the smaller printed booklet.

If the organization does not know a specific dance I plan to call, I provide the original dance instructions, my interpretation of the original dance instructions, the sheet music (when not included in the Barnes books), and a link to a video. For the Seattle ball, I included a few dances that I could not find a video for, so with permission from the Second Sunday English Dance for Experienced Dancers, I recorded the dances on video and posted them online. 

After all the preparation, it comes down to this: How does calling a ball with more than 100 dancers differ from calling a typical PCDC Friday Night English Dance with 30 to 40 dancers? Not surprisingly, there’s a different level of anxiety for me when there are many, many more dancers in attendance, each with their own expectation of what the evening should be like. One of the things I always try to accomplish is to expand my presence so that even dancers in the back of the hall are engaged.

KS: What do you hope to achieve/create at the Seattle ball? 

For the Seattle Ball and, honestly, any dance I call, I want to create an event at which everyone has a good time and dancers are challenged enough but not too much. I want to create opportunities to smile and laugh and be elegant and suave—and also to make and celebrate mistakes. In other words, I hope to facilitate fun.