Square Dance for the (Lao) classroom

Activity time, All Posts, Intercultural Activities, Teaching experiences, Workshops

Have you ever heard of Modern Western Square Dancing?
I am sure you have. But do you KNOW what it is?

When I told people that I am taking part in a Square Dance Caller workshop they looked at me in disbelief. There are common misconceptions about it out there, so let me clear things up a bit.

Square Dance is a formation dance that is danced in groups of four couples each. For the initial formation, the four couples build a square while every couple constitutes one side of the square. A “Caller”, the dance instructor, announces the upcoming dance figures. The dancers then have little time to translate those calls into movement to the beat of the music.

The following clip shows the typical set-up of a Square Dance, filmed at our first practice night at the University of Education Karlsruhe with Prof. Martin and professional Caller Andreas Hennecke (26 April 2017): Four couples forming a square, one couple per side. There are also other formations, for example a Round Dance (big circle) or a Line Dance (lines of dancers facing each other).

In Germany alone, there are over 500 registered Square Dance Clubs!

Why is there a new entry about Square Dancing on “The Laos Experience blog” you might ask?

This kind of activity is perfect for the EFL (English as a Foreign Language) classroom, especially in unknown territory. Almost all pupils – no matter what their schooling was before – engage well in the activity, and the calls are called in such a basic linguistic manner that they offer fun ways of getting into everyday language. The movement or dance step the dancers are supposed to do are directly connected to the calls. This deepens the learning of the vocabulary without feeling like studying. More intensive language work can follow later, often integrated into other subjects.

This is of course a great way to engage with the pupils in Laos as well as with the pupils in Germany. Music reaches and connects all of us, and the Lao people love dancing and singing a lot anyway. Even if learners do not understand the words/lyrics straightaway, the rhythm is there to swing the participants along. Furthermore, dancing together in a group increases the social competence and the cohesion of a group, and it helps us getting to know one another without sharing the same mother tongue.

Some of the participants in the Square Dance class

Therefore, the students of the PH Karlsruhe were offered the great opportunity to be participants in a Square Dance Caller workshop. The students of the Global English class were specially welcomed. The workshop was organized by Prof. Martin, who had invited the professional Caller Andreas Hennecke, a very experienced Square Dance caller (= instructor who prompts dance figures to the dancers), who had trained previous Laos teams before. In two sets of four seminar  hours, enriched by a Square Dance Party in the University of Landau, a group of twelve English students learned first how to dance and later how to call a dance themselves. Prof. Martin’s didactic lecture and comprehensive Course Reader will enable us to develop these first skills further.

At first, we were all a bit shy and unsure about what we were going to encounter during the workshop. Very quickly, though, the ice broke and we had a great time together: Dancing, laughing, and learning about the theory behind it all. Andreas showed us what to pay attention to most when working with children and what difficulties we might have to face. During the first workshop we covered the basics, i.e. how a song is structured and set up, and how to find the beat of the music to start the calls. Once we had mastered the basics, Prof. Martin included a unit about the didactic aspects: How to include Square Dance Calling into English lessons in a systematic and meaningful way, how to prepare a lesson sequence, how to integrate the topic into other subjects, and, most importantly for us, how to continue working with the language material to activate speaking after the dancing part.

Following the principle “learning by doing”, we danced and got to know about 16 calls throughout the whole programme. There is a total of 70 calls a Caller should know (Basic and Mainstream programme) from the top of his head. Here are some insights into the theory behind Square Dance, i.e. what to say when in which phrase of the music (first two illustrations), and a more general explanation of what timing to manage with your dancers:

After this first workshop we were all really eager to dance and practice so we did not hesitate to go to the University of Landau (cooperation partner of Prof. Martin and our Caller A. Hennecke) on the following day to the other side of the Rhine from Karlsruhe, to dance at a Square Dance “Open House” party with over 150 dancers. It was a blast and a really cool experience!

Karlsruhe Square Dance delegation

We got a nice treat when some professional square dancers showed us their abilities (“Open House” at Landau University, 28 April 2017: Caller Andreas Hennecke and his “Swinging Landavians” with guest dancers from other clubs):

Still thrilled from the party we had our second and final workshop day in the following week, when we practiced our first calls in front of the group. Turns out, it looked much easier to call than it was to do it all alone for a whole song. The secret is to have the right timing. As a Caller, you must give (and be finished with) the call just a little bit before the actual first beat of the next phrase so the dancers have enough time to react and start the next figure on beat one. Paying attention to the beat, the dancers, and the right calls at the right time is a LOT to do at once 🙂

‘Whatever happens, do not just stop calling’ was Andreas’ advice for us – I tell you that was easier said than done.

Square Dance Class of 2017

In the end, we all managed our first call and had a great time. We can now proudly call ourselves “Young Callers”. Thank you, Andreas and Professor Martin, for organizing this very special workshop. I am very excited about organizing a dance in Laos when I go over myself in spring 2018.

The IT Department of the PH recently created a cool image film about Square Dance in the EFL classroom (in German). Listen to Prof. Martin talking about the project, “Learning through the Arts (LTTA)”, and SqD here.

Text by F. Stober

Photos by I. Martin & V. Golla

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