An Impression of Challenge Dancing

[Artistic photo of a square]

“Perhaps the most advanced level of adaptation accepts the humor of being chronically, if marginally, off balance, and actually speeds up, embracing the experience of this psychedelic tumbling, these episodes of disorientation. Ordinarily this state of mind expresses itself in technical pursuits, but there are more accessible contexts, such as the popular dances sponsored by Tech Squares, the MIT square dancing association. These dances draw on an enormous vocabulary of calls, up to a few thousand, all of which a dancer (at that level) is expected to know. Some calls involve imaginary or ‘virtual’ dancers, so-called ‘phantom spots,’ that give the choreographer 12 or 16 centers of motion instead of 8. Many calls break the ring into two concentric rings of four dancers that move quasi-independently, with the dancers of each ring giving a different interpretation to each call. (Unlike traditional calls, these are not gender specific. There are no calls whose execution varies with the sex of the dancer. This permits squares with unequal sex ratios, like six males and two females, though when equal numbers are available the dancers pair up in the traditional way.)

“Planning the sequences is a demanding art, almost always requiring a computer, and new sequences are required constantly; the experience loses its edge, or so dancers say, unless the series of calls is completely unpredictable. The challenge to the dancers is to keep the square going, to keep the group spinning and folding and unfolding as the caller jumps back and forth inside this huge volume of possibilities. If one dancer out of the eight takes more than perhaps a half-second to identify, remember, and execute the call, the square will collapse. The ideal is for the caller and eight dancers to bring each square to the edge of collapse and keep it balanced there, hanging over the face of the wave.

“At the dances I visited the tempo seemed slower than in conventional square dancing, though the caller rattled off a call every two or three seconds: pass the ocean, extend flipback, recycle, ocean wave, horseshoe turn, once removed, dodge circulate, grand cross trade and wheel, chisel through, diagonal box, change the web, and on and on. The dancers less flowed through these calls than walked rapidly, but their step was light, and as the dance proceeded it seemed to get lighter. Whenever the square collapsed a burst of laughter flew up to the ceiling. This happened often enough that it came to seem part of the dance itself, almost as if the intensity one saw on the dancers' faces reflected not the effort of remembering all these calls but of holding in the laughter as long as possible. Each minute the square survived the smiles grew; one had the sense of eight bubbles of hilarity (per square) expanding continuously, as if these dances were lifting the squares to regions of lower and lower pressure. Then the square would fail, the laughter would escape into the air, the caller would skip a beat, and the square would reform.

“At one point in one dance a Kristofferson song, in a version played by the Mustang Boys, was on the turntable, and the caller, a thin, bearded engineer named Don Beck, issued a call that required the dancers to remember some number of calls in the past and repeat the sequence. Don had been calling for almost an hour, and the excitement and the music and laughter from the floor had him soaring. Holding the mike up as if he was draining a bottle of beer, he strutted over the floor while the dancers twisted in front of him like moving vortices, spinning themselves out and reeling themselves back in, bouncing in and out of the center of the square, linking into nested rhombs and counterrotating triangles that passed in and out of each other, clenching and unclenching and coiling and uncoiling over the floor, like eight self juggling balls throwing each other higher and higher.”

Excerpt from Up the Infinite Corridor, pp 21-23, by Fred Hapgood, published by Addison Wesley (appears to be out of print), Reading Massachusetts. © 1993 by Fred Hapgood. Reproduced with permission from the author.

Photo by Ron Hoffmann.