CLARK BAKER INTERVIEW
Bob Brundage – Well, hi again. This is Bob Brundage and today is December the 3rd, 2006 and today we have the pleasure of talking with a gentleman back in Belmont, Massachusetts by the name of Clark Baker. Clark is very well known in the square dance field and I’m anxious to find out more about his history over the years. So, Clark, I usually like to start by asking where you were born and brought up and, some people will want to know when, and a little bit about what your life was like growing up before you got into square dancing.
Clark Baker – Sure. Well, I was born in Buffalo, New York and spent a few years in Niagara Falls but mainly consider Wilmington, Delaware my home. My dad worked for DuPont his whole life so we were transferred back and forth several times from the Niagara Falls area to the Wilmington, Delaware area. I spent the most of my schooling, with the exception of two years, in Wilmington, Delaware. From there I went to M I T for undergraduate and stayed on for graduate school. So, I was born in ’54. I’m 52 years old and kind of my college years, which is when I started square dancing, were from 1972 to 1980.
BB – OK. So, you’ve been associated with M I T then for a good part of your life then.
CB – Yeah, in the sense that I went to school there for eight years and got three degrees. I studied Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Mainly I think of myself as a computer person and all my degrees are on the computer side of the fence. Our family has kind of a connection with M I T in the sense that my younger brother also went there, my dad went there, my uncle went there and my grandfather went there. So there’s kind of a bunch of us who have some connection with M I T. Unlike what some people think, I’ve never taught there and I’m also not the caller of Tech Squares. I do, however, square dance at M I T.
BB – I see. So, after you graduated from M I T what was your experience?
CB – I stayed on a little bit and kind of worked in research and a bunch of the guys who I was associated with were starting a company and I went off to work at their new startup. That lasted about ten years. Then I went to another startup and I lasted about five years and I went to a third startup, which lasted about five years. After that I’ve been kind of off in my own, mainly for square dance interests. The first company dealt with personal computers for running the Lisp programming language and the second one was a super computer company and the third one was a Telecommunications company.
BB – I see. So, you’ve been involved in computers quite some time then.
CB – Correct
BB – Well, I’m lacking complete knowledge about computers but, be that as it may, I have a lot of fun with them. So, when did you first get exposed to square dancing?
CB – I had two exposures before it finally took. I remember, probably in elementary school, maybe third grade, the teacher probably playing old 45 or 78 RPM records with square dancing and teaching us to square dance. I remember liking that and I know our class did pretty good at it and we put on demos either for the rest of the school or our school met with another school. I remember being dressed up in a red-checked shirt and all that kind of stuff. I don’t remember much about the girl I danced with, if I had the same partner or anything like that and I don’t remember anything about what the choreography was or why I liked it. I just remember liking it. Then nothing happened until friends of my parents, who were modern western square dancers in Wilmington, Delaware, they had a daughter and they wanted their daughter to take square dance lessons but, needed a partner. So, they called up my folks and asked if I would be willing to do it. I remembered liking square dancing so I said, “Sure”. So, my best friend and I and the daughter and one of her friends all took square dance lessons, probably from a club called the Pi R Squares. This would be, for me, eight grade. I know I went through lessons. I don’t remember any of it. I don’t remember like either liking or disliking it. I just kind of did it and then, soon after that our family moved up to Niagara Falls and I never thought of asking if I could do it again or if there was square dancing up there or anything. That was kind of weird. When I was a Sophomore or Junior, when I was a Junior at M I T, this would be the fall of ’74, I had known that M I T had a square dance club but I had been too chicken to kind of go investigate it. But I finally did go over and go to their lessons. The lessons were fun and I just kept going ever since.
BB – Do you remember any of the callers that you trained under?
CB – I do not remember the Pi R Squares caller but the first M I T caller that I danced to, the one who taught me, was a guy named Dennis Marsh, a while later Don Beck and now the current club caller is Ted Lizotte – so I danced to all three of those.
BB – OK. Well, that’s interesting. So, was your major interest in choreography at the time or was it the sociability of it do you think? Do you have any recollection along that line? I know that you’ve gotten into really tough, highly advanced dancing so I’m just curious what the evolution was as you came along.
CB – Yeah. The initial draw at Tech Squares was, I guess you could say, social. I sat next to a girl in the math class and she had asked me, she said, “Oh, do you want to go square dancing?”. I go, “Sure, I kind of remember liking that” and she said, “I square dance every Tuesday so come on over”. Sure enough I went there and that was when the class was starting and she was there. Pretty quickly she had gone on to another advanced dancing class that met on the same night probably run by John Sybalsky. I was just left down there by myself in the class. Now, we had lots of people learning and one of the people who had come also for lessons that night was Miriam Alexander who, little known to me, was to become my future wife. So we took lessons together. Most of us in lessons kind of stuck together and got to know each other. The class was not unfriendly but not friendly either and it was relatively large. I’m guessing maybe eight or ten squares, class and club together, something like that. Initially, I just went for the dancing and enjoyed it and talked to some of the people. I don’t think I was really into the choreography then. That started soon after when we were pretty quickly recruited into an advanced dancing class that met on another night of the week run by John Sybalsky. Once we saw that there was a lot more to square dancing than just the calls we had learned at the Tech Squares class we pretty quickly, and I say we, there was a group of us who were doing this together, were on this ladder of ‘let’s climb the levels’ and find out what the hardest there is and let’s do the hardest stuff. That seemed like a good thing.
BB – Right. So. Well, that’s interesting. Whereabouts along in this progression did you start calling?
CB – I started dancing in ’74 and the earliest records I have of creating choreography and calling it was probably in ’76 or ’77. We were fortunate that we had John Sybalsky around. If I had to pick someone who was a mentor for calling it would probably be him. He was the one who taught the lessons beyond what Tech had which was club level back then, say Plus today. So he taught the Advanced and the Challenge stuff. He also had his equipment so some of us got to try calling. I remember at least three others in our group who also had probably more talent, at least in terms of voice and singing and stuff. They would all practice on the equipment and try stuff and I would write little bits of choreography and try that. Eventually, I stuck with it and the others kind of dropped out even thought I think I had the least talent of most of us in the group it was something that was interesting to me. Then I started helping John with his groups and would write one tip of material each week and he would let me call one tip. Slowly I started calling one tip a week. Then we had two groups so it would be one tip at each group and then maybe two tips and if he were sick one week I could fill in for him. I gradually got into calling and teaching Advanced and/or Challenge back in those early days in the late ‘70’s.
BB – I see. Well, I didn’t realize you went back that far to be honest with you. Have you ever taught a class right from the beginning?
CB – I have. The Tech Squares runs it’s class, one in the fall, one in the spring and I didn’t want to interfere with anything they were doing but there were some people who found it inconvenient to take Tech’s class but they still had friends that they wanted to get into square dancing. Sometime, and I don’t remember when, but that would be the late ‘70’s, I put together a class. It was simply one square with, you know eight or nine or ten people and we probably met at some odd time like on Sunday afternoon or something. I taught them square dancing from nothing on up through whatever Tech was dancing which was, as I say probably like what we call Plus today. I did attend caller’s meetings and eventually would go to caller’s schools and people would talk about, you know, teaching and teaching is difficult, you’ve got to think very carefully, how do you do it? And I didn’t understand any of that and I’m sure that when I ran that first class I still didn’t understand any of that because to someone who, by then we were dancing C3 and C4, there’s so many calls and so many complicated things that, when you look back at what you learned in the beginning, you know, even if it’s things like Swing Through and Scoot Back and Follow Your Neighbor and stuff, they all seem so simple. Since then I’ve gotten much more interested in how to teach and how hard it is and how people learn and what types of learners they are and all that. We should talk about that a little later. Suffice it to say, back then I’d only done one beginner class and I probably didn’t really get it from today’s perspectives.
BB – Well, that’s great. Before we get too far along, are there any other mentors that you’d like to like to tell me about?
CB – I would have to give Don Beck some credit. I took a caller’s seminar from him, which was like a caller’s school but spread out over, I think it met every other week for several months. I also became good friends with him and chatted a lot about all sorts of issues. I also had spoken a reasonable amount with Jim Mayo who is also in our greater area and is in the same caller’s organization I’m a member of. In a sense there really aren’t, you know, more people than that. I mean. One thing that is pretty odd is that I didn’t come into square dancing the way most people do which is, you know, learn a singing call then want to call at your club or something. I really was into the complexity and the challenge stuff so in anything in my calling I was more a Challenge caller and then an Advanced caller. It was only recently that you could say I associated with those who knew how to call to people who wanted to dance Mainstream and Plus so to many of the Traditional callers in our area I wasn’t somebody that they knew or understood or anything. Norm Poisson is the local Challenge caller in New England and I certainly danced at his club but we never really, you know, it wasn’t like he took me under his wing even with the Challenge stuff because I really didn’t do anything there.
BB – Well, that’s interesting. I’ve just been looking at some of my notes and it might be a good time to ask you. What do you find appealing about calling? What do you find fun about it?
CB – Well, that’s a good question. I think it’s changed over the years. In the earlier days I think just the thrill of telling people what to do and having them do it and creating interesting choreography and watching them be able to do that was probably the fun part for me. Almost all the Challenge choreography that we call is written out beforehand. I’ve never really enjoyed writing it per se but getting up and calling it is kind of fun. In the more recent years I think that I actually like teaching and showing people things. I think that’s a trait I can look back at in my life and see I’ve used that more just in square dance calling. If I had some new gimmick or idea or call or whatever, you know, if we were standing around the hallway in Callerlab or something I’d be more than happy to drag the people and say, “Hey, let me – say just a couple people and my wife – let me show you something” because that part of it I find a lot of fun.
BB – Well, I find it interesting you’d be mentioning that because one of the things I wanted to ask you about was some of the crazy things, I call them crazy, that Tech Squares do like your Barstool dancing…..
CB – OK
BB – …. and Mirror dancing. Well, you probably have some others that I don’t even know about.
CB – I remember when we were dancing at Tech and occasionally we would have to have a guy fill in as a girl and once it became pretty routine and you’d been through the crash course several times, you’d been dancing for three, four or five years, you were looking sometimes for ways to make it harder or still to keep it fun and interesting even though they were teaching the class yet again. I’d get a square of people and we’d try to dance a square of all girls or all boys in the back or square dancing Arky and at some point along the way we had this idea of dancing so-called Mirror Image like kind of the way they drive in England. Everyone, all the boys are still boys and all the girls are still girls but normally the boys will have the girls on the right but if you put that the other way around when the caller say, “Heads square through four” the heads are still heads but you have to start with your left hand. The first time we tried that we crashed and burned but eventually we got good at doing it that way. There’s a variety of kind of games you can play with square dancing where we can be in the back doing it our way and the caller’s calling the normal squares and what we’re doing can be done at the same speed as the regular dancing but it makes it harder somehow. I’ve always liked the looks of those kind of things and I have a web page full of them because people ask me about them. So the Mirror Image is one. I don’t know if I invented it or certainly complicated it. My latest kick is one called Hexagon dancing where we can actually, instead of having four couples in a square we can put six couples and make it the shape of a true hexagon. We have three heads and three sides as you go around the square of the hexagon it’s head couple, side couple, head couple, side couple, etc. and the angles are a little funny and the rules seem a little weird but I’ve been doing this hexagon stuff just with pickup squares in the back of the Plus Hall at National Conventions probably for like the last five years. It’s a real kick and for people who are a little bored with their dancing, boy, it puts new life back in there. You really have to think. Not everyone wants to think when they’re dancing but there’s a certain kind of person who does.
BB – Yeah. Well that’s it. Tell us a little bit about this Barstool. We tried it at out caller’s meeting one time and it was really fun ….
CB – Well, the idea is we’re going to have one dancer in the square, usually when I show it to people I just do it with two couples because it’s a little easier to see. You take two couples, you make them facing couples and if you’re really lucky you have one of them, say start the man with his back to the caller and if you can find a barstool that he can sit on that also has a swiveling chair that would be the best. If not, he’d just have to stand in place. The rule is, we’re going to do all of our normal dancing but the little group of four is always going to adjust so the barstool person never has to move. They’re always turning as appropriate but they should never move. That’s actually based on a Challenge concept called ‘Anchor’. We would say, “Anchor the number one boy and do a Right and Left Through. But, normally in Challenge we only use Anchor for one call at a time where, when you’re doing Barstool dancing, essentially there’s one person who is anchored on that spot on the floor for all the calls. It’s remarkable how much it changes how the dancing feels and how you have to think about the dancing. It takes things you do instinctively from muscle memory and makes you have to really think. That’s what I enjoy. I think people who are just exposed to it for the first time, some of them like to see people kind of flub up a little bit or whatever. Some people are like, “Hey, this is cool” others are like, “This is weird. I don’t get it”. It does divide people into a couple different groups that way. How did your group react to the Barstool dancing?
BB – Oh, we had a lot of fun with it. You know, it was our own little caller’s group. As I say, we just had a little fun and then forgot it. I don’t think any of the callers used it in their clubs I don’t think. Well, OK. As I say, moving right along because we have a lot of ground to cover I’m sure. Do you do much calling with other clubs around the area at all or around the country?
CB – So, my current schedule is – I have a group that I’ve been calling for for a long time. By the time you get into Advanced and Challenge they often aren’t organized in clubs like what we think of as square dance clubs. So it’s a group, you could it a caller run club but it doesn’t have a name and stuff and it meets at my house. I taught them C3A and I taught them C3B. Some people dropped out and new people come in but basically we dance C3B every Thursday at my house and probably have for, I don’t know, twenty years or something. There’s somewhere between a square and a half to two and a half squares there. So, that’s my weekly schedule. Then I try to schedule no more than one weekend a month where I have to travel. So, you know, coming up I have a New Years weekend up near Concord, New Hampshire. My previous weekend I was down in Florida calling for a Challenge group of mainly retirees from New York, New Jersey area who were all down in Florida now. I did a weekend with Todd Fellegy in this area. I often, I usually, I go out to Chicago in January and call four dances out there and then I, that’s for the group that hired me and then on Sunday evening there’s another group that knew I was in town so they asked me to come out and call for their group. So, I’ll do that. I usually call once a year out in southern California. I know I’m hired for the East Coast Gay Advanced and Challenge Convention, which I’ve never called for. I’ve done the west coast convention, I’ve done their National Convention but I’ve never done the east coast one. So, that’s coming up this spring. So, pretty much once a month I go flying.
BB – Right. I just happened to think. I don’t know what brought it up to my mind while you were talking but, are you familiar or friendly with or whatever with Lee Kopman?
CB – I missed one bit of that that. Am I familiar or something about Lee Kopman.
BB – Yeah. I’m sure you know who he is.
CB – Correct.
BB – Are you friendly with him?
CB – Yeah. We used to go down to Long Island – well first off, when we purchased Challenge tapes, Keith Gulley from like the Maryland/DC area and Lee Kopman tapes, those were certainly big names and we would get tapes and dance to them. Then we went to the National Challenge Convention and probably that was my first time meeting them and dancing to them live. Then he ran a series of higher level challenge weekends on Long Island and we would always travel down to those because it’s not, you know, it’s like three or four hours down there. It’s not that bad and stuff. It was a long time before I ever called a weekend with him and I did call with Lee down on Long Island. Each of the top Challenge callers bring something different to their style of C4 calling, that’s C3, C4 and Lee certainly brought calls, not so much concepts but lots and lots of calls. I think that both us and Challenge dancing and also square dancing in general owes him a lot for all the interesting square dance calls that he’s created.
BB – True. Right. Have you ever gotten overseas at all?
CB – I have. I’ve been to Sweden once, Germany pretty much every year for like the last, I don’t know, seven or eight years and Japan twice. Again, all for Challenge and maybe a little bit of Advanced. So, that’s been fun. I don’t think I would have done that traveling had it not been for square dancing.
BB – Right. Right. Well. So, actually you probably don’t get into the National Convention or do you?
CB – I know I went in ’77 when it was in Atlantic City and then as my – I have two daughters, one is like twenty-two and one is almost eighteen and the older one never got into square dancing. She did contra dancing with us but not squares. The younger one does Irish Step dancing and Modern Western up to Advanced and some contras. She really likes Tech Squares and when she was younger we decided to make, you know, she and I would make a family trip and go to the National Convention. So, our first one was the St. Paul one and we’ve been to every one since the St. Paul one either driving or flying and we are planning on going down to Charlotte coming up. So, that’s been a pretty good thing. I mean, I’ve spent five years doing something with my daughter and it’s a time in her life when, you know, doing stuff with dad there may not have been that cool. She’s made tons of friends there so when we go we pretty much don’t see each other during the day although I might see them dancing. She’s off with her friends who she sees once a year at the National Convention.
BB – Right. Well, let’s talk about Callerlab. I know that you’re very active with Callerlab. You’re on more than one committee probably so tell us a little bit about what’s going on with you and Callerlab.
CB – Yeah. I started at Callerlab I think around 1980 or something. It was pretty odd for me back then because I think the big thrill for a newer caller going to Callerlab was to meet all these famous callers who you heard and danced to and they had produced records and they tour through your area. Even though we did a reasonable amount of Mainstream and Plus dancing back in the ‘70’s I still didn’t know who all the famous callers were and I wasn’t kind of wowed or in awe of them. So, I went and I hung out near Sybalsky who I kind of knew and he’d been there before and Don Beck was good at introducing me to people so I mainly just kind of sat in on the meetings and tried to figure out where do I fit into this organization. After a number of years I gave a talk or two on computers because I was probably ahead where most of them were on computers. I still remember Decko Deck took me aside right before I gave my talk and said, “OK son. I don’t want you trying to sell us anything”. I mean, I think he thought I might be trying to sell him a computer or something I don’t know. So I’d give a talk here and a talk there. Eventually I became Chairman of the Research and Development Committee. We had some great ideas and tried to do some things but, frankly, I think I really never carried through on most of my ideas that I had then or commitments that other people were hoping we’d do for them. Eventually we moved into definitions and I can look back in my life and see where definitions has been a common thread but I don’t know that I necessarily saw it coming. Definitions was a sub-committee of, I don’t know, the Program Policy Committee and I did a little bit there. At some point, all my working, all the stuff I do at work, it took too much time compared to what I need to do for Callerlab. You go to a Callerlab meeting and have the best of intentions of what you’re going to do next year and all the cool stuff you could do but then nothing came to really happen. That was mainly because you’ve really got to sit down and do it and I was busy doing other things.
Eventually, when I quit my last job I was able to put a lot more time into definitions and that’s what I’ve been doing. I started doing a pretty good job on it for the last ten years. In addition, I stayed on lots of committees. I like to be on any committee that is doing something interesting kind of from the choreography or creative rules and regulations type things. So, I’m on like the different program committees, you know, Mainstream, Plus, Advanced and Challenge, Choreographic Applications, the Application Review Committee and stuff like that. A while a go, someone convinced me to run for the Board of Governors so, I think I’ve been on the Board of Governors for five or six years now. I’m nearing the end of my second term.
BB – Well, speaking of the definitions I just happen to have over here on my desk a copy of the Callerlab Basic and Mainstream Definitions and they run for twenty-five pages…..
CB – correct.
BB – ….single spaced and in a ten-point font. That’s an awful lot of material for; unfortunately our tape cut off right in the middle of Clark’s, right in the middle of the conversation so, if you would, can you come back and think about what you were just talking about?
CB – I think I was just saying that I like the non-repeating pattern aspect of Modern Western where you can’t predict what call is coming next as opposed to, say for example, rounds or contras where it’s a repeating pattern. But I know that that puts a pretty big burden on the people who have to learn our activity. Yet, you were talking about Tech Squares, I mean, we teach new people, not all of them are students but many are, nothing, if you’re starting from night one of square dancing, up through Plus in about, I don’t know, thirteen weeks. They aren’t perfect but they do it and they don’t really necessarily feel they’re totally overloaded doing it.
BB – Yes. Well, I know you do an awful lot of writing. I’ve printed out quite a bit of material that you’ve done yourself, for example, a copy of one of the talks that you made at Callerlab, etc. By the way, I hope you’ll give us permission for me to send these on to the New England Square Dance Foundation.
CB – Sure. I don’t mind.
BB – Yeah. So, what about your writing? Are you continuing other things? I know I see you on the square dance, both traditional and the regular square dance discussion group all the time and I always respect your opinions. So, do you have any plans for more writing coming up? Perhaps in – oh. The last one I saw, by the way, was your Policy, Program Policy Committee Report.
CB – Um Hmm. Yeah, I think that was a talk I gave to Callerlab. I think it was like the opening address or something because we wanted to emphasize what this program policy was all about. So, I started out, I mean, I’m kind of an engineer and not a writer. Writing was never good. I was never good in high school or college in writing but I ended up writing a little bit in writing emails and this and that and eventually, I won’t say I’m great at it but I certainly have a style where, when an article with all these ideas jell in my mind I can just sit down and it just kind of flows out and write something down. A lot of this, ‘Just the facts man’ type of stuff. So, I don’t have specific articles I need or want to write but every once in a while just something comes to me where I know I’ve thought about it, mulled it over, I have an opinion and I want to articulate that. I usually put those up on my web site. There’s one on there, for example, which I call something like, you know, “On the rights of call authors” because people will talk about, you know, Lee Kopman wrote this and his definition was this and if we want to change the definition, what right do we have to do that ? etc. And Don Beck wrote a lot of calls and I’ve had lots of discussions with him. So, I’ll just write that down on, you know, somewhere between a one and four page paper. A while ago I wrote a book called, “ The Challenge Square Dancing Handbook”. That was done in 1978 and I think I sold, I self-published it, I think I sold about two thousand copies of that because there were a lot of challenge dancers over the years and it had information that wasn’t available in Burleson. The idea was that if you had a Burleson plus this book you would have everything you need to know to all the challenge dancing. Since then caller’s like Vic Ceder have taken over and done an admirable job of publishing, you know, good definitions with extra explanations and that’s available on his web site and also you can buy books from him. So, I wrote that. I used to write a column for the Northeast Square Dancer Magazine called, “Challenge Ramblings” and that was tough writing because I never quite knew who my audience was, who was reading it or something. I much preferred kind of the internet where you’re sending emails and you get back, you know, pretty quick feedback from people on what’s going on. I do like to monitor the email list, both the traditional callers one and the modern western callers one. If something comes up in the area that I have expertise or anything, you know, I’ll certainly offer an opinion. I try to keep it, you know, relatively calm and balanced and sensitive to all the different aspects of the activity.
BB – Yeah, and we thank you for that. Good. Every once in a while it gets a little bitter on some of these square dance discussion groups.
CB – Yeah. I think the internet has a way of bringing out kind of the worst in people sometimes.
BB – Yes. Well, OK. I want, before we get through here, I want to do a lot of talking about contras…..
CB – OK
BB – …… and traditional. One of the pieces that I have been reading is very interesting how you explain what happens at a contra dance. You take it from the viewpoint of a raw beginner going into a dance and take it through an evening of dancing and then later on do the same as if the dancer is already experienced as what his evening would be like. It was a really interesting piece I thought…..
CB – Well, thank you.
BB – ….trying to explain what it’s all about to the modern square dancers. That was an interesting piece I know. Let’s see, I’ve got a note here – oh, you’ve also down at – I think it was at the end of that same piece that says, “Is traditional and contra dancing organized?” and you said, “No” and it certainly isn’t but I’m wondering about Contralab. Are you a member of Contralab?
CB – I am not. I have attended one of their meetings because they meet right before the National Convention and so I sat in on a meeting. Certainly, many of their members also are members of Callerlab and show up and I always try to support the contra and traditional aspects of Callerlab when they have dancing or meetings and stuff like that. I’ve thought about joining Contralab. I enjoy contra dancing and I have on occasion, very occasionally, had do some teaching and calling of contras one time when the caller didn’t show up at a dance. In general I don’t think that’s what I want to do and that that’s where my expertise is. I enjoy the dancing but I don’t think I want to get into actually leading the dances because then you don’t get to dance generally. I always go and support the contra hall at the National Convention and I think that most of the people who run that hall are members of Contralab. I guess I want to say that there is pretty big difference between the contra dances that I find in New England and, when I travel, everywhere I travel I try to pick up a contra dance if I can. So, I’ve danced, you know, in the Bay area, in southern California, Chicago and when I was in Ashville, North Carolina back when Callerlab was down there I went out to the Ashville dance, etc. I just returned from the Butterball which happens in Wilmington, Delaware over the Thanksgiving weekend, this twelve Hour event. That kind of calling with the live music, etc. is completely different. The dance repertoire and how the people dance and the music is completely different than almost anything I see most of the Contralab members create, you know, the records they play, the dances they teach and the calling they do. I would almost say the Contralab people seem to be more the ‘preserve and perpetuate the old ways’ school of thought and the dancing I more enjoy has a bit more energy and they’re to entertain the people who came to their dances. But, the two groups attract two different audiences. I looked at the roster of Contralab members one time and only one name did I recognize from kind of the modern contra scene that I’m used to. There is no crossover between what I think of as kind of real contra and the Contralab people. They’re just two really different organizations.
BB – Well, you’re certainly correct on that. Of course, it’s also interesting that many of the people that are so big in contra, like Dudley Laufman, for example, he’s not a member.
CB – Correct. And also he’s very different than the modern contras I’m used to. He’s kind of his own curmudgeon doing his own thing. I mean, I’ve been to his dances. I certainly appreciate his writings on the web and what he’s done for the activity can understand what he’s doing now but a Dudley Laufman dance, in general, is not an enjoyable dance for me.
BB – I see. You probably never knew Ralph Page.
CB – Unfortunately I did not know Ralph Page and I also did not know Ted Sannella.
BB – Oh, you didn’t.
CB – No. I met his widow at NEFFA but I never knew Ted when he was alive.
BB – That’s funny. That was one of my next questions – if you’d ever been to the New England Folk Festival Folk Association. I know they meet the same time, have been meeting, the same weekend as the New England Square Dance Convention, which is certainly unfortunate.
CB – We’ve been fortunate the last couple of years they haven’t conflicted. I got into contra dancing kind of by going to NEFFA in the ‘90’s. I tried to get into contra dancing in the ‘80’s. Don Beck brought my wife and I to a contra dance at the Scout House and I remember kind of hating it. It seemed boring, repetitious and I didn’t get any I didn’t get any of the dance aspects of it about what kind of great dancing and music there was. It just didn’t click with me. But later in the ‘90’s, once I’d kind of gotten burned out on C4 and that we weren’t doing enough dancing. I was ready for something else in my life and that’s when we started contra dancing. NEFFA’s have been great and I look forward to it and really enjoy NEFFA’s.
BB – Right. Well, you dance with your daughter quite a bit?
CB – I do. I dance with my older daughter at contra dances and my wife and then as she grew up I brought my younger daughter to some of that. Then I taught her Modern Western and her Advanced and we go places and go dancing.
BB – One question I’ve been asking all the other people I’ve interviewed – do you have any regrets? Do you think of anything you would have done differently with your career if you call it that?
CB – Well, I don’t think I did. I certainly, I mean I, my wife and I, my friends and I, my daughters, we’ve derived a tremendous amount of enjoyment, fun, you know, vacations, etc., met great people throughout all the square dancing from, as I said before on. I’ve seen square dancing make huge changes, you know, for the benefit of individuals. Somebody will come into Tech Squares as kind of a shy, quiet nerdy awkward person and three or four years later, you know, they’re the most confident, polished individual. They do rounds. They do squares. They’re off to grad school and I think square dancing plays a part in that, in the socialization, the dancing, rounds, the whole thing. I think that worked with me. I don’t think I have any regrets in all that. It’s really worked out pretty well, I mean, if I had any regrets I guess I’d feel bad kind of with the sorry state square dancing is in today and, you know, the long downward spiral that’s been on for the last – I have been fortunate to kind of hit some of the boom times in the ‘70’s that probably started in the ‘80’s going downward.
BB – Right. Well, we also can’t get along too far without talking about ABC.
CB – Uh hah
BB – So, why don’t you tell us what your thoughts are about the
ABC program. Maybe you should tell us a little bit – what’s your impression of what the ABC ….
CB – Well, I’m a supporter of the ABC program but I haven’t done any ABC dances myself, neither called nor danced them. I like the effort that Cal Campbell did back with the CDP, the Community Dance Program but one of the complaints with the CDP is the style of dances and calling and teaching required, the knowledge required, was very different than what our average Modern Western square dance caller had. I think that’s one of the reasons it was hard for him to get people other than people like him to adopt the CDP. The ABC I think is very similar but it’s kind of stroke of genius is, any caller who can call a One Night Stand and, I think most Modern Western callers can and do call One Night Stand type dances, can call an A or a B or a C dance and then, by adding in just a little bit of stuff you have an A dance and then, if you have to do it next week or next month, you can do the same thing you just did but do a B dance. Then maybe later you do a C dance. I think the fact that ABC is acceptable to most of the Modern Western callers is going to be, you know, that’s one reason why it could succeed and it’s a good thing. I still think it takes work and the best way to get a new dancer into square dancing is to have a friend who is committed bring them. Friends bringing friends is the way the whole activity has grown and bloomed I think and maybe why it isn’t growing and blooming right now. If I were to just put an ad in the newspaper to try to get people to come to a dance in Belmont, Massachusetts I doubt I’d get anybody would show up but, if I had people who knew it was a good thing and could bring their friends and then they could then bring their friends, that’s how I see the contra dance movement working in New England. It’s not really the advertising and stuff it’s just that, if you come and have a great time and people who know it’s a good thing are bringing their friends. We’ll have to see if something like that can happen. But I do think the ABC program is a good idea.
BB – Well, I think we do have to keep it separate from Modern Western.
CB – I agree.
BB – So, that brings me to the point – your Program Policy Committee is – I read something about your proposing that your members experiment with other ideas. What’s that about?
CB – Dick Mazziotti is the Chair of the Program Policy Committee and, partly through my definitions is one of the reasons I sit on his committee. He has all the Program Chairs from all the different dance programs. At one of our meetings someone said, “Well, I couldn’t just go off and call something, for example, like the A program or the B program because that’s not a Callerlab dance program. The only things we’re allowed to do in Callerlab and teach are the official dance programs”. I think that’s taking a pretty strict interpretation of what, you know, Callerlab allows you to do or not do. But, in brain storming he said, “Well, what if we just told people, maybe there are people working under this idea that everything we do has to be Basic or Mainstream or Plus. What if we just said you’re allowed to experiment and bring people into square dancing any way they can and let them tell us about it.” That was the genesis of this Program Policy Initiative. The idea is, we aren’t restricting you. If you thought you were under some restriction you aren’t. We want you – there’s many ways Jim Mayo says – there’s many ways to offer square dancing. It’s a very flexible, broad activity and yet, typically Callerlab members just offer it one way, take Mainstream lessons. So, why not open it up and anyone who wants to experiment in any way they want go off and experiment for a year and come back and tell us what you did and how it turned out. One of those experiments turned into being this ABC program and certainly the one that’s getting the most visibility. But there’s other people, there’s kind of a meek, mild caller who says, “ Well, I’ve been doing the following for the last ten years. Is that kind of an experiment? Do you want to hear about it?” And sure enough, they were offering, you know, either, maybe it was dancing in a classroom or a less-than-Mainstream, less-than-Basic program or you know, there is variety of ways to offer square dancing. Many of out members have been doing that but they were afraid to speak up because, you know, it looks like if you aren’t a club caller teaching Mainstream and Plus you weren’t one of the good guys. So, that’s the kind of the idea behind it and what the Program Policy is hoping to do. I think this Callerlab coming up, it will be the second year of having been out there and announced and we’ll see whether anybody has been experimenting and doing stuff.
BB – I see. Well, that’s good. Well, the thought I had is keeping it separate from Modern Western. Really to keep it separate from the dancers themselves.
CB – Correct
BB – Here in Albuquerque, for example, the only ABC program that’s going on is conducted at our Modern Western square dance hall and it’s taught by your friend, Kris Jensen.
CB – I know Kris, Yes.
BB – So, right away, when she reports at our caller’s meeting and she says things like, “Well, I was finally glad to get to the C program because now I’m able to move people” and already she’s thinking about Mainstream and Plus….
CB – Um hmm.
BB – … and I’d kind of like to hate to see – and the people that attend, the angels who are coming are, of course, Modern Western regular dancers and this is not the original intention of ABC I don’t think.
CB – I think you’re right. It isn’t.
BB – We don’t have anybody in town that’s anxious to get out and start a group somewhere, you know, in a church hall or a lodge hall or something like that. You know, when I started out the first dances I called were in a firehouse. Be that as it may. Well, the major question I’ve been asking and I know the answer from you from much of your writing and thoughts on this tape – where do you think square dancing has been and where do you think it is now and where do you think it might be going?
CB – Well, I’m pretty much a believer in Jim Mayo and the writings in his book and the Robert Putnam Book, “Bowling Alone” which Jim also references and, like many activities, I do think that square dancing has had a pretty big run up, boom times from say the ‘50’s up until sometime in the ‘70’s and it’s been on a downward slope since then in terms of attendance. I think, I mean, Jim says that he believes we’ve kind of recruited and taught and entertained the same generation of people over the years. Part of that is the problem. If you bring your friends into square dancing most of your friends are your age. As you age, I mean, if I brought someone new into square dancing is was a friend of mine he’d likely to be 52. That wouldn’t do us any good. I should say that going back to M I T, and I’ve continued to dance there over the years, although there have been some gaps, but I’ve been there pretty continuously since ’95 now. It’s basically a fountain of youth. Every year I get a year older. Every year the new freshmen come in at the same age. So, that’s a lot of fun and that gives me a lot of friends who cross the different generations. You know, as a Board of Governors member and an active caller and all that stuff I sure wish stuff was going better. I thought that the 10-10-10, multi-cycle teaching stuff was a good idea but, every year when I go to the National Convention and some of the other stuff, you know, conventions around here and we’re still stick on clothes and the same old things and the dancers are older and, you know, I would say at the next, I’m on the Convention Committee for the New England Convention for our 50th. I bet approximately half the people on the convention committee are physically unable to dance. I mean, they’re all well, nice people, well intentioned as to part of the activity but, wow, they can’t even dance. I love dancing. I mean, I’m in there doing the contras and working up a sweat and everything and, it’s just like to not be able to dance, that would be sad. So, I’m really concerned and I don’t see an easy solution out of, you know, Modern Western dancing as we know it getting smaller and smaller and being hard to recruit new people in. I love college clubs like Tech Squares. I know in the old days there used to be a lot of those. UMass, Amherst, the Rutgers Promenaders, Brown University, Stanford, Rice University and actually there’s a whole lot going on Colorado that I didn’t know about. But, almost all of those are gone now. So, I go back and teach at my local, private Junior High School that my daughter went to. I teach 64 7th graders each year but I teach them for like ten weeks and we put on a performance but then that’s the end of it. So, maybe I’ve planted a seed but it’s not like there’s a, you know, it’s not like the Pacific Northwest Teen Festival type thing where you have anything to aim for or go to.
BB – Do you ever get to that?
CB – I’ve never been to it. I’ve danced some of the mystery tapes and I’ve talked to callers like Ray Brendzy and Bryan Clark who have come up in that thing and stuff.
BB – I’d love to see it too.
CB – I’d love to see it, yeah. So, I don’t think our future looks great.
BB – Well, do you think A B C – that type of a program might be the answer for the longevity or at least for the callers?
CB – I think it can help. I think people like – I mean, if you talk to Cal Campbell or Otto Warteman, I mean, they call to many more dancers than a lot of us do every year doing their – it’s not like they do one night stands. It may be one night a year but it repeats year after year because they love this product and want him to come back. So, it might be several times a year. So, that stuff, and I do occasional one time party dances. I get some calls and on my web site I get emails from people and Tech Squares does. They always forward them over to me and if I think I can do a good job I’ll entertain them and if not I’ll send them off to another caller who I think can do the job. You know, the American public, I think, has, in their mind, there is a thing called square dancing and, for a birthday party or something they want to have a hoedown or something. And they know that. But I don’t know what it’s going to take to make, you know, Mainstream and Plus survive for example.
BB – Right. Have you ever dabbled in round dancing at all?
CB – I took round dance lessons twice. I was very, I actually took ballroom dancing when I was a kid, lessons when I was a kid and don’t remember anything other than hating it and the instructor not knowing how to talk to, I didn’t know, at the time I was an Engineer so, I think that was kind of what was going on. I took round dance lessons from Veronica McClure and she was very patient and I was very slow. Eventually I got through Two Step and I dropped out at Waltz. Then, a while later I took more round dance lessons, got through Two Step and I might have dropped out at Waltz, I figured that was enough and I don’t really do it. I really like Axle F. I love the music of Axel F. It’s a Cha Cha and it somehow jazzes me up. One time, late at night, our Tech Squares round dance leaders, Lou and Steve Toth taught me how to do Axel F so, everyone knows if an Axel F comes on go ask for it and he’ll dance it. A little bit at contra dancing they play waltzes, just free form waltzes. I’ve gotten a little better at waltzing. I think I know a bit of that now and I’m fortunate that Tech Squares has good round dancers and an active round dance program and people who also join the M I T Ballroom club either for pleasure or for competition. I do have a kind of an interest and a little bit of knowledge in that area but it’s not something I rush off and do.
BB – Right. Probably no folk dancing.
CB – I always poked fun at folk dancing when I was in college. M I T had a huge Folk Dance Club. By the way, that’s not doing well at all either now. I don’t know how folk dancing in general is doing but M I T’s folk dancing was huge in the ‘70‘s and it’s much smaller now.
BB – Is that so?
CB – I do English Country dancing a little bit.
BB – Do you? Good.
CB – We have some great musicians in this area and a good dance that’s very near my house on Wednesdays. Occasionally I will do it there or I will do it at NEFFA. It’s not a form of dance that my wife really enjoys. It’s not, I mean, I can go out dancing at Tech with my daughter but just to kind of randomly disappear one night and go dancing at English, unless I have a reason to be there like an out of town guest who I want to show it to I don’t go off and do it that much. But I like the patterns and complexity there and I try to move like an English dancer even though I’m hopelessly (garbled). People look at me and go, “Oh yeah. You dance English like a contra dancer.”
BB – So. You haven’t gotten into Scottish then.
CB – No. I went to a kids lessons once with my daughter did Irish and was interested in Scottish maybe and they needed a person to dance so I filled in. She didn’t continue with that so I’ve watched a little bit of Scottish but I don’t really know that. I think it’s fascinating that the whole contra, traditional side of the world, they move easily between contras, traditional squares, English, Scottish, Irish, folk and that’s just part of a giant continuum for them. With Modern Western, with our rules and regulations and organizations it’s like, well, we’ve got square dancing and we’ve got round dancing and people think that’s it and they don’t know there’s no easy movement beyond any of that.
BB – Yes. You’re right.
CB – You know that.
BB – Well, I think we’re kind of winding down here Clark. Do you think of anything else you’d like to ….
CB – Well, you didn’t ask me if I ever took caller’s – went to a caller’s school.
BB – Did you ever go to a caller’s school?
CB – Well, I mentioned the one with Don Beck but that was my second one.
BB – I see.
CB – My first one was – there’s an Earl Johnston/Al Brundage Caller’s School?
BB – Oh yes. I heard about that.
CG – You heard about that. That particular year it also had Clint McClean and Bob Gambell…..
BB – Ah. You were lucky. Yes
CB – ….and fortunately Bob Gambell knew me pretty well because Al was pretty appalled at me. I got up and sang a singing call …..
TAPE CLICKS OFF – END OF TAPE
END OF INTERVIEW
Clark’s calling schedule website is: http://www.mixed-up.com/clark/
Clark’s articles website is: http://www.tiac.net/~mabaker/