Mel Wilkerson Notes on Programming

Mel Wilkerson, from comments on a thread in the Facebook "Callers In Training" group, April 12, 2017. I can't find a Facebook way to link to the particular thread, alas.

I am going to add my two cents worth here in a couple of long posts...

There is no way that all the discussion required on programming could be answered here so I am going to put some notes on programming below as a start point to think about.

What a great discussion topic Johnny Preston.

This is my opinion and it differs some from many others but it is also how I do it...others may do it differently and that doesn't make it wrong or right...just different....Find out what works for you and build on it.


One of the foremost questions that you need to keep in mind in programming, be it a single tip, or a full formatted evening is:

How do I get in and out of dancing situations while keeping the dancers moving smoothly and flowing, maintaining my program emphasis, challenging the dancers and having them succeed without my losing control of the squares?

The key components in that question are “smooth flowing dancing” and “program emphasis”.

What this means is essentially, a focus or goal for the each and every tip and/or for the evening.

  1. When doing a single tip your focus should highlight a specific movement. That movement should be utilised in a variety of ways. (more than one set up but not so far out in the field that the dancers get lost)
  • The focus movement should not be abused. It should not be used so extensively from so many positions and in so many variations that it is frustrating for the dancers.
  • To or three set up positions are generally good for variety.
    • the program focus should not isolate a particular pairing…(for example a zero box after a heads square thru)…you must ensure that you ensure all dancers dance the focus movement with the rest of the square… can call a quick swap over or even make your boxes from a Heads lead right…different dancers give the same movement a different feel.
  • Try to get there a little differently than always using the same set up.
    1. When doing a single tip (e.g) a guest tip, do not try to get overly clever.
    • Keep it interesting but do not venture into uncharted territory by calling something so weird it either breaks the squares down or worse shows up/ or embarrasses your host or yourself.
  • Maintain your program focus but only use limited variations (I recommend no more than 3) – this will have to be adjusted to your dancer levels accordingly.
    • Do not teach something new unless you have specifically been asked to.
  • Make sure that your singing call reflects your patter call and that the dancers win
    1. When programming an evening, set your target goals for the evening.
    • First do your research - Figure out how long you are going to be calling – how many tips you need to program? What is the dancing level? What is the average dancer ability for that level? (If it is a mainstream dance – choose the average mainstream dancer ability even if the majority of dancers in the area are plus dancers)
  • Choose a focus for the evening – it may be a specific movement or two or three specific movements building on a theme or even a concept program such as a lot of stuff from left handed positions.
    1. Structure your evening so that your first tip is high energy, danceable and fun but nothing way too far out in left field. The dancers need to get the feel for you and you need to reinforce the feel of the dancers and their ability in your mind. Remind yourself not do your “weird and wonderfuls” in the first tip. I would keep it pretty standard but build on to it through the course of the evening.
  • Each tip after the first (pretty standard warm up tip) would have the program focus as part of the program…you would use the program focus from various positions in the patter then simplify it to a standard mix of one or maybe two variations of your movement in the singing call. Remember the singing call is the icing but it is what most dancers remember so let them be successful and relax with it.
    1. Build each tip from the previous. A little bit more each tip from either a different set up, or different positions. Do not be redundant….the focus of the program does not mean it is the only movement you are calling. If your focus is SPIN THE TOP – you need to call a lot more than that to keep it interesting.
  • I would continue this theme likely for the first half of the evening program and then the second half likely have a change that keeps the focus movement but adds a different aspect to the dance. For instance using a variation formation you haven’t used something like a left hand column or a left hand wave set up just to change the flow a bit. Make sure what you do here is usable to either set up your focus movement (getting there differently) or you are able to dance the focus movement from that set up. (Example a recycle danced with boys on the end of a right hand wave is the same as when boys are on the end of a left hand wave….ends cross fold centres fold and follow and end as facing couples. - - the movement however feels very different).
    • A different position can make all the difference in a focus movement and change an entire dance. Movements like recycle, spin the top, and pass the ocean are excellent for introducing simple position changes and big different to the dance. The movement doesn't change, and how it is danced doesn't change but it feels very different.
  • Maintain your focus movement (e.g. SPIN THE TOP) in the tip, but do not be as rigorous or varied as you have been using it up to this point. The focus movement should almost be second nature to the dancers by this point and from various positions. You want something just a little different to take their mind off the focus movement without losing it. REMEMBER: you still have to make use of the program focus. (e.g. SPIN THE TOP)
    1. Structure your evening program with both patter and singing call music to build through the evening. You want to build the program so that each tip generates enthusiasms and builds through the evening without wearing the dancers out….the third last tip (not the last) should be the big bang of what you are doing… It is the high point of the evening – the second last should be at a little lower level – relaxing and challenging but not too tough…the last tip of the evening is the message you want them to go home with….you bring it up again but not to the high of the third last tip…you wow them with your singing call and hopefully it is one that they will all be humming when you are done….
  • Some notes on singing calls in programming:
  • The variety and ability of singing calls to affect a floor with mood, style and flavour make it one of the most versatile and powerful programming devices that a caller has. In considering your singing calls, associate each to the accompanying patter in music and content for the effect that you wish to achieve. Some possible examples are:

    • Patter call : Workshopping a particular new figure
  • Associated singing call: Smooth easy use of that figure
    • Patter call : Heavy use of trade and circulate patterns in Body Flow
  • Associated singing call: Consider star and circle patterns for a contrasting effect on the dancers
    • Patter call : Non melodic and rhythm oriented patter call hopping a particular new figure
  • Associated singing call: Strong melodic singing call
    • Patter call : Complex hash calling with intricate routines
  • Associated singing call: Relaxed and lazy singing call to bring them back to earth gently
  • It is usually safe to assume that singing choreography is easier and less demanding than its preceding patter call. Dancers can usually complete the figures without breakdowns and return to the sidelines with a feeling of success. This makes the singing call a most effective tool to erase the memory of a particularly difficult piece of choreography that did not work, or to get rid of the "pangs" of having made an annoying mistake.

    Where to put a singing call will depend on the style and personality of that call. It is usually a good idea to program the first two tips will peppy upbeat songs and save the "ballad" type songs for the middle of the evening. An upbeat start will set an upbeat mood for the dance and create anticipation for what is to come.

    • Singing call programming note: Many callers consider the third tip of a dance the most critical of the evening. The tone has already been set. Success or failure is decided by the dancers early and by the third tip arrives, the dancers usually know whether or not they like the caller and are going to have fun. This is why the third tip is so important. It behooves a caller, then, to call a "WOW" for that all-important third. If you don't have them by then, you likely never will.
  • A successful program has considerations for common sense, variety, style and contrast. Success with singing calls needs a program that balances swingers with ballads and the novelties with the current hit parade.
    • It is also important to leave one of your best for the last tip of the evening. This will be your last crack at the dancers and should therefore be the one that they take home on their lips and on their minds. In many cases it is the only one that they remember.

    Concept 1: Guest Tip

    Well a lot has been said here about programming so let’s look at this in a more practical application – real life Concept 1. I have been asked to do a guest tip. I have a “go to” box of material and songs available to me. I may have been asked beforehand or once I arrived at the door by the club or host caller. I have to give a good show, and good dance but I also have to keep in mind that I am a guest and do not want to appear as a “competitor” with my host.

    Ideally, I will have two or three different “go to” material themes prepared. (you will have more as you gain experience).

    for a single tip I must look at the tip in stages:


    1. Each record consists of a beginning, middle and end.
    2. Each choreographic sequence should consist of a beginning middle and end. Singing call
    3. Each song consists of a beginning, two figures, a middle, two figures and an end
    4. Each sequence in those 7 parts has a beginning middle and end.

    I will prepare several modules and practice them that meet that requirement. Lets say I have a go to tip that uses spin the top. Having danced I know the dancers aer confident and comfortable with spin the top from standard waves, and boy girl right hand wave variations but not left hand stuff yet.

    Step 1. Eliminate the left hand stuff from the mix. You are a guest and not there to teach the dancers or show up the other caller.

    Step 2. Keep it simple and fairly standard but with just enough variety to make it smooth and danceable .

    I might have a simple get in like heads square thru 4 followed by a routine like Swing Thru, SPIN THE TOP, SPIN THE TOP, Boys Run, Ferris Wheel, Zoom , Pass Thru Allemande Left, Right And Left Grand Home.

    I will have a number of module sequences like this to work with ready as well as a number of cross over movements and interactive modules ready.

    I will move the dancers through sequences in and out. I may even (as I do) do some simple isolated or extemporaneous sight calling but still keep it smooth, flowing and interactive with the square.

    I will have a couple of prepared get-ins and get-outs that use spin the top. Something simple like

    • heads pass the ocean, spin the top, slide thru = lead to the right box, or
  • heads dosado, make a wave, swing thru, spin the top, slide thru = home , or
    • Heads dosado, make a wave, swing thru, spin the top, step thru = Zero box
  • I will then have a couple of prepared modules that use spin the top, and maybe a module that uses spin the top to a get out
    • I will mix and match, and use cross overs (half a chicken plucker for example), and intterractives (ferris wheel and pass thru for example, or scoot backs – scoot back centres trade, spin the top = swing thru, spin the top but feels very different)
  • I will utilise my prepared choreography, and maybe do an isolated sight bit if there is a specific thing I want to check on if someone is having a problem but generally not for a single guest tip.
    • I prepare my work and my flow modules, by get ins and my get outs for what I want to achieve.
  • I DO NOT SIGHT CALL USUALLY AT A GUEST TIP. I have one or two SIGHT RESOLUTIONS AVAILABLE just in case I get lost but they are FOR EMERGENCY RESOLVES....once done I go back to my prepared work.
    • I have my music prepared so my patter compliments my singing call.
  • If the host caller has been doing fast and furious stuff, I may do a full patter but a relaxing singing call with two different figures.
    • If the host caller has just finished a slow relaxing tip, my music choices will be a lively flowing but relatively easy varied patter with a pick me up “lift the floor” number – but not a “grand finale” steal the show....I want to lift the floor and structure to compliment my host and his/her program...not show him/her up.

    There is so much more and not enough time in a month of daily classes to cover this topic but that is the opinion gist I am offering to the discussion

    Concept 2: Full Mainstream Dance

    Concept 2 : I have been hired (or maybe a night in my own club) to call a mainstream dance.

    My research:

    • I know that the dancers are fairly good with the mainstream program and have done some positional dancing. There will be a fair few visitors coming to the dance and the average level of dancing in the area is plus.
  • The dancers at the mainstream level are a mix of this year’s graduates and those dancers who are still dancing in the mainstream clubs (for the two years prior to progressing to plus (that is the way it worked where I was from and the way it should still work but that is a topic for another discussion))
    • The evening goes from 7:30 to 11:00 with dancing from 7:20 until 10:00 and a 1 hour after party. That gives me 3 hours to play with. I will schedule 15 minutes per tip to balance the evening, 5 minutes patter – 5 minutes singing call 4 minutes break between tips and 1 minute for schedule adjustments……That means I need to program an evening for 10 tips.

    Now my basic research is done and I figure I have a good feel for the dancers and the dance…..I need to pick a focus for the evening…..a random selection got me to pick the movement SPIN THE TOP. That will be my theme movement for the evening so I have to make sure I incorporated it into the program without making it too boring and redundant. In other words…I want to use it but not overuse it and definitely not abuse it. My focus for the evening is set so now I want to look at what I want to achieve through the evening with it. – What do I want to do in my tips? – I will loosely structure my patter calling to achieve the following for each tip. (10 tips)

    1. Standard SPIN THE TOP - boy girl and right hand wave
  • SPIN THE TOP - back to back (two in a row)
    1. Spin the top – same gender – wow tip
  • Spin the top standard – other movements with positional dancing – (i.e someone do this someone else do that)
    1. Working left with standard and same gender SPIN THE TOPS
  • Build on the working left theme with left hand wave spin the tops – pretty standard so introduce simple positional concept from tip 4 – use left column zoom
    1. Keep the same theme as tip 6 but allow different flows from the previous tips….for instance in tip 6 I may have had the boys in the lead for the left hand column zoom, this tip I may put the girls in the lead for the zoom – not a major change but it sure feels different. – the Spin the top is the same but it will feel different because the dancing flow has changed.
  • This is my big pick up tip – the high point of the evening….I do not want to make it too difficult to dance but it has to feel different and challenging…I have chosen to keep my program focus – Spin the Top standard but the left hand column zoom from the previous two tips will now be a right hand column zoom followed by the basic call split circulate from a column…
    1. This is a relaxation tip – a little bit lower tempo than tip 8. Pretty standard stuff here - variety and change using some of what they have done but no introduction of anything new – Perhaps a couple of left hand spin the tops and a same gender spin the top but nothing more – focus here is using the spin the tops with comfort and smooth comfortable dancing. This will give the dancers the feel of success from the evening – they have worked hard and now they have arrived. – Let’s keep the singing call pretty standard but use a right hand lady progression just to keep the juices flowing.
  • This is my final tip….I want to take it up a notch but still not quite as high impact as tip 8. I want to raise the bar so it leaves it climbing and wanting more….it has to be one of those that picks the floor up successfully with the patter and finishes with a singing call that is well known or currently popular and easy to remember. Remember – this is the song that they leave the hall with still on their minds…you want them to come back.
  • An evening with a focus. For ease of understanding I have used a concept below of having one focus movement for the evening – Spin the Top.

    I have now loosely designed my evening with what I want to achieve

    • Focus spin the top
  • Progression – positional dancing
    • Variety gender neutral waves
  • Variety left and right hand waves
  • Patter – I sight call and many of you do, whilst others use fixed choreography and routines. For ease of flow and to make it a little easier following the thoughts on this, I have outlined the tips for a 10 tip program below with a focus on SPIN THE TOP as the theme movement for the evening.

    • For each tip outlined below I have put a singing call figure to outline what I might be using in my patter to meet the direction I have given myself in outlining my 10 tips above. For example; each singing call figure may use spin the top a little differently…so in my patter, if my singing call has same gender (4 boys or 4 girls in the waves doing a spin the top), then I would call my patter to include that. – In tip 6 for example, I use a zoom from a left hand column. I would not expect the dancers to dance that without having seen it before so I would use the zooms and the left hand column work in my patter.

    * I have not written any patter sequences here but if you follow the singing call patterns in the tips below it becomes pretty easy to see what kind of choreography you need to be preparing and using in your patter sequences. The ten tips broken down

    Tip 1 (the warm up)

    • Heads Promenade ½; Come down the middle; Pass the Ocean; Extend; Swing Thru; SPIN THE TOP; Right & Left Thru; Square Thru 3; Swing & Promenade

    Tip 2 (different SPIN THE TOPs)

    • Heads Square Thru 4; DoSaDo; Swing Thru; SPIN THE TOP; SPIN THE TOP; boys run right; ½ tag…cnr

    Tip 3 (same gender SPIN THE TOP)

    • Heads Square Thru 4; Touch ¼; Centers Trade; Centers Run; Ferris Wheel; Boys Swing Thru; Extend; Extend (again);Boys Cloverleaf; GIRLS SPIN THE TOP; Girls Step Thru; Swing & Promenade Home

    Tip 4 - (standard SPIN THE TOP) . but : introduction of positional concept for getting there Standard SPIN THE TOP but introducing specific positional concept – I would also note that I need to include the movement Zoom in my patter because I need it later on in the evening.

    • Heads Touch ¼;Girls Pass Thru;Centers Swing Thru;Other Girl Run;All Extend;SPIN THE TOP; Right & Left Thru; Flutter Wheel; join Hands; Circle Left; Swing Corner & Promenade Home

    Tip 5 – working the dancers to the left – both mixed and same gender SPIN THE TOP – positional concept continues.

    • 4 Ladies Chain; Heads Lead Left; Right & Left Thru; Touch 1/4; Centers Trade; SPIN THE TOP; Just the boys SPIN THE TOP; All Step Thru; Swing & Promenade

    Tip 6 – using the SPIN THE TOP from left hand waves –

    We already have positional concept – we already know that SPIN THE TOP from a left hand wave is pretty simple it just feels different so the variety here is the Zoom from a left hand column. This seems to change the focus of the program but in reality, it is just making the SPIN THE TOP natural as the dancers are not concentrating too hard on it. This is why in the previous tips I have looked at a left hand column and a right hand column and a zoom in my patter. Everything until now is pretty standard stuff….so now we play with the left handed SPIN THE TOP…it is still pretty standard so I don’t make variations on it…my focus remains on the SPIN THE TOP however I will now introduce the very simple Zoom from a Left hand column…I give them a hint in the patter such as…..when coming out of the right hand star…(Make a left hand wave…and balance)…then maybe (start with your left hand….SPIN THE TOP)…after the left cast off ¾ I might give a quick pause to say in your column on your own side <> zoom – boys flip back and the girls move up…

    • Heads Right Hand Star; find the corner make a left hand wave; SPIN THE TOP; Left Cast Off 3/4; Zoom (left column); Girls Run; Swing Thru; Scoot Back; Swing & Promenade
  • (note: if you are not comfortable with heads make a right hand star to the corner make a left hand wave…use heads forward and back; left touch ¼ ; girls run left; make a left hand wave. – personally I like the star…it is a simple flair that works and is so often forgotten about past basic.)
  • Tip 7 - Now that I have played with that left hand work and the column zoom – this time the girls flipping back and the boys moving forward.

    I am still using the left hand SPIN THE TOP and the only difficult thing here is the zoom

    • Heads Dixie Style To An Ocean Wave; Extend (Left Wave); SPIN THE TOP; Single Hinge; Zoom (left column); Scoot Back; Girls Run; Right & Left Thru; Pass Thru; Swing & Promenade

    Tip 8 – Not changing the concept, but using the zoom from the previous tip in a standard right hand column…this will be simple after the previous two tips but because it is now being done from a right hand column, it will feel different but the dancers will feel they hit this challenge without batting an eye….this is my highest point of the evening…it has got to be good both choreographically and with a matching singing call

    • Heads Square Thru 4; SPIN THE TOP; Single Hinge; Zoom (column); Split Circulate; Boys Run; Slide Thru; Pass The Ocean; Swing & Promenade

    Tip 9 – this is a relaxation tip – a little bit lower tempo than tip 8 to relax the dancers a bit…..pretty standard stuff here - variety and change using some of what they have done but no introduction of anything new.

    • Sides Square thru; Swing thru; SPIN THE TOP; cast off ¾; Boys run; pass thru; trade by;Swing & Promenade (** Right hand lady progression)

    Tip 10 - Last tip of the evening – pick it up and leave them climbing to a high….good punch choreography – interesting but not to difficult – up tempo patter music and a good memorable singing call. – I like to have two figures used in the last tip – both with my focus movement but here it is pretty straight choreography with only a slight variation -- such as the boys fold – girls turn back in the first figure or the “on the third hand” bit of the second figure.

    • Heads square thru 4; do sa do; swing thru; boys trade; SPIN THE TOP; Recycle; pass the ocean; boys fold; girls turn back; swing and promenade….
  • Heads Square Thru 4; Square Thru But On 3rd Hand – SPIN THE TOP; Swing Thru; Slide Thru; Slide Thru again; Touch ¼; Girls Run; Swing and Promenade
  • Well, that’s about it. I have prattled on about programming long enough. This is just one person’s thoughts on the topic but; it is also what I have been taught, what has been reinforced through more than a few callers’ schools, and what I teach and practice.

    Although what has been shown above uses spin the top, when you remove the movement and look at the principle it is sound. You pick a theme and you build it up and work with it. You get it out there and let the dancers be challenged by it bit-by-bit but always able to beat the challenge. You build the evening to climb each step higher until nearly the end…you give them a little rest (tip 9) and then you climb again to leave on a high note…..

    Please feel free to comment. There are many exceptional callers out there that program their evenings differently in that programming for teaching is different than programming a special dance…pick their brains and find out what works best for you and your dancers….and as always…PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE.

    Category: Mel Wilkerson