Computer Coaching

The Calling Computer
The January 1991 issue of American SquareDance Magazine had an article I wrote for their On Line column. It told of a group of dancers who danced to the calling of a computer. Yes, the computer made up the choreography and “called” it to the dancers as it went along. At the time, I thought it was the first time that this had been done, and I haven’t heard of it being repeated since. If you are interested in this piece of history, check it out.
American SquareDance magazine
January 1991
On Line, Page 76

The Calling Computer
by Don Beck

Computers are taking over! They help run our telephone systems, our VCR's, our banks, our cars. We use them for business, for personal convenience (such as the word processor I am using to write this article), and for entertainment. How far will it go? How long will it be before we are square dancing to the calling of a computer?

Well, the time is here, sort of! Let me explain. On February 6, 1989, a group of square dancers (three squares worth) known as Don's Pawns of Sudbury, Massachusetts, danced to the calling of a computer program called Desktop Dancer running on a Macintosh computer. (I believe this was the first time this was ever done.) The "sort of" part is the fact that Desktop Dancer is not about to replace a live caller, not by a long shot. Desktop Dancer was written as a training aid for callers and not as a caller replacement; it just happens to be able to do some calling.

It all started in 1984 when I bought my first computer, an Apple Macintosh, because I was about to start publishing a newsletter for callers and I needed a word processor and a database to keep track of my subscribers. As many other Macintosh owners have found, not only does the Mac help you do your job, it is also fun to use and even quite addictive. I kept finding other ways to use it and soon was also using one at my full-time job (I was a mechanical engineer) doing drafting, engineering calculations and technical writing.

In 1987, Apple Computer introduced a program called HyperCard that allows non-programmers to create their own programs. With very little effort, simple programs can be created, and as you learn to program in its English-like language, HyperTalk, almost anything is possible. I immediately was hooked, thinking I could very easily create a square dancer simulation program. It turned out that I was able to create the program, but I had to learn a lot of programming in the process. A year and a half later, working in my spare time (not that any one who calls regularly, writes a newsletter, and has a full-time job, has any spare time), Desktop Dancer was complete enough to have dancers dance to its calling. A year and a half further down the road, it is finally available for sale as a caller training aid.

Desktop Dancer, like a few other programs on the market, shows a graphic representation of dancers on the screen. You tell it to dance a call and the screen changes to show the formation that the square would be in after the call was danced. (No currently available programs animate the action of the dancers.) Desktop Dancer shows a long list of calls that are possible from the formation that the square is in. The user merely points at any one of the calls listed (all of which are possible from that formation) and clicks the computer's mouse button.

The two features that make it possible for Desktop Dancer to actually call to square dancers are the ability of the program to speak the calls that are selected (either through the computer's loudspeaker or through a PA system), and the ability of the program to select a random call from the list of those possible or a continuous series of random calls. The sequence that is generated, although completely random, is technically possible (e.g. it couples are back-to-back, the program will not call calls that require couples to be face-to-face, such as Ladies Chain.)

Getting back to February 6, how was Desktop Dancer's debut as a caller? We had a lot of fun; we encountered some interesting choreography and some unique pronunciations of calls; we even recorded the event on video tape for posterity, but the dancers assured me that I had nothing to worry about. They were not about to replace me with a computer!

The reasons that Desktop Dancer will never replace any live caller are clear. Aside from the fact that the computer's enunciation is poor, choosing a random call provides unexpected variety, but without any consideration for body flow or difficulty, and this can lead to unenjoyable dancing. Desktop Dancer has no concept of timing either, causing the dancers frequently to either rush or wait. And of course, the lack of charisma...!

But please remember that Desktop Dancer was not created for the purpose of calling to willing dancers. Rather its main purpose is as a training aid, and this it does well. It helps callers think of calls they might not otherwise have considered; it recognizes when an Allemande Left or Grand Right and Left is possible so that the user is rewarded for correctly resolving the square; it has sight calling and mental image modes for practicing specialized forms of choreography.

An interesting observation that can be made when watching dancers try to dance to Desktop Dancer is just how much talent our live callers have. Desktop Dancers knows how to call sequences that are possible, but it takes much, much more to be a real caller.

Computers are taking over, but fortunately, they are not taking over everything.
Last updated on 20 July 2008