Computer Coaching

In 1978, I wrote an article in Shop Talk, my monthly column in the New England Caller magazine, that told dancers about “computer numbers.” Here is a slightly condensed version of the article.
Shop Talk, September 1978

Have you ever danced too many successive tips with the same people, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse? Well, I’ve got your number. It’s the number system. What is the number system? Well, it started a long time ago when someone realized that it would be nice to have a way of fairly mixing people in such a way that everyone would have the opportunity to dance with different people each tip. There was always someone who had to sit out two in a row or maybe “got stuck dancing with a newer dancer” more often than they thought fair (not that anyone would really think a thing like that!) A system was needed to give all dancers an even and fair chance to dance.

Well, several systems now exist. The scheme in each is basically the same. Each couple is assigned a number. A chart tells them which square to dance in, tip by tip. Once in the square, couples may choose any position that they desire within the square. If the master chart does its job correctly, mixing will occur.

Most people initial think that this is too regimented. They would rather dance with whomever they please. In some ways, they are right, but when used under the right circumstances, there are many redeeming advantages.

Initially, number mixing was used at challenge level workshops where people realized that this was a learning experience and all would profit from mixing in this manner. Currently the greatest acceptance of dancing by the numbers still seems to be at advanced and challenge level workshops; however, many beginners’ classes are now also taking advantage of this system. Introducing the number system into workshops or classes frequently requires compromise with those people who are rightly apprehensive, by proposing a one dance trial usage of the numbers. Sacrificing only one night to regimentation is not that hard a pill to swallow. A vote after the dance then decides whether or not to continue with numbers at future dances. More often than not, people are amazed to find out that the advantages out weigh the disadvantages.

Generally when the numbers are used, they are not used the first and last tips of the evening to allow dancing with that friend that you wanted to be sure not to miss. Several different schemes have been devised to administer the system. The original one assigned each couple a number at the end of the first tip based on which square they had just danced in. Then, at the beginning of the second tip, the caller would read from a list, which couples were to dance in square one, which in square two, etc. The caller had many lists. The one he used depended on how many couples were present. If a couple came in late, they would be assigned the next successive number and a different list would be used. This system has its drawbacks however, in that the caller must spend time reading and frequently rereading the position assignments each tip, thereby delaying the start of each tip. Some groups tried having the dancers check the list during the break. This resulted in having lots of people clustered around a small sheet of paper, generally just as the next tip was about to start.

One system that attempts to improve upon these shortcomings has put their lists on large charts, on an easel at the front of the hall. A horizontal slider is moved each tip, and dancers read their square assignment at the intersection of their couple number column and the slider. Once again, the chart must be flipped each time a new couple arrives, in order to include that new couple into the mix.

Another system for disseminating this information, which currently is not being as widely used, is to hand one dancer from each couple his or her own card. Each card is packed with numbers, and is carried by the dancer for the entire dance. It is used to find out which square s/he goes to without having to consult a central board. Each dancer’s card is different, and he need not remember which couple number he is, since his card is unique to that number. He must only check his card to locate the square he is to dance in. The number of couples in the hall is posted at the front of the hall in large numbers so that he knows which column to look in. Should a new couple come in, a new number is posted, but new cards are not necessary. Each dancer already has the information on his card and just moves over one column. This method, as did the previous one, solves some of the problems, yet adds new ones. No longer is there a central dissemination point that dancers must cluster around, therefore if dancers do not check their number until the very end of the break, they can do so quickly, right where they are. The big problem with this system is the fact that if just one dancer forgets to return his card at the end of the dance, the set of cards is incomplete and not usable at future dances. Other complaints heard have been that because, by necessity, so much information is crammed onto such a small piece of paper, the print is to small, for people who normally wear glasses, to read.

The actual mixing scheme has been produced by computer on some of the systems and by people, trying to sort and mix evenly, on others.

Who knows what the eventual system will be. We may even have a small, dedicated computer that generates a new mix each night and only requires a dancer to punch in his couple number each break, with a large display to tell him which square to dance in.

However the word is disseminated; whatever the mechanics of the system are; the thing to remember is that, as an aid to learning, it has proven itself successful; as a detriment to sociability, it has proven itself no real problem; at open dances, at any level, it is far from a necessity; and as another gadget to keep track of, it is a pain in the neck. We have survived without it for a long time, yet many groups feel they have gained by using it. The goal here is just to make you aware of what it is and allow you to use an open mind when you speak with others whose opinion my be different than yours.
Last updated on 6 May 2006