Computer Coaching

This article is a history of number systems used for mixing dancers in squares to insure that people don’t dance with the same people each tip. I originally wrote it in 2001 for the Call Sheet.

Many groups use “computer numbers” in classes, workshops, and challenge dances to insure a fair mix of people and a fair amount of sit-out time. How many of us remember when and where these cards with numbers came from? I thought that some of you might be interested in some history, so here, to the best of my memory and research, is a look back.

Bill Mills (New Jersey)

The earliest thing that I can remember on the subject is dancing for blood. There was a set of sheets of paper, created by a challenge dancer named Bill Mills. For some reason, still not too clear, each sheet said, “Square Dance for Fun. Square Dance for Blood.” At the end of the first tip, before the dancers sat down, the caller would assign a number to each couple on the floor, and then to any couples who had come late. The front left square would be assigned couples one to four, the next would be five to eight, etc.

The total number of couples at the dance determined which sheet of paper, in the set, the caller would use. At the beginning of the next tip, the caller would find the sheet with the couple count at the top, and read which couples were in square one, which were in square two, etc.

Each sheet had a grid of couple numbers. The columns were labeled across the top with the square numbers, four columns for square 1, four for square 2, etc. and the rows were labeled with the tip numbers down the left side. Before squaring up, each tip, the caller would read the row of numbers for the particular tip, assigning couples to each square. If new dancers arrived, they would be assigned the next number and the caller would use the corresponding sheet when assigning squares the next tip.

In some groups, the sheets were left on the stage, and the dancers would go up during the break to check on which square they were to dance in the following tip. Rather than reading the couples who would be in square one, two, etc., each couple had to scan the appropriate row to find their own number and then read the column heading over their number to find out which square they were in.

I don’t know when these numbers first appeared, but they were definitely in use by 1975, well before personal computers were being used. Mills was a mathematician who worked for the Institute for Defense Analysis in New Jersey. His numbers were probably generated by some sort of computer program, and in any case were printed on computer printout sheets.

Although some time was taken up at the start of each tip for the caller to read the square assignments or the dancers to dig them out of the matrix, this system effectively mixed couples, at least if the number of couples didn’t change. In any case, the big thing it did was to start the “computer numbers” concept.

Lester (Let) Keddy (Massachusetts) and Art Ballard (Massachusetts)

The next step in the evolution came when an enterprising group of challenge dancers, who called themselves Square Dance Systems, came up with a way of disseminating this information in a manner that would not take the caller’s and dances’ time at the beginning of each tip. The group included challenge dancers Let Keddy and Art Ballard, and a caller named John Hendron (Massachusetts). I think Let and Art enlisted John to have his reputation add credence to the group, but don’t quote me on that!

What they did was to put numbers on a series of large charts that they displayed on an easel on the stage. When they knew how many couples were in the hall, they would flip the charts to the appropriate one. Each chart had couple numbers across the top, the tip numbers down the left side, and the grid was filled with square numbers. During each break, the dancers would find their way to the stage to see what square they were in. To make things even easier, the easel had a horizontal slider that was moved down one row each tip, so dancers could find their square more easily.

Rather than using the same numbers that Mills had used, they generated their own numbers, by hand, as best they could. I think this was done so that they could sell their product without infringing on Mill’s materials.

This coincided with the proliferation of Advanced level workshops (considered by many as an introduction to challenge), that created a demand for some sort of convenient number mixing system. Let and Art sold many systems. They relieved the caller of the task of reading the square numbers at the beginning of each tip, but unfortunately only about half the dancers checked the chart during the break. The rest rushed up to the stage when the new tip was about to start, once again causing some delay. Another problem was that the mix was not as good as Mills’, and occasionally people complained. And of course, the easel and charts were not as easy to carry and store as the Mills’ set of papers.

Don Beck (Massachusetts)

Intrigued by the number system but not enamoured by its delivery methods, Don Beck (yours truly) came up with a way to improve upon it. Mills and Keddy and Ballard showed their three dimensional matrix by putting tips, squares, and couple numbers on a two dimensional chart and having a separate chart for each number of couples. I created a set of charts that put tips, squares, and number of couples on a two-dimensional chart and had a separate chart for each couple number.

I made the charts small enough so that they were playing card sized. This meant that couples didn’t have to memorize which couple number they were. The card they were handed when they entered the hall was unique to their couple number and could be placed in a man’s shirt pocket during the dance. At the beginning of each tip, all that was needed was that someone announce the total number of couples present at the time, i.e. the number of cards handed out, and which tip it was. Each couple could then check their own card to find which square they were to dance in.

I used Mills’ numbers and transposed them, by hand, to a set of cards. Advantages to this system were that no one had to read all the square assignments to the group at the beginning of each tip. If a new couple entered the hall, they were given the next card on the pile, but you didn’t have to use a new chart or a new card for each dancer. Dancers did not have to go up to the front of the hall before each tip, and wait in line, until they had their chance to read the master chart.

This is basically the system that is in use today. I had planned on one other additional feature that is not used today. My original set had a large number on the back of each card. That number corresponded to the card holder’s couple number minus one. The intention was to have the pile of cards on the stage or by the door in a place where everyone could see them. The stack would be face down showing the number on the back of the top card. This number would be the number of couples already in the hall. If the dancers could read this number for themselves and remembered which tip it was, no one would have to announce anything at the beginning of each tip.

The main disadvantage to this system is that if someone does not return his card at the end of the dance, the incomplete set is useless. Another disadvantage to some people is that the numbers were quite small and therefore hard to read.

Skirts and Flirts

The Skirts and Flirts Square Dance Club of Wilmington, Massachusetts, one of the clubs that I called for, liked the idea of these cards and made a copy of them. They then laminated the cards and used them at their classes.

Bill Mann (Massachusetts)

Bill Mann, a challenge dancer, in collaboration with Clark Baker, generated a new set of numbers by computer. Bill wanted to make a set of numbers available to the dance community that didn’t infringe on Mills’ or Keddy/Ballard’s numbers and also mixed the dancers better.

Clark Baker (Massachusetts)

Clark Baker, a challenge dancer and caller, combined Mann’s numbers and Beck’s card concept. He arranged the numbers so that sets could be printed on 8 1/2 by 11 paper that he made available to anyone who wanted them. He recommended that they Xerox their masters, then cut them up into cards for the dance. The intention was to Xerox one set for each dance, making them disposable, thus eliminating the problem of people not returning them.

Clark overcame another problem, that of the numbers being too small, by creating three sets of masters. One set was for eight to 32 couples, one for 33 to 56 couples, and one for 57 to 80 (or at least somewhere near these numbers).

Don Hanhurst (New York/Florida)

Don Hanhurst, a caller and merchant of calling and dancing products, made and sold decks of plastic cards that used Mann’s numbers and Beck’s layout, which I believe he got from a set of Clarks printouts. Hanhurst’s cards were printed on both sides to allow the numbers to be a little larger. He made individual cards available to replace lost cards.

When he heard where the original design had come from, he gave a free deck to Beck, Mann, and Baker.

Problems Remained

Mann’s numbers mixed couples well, as long as the number of couples did not change. When a new couple came late and took a new card, and a new column of numbers had to be used, the mix did not always take the previous tips into account.

In addition, there typically were not enough tips listed for an entire weekend, so challenge weekends would have to start over again, causing some repeats.

Kathy Godfrey (Massachusetts)

Kathy Godfrey, a challenge dancer and caller, wrote a program that she used for weekends. Since she knew who was registered for a given weekend, she would pre-assign numbers to couples. Then, before the weekend, she would generate a set of numbers that only had one number of couples, but had enough tips to last the entire weekend. She would print about six copies of this mix and post them around the hall. The dancers would check the numbers as needed.

People who knew Kathy and who were going to run C3 or C4 weekends would ask Kathy to generate a mix for them, just before the weekend.

Vic Cedar (California)

Vic Cedar is a challenge caller who has written a program for mixing dancers. The twist that Vic added is that his program generates numbers at the dance, just before each tip. It keeps track of who has actually danced with whom so far and who has not danced at all. One big advantage of Vic’s system is that not only does it eliminates the problems of dancers coming late, but it allows dancers who want to sit out a tip to indicate that to the computer before the tip. When the mix is generated for the next tip, all current information is considered. This means which couples are dancing that particular tip and which previous tips they have danced, and it works for two hour workshops or three day weekends, for two squares or two hundred.

Vic has his program on a lap top computer that he brings to his dances. I haven’t seen this system personally, but from what I hear, the mix works well. Even though the dissemination of the square numbers again requires dancers to come up to the stage, I have been told that this doesn’t seem to be a problem.

Vic’s program is available commercially, and I understand is being used at quite a few dances.

In conclusion

So, that’s the past and present. Who knows what the future will bring. For more information on Vic Cedar’s program, see his web site. I believe that the cards that Don Hanhurst created are still available from Supreme Audio. My thanks to Clark Baker for his corrections and additions to the above facts.
Last updated on 6 May 2006