Bow to the Caller

This fund-raiser wants patrons to mask their support.

Allemande left to an allemande thar
Forward two and make your star
Men swing to the middle, back it down the line
Shoot the star, go forward three
Then a right and left grand around the ring
Now meet your girl and meet that date
Promenade to the garden gate.

Rising above a sea of dancers, the lyrical voice of a young man from Bartlett prompts couples to promenade in patterns around the floor at a square-dance club in Eads. Dancers nationwide know his name. They know him because he's called at four national conventions. They know him because he's a teenager.

Eighteen-year-old Justin Russell began square dancing five years ago, the same year he started calling -- that is, cueing dancers through a pattern of steps that usually begin and end with one couple on each side of a square formation. Most callers don't start calling until their middle-age years. Justin began at 13.

"When I took that first square-dancing class," he says, "I was with my parents, my brother, and my grandmother. None of us were really interested in square dancing, but some friends bugged us to try it out. I said I'd only go once, but then I really enjoyed it."

During class, he would sing to himself while his instructor, Jim Weaver, called. Because singing is integral to calling, Weaver suggested Justin give calling a try and was amazed at how quickly he picked it up. The knowledge went beyond "swing left, swing right, and do-si-do." As Justin explains, "You learn 50 calls for the basic level and then 50 more calls to go to another level." After taking classes in Tyler, Texas, and St. Louis, he now calls mainstream, plus, and advanced levels.

"You have to have the gift of timing and be able to use it," says Robert Townsend, another seasoned Mid-South caller. "Justin has that ability and talent, and he's been invited to travel."

Justin works at local and statewide dances across the nation. In 2003, he called at his first National Square Dance Convention, where young callers are rarely given the chance to work in adult dance halls. Justin applied anyway. "The program committee was impressed with his maturity," Townsend says. "He called like someone who had been calling for 10 years, with no glitches."

The biggest honor a caller can have at a national convention is working with a live band, says Townsend, because it's so visible. With some 500 callers, few get that opportunity -- which makes it more impressive that Justin has called with a live band three times.

"He knows more now than I knew when I'd been calling 10 years," Weaver says. For fun, he and Justin often harmonize and call together at the club in Eads. Weaver adds, "He puts some good material on the floor. He's already a fantastic caller, and he's going to go a long way with it."

Only a few people call full-time, so Justin is exploring other career possi-bilities, and he now attends the University of Memphis. Meanwhile, he's already booked at events for the next three years, including the National Square Dance Convention in 2009. 

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