Square Dance Study Hints

The "But" Modifier

The word "But" is often used in square dance calling the same way it is used in ordinary language, simply as a conjunction. And in this sense, it is sometimes used along with modifiers like "Interrupt" and "Replace", for example "Scoot and Plenty but Replace the Split Circulates with a Trade Circulate".

However it has another usage, also involving replacing some part of a call with something else. In this usage, the word "But" is simply followed by the replacement action – without any mention of which part of the call is to be replaced! For example, "Tally Ho But 2/3 Recycle". It is that usage we are concerned with here.

What does it mean, if the caller uses "But" to indicate a replacement, but doesn't say what should be replaced?

A very good question – and that is exactly the question we will address here!

No Simple Answer

The answer, unfortunately, is that there is not one answer. As with many features of square dancing, this usage has evolved and expanded over time. For certain calls, this kind of "But x" modification first came into use with respect to a particular part, probably because that was seen as the "obvious" or "most useful" or "most common" part to replace. But this happened on a call-by-call basis, and so you will find definitions of particular calls that include a statement of which part is to be replaced when "But" is added.

Certain patterns also developed over time, along with general agreement that, for calls that share certain features, "But" means the same thing with respect to all of them. And then that in turn has led to a common understanding of a rule that applies more generally.

Meanwhile, some of those traditional usages still remain. So what we have today is similar to what exists with verb tenses in many natural languages. There are many "regular" verbs, which all follow the same pattern ("walk", "walked"), but also a few "irregular" ones where you just have to learn each one separately ("is", "was").

There is no way around this. You just have to learn some cases separately. But you don't have to learn a separate rule for every call, because there are patterns that apply in the majority of cases. And that's the purpose of the following sections – to help you sort all this out.

The Most General Rule

The rule that applies to the largest number of calls is:

"But" means to replace the last thing done by the centers.

This applies to almost all calls where the centers are doing a distinct action, different from and without interacting with the ends.

And by far the most common appliaction of "But" is to one category of calls for which this is true – the calls which end with the centers doing a Cast Off 3/4.

Calls that End with Centers Cast Off 3/4

There is a whole class of calls, starting with Chain Reaction, and including Motivate, Relay the Top, Tally Ho, and Linear Action, that end with some people meeting in the center, to form a wave or two-faced line, from which they then do a Cast Off 3/4 (to become the centers of the final formation) while the others do their part of Hourglass Circulate (to become the ends of the final formation).

For all calls of this class, "But" always means the same thing – centers replace that final Cast Off 3/4.

This is by far the most common case. If you learn how to apply "But" in this case, you will be able to do something like 95% of the cases you run into. You'll still need to study and remember some other cases, but it's worth the effort to understand this case very well, because it is so common.

Recognizing the Wave/Line

Just before the last part of these calls, the centers are most commonly in a wave, but sometimes in a two-faced line, and from there they do their final Cast Off 3/4. However, many dancers learn to do these calls without thinking about that wave/line. They just know that they meet somebody else, and they do a Cast Off 3/4 with that person. If the replacement action is another thing that can be done by just two dancers, that's not a problem.

However if the replacement action is a four-dancer call, you really need to see that wave/line. You must resist the temptation to just start doing the Cast Off 3/4.

Instead you need to pause, mentally if not physically, to understand who makes up that wave/line and where you are within it. If you don't do that, you will very likely do the wrong thing. And if the dancers in the other half of that wave/line don't do the right thing, you will likely end up with a broken square even if you and the other person in your half do the right thing.

Some possible replacement actions in cases where there is a wave (i.e., cases where the centers would normally be doing a mini-wave cast):

Some possible replacement actions when there is a two-faced line (i.e., cases where the centers would normally be doing a "push cast"):

There are other possibilities of course. But once you get enough practice with cases like these, you will have learned the most important lesson – identify your wave/line before you act – and you will probably do fine with other cases.

Doing the Other Part As Usual

The dancers who are not in that wave/line also have something to learn – something that sounds very simple but with which many people have a lot of trouble. And that is: do your last part of the call as usual!

In the case of calls like Chair Reaction and Tally Ho, the last part for the rest of the dancers is variously described as "move up to become ends of lines" or "do a phantom Hourglass Circulate". Either way, in the normal case those dancers will find themselves as the ends of some kind of parallel lines. Depending on the replacement action for the centers (named with "But"), they might or might not actually be ends of lines. They might be points of twin diamonds, or points of an hourglass.

With enough experience (or quick thinking) you may be able to predict what the final formation is going to be . If not, the best thing to do is ignore what the caller says after But and ignore what the centers are doing. Just do the action you would normally do: if you were in the center star or diamond, veer outward without turning, and if you were one of the very ends move forward and inward while turning 90 degrees inward. If you do that, and the centers do their part correctly, it will usually become obvious very quickly what the resulting formation is supposed to be.

Do not wait for the centers to do their part. This is one of the most common ways that this kind of call can fail. If the people who are supposed to do the phantom Hourglass Circulate just stand there doing nothing, they may either get in the way of or confuse the centers, or they may delay the completion of the entire call enough that they aren't ready for the next call, either of which can cause the square to break down. Do not be the person who stands there doing nothing – immediately start your "moving up" as usual.

Other Calls Where the Centers Have a Distinct Last Part

In most other cases where the centers are doing a distinct action, the same rule applies – the action named after the word "But" replaces that last thing that the centers would normally do.

This applies to other calls where the centers complete the call by doing a Cast Off 3/4, even though the other dancers are doing something other than an Hourglass Circulate. For example, it applies to calls like Spin Chain Thru, Relay the Deucey, and Diamond Chair Thru.

Other cases where there is a significant amount of agreement that this rule applies:

Load the Boat

The last part for the centers is Pass Thru. So "Load the Boat But Swing Thru" means they should replace that final Pass Thru with a Swing Thru, typically resulting in a 1/4 tag formation.

Mini Busy

The last part for the centers is Flip the Diamond. So "Mini Busy But Cut the Diamond" means to do that instead, resulting in a "1/4 line" formation (like "1/4 tag" but with a two-faced line in the center rather than a wave).

Calls Where the Ends and Centers Work Together for the Last Part

If the ends and centers are not working independently for the last part of a call, then the rule described above obviously can't apply. In some such cases, some callers will consider it appropriate to use "But" to replace that final action that is being done by everybody. This is not as universal a rule, and there aren't any calls at C-1 or below to which this rule is commonly applied, but it's a good thing to keep in mind if all else fails. If the caller modifies a call by saying "But" followed only by an action, and you haven't ever heard of a specific rule for that call, and the centers aren't doing their last action by themselves, and everybody is doing something at the end, then the chances are pretty good that's what the caller means.

Learning the Exceptions

There is no way around this – you need to learn that "But" means something different for certain calls. The Ceder books and web site (and some other collections of definitions) include an explanation of the meaning in pretty much every case where there is a special rule. The best time to learn these things is when you are learning about each new call. When you are studying the definition of a new call for the first time, or if you are taking a class and going back to review calls you learned earlier in the class, pay attention to this.

Fortunately there aren't really that many of these exceptional cases; not more than a handful for each program. Following is a summary of the ones you need to be aware of for C-1. If you can remember just these few, along with the general rules described above, you will have something like 99.9% of the cases you are likely to run into covered.


Depending on how you look at it, the last thing done by the centers is a (Trailers) Cross or it is Hinge and Cross. But the last thing done by the four centers together is Hinge and Cross, and that's what gets replaced for Percolate.

The Axle

This one is interesting because there are two different ways that "But" can be used. At the end of The Axle (or Pass the Axle) only the centers are working, with each other, doing a Trade. However, it is relatively uncommon for this part to be replaced. The most common part to be replaced for this call is the next to last part, when the ends and centers are trading, and that trade is normally equivalent to a Cast Off 1/2. The most common replacement for this part is some other casting amount, like 3/4. In specifying such a modification the caller may or may not use the word "But" – but if that's the kind of action being named as the replacement then that's what it means. (It can't mean the centers should do it as their last part, because there is no way for couples in the center of parallel lines to do a Cast Off.) On the other hand, if the caller names an action that could be done by back to back couples, for example Chase Right or Shakedown, then you can assume it means that it replaces that final trade for the centers.

Square the Bases

Unfortunately, the lack of agreement about this one means you can't necessarily know what the caller wants, unless you know the caller well enough to have learned what he or she believes about it. Some callers believe that since the last part is defined as Trade By, that's what should be replaced. But in a Trade By the centers are doing one thing while the ends are doing something else, so some callers think it should only replace the Pass Thru in the center. Ceder has a completely different idea. His definition says it's the Split Square Thru 2 and the Trade By that should be replaced, but he then goes on to note that some callers think it's only the Split Square Thru 2 and you should still do the Trade By. What a mess! Sometimes you can be pretty sure of what the caller means because there is only one place where the replacement action makes sense (e.g., if the replacement action is Horseshoe Turn, it must be replacing the Trade By; if the replacement action is Split Square Chain Thru, it must be replacing the Split Square Thru 2, though in that case you still can't be sure whether you should then also do a Trade By). Fortunately, because it is such a mess most callers will just try to avoid using a simple "But" in this way, for any case that could be ambiguous – instead they will add enough extra words to tell you which one they mean. So although it is in principle a mess, it's actually not that much of a problem in practice.