Reflections of a newly-minted cuer

Paul Zimmer here. I began training as a cuer during the Pandemic. While the rest of you were baking bread (I hate cooking) and growing Pandemic Gardens (I hate gardening, too), I was learning to cue.

I had participated in a cuer training workshop several years earlier, but had never really worked at it before. To keep myself motivated, I maintained a spreadsheet in which I logged my hours (here’s a sample you can copy and use – hint: “shift-ctrl-:” will input the current date and time). By the time I felt ready, I’d logged more than 85 hours of at-home practice.

You’ve probably participated in a cuer training class yourself (roundalab sponsers them regularly), so I’m not going to reproduce that material here. I just thought it might be useful to hear from someone who’s gone down that path recently, as most of your local cuers probably learned their trade during the vinyl era. There have been advances on many fronts since then – both software and hardware. So, for what it’s worth, here are the reflections of a newly-minted cuer.

One of the critical technical advances is “cuing” software. We are blessed to have two software packages designed just for cuers/teachers – Dance Master and Dance Wizard. I’m not going to tell you which one to use – ask around. But use one of them. It will help you keep everything organized and make it easier to practice (you’ll have playlists, history of what you’ve done recently, etc). And, the easier it is to practice, the more practice you’ll do. [Update 2024.03.08: The author of DanceMaster has announced that DanceMaster, in its current form, is being retired. He recommends using DanceWizard, which can be found here.]

Note that I’ve referred to Dance Master and Dance Wizard as “cuing” software, but they are really so much more than that. Above all, they are teaching software. And you’re probably going to teach at some point. So, get familiar with DM/DW right from the start. You’ll never reach your full potential as a teacher without them.

The next thing you’re going to need are cue cards (also called “head cues”) and cued music. I say cued music because I think the best way to practice is to play the cued music, cue along with the cue channel volume turned down, then turn it up from time to time to make sure you haven’t lost your place. This is because I found that my most common mistake early on was being ahead or behind (usually ahead) by a full measure. This can happen when your eye “slides over” a semicolon, or when the music does something funny. It’s no good practicing it wrong, so having a known-good example that you can use to check from time to time is invaluable.

There are several ways to get the “turn the cues up and down” functionality. I used a Sennheiser device like this, but they’re out of production now and can be difficult to find. It’s a little trickier (because you have to take your eyes off the cue card to do it), but the same effect can be accomplished using either the volume sliders in DM/DW or the channel volume adjustments in Windows (you’re using Windows because you’ve got DM/DW – which only run on Windows). We have a guide for accessing the stereo balance adjustments in Windows here. Or, you could just move the right headphone on and off your ear.

But where to get the cued music? And I don’t mean Phase 4/5/6 (most people know where to get that), I mean Phase 2/3. If you don’t have a friend who can send you cued music, one easy way to get it is to snag it off DanceDemos using Audacity. We did a video on how to use Audacity to create a split-channel mp3 file from separate music and cue files in DM/DW, but the same technique can be used to record anything playing on your computer. So, fire up Audacity as shown in the video, start a DanceDemos video, and hit “record”. Whether this falls under the “educational use” part of the “Fair Use” doctrine for copyrighted materials is something you’ll have to decide for yourself. If you’re concerned, you can always buy the music first.

DM/DW, check. Cued music, check. Now what about those darn cue cards?

DanceDemos can help you out there, too. We maintain a “Head Cues Repository” on Google Drive here. Since I tread this path before you, you’ll probably find a lot of what you need in my directory! If not, you’ll likely find it somewhere in there.

My format has evolved over time (as you’ll see if you download any of my older cue cards). My current format uses “~” to indicate a half-measure delay (for Jive/WCS/QS), and separates multiple semicolons with a dash (“;-;-;”). The latter is a nice trick in DM/DW to make it easier to “time” the dance – you just hit the spacebar on beat one of every measure.

Wait, what is “timing” the dance? This is the process in Dance Master / Dance Wizard by which the cue card is linked, figure by figure, to the music. Basically, DM/DW plays the music, and you hit the spacebar to tell it where the measure breaks are, which it them links to the semicolons in the cue card. It is this process that allows you to set bookmarks relative to the cue card, which is crucial teaching tool.

In this process DM/DW looks for something between semicolons as a new figure, so doing “;-;’ allows you to just hit the space bar twice, where as “;;” requires you to hit the spacebar once, then wait until the following measure to hit it again.

Some people use “-” to indicate single-beat delays, so they use “;*;*;” or something similar. It’s an easy search-and-replace in Word.

Speaking of Word, it’s best to keep the cue cards as .rtf format as this seems to work best in DM/DW.

OK, you’ve got our cue card and your cued music, and you’ve loaded them into DM/DW. You’re ready to start practicing. Any sage advice?

First, start easy. Stick to Phase II/III stuff for a while and avoid the split-measure rhythms (Jive, WCS) until you’re comfortable with the easy stuff. But don’t stop when you’ve conquered those. Push yourself. Phase IV/V/VI is a lot harder to cue, and you’ll learn a lot working on it even if you never actually cue that level.

Keeping time… People do it different ways. Many old-timers dance the steps as they cue. Seems hard to me. I nod my head. To the left on beat 1. On 4/4 music, I usually toggle left to right at half the beat frequency (beat 1, beat 3, back to beat 1). Why half the speed? For one thing, I’d look like a bobble-head doll if I counted every beat at Jive speeds. But, it’s mostly because the action is usually happening at one of those two places. On most rhythms, the figures start on beat 1. On Jive and WCS (and Quickstep, and sometimes TwoStep, …), figures split measures and start in the middle of the measure. But rarely does any figure start on beat 2 or beat 4. You might start speaking early or late, but the figures themselves start at beat 1 or beat 3.

On split-measure figures, I use “~” (tilde) to indicate that the figure effectively starts on beat 3. I got a good tip from a cuer about learning this. Try saying “and a” when you see a “~” and it’ll help you get the hang of it.

On Waltz music, it’s left and down, bob, bob for me. Or, left and down, wait. Beat 1 is usually easy to find in Waltz.

So, yeah, I use my head to keep time. Other people tap their toes. Whatever works for you. Experiment.

Detailed cue timing, exactly when you say the cue, is an area of some controversy. A lot of old-timers, particularly if they’ve only ever cued for Phase II/III/IV, will deliver the cue on or around beat 3 – halfway through the measure. Some cuers have even developed the skill of “delivering the timing with the cue” – timing the cue so that, when the dancer hears and acts on it, they’ll be in time with the music.

That all works fine for dancers who are “stepping”. But higher-level dancers are moving faster and “dancing” more – they need the cue earlier and don’t have a problem waiting for the beat. And the cardinal sin of cuing is being late. So, I err on the early side. Unless the cue is very long (try some of those Phase 5 or 6 dances!), I usually cue just a split second after beat 1.

At some point, you’ll need to record and output your cues so you can try out your own cuing. We have a video for that, too! And another video for hacking the cues if you made a mistake!

One small thing to note that isn’t in the video – be sure to set the volume of the music in your headphones to a comfortable level, because you’ll find that you cue louder or softer depending on how loud the music is in your headphones!

What about hardware? Well, technology has moved on there, too. A lot of old-timers lug around enormous Hilton amps (sometimes with turntables!) and separate speakers. Unless you’re cuing at the Royal Albert Hall, this is probably unnecessary. I use a Behringer B108D powered speaker in a 4500 square foot, high-ceiling hall and it’s nowhere near its limit (Behringer at 50%, mixer output at 50%, computer output at 40%).

Some of the other equipment you’ll need you may be able to buy used from a retiring cuer. Here’s what you’ll need:

A Windows laptop. Sorry, I know how loyal Apple users are to Apple. But a lot of Apple users have Windows PCs for work, because their work software only runs on Windows. Guess what? Your work software (Dance Master / Dance Wizard) only runs on Windows! So, you’ll need a Windows laptop to do the job properly.

Just about any Windows laptop will do, though. There doesn’t seem to be any discernible difference in sound quality between high-end and low-end laptops. I currently use a Surface Pro 7 because it’s very lightweight.

You will need something with a USB-A port, though, because the remote control receiver plugs into USB-A. Or a dongle to get you to USB-A.

Remote control. DM/DW both use the same remote control setup. The actual remote control (the little white box you see teachers using at festivals) is an X10 HR12A. The receiver, the part that plugs into the USB-A port on the laptop, is an X10 CM19A.

To my over-60 eyes, the buttons on the HR12A just look like a sea of identical white dots. So, I color-coded my buttons to make them easier to locate without my glasses:

Mixer. This “mixes” the inputs from the PC (left and right channel / music and cues, respectively), plus any microphones you have to produce a “single” output. Actually, two outputs with independent volume controls – one for your amp or powered speaker and one for your hearing assist radio transmitter. To make it even more complicated, most mixers are set up for stereo output – right and left channels are mixed independently. The old Hilton amps actually have stereo inputs – there’s essentially a little 2-to-1 mixer inside the amp.

The Behringer powered speaker, however, has a monaural (single channel) input. Which means one channel of your mixer is essentially useless (unless you put an external 2-to-1 mixer between the main mixer and the powered speaker). Here’s what my standard mixer setup looks like:

From the top left, the first two inputs are special inputs for microphones (microphones have lower level outputs and so need “pre-amps” in the mixer). You may need two inputs – one for a cuing mic and one for a teaching headset mic, as shown here. By the way, the input on the left is the cuing mic – it uses an “XLR” plug. The other one is my wireless headset mics – they use 1/4″ TRS plugs.

The next two are standard inputs. Notice that each of these has a top and a bottom input. The top is labeled “L” and the bottom “R” (Left and Right stereo). Since my output is monaural, I’m only using the R inputs (I could just as well have used just the L inputs).

Also notice that all of the balance knobs (second row of knobs from the bottom) are set to 100% Right – because I’m only using the Right channel.

The laptop is plugged in using a stereo splitter cable like this. The small (1/8″/3.5mm) end plugs into the laptop’s stereo headphone jack and the cable splits this into Left (white band) and Right (red band) 1/4″ plugs that go into the mixer. To make it easy to remember, I plug the Left plug into the left-most of my two inputs and the Right plug into the right-most.

The final two “columns” on the mixer are the outputs. I use the first one (counting from the left) for my Williams T17 Hearing Assist transmitter (this, like the powered speaker, is a monaural device). The final output goes to the Behringer powered speaker. Each has its own volume knob (bottom right in the picture).

I found the Williams hookup tricky. My mixer sends the signal on the Tip of the 1/4″ TRS connector (TRS = Tip Ring Sleeve). The Ring has a balance resistor to ground and Sleeve is ground. So, I used a TRS to RCA Phono Plug splitter cable like this. Tip in this cable goes to the Red connector center pin and ground goes to both shields. So, I plug the TRS connector of this cable into the Ctrl Rm output and the red connector into the Williams unit.

Cuing mic. After talking to a number of experienced cuers, I brought an Electro-Voice ND76S. It has a mute switch right on the mic, which seems useful. I can’t comment on it much as I haven’t really used it a lot. Right now, I rarely cue publicly. I record my cues for use while teaching, and for that I use an inexpensive podcast mic (this one). I made a video of how I record cues in Audacity here.

Headset mic. This I use all the time. I have an inexpensive Fifine K068 dual headset mic setup (no longer sold – similar to this) and it has worked well enough. When I grow up, I want to have one (or two) of those lovely Samson Airline mics, but they’re pretty pricey and the Fifine works well enough for now.

Hearing Assist transmitter. Sooner or later, probably sooner, you’re going to need one of these. This is definitely something you want to buy from a retiring cuer or caller if you can, or even used on Ebay, because they’re shockingly expensive – more than $700 new for the Williams brand that most people use. That’s more (much more) than all my other equipment combined – including the powered speaker. And it’s just a standard FM transmitter that can transmit slightly below the commercial FM band. Similar devices that transmit in the commercial band can be bought for less than $100… Peavy makes a less expensive unit (although $350 is not exactly cheap), but I have no personal experience with it.

1. PC to mixer cable as mentioned earlier. Make sure it’s long enough, based on where you plan to put the devices. As mentioned above, I have this one.
2. Mixer to powered speaker cable. This cable has 2 1/4″ “TRS” connectors. Again, make sure you buy one that’s long enough for you needs. I have this one.
3. Mixer to Williams transmitter. As mentioned above, you need something like this.
4. Microphone cables. These will vary with the mic. Your cuing mic will probably need an XLR cable like this. My headset mic came with the required 1/4″ to 1/4″ cable.

That’s about it. If you’re a new or aspiring cuer, I hope this has helped. Feedback on how to improve this page is much appreciated. Email me at