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Organizing Dance Weekends

Here is an email that was received by the organizers of a dance weekend on the Thursday before the weekend began.

"As a regular (name of city) contra dancer, I am disappointed that the (name of dance weekend) so clearly discourages part-time participants. No where (sic) does it say ‘come for all or part of the time’. No where does it tell us what the cost might be for one night of dancing.

I am not able to afford $75 for one weekend of fun. And I cannot afford to leave my children and my job (which is heavy on Sundays) for a whole weekend. I’m sure there are others like myself. I’m sorry that I don’t even feel inclined to come for one evening (if it is, in fact, ‘allowed’) because I don’t feel welcomed."

What a downer! They received this note two days before the weekend began. They had no idea how to reply to this person. In part they knew that they had erred -- they should have made it clearer that part time attendance was permitted -- but the whole issue is far more complicated than this disgruntled dancer can begin to imagine.

Organizing a dance weekend is extremely complicated. One must hire a band and callers, and the cost can be quite high. In order to cover costs one needs as many full time attendees as possible. To have people "cherry pick" the weekend could be disastrous. They can choose to come to only a few events and the financial loss could be enormous. In addition, if people do not sign up beforehand there is no way to maintain a rough gender balance -- if the organizers wish to maintain a gender balance.

To prominently place the following on a website is counterproductive and could be disastrous: "come for all or part of the time."

The letter writer had no idea what such dance weekends entail. In some cases, especially dance weekends that are "on site," residential weekends, no one is allowed in for only a part of the weekend: you sign up for all of it or you can attend none of it. I’ve run week long dance camps where people showed up late or left early. There is no discount. You either pay full price or you can’t come to any of it.

Even if the weekend is not residential, not limited to those who signed up for the whole weekend, you want to discourage part-time attendance, and you do that by creating a pricing scheme that makes it considerably more expensive to attend only a percentage of the events. That means you often end up charging a ridiculously high amount for an evening dance ($20) or for an hour long daytime workshop. You need to do that because you want full time attendees. You have costs to cover and in addition you want to foster a sense of a community amongst the dancers who attend. You don’t really want a bunch of people who flit in & out and perhaps come to one event all weekend.

The person who wrote the letter has no idea of all the planning that goes into creating a dance weekend. He (in this case a she) thinks that they have a right to attend a dance that is "local" & that they are being discriminated against. No, discrimination is not at work here, enlightened self interest is at work. We want to have fun; we want others to have fun. But in order for all this to work one needs cooperation, not snipers on the side who complain, accuse, make feel people feel bad, send emails at the very last minute.

In actuality, she made a good point: it should be clearer, on the web site, that part time attendance is allowed, and that the price for a workshop is X, the price for an evening dance is Y. But the tone of her missive is all wrong. Yes, changes need to be made, but if you think the process is incorrect, your duty is to become a part of the process. (They thought of telling her that she should be a part of the committee next year, but perhaps they don’t want such a negative person to be on the committee that organizes the weekend).

All this illustrates how little the average dancer knows about how difficult, how time consuming, organizing dances, organizing dance weekends or dance weeks is. The headaches are massive. You need to choose good bands & good callers, and you need to do that as much as a full year or more in advance of the event. You need to choose a venue that is pleasing, not too expensive, and one that will accommodate the number you hope will attend, without choosing a venue that is so large that the dancers are dwarfed.

A flyer advertising the event needs to be designed. You need to decide what information needs to be in the flyer. Should some semblance of a schedule be on the flyer or should the schedule (which is always being changed at the last minute) be left off the flyer?

You need to think about gender balance. You need to decide what is a reasonable price for the whole weekend and, if applicable, what is a reasonable price for single events. You need to find friendly local folks who will host out of town dancers who wish to attend, but cannot afford the entrance fee plus several nights at a motel. You need to think about food & drinks for the dancers on Friday night, Saturday day & night & Sunday.

You need to pick up & drop off performers who are often flying in from out of town. You need to create a dance schedule that will not overwork the performers but a schedule that will give the attendees who came specifically for these "out-of-town-stars" enough exposure to these star performers. You need to make sure you are not antagonizing the local bands who might want exposure at such a prestigious event that draws people from far away.

I could go on & on. As I talk to the organizers (we are staying with one of them on the weekend in question) I begin to see how much needs to be done. It is the Friday before the weekend begins & phone calls are pouring in. Can the organizer recommend a local motel? Yes, there is a list of motels, with approximate prices, on the website. What about restaurants? Yes, there is also a list of restaurants on the web site.

The band phones. They have some questions. Another of the organizers phones about meeting at the hall, setting up the equipment, decorating the hall. The refreshments committee is wondering what time the hall will be available for them.

Somebody phones & wants to know why, this year, the event is at a new, never-used-before site. Well, about four months before the weekend in question the original site, chosen a full year in advance, was no longer available: a brief note let the organizers know that they were no longer welcome. They were told that the dance group might overwhelm the site. A frantic two months followed as everyone searched for a new and pleasing site for an already scheduled event. Does the sniping lady know how many hours of worry & frantic searching she was not a part of? Of course she doesn’t.

She cannot begin to know (she did not even try) the various strands that go into organizing a dance weekend, much less a whole dance week. Almost all organizers swear they will never do it again, and some never do. About a week before the event many of the organizers are so sick of the piddling details, and the snipping bystanders, that they almost wish the whole thing would just go away, not happen. As one organizer said, "I have seen my share of headaches and have felt overwhelmed so much so that when the dance weekend finally arrived, I was not able to enjoy myself."

It takes weeks after the event before one begins to think of doing it again, and one wonders why they are ever going to do it again. People do do it again, but that is in part because no one else volunteers to organize the weekend, and partly because the weekend, once it starts, is fun, not only for them, but for all the others who attended. And, finally, some people do realize how hard the job of the organizers was, and they heap praise on the organizers for providing so much fun for so many people.

P.S. Penn Fix has a wonderful little essay on dance weekends in his book "Contra Dancing in the Northwest".

Copyright 2003   Henry Morgenstein

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