Hot Dances

Adapted from a letter (1999) to a dance organizer in another community; his organizing committee was hotly debating what sort of dance should be encouraged

What is the vision of the series?

Let me add right away that this isn't just my question—it's the one that was put forward by Larry Jennings over several decades. (In fact, I think that pushing this question was one of Larry's most important contributions to the dance world; he obviously made it part of my consciousness.

Some of the answers to the vision thing may come as you and your committee discuss whether your aim is to build a community dance or a so-called dance community.

(Again, this distinction isn't new with me; it comes, in part, from reading posts and from talking with others.) When I started dancing, in early 1970s in rural New England, contra dancing was a subset of other community activities, and in particular, a subset of the folk music scene. In recent years, contra dancing has changed in many locations to becoming a specialized subset of the dance scene. At our local dance, we've been working to try to reverse that trend, to make the dance a place where people of many experience and interest levels can get together for a pleasant evening together.

Our monthly dance attracts people ranging from young children through seniors—we offer free admission for under 16 and over 60; indeed, the average age of the dancers on the floor is dropping in recent years. Our dance is run by the caller and the musicians in the band; there is no other committee, no other booking involved. Yes, there is one other dance in the immediate area each month, run by another band, and hard-core dancers go to Montpelier or Greenfield, each an hour or so away. We've made some decisions over the years that have certainly caused us to lose dancers; one zesty dancer told me that he no longer came to my dance because I picked dances at the start of the evening that were too easy, that I "catered to the beginners." By the time we got to the "good" dances, he said, nearly half of the evening was gone. (For the logical extension of this view, take a look at this animation by Noah Van Norstrand; be patient, because it takes a while to load, but it's worth the wait.)

On the other hand, other experienced dancers have told me that they come to our dance precisely because the first dances are simpler; this way, the beginners meet with more success and they, the experienced dancers, can have fun just dancing, not having to help folks through dances that are too hard for them. So... you make a decision and live with the consequences.

One summer long ago, I was fortunate to call some dances on Martha's Vineyard during the island's big agricultural fair, which included a fiddle contest. There were three youth divisions, each attracting eight or ten contestants, and of those, it seemed that about half of them came from one town on the island, West Tisbury. I was struck that kids who grow up in that area learn that fiddling is a perfectly acceptable thing to do, that there are plenty of peers who share that funny interest in odd tunes. Upon my return, I decided that one thing we could do locally is to do a better job of developing our youngest generation. So at one family dance I called, we circulated a month in advance the music for several simple reels and jigs and invited student musicians to sit in with the band. Similarly, our band welcomes sit-in musicians; we'v created a set of guidelines for such folks to make it work better. And two dances that fall, I was able to spotlight young dancers (11 or 12)—each of whom had been dancing for many years and could more than hold their own with most adult dancers—in their calling debut. Did they call challenging, complex dances? No. Did they do the most efficient job of teaching the dance? No. Did the crowd resent having them at the mic? No. Did this send a message about the sort of event we want this to be? You betcha. Will this help us keep the dance going in the long run? I hope so.

My wife and I take in several dance weekends each year, or on rare occasion go off to a week-long camp. These give us an opportunity to dance with, for the most part, more experienced dancers and also to do more complex dances. Such events are fun and we look forward to them; indeed, some of them are fixed points on our social calendar. I publicize such events and certainly encourage local dancers to take in special events, including encouraging some to apply for scholarships to dance camps. Indeed, I organize such a special "Hot Dance on a Cold Night" once every couple of years; in addition to giving me a chance to call some different material for my local crowd, I think of it as a way to reward local experienced dancers who would like a special evening with more challenging material and less basic instruction.

But doing such things more often (one person proposed that one out of four nights should be aimed at experienced dancers) is counterproductive. (Or put another way, I'm not willing to invest the energy to make it happen; if others want that sort of event with that kind of frequency, let them organize it. Perhaps one simple suggestion to your dancers who are raising complaints is to encourage them to organize another series and then meet with them to share your committee's checklists about how to organize a successful evening.) With frequent opportunities for these kind of dances, the most experienced dancers start to gravitate to the hot dances and skip the regular dances, which means than beginners have no role models. Granted, there are some behaviors that would be nice not to have modeled <grin>, but it is good for newcomers to have a partner or neighbor who knows how to swing so that they can learn what it's supposed to feel like.

Ultimately, you and your fellow committee members have to look at your dance scene and decide where you fit into that picture and where you want to position yourselves. Are you happy with the way your dances are developing? Are you able to attract new dancers or do you see one cohort aging gracefully together? (That can be okay, as long as you agree that this is what you want to see happen.)

We tend to focus on the dancers and the bands and the callers. One other key part of the equation is the organizers, those people who do the hard work to make it possible for those first three groups to have fun together. Order in some pizza and have a great series of discussions as you and your fellow committee members hash out these many issues.


David Millstone, Dance Caller

Lebanon, NH


Email David