Tips for organizing dances

What is traditional square dancing? In my opinion, traditional square dancing is a true folk dance. By that I mean that anybody should be able to do it, regardless of prior experience, and without having to take any lessons or classes. That’s because the moves are simple and there is a caller who tells you what to do.

Traditional square dancing always includes live music. The most common instruments are fiddle, banjo, guitar and bass, but others show up from time to time.

And while back in the day dances might have been held in small halls or houses, today they are almost always in large enough spaces where a sound system is necessary — especially for the caller! So the three basic requirements for a square dance are a caller, a band and a sound system/sound tech.

Those are the basics. Here is some more advice if you’re thinking of organizing a square dance, either a one-time event or a regularly occurring one:

Form a team. Organizing a dance or any other event is a lot of work. Get enough people on board so it’s more fun and no one has to do everything. Try to have a variety of skills represented — communications, web, logistics, sound techs, etc. Ideally your team will include callers and musicians and/or will have good connections with local musicians and callers.

Start small and have realistic expectations. You can’t make a big square dance (or anything else) out of nothing. So start with a fun event for a small number of people, and they will tell their friends and your next one will be bigger. Before we had our first big DC Square Dance at Saint Stephen’s, we had organized a dozen or more smaller dances around town. These events exposed hundreds of people in and around DC to square dancing as something fun and accessible, and many of these same people showed up to our first big dance.

Make it accessible and low risk for new dancers. I believe there are two types of dancers: those who are obsessed with some form of dancing and who will go far out of their way and spend a lot of money to do it, and everyone else. As an example of the former, a large and dedicated group of people drive out to the DC suburbs on Friday and Sunday evenings and support two large weekly contra dances.

Traditional square dances, in my experience, are mostly going to attract the second type of dancer. So you need to make it easy and inviting for them. Our dance is a 10-minute walk from a Metro station in one of the most densely populated parts of DC, and it costs $5, which is a price that I think deters almost no one. As a result, people who have never square danced and are uncertain if they actually want to do it can try it without risking much money or even their entire evening.

Make it friendly. At too many dances, it’s easy to feel inexpert or inadequate. In my opinion that should never happen at a traditional square dance. We emphasize to our callers that they should call simple, beginner-friendly dances throughout the evening and do lots of demonstrations.

Be a good community member. Unless you own your own dance hall, you will need to work with existing institutions and venues. As an example, we have great relationships with the Folklore Society of Greater Washington and, most importantly, with our venue, Saint Stephen’s Church. FSGW provides crucial event insurance and a sound system, and in return we give them a modest portion of the proceeds. The church rents us their space for an incredibly reasonable rate and lets us move their chairs around and have a big party the night before Sunday services. In return we are ridiculously fastidious about returning the church to the exact state it was in before the dance. We have also held fundraiser dances for the church.

Hire musicians, callers and sound techs who are good fits for your event. Different musicians and callers have different strengths and weaknesses. If you want to organize a dance for a crowd that includes beginners, you will need a caller who knows simple dances and can teach them efficiently, ideally with a sense of humor. I find that bands that can play up-tempo, driving fiddle tunes work best for a square dance. And try to find a sound tech who has some experience doing sound for dances, which is quite different from doing sound for concerts.

Pay your talent. Yes, musicians and callers love what they do and probably sometimes do it for free. But in asking them to play or call your dance, you are also asking them to give up their evenings, drive to your venue, do a sound check and prepare a set. They should be compensated for all this time, as well as for the expertise they have probably spent hundreds or thousands of hours developing, and in the case of musicians, the cost of buying and maintaining instruments.

How much you’re able to pay depends of course on a lot of factors, including where your dance is, how much your venue costs, attendance, etc. But do the best you can. If you pay well, musicians and callers will tell their friends, which will make it much easier for you to book future dances!

You should of course also pay your sound techs; they probably work the hardest of anyone.

A more complex issue is whether organizers should also be paid. My opinion is that organizing a dance (or anything else) requires a diverse and valuable skill set and should, in principle, be compensated. But in reality it seems that most dances, including ours, are volunteer run. I guess some things you just got to do out of love.

Social networks and word-of-mouth are your friends. Nearly everyone who comes to our dance for the first time heard about it through a friend, either in person or via the Internet. We have done very little “traditional” media advertising.

The point is to have fun. If your goal is to “preserve a tradition” or anything like that, you are not likely to create a sustainable event. Very few people will do something traditional just to keep it alive. You have to make dancing — or whatever you’re doing — current, relevant and, most of all, fun. 95% of the people who come to the DC Square Dance don’t care if they’re doing traditional dances or dances that were written yesterday. They are there because it’s cheap, accessible and the best party in town.

If you want to discuss any of these things more, send me an email.