Bands And Low-stakes Dances

December 4th, 2023
contra, music
When I got started playing for contra dances in the Boston area there were several area dances you could consider "low stakes". Small dances, couldn't pay very much, less enthusiasm from established bands. And so they were relatively willing to book bands that were starting out and friendly, encouraging, and tolerant of the mistakes of inexperience.

I think this was a big part of why so many solid bands and dance musicians have come out of this area: no requirement that you be good enough to hold your own at a "big" dance to start getting experience playing for dancing as a band. For example, looking back at my calendar, the Free Raisins played eighteen different evenings before we played our first "big" one (Concord Friday).

Unfortunately this is much less of a thing than it used to be. Several closed pre-pandemic (I miss the MIT contra dance so much!) and others haven't come back (yet?) or have switched to house bands. There's the BIDA open band and (even lower stakes) family dance band, but while I think this kind of experience is also valuable there's a different kind of learning that comes from playing in a small group, playing sets you've worked up, and being fully responsible for the music.

I don't have a great solution here: it's hard to start something intentionally low-stakes and people generally would prefer to run the kind of event that lots of people want to attend and has great music. But I do think the environment of the early 2010s with many opportunities for new bands to learn to be dance bands was pretty special, and I'd love it if we could bring back something similar, or at least something with similar effects.

(This same dynamic exists even more strongly for "techno contra": the only opportunities to play are major special events, even more high-profile! But I also am less invested in the success of this dance form, so this bothers me less.)

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