Beantown Stomp Retrospective

March 25th, 2019
beantownstomp, contra
In April of last year I started thinking about maybe organizing some sort of contra dance weekend in Boston. I've been to a lot of weekends playing with the Free Raisins and I thought it would be fun to bring this format to Boston. In early May I talked to Amy and Audrey, wrote up a description of what I was thinking, and started pitching it to JP and BIDA.

Dates were still up in the air, but looking for times when the Masonic Hall, Amy, and Audrey were all available, and avoiding conflicts with other events, the weekend of March 22nd looked best. I signed a contract with the hall and confirmed with Amy and Audrey in early June, and then sent out a progress report. This started a long process of getting feedback from people on specifics of the weekend, trying to make sure I was thinking about all the things people like and don't like in a weekend.

By late June I had booked most of the performers, with offers out to most of the others, and BIDA and JP Gender Free agreed to co-sponsor. I told both organizations that if there was a loss from the weekend that I would cover it—the idea being that if I'm the one risking the loss then I can make financial decisions without needing to convince two boards that they're fiscally prudent. I drafted a website and a registration form, and started sending them around for feedback.

In late July I sent out the following email:

We now have most of the weekend firmed up:

* Callers: Nils Fredland, Angela DeCarlis,
  Dereck Kalish, Shari Shakti, one caller TBD
* Bands: The Free Raisins, Polaris,
  Chimney Swift, Open Band, one band TBD
* Sound: Dereck Kalish
* Hall: Masonic Hall booked
* License: approved by the city
* Website: will be built out more, but is ready for consumption:
* Registration form: ready:

I'm planning to hold off on booking the last band and caller until
much closer to the time (~2-3 months out) in case people become ready.

I didn't actually end up booking an additional band or caller: there weren't people who I wanted to add closer to the time, and I thought three bands and four callers was enough.

I asked for naming suggestions and my memory is that Luke Donforth suggested Beantown Stomp. I registered the domain, and moved over the draft website.

We opened registration at the beginning of September, with a Facebook event, flyer, mailing list post and announcements at the first BIDA and JP dances of September.

Registrations trickled in, and by late January I was kind of worried. I posted:

Two months out and Beantown Stomp is ~60% full. I've been told this is a pretty normal sort of chart for anything like this, and that a lot of people tend to register closer to the time, but it would definitely make me more relaxed if people made up their minds and registered!
I started pushing it harder, getting our flyers distributed, writing to people who had RSVP'd on FB but not registered, and announcing it at more BIDAs. A month later we were pretty much full and a few days later I started putting people on the wait list. We ended up having ~50 registrations after opening the wait list, and because of people needing to back out or only coming for part of the time we were able to get pretty much everyone in.

(There were many people who would have registered but didn't want to join a wait list, so while this kind of sounds like "nearly everyone who wanted to come got to" that's not really what it means.)

After it became clear that we weren't going to lose money, I asked the Masons about renting an upstairs room for a few hours for workshops. We ended up with Nils leading a harmony singing workshop, and the Free Raisins leading a musicians workshop.

About a month before the weekend I learned we wouldn't be able to open the windows along the side of the hall because the neighbors were unhappy with the noise from Masonic Hall events. I was very worried about this, and concerned we would need to cancel, but a combination of opening the side door and a really big fan worked very well to keep the hall pleasant.

Overall I wasn't really wanting to delegate for this first time, because I wanted to make sure the first time went really well and really matched what I was imagining. Two of the biggest chunks I was able to delegate, though, were food to Persis and housing/transport to Sarah. They were both fabulous in taking these on fully and keeping me from having to think about them at all. Having people I trusted to just take the roles and run with it was critical, and was enormously helpful.

Money worked out pretty well, at about $15,670 or $85/person. We made some money, half of which goes to JP and BIDA (~$1,130 each) and the rest was divided evenly among callers, musicians, sound, and childcare. The numbers below are totals, and include profit sharing (PS).

  • Performers: $4,940 ($1,631 PS)
  • Hall: $2,864
  • Snacks and supplies: $1,161
  • Sound: $1,016 ($116 PS)
  • Flights: $1000
  • Childcare: $832 ($233 PS)
  • Performer food: $750
  • Barrel fan, with extension cord: $434
  • Entertainment license: $150
  • Buttons, with optional magnets: $123
  • Insurance: $100
  • Shelving, borrowed from NESFA: $50
  • Total: $13,420

We had 42 people fill out our survey. For the questions where people rated things on a scale of 1 to 5, we saw:

  • How was the weekend overall? 4.8

  • How was the music? 4.8

  • How was the calling? 4.7

  • How was the hall? 4.5

  • How was the food? 4.9

  • How was sound? 4.8

Here are some things I've learned:

  • I dramatically underestimated our capacity, and we could have let in a lot more people. I targeted 200 people for each session (15 performers and 185 dancers) and we ended up right at 200. I was being conservative, because while the hall is big it can be difficult to ventilate and I wasn't sure how heat and humidity would build up with all-day dancing. I also overestimated what fraction of full-weekend attendees would come for the morning sessions. Knowing what I know now, I would target 250 registered for Saturday night, 265 for Friday night and Sunday, and 300 for Saturday and Sunday morning. I would probably not limit the first ~1.5hr on Saturday and Sunday at all.

  • Registration is a ton of work, especially following up with people about payments. I wrote up how I handled it, and I'm interested if people have a better way. The key thing is that I want us to read everyone's submission before asking for payment, and that alone is much of the work.

  • Enough people said they could only come if they could get a volunteer spot that we drew nearly all our general volunteers from this category. The exception being specialized volunteers, like people I trusted to do a ton of work on their own (Persis, Sarah) and our Safety Reps and Hall Managers who need to be trained.

  • We did mostly self-service sign-in: one volunteer to help out at the table during the peak Friday arrival, and then people checking themselves off when they arrived. Not needing to staff a table all weekend was really nice, but it did mean someone could come in and dance without paying. I did need to ask one person to leave who hadn't registered, and it's possible that there were people I didn't recognize who also slipped in.

    One option here would be to pre-print buttons. We'd need to add a line to our registration asking what you wanted your button to say. The buttons I ordered for this time were all identical; I don't know what a good way to get individualized buttons is. I should ask other organizers.

  • We weren't the only people using the hall that weekend: one of the doors downstairs that I had thought was a closet was actually an office. I initially had set up chairs in front of the door, and moved them once the other tenant complained. We then had several rounds of not doing a good enough job keeping that doorway clear, with progressively more forceful signs about "don't put your stuff here".

  • We marked out an area in the hallway right outside the dance hall for kids, and hired two people for childcare. Before the weekend I reached out to the people who said they were bringing kids to ask them details and figure out times. One time had significantly more kids than the others, and I scheduled a volunteer to help out during that slot.

    One thing I hadn't realized was how helpful it was just to have a designated space for kids, with toys and books. Even in cases where a parent ended up mostly staying with their kids having a welcoming space was good. If a dance weekend doesn't feel like they could offer childcare, one thing to consider would be preparing a space where parents can comfortably hang out with their kids.

    The main downside of the space we were in was that this was just a section of hallway. We used chairs to mark off the boundaries of the space, which wasn't ideal because one kid kept trying to scoot off. On the other hand, I think more permanent-seeming barriers might not have been ok with the venue?

    One of the parents wrote in the survey:

    I came to this weekend because it had free childcare. If it hadn't, I don't think I would have even thought about going. It was one of the best experiences of the last 6 months, at least, to be able to actually dance with my partner a lot and remind ourselves why we like each other so much. Not even to mention hanging out with other friends etc. and watching our friends be excited to see our kid.
  • The hall has attachment hooks for stringing things across, and they told me the hooks are lagged into the studs. We could string lights across the room. I'd want to try this out in advance at an earlier dance, so we had time to play with it.

  • People were really good at stepping up and helping out when it was needed, making up for places where we hadn't realized we needed to plan volunteers for. We could have used ~2 more setup volunteers, and ~3 more strike ones.

  • I gave each of the performers $50 in cash for food for the weekend as a per diem instead of trying to reimburse actual payments. Similarly, after looking at typical flight costs I gave each of our performers flying from the West Coast a flat $500 for travel. This aligns incentives much better, and lets people make their own tradeoffs about convenience vs cost.

  • Giving each performer $50 for food does add up. Next time we might want to consider making food for performers. Not sure.

  • We could potentially make snacks even more substantial, like providing full breakfast on Sunday morning.

  • I noticed even more role freedom than usual, and lots of people commented on how much they liked that people were happily dancing both roles. One of my favorite comments from the survey was:

    I started dancing at BIDA when you were calling Gents/Ladies. I never thought much of it and thought that I was egalitarian enough that I could dance as a Lady just as much as I could dance as a Gent (I present as Male). But honestly, I did not really try to learn the Ladies role until you changed the naming. No matter how open minded I thought I was, I think the discordance between words I use to refer to myself and the words used to explain the dance discouraged me from switching roles. Starting when you changed to Larks/Ravens, I started trying out Raven and discovered that I love it and love switching up roles. Thank you. I think changing the naming helped me to appreciate Contra more than I would have otherwise.

    Much of the discussion around switching to Larks/Ravens focuses on the disproportinate need for the terms by trans, non-binary, and queer dancers (and this makes a lot of sense!) but sometimes this misses just how much better Larks/Ravens can be whoever you are.

  • Since we sold out, next time I think we should probably do a lottery. Something like have the registration form open for a week about four months out. If there are too many people then others go on the waiting list.

  • I tried to send a "welcome and here's what to expect" email out a week before the event, but it turns out that if you send an email to several hundred people as BCC nearly all of them bounce. I'm not sure what the right way to do this is.

I'm thinking we should probably do another one next year. I've reached out to the hall, and the weekends of 2020-03-14 and 2020-03-21 are available. Anyone know of conflicts?

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