Booking ahead at contras

May 6th, 2012
Standard partnering at contra dances is to ask someone to dance between dances. One dance ends, people mill around partnering up, then they line up and you do another dance. An alternative is to ask someone else to dance during the previous dance. This is booking ahead, or just 'booking'.

Some places, like the Concord Scout House or the Grange in Greenfield, tend to have a lot of booking while others like BIDA or Fourth Saturdays in Cambridge have very little. Whether people book becomes part of the culture of a dance series.

Back when I danced three nights a week I used to book a lot. My friends and I would pretty much only dance with each other, not as a policy but as an effect of booking. I would often have most of the rest of the night booked by the fifth dance or so. [1] This made for a really strong feeling of community, where there were people I danced with nearly every night all summer. It also made us really insular: we danced very little with older dancers or newcomers. [2] Our community wasn't the Concord dance as a whole so much as our group of friends who incidentally danced among a larger Concord contra community.

I college, after a conversation with Jenny Beer, I stopped booking. While booking was letting me dance with dance with only the most fun other dancers and spend the whole evening with friends, this isn't actually very good for the broader community. I also thought about the first few times I went to Greenfield how I didn't have much fun because everyone else was booking ahead and I was used to only booking with friends so asking strangers to book during a dance felt too weird. I had sat out a lot.

Starting to not book was hard. People would try to book with me and I'd say "I'm sorry, I don't book ahead anymore". Which was often really not fun: these were people I especially wanted to dance with. I did start dancing with a wider range of people, which I enjoy, and my connection to the dance community has broadened, but I do miss feeling part of the smaller community-with-a-community of young dancers at the Scout House. Which isn't all from not booking: people went off to college, stopped dancing, and moved away. The composition of the dance changed.

At BIDA there's a culture of not booking. The dance was started in part as a response to some aspects of Concord, trying to be welcoming and open. We don't have different sets with different personalities, we're good about including new people, and there's very little booking. In all, I like it a lot. It can be frustrating, however, when I have a good friend come to the dance and I want to dance with them, but they're popular and I can't manage to make eye contact with them before they're partnered with someone else. I've backed off from not booking slightly in that I'll now book a dance with my wife, and I'm wondering if I should back off more, to occasional booking.

If some booking makes me enjoy dancing more and so go more, is that good enough to outweigh the harm of booking? I'm inclined to think a dancer who is present and booking is better than no dancer. Unless you're overcrowded.

I'm not sure how I would start doing occasional booking. It might be enough to not initiate any booking but accept it from other people? That doesn't work if both me and my friend don't usually book. And if I'm trying to do very little booking, what do I do if I start getting a lot of requests to book? "I'm sorry, I've been booking too much tonight"? "I'm sorry, I try not to book"? There's also the value of not booking as setting an example; most people who ask me to book are probably people who do too much of it, and so by saying "I don't book" I might be discouraging it and so helping make the dance a more welcoming place.

Do you book? Should I book? Is some booking ok?

Update 2012-05-08: Followup post: booking and gender imbalance.

[1] Some people say one thing they like about not booking is that they don't have to remember a big list of future dance partners. I think this is silly: for most people, if you start doing it a lot you'll get good at it. It does take working up to it to remember things like "Heather, Ayla, free, Alice, free, Rosie", though. And when someone asks you "next dance?" saying "not the next two, but the one after that?" is a lot to communicate during a short swing. But you can always say "that's too far ahead" to a request to book unreasonably far in advance.

[2] If someone brought a new dancer friend they would go around asking other friends to dance with them.

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