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Dances, Structure, and Branding

November 27th, 2011
contra, organizing, bida  [html]
People talk about going to a "scout house dance", a "greenfield dance", or a "week at pinewoods". This mostly works, but because it doesn't match up with the underlying organizational structure, it can be confusing. Back when I only danced, I remember showing up after the break at the scout house on a monday night and expecting to get in for $3, which was a thursday policy at the time. I didn't think about how dances were organized; for all I knew, one person ran all of them.

(One word I didn't have before I started organizing is "series" as in "dance series". Dancers would just say they would be at the scout house this thursday, and that was it. But organizers want a word for entities like the thursday dance in the abstract, and the word they use is a "series". The idea is that you have a whole series of dances, generally at a fixed interval. We have about thirteen different active contra dance series in the boston area. [1])

The most common way of organizing is that there is one group that runs the hall and one or more that run dance series there. The scout house, for example, is set up as a nonprofit, and then the monday, thursday, first friday, and fourth saturday dances rent it from them. The different dance series are fully separate, each with their own policies for admission, scheduling, and performer booking. As a boston dancer I know less about how greenfield is organized, but I believe they do the same thing: a grange organization and then multiple series run there by different people. [2]

This conflation of the hall and the series in the dancers minds gives a kind of franchising effect [3], where some people just know "this is a scout house dance" and they don't think about how this particular series might have different goals or approaches. This means that all the scout house dances have a fireplace set when they get up to two sets [4], and this would be very hard for any series to change.

One potential way around this would be branding. With the bida dance we take this to a bit of an extreme: we're not the "third sunday dance" [5], the "cambridge dance", or or the "porter square dance", we're the "bida dance" and everything says "bida". I used to think this was silly and it was too much, but I now think that what bida is trying to do is different enough that we need a strong brand.

Another response is to simply accept it: organizers are always going to care more about dance structure, and does it really matter if the dancers and organizers think of it the same way?


[1] This sort of set up makes it hard as a musician looking for dances to play. I know there are various dances at the grange, but I don't know which ones bring in outside bands or which people to talk to. This is part of why bida has a description of our performer booking process on our website.

[2] From memory, in no particular order: mit, thursday, monday, fourth saturday, summer saturdays, jp, bida, first fridays, roaring jelly, melrose, davis (ish), the scout house family dance, and the carslile family dance.

[3] It's actually more like a pizza-and-subs model than a franchise model. If you walk into any independent pizza shop, at least in new england, you'll find the same menu, same food, same prices, same service, possibly even the same furniture. They aren't part of a franchise that tells them what they have to do to be a pizza place, but they get most of the same benefits in a less organized way. Contra dancing in general also gets similar benefits from there being lots of different dances all over the country organized along the same lines. I can be visiting relatives in tennesee and go to the knoxville dance, and the experience is similar to what I've enjoyed in philly and boston.

[4] The dancers self segregate primarily by age, with the younger dancers mostly wanting to dance in the set on the right, next to the fireplace. When there are a lot of younger dancers, this set can have twice as many dancers as the center set. Back when I was going to the scout house three times a week I liked this division because it meant I could dance with my friends all night. Now that I dance a few times a month and am into organizing and calling I think this is a bad thing for a dance and I work (with the rest of the bida organizers) to keep any of our sets from developing a distinctive character.

[5] Potentially the "first and third sunday dance" starting in the spring.

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