As a member of a Country Dance and Song Committee focusing on leadership issues, Cathie Whitesides organized an ad hoc committee which put on Let's Dance Weekend in the winter of 1996. This weekend was specifically devoted to callers, musicians, dance organizers, and dancers, with the goal of enabling people to organize or facilitate their own community dances. "We had just a few precedents for models for such an event," Cathie said, "worked ourselves feverishly, and were pretty well stunned when it all came off."
The Let's Dance weekend took place January 19, 20, 21, 1996 in Seattle, Washington. It was organized by a committee formed from the Seattle dance community and Wannadance (a Seattle dance organization) specifically to try this weekend, a first in the Northwest, and a one-time event. The weekend was billed as a weekend festival for community dance callers, musicians, organizers and dancers. It was co-sponsored by Wannadance and the Country Dance and Song Society. We received a grant from the Washington State Arts Commission, and a grant from the May Gadd Committee contingent on need, which we did not use. Serving on the committee were Laurie Andres, Warren Argo, Luther Black, Sandy Bradley, Julie King, Tony Mates, Mike Richardson and myself.
Drawing on documentation from a Michigan Leadership Conference and also considering the Northwest community and our own hopes for its future, we came up with an in-town weekend with Friday and Saturday night dances open to the public and a Sunday afternoon dance open only to participants. Our hope was to attract folks from rural areas and nearby towns as well as the in-town crowd. We decided to concentrate on contras and squares to focus this weekend on the most-practiced and longest-standing country dance forms in the Northwest.
Some of our goals were easier to define than others. Unanimous was the desire to encourage contra and square dance as inclusive, social, community-based events. Most committee members felt clear about a weekend offering classes on contra and square-dance calling, southern and northern bands, how to do sound, how to call family dances, weddings and parties, how callers and musicians work together, how to program an evening, and how to start and sustain your own dance, and we felt we could identify our audience and reach them. Drawing from a wide geographical area was important, since we wanted people to be able to go home and start their own dance, or assist a start-up venture. Included was a strong social dance component, to give some fun time together, give practice opportunities for musicians and callers, and to help boost attendance and support financially the smaller leadership classes. We also discussed perceived problems such as a lack of courtesy on the dance floor, and conflicts in dance today, and wanted to try and address these in a positive way.
Another goal in our planning was to present some history of social country dancing in the Northwest, and we devised an hour-long lunchtime discussion for this. An additional hope expressed in our committee was the idea of extending social contra and square dance to people who don't already know about it. In this area we struggled to define how to reach and include newcomers and did extra publicity beyond the regular Wannadance mailing for weekends. Sandy Bradley included us in her radio show mailing, we did public radio and newspaper press releases, and several hundred flyers. We also wondered what would happen if 50 or so people who had never seen country dancing before showed up. Which parts of our program would really include them? We settled on some compromises which worked out pretty well.
We hired Brad Foster and Larry Edelman to call and teach calling classes. We used local bands including Greg Canote, Jere Canote, David Cahn, Bill Meyer, Laurie Andres, Cathie Whitesides, John Culhane, Julie King, and Tony Mates. We asked Sherry Nevins, Stuart Williams, Sandy Bradley, and Warren Argo to lead a discussion on the history of social country dance in the Northwest. Warren also led a sound workshop. Marian Rose led a workshop on community family dance, and Sherry led one on how to call parties, weddings and one-nighters. Sandy Bradley and Warren Argo talked about starting and sustaining your own dance. Laurie Andres, Mike Richardson, and Jere Canote led a workshop on how musicians and callers work together. Greg and Jere Canote led two Southern band classes, and Laurie and Cathie led two Northern band classes. Tunes for the Northern band class were mailed out to interested participants when they registered, so that workshop time could be used to work on how to play for dances, phrasing, back-up techniques and history of dance music. All band participants were included with staff for the Saturday night dance bands. Caller class participants with Brad and Larry called the Saturday night dance. Callers could receive feedback Sunday from Brad or Larry if they requested it.
We planned an hour-long lunchtime discussion. Camper interest was nearly unanimous. Each of these speakers had their recollections on the state of dance when they got started, and how they did get started. Stuart included information about the wealth of fiddling in the Northwest. One motif participants heard repeatedly in varied forms was that each of these creators began with some ideas of their own about what would be fun, consulted their local context and some tradition and outside sources, and proceeded with the sense of an inspired cook. The time we allowed for this discussion was too short. Another good historical idea we did not implement was inviting Northwest organizers and callers from Alaska, Canada, eastern Washington, etc. to have a session sharing their own experiences and successes. We couldn't agree on out how to include these people, pay for it, and make time for it.
Larry Edelman piloted his "'Dancing in the Twilight Zone' -- dance essentials and courtesies with a virtual visit by mysterious dancers from somewhere else." Larry created, wrote up and handed each participant a slip of paper describing a style of behavior to be acted out (such as being considerate and making sure everyone around you is having as much fun as you are, skipping, confusing right and left; trouble listening to caller, asking questions while caller is talking and then starting figures late; making goo-goo eyes at everyone; giving a lot of weight and acting offended if others ask for less; booking ahead; twirling everyone whether they seem willing or not; turning down an invitation to dance and then dancing with someone else and so forth. Each of these little sheets of instruction ended with "and. . . for the second dance, run to get a place at the top of the center contra line." The band and caller also exhibited some attitudes. All were advised to not really offend or hurt anyone. Then Larry called some dances, and led a discussion. It was valuable and highly productive of reflection. Those lucky to attend smiled all day-it would have been great as a whole-camp introductory activity.
Committee and staff got excited and generated a rich stew of ideas on what makes a dance work in a community and how to make dancing accessible and fun for everyone at all ages and levels of experience. These ideas were worked out independently all day in the classes offered on specifics. We also had an afternoon contra dance and a square dance for all. We particularly advertised the evening dances to be friendly to newcomers and fun for old-timers-the ideal way to get started dancing. I think everyone was astonished at the end of the weekend to realize that from our each working independently on these issues we had a weekend that affirmed country dance as inclusive, community-based and vigorously alive. I think we also realized that a weekend designed to bring country dancing to the uninitiated public might be a different kind of event than this one.
The 91 full and part-time participants came from a wide geographical area. In summary 27 were from Seattle, 34 from Washington outside Seattle, 18 from Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Utah and California, 4 from Alaska, and 8 from Canada. We sold 84 weekend packages but had five cancellations. The weekend options included whole weekend packages ($75/$70 CDSS) pre-registered, day packages, on down to individual workshop and evening dance prices, except for the Sunday afternoon dance which was for weekenders and Sunday all-day participants. We had initially budgeted for 60 or 70 weekend packages based on the Michigan weekend turnout, and we anticipated another 50 to 80 dancers might come to the Friday and Saturday night dances. Attendance exceeded our projections consistently. The Northern band, instead of the 10 to 20 we had anticipated, had 40 participants. It made working on some practical aspects of dance better done as discussion, unfortunately, but it did produce a grand wall of sound Saturday night! The Saturday night dance was designed to be called by our two staff caller/teachers with their calling class participants, with bands led by staff musicians with their band class participants. Our expectations were exceeded artistically, financially, and physically, literally packing the hall solid and prompting Brad Foster to quietly clear chairs, coats and shoes away from exits. The hall had over 200 people and there were more jamming across the hall, visiting out front, watching, etc. A significant number of these people we had never seen before! Additionally the calling classes were large, and therefore rather than having Brad and Larry do some calling, with some of their students, there was hardly a slot for each participant, some gracious bowing out was done by more seasoned participants, and Brad and Larry only called one or two dances all night. The programming of this dance was masterful, the evening genuinely fun and varied. The expertise of Brad and Larry in crafting this evening that had something for everyone in it, the massed bands, the huge public turnout, and the electricity created by such inspired improvising all round generated a party atmosphere.
We included a catered lunch for pre-registered participants which we paid for out of admissions. We arranged housing and offered a restaurant list for out-of-towners. With so many out-of-towners housing was a much bigger job than expected and it was challenging to find enough willing local participants. We had five scholarship helpers and several volunteers, and could have used a few more. We offered CDSS consignment sales which were very successful. Committee members and scholarship helpers did heroic work staffing the table under much greater than anticipated pressure.
The budget we had initially proposed included known costs, and was based loosely on the Michigan weekend attendance. When we developed a program and staff, we came up short financially by about $1000. We applied to both the May Gadd Fund of CDSS and to the Washington State Arts Commission for $1000 grants. The May Gadd grant was contingent on need. With the conservative attendance estimates we had made, it looked like we could in a worst case need both these grants. Staff fees were initially set low. Many of the teachers and musicians were part-time. Because we received the Washington State grant and our attendance was higher than anticipated, we were able to raise fees across the board, pay all our bills, and have a small surplus which we will use for scholarships. Wannadance contributed many hours of grant-writing assistance. CDSS was very helpful both with early publicity, consignment assistance, and encouragement.
We could not find one site for the entire weekend, so had to use three different sites. This made our publicity and map-making crucial, and made extra work for the sound crew. The bulk of the weekend was at Trinity United Methodist Church, which offered us a 10% discount on rental, otherwise we paid the regular fee at each site.
Sodas, coffee and tea were offered free to staff and sold on the honor system at a table in the dance hall. We made a limited edition of T-shirts which sold out. Each of these ventures made a small profit.
Our evaluations were largely glowing. Many included a statement to the effect that "I now understand how important it is to include newcomers, make dance accessible to everyone, etc." We learned about some of the hazards of over-programming and underestimating public interest. Based on our wide geographical response and overall good attendance, I would say there may well be significant interest in weekends of this sort around the country, and I would offer additional information to anyone interested.