At the 1997 New England Folk Festival (NEFF) I led a discussion session on the secrets of a successful contra series. I presumed to be qualified to do this based primarily on the NEFFA Contra Series. At the request of a participant, I have prepared this brief report on the kinds of things I did to realize a success.
My thesis is that the producer must make it clear that the series is directed toward a vision. It doesn't matter that much what the vision is; the important issue is to insure that the dancers understand that there is no intention of this series trying to be all things to all people. To illustrate this point, I rummaged around in my basement and found a pile of old flyers. I think it may be instructive to give a fairly complete review of the relevant portions of these for the first year or so of the series.
By the time of the third flyer I had enough confidence to use some of the valuable space on the flyer to spell out where and when were the "competitive" dances. I thought that if the dancers tried all five series mentioned, an appreciable fraction of them would enjoy dancing according to Larry.
By the end of that first year the personality of the series was well established, and I no longer felt it important to spend flyer space on defining that personality. Within a few years there was some kind of "contra" dancing 'most every night but Wednesdays, some Saturdays, and some Sundays. (Wednesday has been "reserved" for English dancing since antiquity; only about half the Sundays were taken by NEFFA; and, to my recollection, the only regular Saturday was the monthly Scout House series.) All these series were influenced, at least to some extent, by the NEFFA Contras, and I consider it remarkable that a monthly series with unpaid calling continued for a total of 13 viable years in the face of three weekly series with professional calling.
After that first year I felt that the place for a zesty, urban series was well established. There were, however, two unmet needs: suitable choreography and development of dancer skills. I hoped to contribute to meeting these needs with occasional adjunct dances with titles like "Challenging Contras" and "Experimental Session" and with descriptions like "for dancers who can execute the basic figures with confidence and with the musical phrase." Absent was any reference to "beginner", "experienced", or "by invitation". Some of these adjunct dances may have influenced Al Olson, who had composed over 100 publishable dances by 1983, but the inspiration of the weekly series plus the NEFFA Contras probably was enough for any composer. Besides, Al had moved to Chicago by then. Furthermore, the other great leader in contemporary choreography, Gene Hubert, published about 50 dances in 1983. So far as I know, all these were composed west of the Mississippi. The torrent of contemporary dances composed since 1983 is testimony that no further encouragement is needed. The development of dancer skills, on the other hand, remains a problem to this day.
In summary, then, I assert that the action and satisfaction are to be found in the regular dances. Furthermore, one person can have appreciable influence on those dances.