NEFFA Essay: Dancing From A Former Organizer’s Perspective

Nancy Mamlin – December 1997

I know. I have said a lot — perhaps too much — on this topic. But I have a lot to say. I feel like the former President who has now been out of office long enough that she can start talking.

For those who don’t know, I used to be one of those who booked the callers and bands for the former Coal Country Convention in the Pittsburgh area. After doing that for about five years, I took a few years break and then booked the Sunday Night Dances for the Folklore Society of Greater Washington for two years. I thank God that doing that job is a maximum two year position!

As I said, it’s a complex thing to do, and no two organizers approach the task in the same way. Basically, though, you want to look at the goals of the program, balance that with who you can afford, who’s available, and when it comes right down to it, who you like. Yes, over the couple of years at Glen Echo, I primarily booked bands and callers that I wanted to hear. But that wasn’t the primary thing- I first looked at how many local folks vs. out-of-town folks I was booking; I tried to keep the contra/square ratio less in line with my tastes, and more with what I percieved the local tastes to be (about 25-30% of the bands were “southern”; only one caller on one evening called primarily squares- everyone else called more contras). It’s also true in DC that for the most part the organizer gets called by bands and callers, and doesn’t have to make a lot of “do you want to come play our dance” calls. Also, in a large metro area, with large dance halls and large attendance, you really can’t go too far wrong. Mother Nature was the only one to ever keep us from making money. And if the Redskins had ever made the Super Bowl while I was booking, that would have kept folks away on that day. DC doesn’t have the problems of lots of places, in other words- I could have hired a kazoo and a fourth grader and 100 people would have come, and even if they didn’t stay the whole evening that night, they (or 100 replacements) would have been back the next Sunday.

One night I will never forget, I hired the late, great, Ted Sannella. I was so happy that he was able to make it down to call! Imagine my surprise when more than one person asked me “Who is this old man?” “Who does he think he is, telling us how to dance? Doesn’t he know we’re advanced dancers?” (To which I answered, “If Ted tells you that you need to do your allemandes differently, then you do!”)… So, perhaps all the dancers weren’t pleased, on a night I was sure no one would be disappointed! This may have been one of my turning points in which I decided, as a caller and an organizer, that my larger vision of what’s going on was helpful in my being able to do a good job. Now, as a caller, I certainly take dancers’ comments into consideration, but they’re not what drives my program.

I guess the point of this post is that we all come to a dance with a different perspective- and mine changes depending on the role I’m playing at a given dance. Each perspective teaches you something different, and I think good organizers can see all of them. I started out just having a “dancer” perspective, then took roles as organizer, musician, and caller. I have retired from the organizer position, hopefully forever (but never say never); I have unfortunately had to pretty much give up dancing now. So, my enjoyment from dances comes from calling or playing so that others can dance. And, as I said in a previous post, whenever that is no longer fun, I guess I’ll quit doing those things. Lucky for me, it’s still a lot of fun, and I get to do it with enough frequency to keep me in practice and pretty well-satisfied. The dance community here is great- and they are so young I could hardly keep up with them even if I could dance!

Happy Dancing, Happy Calling, Happy Playing, and Happy Organizing.

— Nancy

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