NEFFA Essay: Secrets Of A Successful Series

Minutes of discussion session at the 1997 NEFFA Festival
prepared by Larry Jennings, Moderator

NOTE: “Larry” is me at the Festival; “I” am myself as I sit at my desk.

Larry suggested that we start by considering how we measure success. Two important measures are: did most people have a good time and were all involved people well satisfied with the financial outcome? Hardly anyone would deny the importance of those two basic measures, but there are others. Especially in the province of the kind of dancing done at NEFFA, the satisfaction of the (usually) volunteer producers of the event is critical. That such volunteers feel rewarded for their efforts is essential if the event is part of a series. A volunteer may be duped into doing a lot of work for one event that he is not pleased with, but, if you are trying to launch a series, the volunteers must really have their hearts in it.

There are additional considerations which distinguish a successful series as opposed to a successful one night stand. The dancers have to perceive that they not only had a good time tonight, but they must also believe that the experience is one that would be fun on a second, third, … occasion. This means that producers, insofar as they have a crystal ball, should consider diminishing the good time tonight by a small amount if it will enhance the fun at a future event. For example, a little time spent this week on improving the dancers’ skills may be returned many times over in enjoyment next week.

There is a perhaps less than obvious implication of this reasoning: for the dancers to want to come back next week, they not only have to have a good time tonight, they must be reasonably sure of what the dance will be like next week, or next month, or even next year. Of course, if both your vision and your reputation is one of diversity, that may be a winner. But you should make sure that that is your choice, not a result of default.

An example of this sort of thinking was given by a participant who wanted to start a series featuring almost anything other than contra dancing. (Well, to be fair, she had more definite objectives than I have just stated, but let Larry reply to the overstatement.) Larry sez: If you have trouble articulating your vision for the long haul, at least visualize before tonight’s dance what way you think you will want to head for the next dance. Larry urges you to think at least that far ahead; it may well help make a good time tonight as well as to give focus to your series.

Random remarks:

  • Listen to constructive criticism.
  • Direct your attention to young people.
  • Should you deviate from your original vision to accommodate new ideas?
  • Is a vision of “growth” without specification of the direction of growth sufficiently definite?
  • A vision of “we want to stay just like we are” cannot be implemented; i.e., change is inevitable.
  • With a little effort you can probably reconcile apparently different objectives.
  • If you reduce such reconciliation to writing, it may have an increased salutary effect.
  • Appeal to college students.
  • Make an occasion special, e.g., hold an anniversary dance.
  • Make use of discount coupons for newcomers.
  • Go to committee meetings to see how things get done.
  • Books and other “how to” advisories can’t compare to common sense.
  • Your best resource is what you find in your own heart.
  • If there is a group who understand your flyer, the flyer will probably work.
  • For people unfamiliar with your activity, word of mouth is probably the only advertising that will work.
  • The name “network marketing” was suggested for this point of view.
  • A beginners session may make people more comfortable even though it may not be the best locale for learning how the dance really works.
  • “Beginner” may have some unfortunate connotations. “Introductory session” might be good, but “introductoree?”
  • At least think about how you would do it if it were a business.
  • Can you persuade the performers to hobnob with the dancers during intermission? Do you do that yourself?

It all depends on details and context:

  • From a leader of international, recreational folk dance: Keep the interest of experienced dancers by using new simple dance early in the evening.
  • From a caller of English and Contra dance: Make it easy for the experienced dancers to help nearby beginners, especially early in the evening: Feature familiar dances.

Everyone talks about getting new people to come to their first dance. We tried giving some thought to what kind of experience is most likely to get them to come a second, third, and fourth time.

  • Don’t focus on all the newcomers; focus on the, say, 20% who may return.
  • To help figure out how to do that, consider whether you are hoping for a community of dancers or a dance for a community.
  • As an example of the later, one leader reported on the mutual support exhibited by a community of seniors; they would not go ahead even if it was only one person who was having trouble.
  • A small town might be considered a locale ripe for a community dance, but, these days, most small town dwellers are there by choice and prefer to avoid city-type activities.
  • Consider, even for a newcomer, whether they might be incorporated as a stakeholder.
  • Use the triage concept: put your efforts into cases where you have the best chance of succeeding.
  • One leader verified that she was losing the experienced dancers because they were bored with the dancing as directed to rank beginners.

Two requests were made of Larry. The first was to explain how an organization as diverse as NEFFA avoided “explosion”. The answer: The organization needs one or more individuals who look far enough ahead to avoid actions that, in hindsight, would obviously be dumb, or at least not in consonance with the vision. It also needs one or more individuals who listen to the apparently disparate views of the vision and reconcile these views to a common vision which is agreeable to all. Usually it is not all that difficult to carry out these two recommendations, but it does take some time and a conviction that a little clear thinking, opinion gathering, and memo preparation now saves a lot of anguish later. The other request was for some indication of the actual words used by Larry to communicate his vision of the NEFFA Contra series. In response to this request, I have prepared a brief essay The Story of One Successful Series.

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