NEFFA Essay: Set Management

Larry Jennings

This is one of a group of essays which examine various actions and attitudes which may influence the future of the New England contradancing I love so well. I unabashedly approach these discussions with my vision of dancing (described in my Zesty Contras) and my platform of “we’re all in it together” and “consensus is far preferable to democracy or dictatorship.” Thus I usually feature my own opinions, but it is my intention to foster dialogue among all the players (we): the caller, the committee, the chairman, the booking coordinator, the producer, the musicians, and (presently) uninvolved stakeholders (concerned dancers). It is my hope that my little essays will stimulate such discussion, both as a generality (a broad consensus) and as applied to your local style (a narrower, but more important, consensus).

The caller is expected to direct the formation of sets. She certainly has to tell the dancers what formation to assemble in: contra, Sicilian Circle, couples, large circle, square, etc. Most producers would also assume that the caller would undertake to distribute the dancers in a suitable fashion. After the formation of sets, there is usually still the matter of adjusting the position of individual dancers (e.g., actives cross over). I refer to all these activities, from the end of the previous slot to the start of the walk-thru as the “organization phase.” (People who think pejoratively of “control” or “management” may prefer “set organization” as the title of this piece.)

There is no universal rule as to what is desired of the dancers in the period before the start of the walk-thru. For example, one series vision may provide that there be a couple of minutes for socialization within the time set aside for organization. A different series vision might dictate that the time to get organized be as little as possible. Thus I will assume that the stakeholders, the producer, the committee, the chairman, and the booking coordinator have settled on some policy for the series and have undertaken to reconcile this policy with any preconceived opinions that the caller may have.

Many callers and producers give only minimal or even no attention to this matter, letting the dancers in essence make their own choices. I take a contrary view. I believe that set formation customs very much influence, and are influenced by, the personality of the series. Therefore I examine these matters in some depth. In particular, I find that I do not have complete answers to the question “how can I, a caller, influence the dancers to comply with the policies that the producer and I have agreed on.” I will examine the problems and partial solutions as established at the Thursday VFW dance in Cambridge along with some ideas which may be suggestive of ploys which might actually work, even though, as presented, they are more likely to be counterproductive.

Let me first paint a picture of what’s happening at the VFW series. To be concrete, let us consider the usual situation at the end of one slot: the dancers correctly surmise that the next dance will be a contra. If there are enough dancers, say more than 180, to fill the hall (it holds six sets of 16 couples comfortably), they will usually arrange themselves to use the space reasonably; they will form five or six sets of viable length.

But what happens when there are fewer than 180 dancers staking out territory? Now the likelihood of a side set being barely viable is greatly increased. So the competition among the strong dancers for a spot in a central set is increased. They prefer to dance with other strong dancers and perhaps are forceful in other ways as well, in particular, in crowding into the top of a central set. If the caller fails to intervene, almost always one of two things occurs: there are so few sets that everybody is crowded or there is at least one set that is barely viable or worse. [Viable set: a set with an average skill level such that it can handle the next dance and with enough dancers that the dance ends before you get back to your starting position. Usually this would also ensure that most of the dancers are not in an end effect at any moment.]

We are then faced with a well discussed topic, the Center Set Syndrome. Some value may accompany the Syndrome (see my report developed at the 1996 Dance Flurry, “Is the Center Set Syndrome All Bad?”) On the other hand, having to struggle for a position in the top, center of the hall does tend to bring out the worst in people. Having had to be pushy to secure a top spot, those who win at this exercise tend to be blase, indifferent, overconfident, and inattentive after they have staked out their territory.

Why should this behavior concern the producer (who has to worry about people returning next year) or the caller (who wants to enhance her reputation for giving everyone a good time)? In my opinion the reason is not primarily that the center set is so crowded that it is unattractive or uncomfortable; after all the dancers have voluntarily joined in making a statement about their priorities. On the bother hand, I feel that the caller and producer do have a problem: when the space is available they “should” (in my opinion) do their utmost to provide a willing couple a place in a fully viable, uncrowded side set. Let me restate this often overlooked rationale: unless there is an unusual requirement such as your needing a demonstration set, dancers crowding into an already overfull center set are not your problem; don’t squander your credibility pleading with them.

So, perhaps I have convinced the producer to support the caller in a noble adventure in set management. What are the appropriate considerations? First and foremost is the decision as to whether they share my conviction that it is part of their contract to use their skills to offer a comfortable spot in a viable set. If they do fully agree about the importance of such set management, there is a fair chance that very little explicit attention will be needed; the caller will automatically influence the dancers. She will be aided in this if she has a good understanding of a few traits which act as constraints:

  • Dancers prefer to act collectively, not individually. Pleading with one or two couples to switch sets rarely works; a rearrangement stands a better chance.
  • Dancing in the trendy portion of the hall with trendy dancers is more important than most other considerations such as being uncrowded.
  • If the dancers lose respect for the caller, they will not compensate by being more cooperative; rather they will display their feelings somehow, often through studied inattention.
  • Dancers are in their most cooperative mood when they have a partner arranged but have not yet staked a claim (to space).
  • They will leave their claim only if they believe that they are a part of a collective movement, especially if it puts them in a trendy part of the hall.
  • They don’t respond favorably to scare tactics such as a threat that the dancers at the bottom of a long set will not get active.
  • Telling them that they will have more fun in a side set projects condescension; it is dangerous indeed to tell a dancer that you know better than he himself what is fun for him.
  • Initiative on the part of the dancers themselves will probably result in less criticism of your efforts than will actions of yours which may be deemed as your wanting to control just for the sake of controlling.

So, there are a lot of things that won’t work, or at least things to be on guard about. What will work? Well, one thing is to hide the problem; do mixers and Sicilian circles. This is OK if you really want such dances in your program. But you may have a hard time avoiding coming across to the dancers that you’re not being confrontational. Another ploy, which actually may do some good, is to announce “The center set is now closed” But that can get tiresome and usually is not sufficient.

The VFW has a special problem; the entrance is offset (to the caller’s left) from the center. And, for the first dance, the dancers (of course) all join one long center set. When the need becomes obvious to everyone, a second set usually forms, surprisingly almost as often to the caller’s right as to her left. The story can take different twists from there. Often there is a pile-up of dancers in the door; they feel it would be rude to crowd into the already overfull sets, and it requires super-human efforts to gather together the nucleus of a contra set after the dance has been running a while. Rather than giving details (I don’t want to give the impression that we need three sets for the first dance every week), I remark only that if the caller can prevent anyone from starting a set to the right of the “center” set, everything else will probably take care of itself. Even the hard core center setters can hardly complain; there is room for two more sets between them and the wall.

I have dwelt at some length on the first slot. This is intentional for I believe that it is important to establish the concept of sets being viable. It also illustrates the idea of catching the dancers before they are committed to a particular set. (It is not essential that you use the actual word “viable” to the dancers.) To maintain your credibility (with a critical booking coordinator), here are a few things I think should be a matter of routine for a caller:

  • If the next slot after the current slot is anything other than a contra, announce the formation that you will want as part of the introductory words to the present slot.
  • Repeat that information immediately after the applause for the current slot. If the next dance is a contra, state (if it is not completely obvious) how many sets you suggest.
  • Give your undivided attention to what’s going on on the floor for the next 25 seconds. Ensure that there are at least three couples heading each of the sets you have specified.
  • Complying with this recommendation probably means you will have 25 seconds less time to devote to making your deal with the musicians. I encourage you to make your arrangements with them in advance, perhaps via a copy of your planned program with notes about the music for each dance.
  • Since it is almost impossible to persuade anyone to leave a position he has claimed, it is wise for you to monitor how things are going.
    • If the number of sets created at the outset is optimal, you and the dancers will be very happy if you need say nothing more than perhaps “the shortest set is on my right.”
    • If it becomes clear that an additional set is needed, take action immediately, while there are still couples joining. Specify where this set is to form. Try not to give the impression that you are disciplining the center set, but do not place the new set against a wall either. It is your job to insure that this set you have specified becomes viable.
    • If it looks like one or more sets will have too few dancers to be viable, try to persuade the late joiners to join the short set. Since they haven’t yet staked a claim, they may well help.
    • Often a well intentioned but ill-advised group of two or three couples will try to start a set next to a wall after almost everyone has claimed a spot. I advise that you make it clear that you do not recommend this action and will not squander your credibility pleading with dancers to join this new set.
  • Although it is far preferable to do such set management as the sets are forming, if it got away from you, you can add a set in the center of the hall after almost everyone has claimed a spot. People will leave a crowded set to join a set in the middle. They will almost never leave a set to join one farther from the center of the hall than the one they are in.
  • As already noted, pleading rarely persuades anyone to leave a contra set and thus reduces your credibility. It may work to persuade a couple from the sidelines to fill in an empty spot in a square.
  • It is possible to dream up a number of interesting experiments that one might try if the caller has lots of capital with the dancers, though I would scarcely recommend them for routine use:
    • Organize a modified grand march appropriate to your problem.
    • Give choice spots to couples containing a beginner.
    • Reserve the center of the hall for those who have not booked ahead. This ploy may even have a credible rationale: the people looking for partners would have an easier time finding each other.
    • Prepare a small roster of stakeholders who will comply with whatever you are trying out.
    • As a gag, give a prize, say a ticket to the top of the center set, to the person who dances 8 slots in a side set.
    • Perhaps more realistically, offer a Hershey’s kiss to each dancer who joins a set which appears to be least attractive.
    • Who knows? It might even have some influence to politely ask the dancers to dance in all parts of the hall with all kinds of people.

There remain the related problems of establishing the minor sets and getting the dancers’ attention. Almost always the center set gives the most trouble: the overconfident hotshots at the top and the oblivious socializers at the bottom. So, if you focus on the center set, chances are that the other sets will be with you.

Let us consider the usual case, a duple & improper contra. Many callers start with “hands four”, establishing minor sets of little circles of four dancers. In principle, the hands four could propagate quickly down the set. However, it usually does not. Furthermore, the dancers let go of hands preparatory to the actives crossing over. It thus often happens that there is no record of the minor set and a fuss has to be made to get things straightened out. – I thus prefer to start by having alternate couples cross over, then take and hold hands four. It is then easy to see the status of each minor set. Even if you are planning a proper dance, it usualIy is more expeditious to go through a routine which presents the caller with a picture of alternating sexes around the set. If the dancers are consistently indifferent to marking off the minor sets, there is the tactic of asking a top dancer to go down the line physically and orally designating couples, “one, two, one, two, one ….”

When you are ready, the walk-thru should start with some action rather than with lecture. If the first figure of the dance does not lend itself to this, one may occasionally temporize with “circle left; circle right” until everyone is with you. However, as with most of the ploys given here, it is easy to appear bossy and thus fritter away your goodwill with the dancers. Thus, as with most issues that face the caller and the administration: be concerned. but temper concern with good judgement.

Finally, I repeat the most important realization: dancers are cooperative, even helpful, until they have staked a claim to some territory; they then become very attached to that territory.

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