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.
Sensitivity stressed and encouraged.
Experience helpful, but not at all required.
Dances suitable for novices presented promptly at starting time.
Series not appropriate for pre-teens.
Attendance limited to comfortable capacity of hall.
October 1974: This series:
Strives to appeal to both experienced and novice dancers.
Presents especially instructive dances proptly at starting time.
Is not appropriate for pre-teens.
Attendance limited to comfortable capacity of hall.
December 1974: As 10/74 except for last line:
Intends to provide adequate space for comfortable dancing.
There was also a little section with this heading: Here are some other opportunities to do similar dancing to live music.
January 1975: As above except: Admission $1.75; NEFFA members: $1.25 [a 25¢ rise] (Sorry about that, but we’ve been running in the red.)
April 1975: Train leaves Boston at 5:30, via Cambridge and Belmont (85¢). Return train available, but we will try to arrange rides. This series:
* Eeschews indifferent dancing
* is not suitable for pre-teens.
“Scholarship” help available
Serious novices welcome at all dances (be prompt!)
August 1975: This series:
has admission of $1.25 for NEFFA members, $1.75 for non-members.
provides “scholarship” aid when required (talk to Larry Jennings).
intends to restrict attendance, if need be, to avoid overcrowding.
is inappropriate for pre-teens, and eschews indifferent dancing.
To put these notes in context, one must appreciate that in 1974 there were no series in greater Boston coming anywhere close to my vision of zesty, urban contra dancing. Thus I addressed those aspects of the dance which I thought would most distinguish my series from others. These were not necessarily the most important aspects of the dance. In particular, nothing is said about the music or the leadership. Although I did have to struggle to get suitable music, I felt that the music and the technical aspects of the calling were adequate at the other Boston dances. Note also the subtle development of some of the points. For example, it occurred to me that there are ways to arrange for adequate space to dance without actually turning people away (as we did at the very first dance).
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.