The Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH)
Is it Time for a Change in Your Program?
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I'm going to state right up front that this article may get me banished from the Folk Dance Federation. I am about to attack what I fear is a sacred cow. I know many of you reading this article are my friends, and I may offend you. You participate in and are content with something that I am going to criticize. I apologize in advance.
The only way to get people to talk about a topic, however, is to make them uncomfortable, and my goal is to start a discussion . . . and hopefully see some change in the future.
I am writing about what seems to be a very old tradition which has annoyed me for years. It is something I would like to see disappear: dance programs set (and often published on advertising material) in advance of a festival or dance party.
Can I assume you know what I'm talking about? In February's  Let's Dance!, The Sweetheart Festival in Napa and the Balkan Dancers of Marin each had full page advertisements which included programs of the dances that would be played at their events. I have attended many, many such dance parties that follow the same procedure. Often, the printed program is posted around the room and programs are handed out at the door. WHY?
When I started dancing in the 1970s, Marcel Vinokur ran all-request parties in two rooms once a month. He still does. I attended the San Jose State Folk Dancers club on Friday nights for many years in the 1970s and the all-request dance parties were just that you wrote the name of a dance on the request board or showed a few of the steps to the person in charge of the music, and every attempt was made to fit your dance into the evening of dances. Those were my primary models, so I have always run my own classes and parties the same way. I have led my dance class on Thursday nights for over twenty-five years. Every dance party is an all-request event. You write the dance name on a list, and I will play as many dances on the list as I can in the time allowed.
In fact, I have always assumed that was part of the job of the dance teacher/leader figuring out how to arrange the diverse requests into a dance program that is varied (partner, non-partner, sets, trios) and meets the dancing needs of as many participants as possible. It's my duty to assess the age and dancing ability of the dancers in the room as well as the number of single people who will not be dancing if I play couple dances, in order to determine the best ratio of partner to non-partner dances and the best mix of fast, complex dances with slower, easier dances. I also have to be able to adjust the program in response to last-minute requests as well as the departure of persons toward the end of the party.
The creation of the dance program is pretty much the same whether you do it in advance or at the event. The biggest difference is that the "pre-programmers" figure out the program in advance without a lot of input from the people who will actually be doing the dances, and folks like me create the dance program on the fly. The "at the event" programmers are pretty much stuck with what they create and cannot (or will not) make spontaneous changes.
For many, many years I have been puzzled by the published dance programs. Okay, it does allow me to look at the program in advance and decide whether or not to attend the event.
"This program looks perfect for me. Lots of my favorite dances. I'll be there!"
"Gosh, this program is 75% couple dances and I don't have a regular partner. I probably shouldn't bother to go."
This dance program has lots of good beginner dances. I'll see if I can get XXX to go with me."
""I love XXX dancing but I see only four XXX dances on the program."
I suppose for every dancer who looks at the program and decides NOT to attend there will be a dancer who decides he or she WILL attend based on the program. Fine. Call it a draw.
What I don't like is the rigidity. A pre-established and pre-printed program doesn't even allow you to re-arrange the order of the dances, much less remove Dance A and insert Dance B! Yes, there are some published programs that provide space for a "request" dance every once in a while, and some programs allow for "request dancing" at the end of the evening, if there is time. That still doesn't allow for the flexibility to deal with an immediate need.
I recently witnessed a very upset dancer leave an event early because the dance program planned by the event coordinators was heavily loaded with couple dances and her partner was too ill to dance that night. Once her complaints were heard by the people in control of the event, there were some attempts by individual men to invite her to dance the couple dances, but she was too upset by then too little; too late. There were other women in the same situation, but she was the one who attracted the most attention because of the level of her distress.
What was really needed was the ability and willingness to look around the room, see that there were almost a dozen women without partners with a program that was 70% couple dances (often three of them in a row), and CHANGE THE PROGRAM! Am I crazy in thinking this should have been obvious?
I can hear you now: "But we DO try to provide a balanced program. We try to pick dances that everyone knows so that everyone can dance all the time. And, by the way, Miss Fly-In-The-Ointment, we have VERY SUCCESSFUL events that everyone says they enjoy."
Wonderful! Congratulations! All I am asking for is to give the concept of an on-the-fly all-request dance program a try. Once. See what happens. It could be an eye-opening and rewarding experience.
And, by the way, the idea that everyone has to be up dancing all the time &150; and that is the way to measure if an event is successful can work against us. If we only do the dances we know at out parties, we might miss an opportunity to learn new material from an unlikely source for free! Imagine that a small group of dancers comes from a distant dance club and asks for a dance that isn't in your local repertoire. You have the music because it's on some old cassette tape, or a recent CD, and you just happen to have it at the dance party. That small group of visitors loves the dance and knows it well. Voilà! An impromptu exhibition or even a quick teaching session. All it takes is a little flexibility.
I remember visiting a dance session in Arizona a few years ago. I saw a dance on their repertoire list and requested it. "Do you know the dance?" they asked. "The person who used to lead the dance moved away and we have forgotten how to do it. Could you possibly teach it to us?" And when I said yes, someone promptly dashed home to get a camera.
Also, if only a few people get up to join a dance that is requested, perhaps it is a good indication that the dance needs to be re-taught.
You might notice something else people will stay until the very end of the evening. Why? Because they won't be able to look at the pre-printed program and say, "Rrumph. There are no more dances I want to do. Let's leave now." Also, instead of arriving twenty minutes after the start of the party because they know from the pre-printed program that the first twenty minutes will be dances they don't care to do, they will arrive on time, not wanting to miss anything because there might be a dance played they don't get to do very often. They might even sit around the lunch table and talk about dances they haven't done in a while, really enjoy, and would like to request.
If you are reading this article, and if your'e in charge of an up-coming festival, all I ask is that you consider NOT preparing a program in advance just once. Advertise your event as an all-request dance party: "Bring your dance shoes and a list of dances you'd like to see played. We'll do our best to get a few of the items on your list played during the party." Take a chance. Extend your horizons. Think outside the box. However it needs to be said: just do it!
Used with permission of the author.
Published in the May, 2007 issue of Let's Dance!
In response to last month's question regarding an all-request program vs. a pre-planned one, I prefer a request program, if the person in charge is able to take the requests and turn them into a well-balanced program. It makes perfect sense to me that an evening of dancing is best if the dances are those the dancers desire to dance. The programmer could have a half dozen or so dances in mind to start with, or to fill in when needed, but the program should fit the dancers. One of my favorite evenings of dance was one in which a mini-disc of newly learned dances was put on the player and allowed to run, uninterrupted. The group just danced one dance after the other and everyone seemed to be supercharged by the evening. Sandy Helperin
I enjoyed your article on "Change of Program," and agree with you very strongly. Our club not only has weekly defined programs, but when there are five Fridays in a month, the last one is termed "all-request." The requests are made I kid you not three weeks ahead of the date. Then those requests are put into a defined program! In our defense, however, we do make on-the-fly changes as conditions dictate.
One point that wasn't raised is that running an all-request program is difficult, and not everyone can, or wants, to do it. When programmers are set ahead, the creator can mull over the mix of dances, make changes, etc. Selecting the subsequent dance while one is playing creates pressure that many of our members don't want. When Folk Dance Scene has festivals printed, they are true request programs. But the two people doing it spend most of their time selecting dances and get very little time to dance. Jay Michtom
Managing an all-request program on the fly gets easier the more you do it. I know I used to sweat each and every selection. Now, I am far less stressed. It's something like learning to play golf or drive a car at first you are conscious of every little nuance, afraid to make a mistake, second-guessing, hedging, etc.
If Marcel Vinokur has been able to run his monthly parties where he programs for TWO rooms simultaneously (one room is beginner/intermediate dances, the other room is for the intermediate/advance dances), surely mere mortals can manage to program for one room and still have time to dance. Okay, you can't dance EVERY dance, and maybe not all the way through each dance, but you can still dance. I use a computer and I dance at least 70% of the time. Loui Tucker
I am writing to comment on Loui Tucker's article that was printed in the June 2007 issue of the Folk Dance Scene. Her discussion about evening dance programs at festivals is timely as the Statewide Festival in Oxnard was held a couple of weeks ago. Please keep in mind that I'm not critisizing the committed members who work extremely hard to produce these large and wonderful festivals. I thank them for their time, energy, and commitment to promote folk dancing.
However, I would like to propose a few suggestions that could enhance the programming for the festivals' evening parties. The current pre-set program has been used for decades. I understand that this system is designed to include dances done at the different folk dance clubs. Loui Tucker advocates having all-request parties. If this is too drastic, try the other options she mentioned in her article: Either have slots open for requests or designate one set for request dances. Another suggestion is to include dances that were taught in classes during the evening party. At Statewide, the teachers attend the evening parties but their dances were not played. It's always good to have the festival dances repeated so we can dance them with the teachers. It would also be nice to play the dances taught by these teachers in previous years.
One final request: the teachers at Statewide did not have DVDs available to sell during the event. Video taping the teaching sessions or reviews was not allowed. There was one official videotaping occurring during all sessions but as far as I am aware, that video is not for sale to festival participants. A videotape/DVD of the dance taught should be offered for sale and the profit could be split between the festival organization and the teachers. This is important for those of us who want to take the dances back to our groups. The video/DVD will help us remember the steps, sequences, and styling of the dances and thereby present them correctly to our groups.
I hope these suggestions are taken as constructive recommendations and will be considered in the planning of future festivals. Again, I want to thank everyone who organizes the folk dance festivals. All of us in the folk dance community appreciate you! Asako Oshiro
In response to Loui Tucker's essay on request/fixed dance programs, I must agree with her, but she touches on several factors that will guarantee the success or failure of either.
She mentions several times the idea that the person running the program for those who are in attendance and paying the rent. When I was programming for the now extinct Orange Country Folk Dancers, I was most pleased when those in attendance told me how much they enjoyed the program; I, too, made every effort to "read" the group and fit the program to them, balancing dances by genre, level of difficulty, level of energy, and character.
There is one group with which I am very familiar which fails in this simple principle. The program is all request, but the dances played are only those which the core group likes and anyone else will just have to forget about it. I recall several years ago helping them write guidelines for programmers. I wonder what ever happened to it. There are at least six very good folk dancers who live within three miles of where this group dances, but they won't go near the place, preferring instead to travel twenty miles (each way) to dance somewhere else.
Loui mentions something else several times, but never identifies it: selfishness. Folk dancers have become so selfish in their approach to the dance the first thing they look at is "what's in it for me?" They become upset if the program doesn't suit them and leave rather than socialize with the wonderful folks who make up our dance community. Or they just pass on the event and stay away.
The recent Statewide Festival program pre-arranged had about 60% dances I never heard of and absolutely none of the dances I would have requested, but I went there with my bad knee and bursitis in both shoulders to visit friends I haven't seen in a long time. I wouldn't trade the weekend for something else.
The Laguna Folkdance Festival, now in its mid-30s, for years featured a balanced, though pre-arranged program. As it evolved into an almost all-Balkan festival, attendance began to drop. Long-time dance friends asked me what happened and said they wouldn't go there anymore because there were no couple dances on the program.
This last year, the committee invited George Fogg of east coast English Country Dance fame to teach. Two people at the festival told me they wouldn't come to the festival anymore if they were going to have dances like that on the program.
I recall a few years back when I chaired the Festival, one young lady was furious because the Balkan teacher taught last and she had waited around through the teaching of the non-Balkan teacher.
In another instance, a couple of years back, the organizers scheduled a Balkan singing class during the teaching session of the "non-Balkan" teacher and about half the class left in an unthinking, selfish insult to a very fine teacher who didn't deserve that kind of snub.
In folk dance's "good old days," people liked each other and went to dance together to be with each other, enjoy each other's company, and support the "movement." After all, if people don't go to support the dance, it will begin to fade away from lack of support.
Does this ring any bells? Does this sound familiar to anyone? Richard Duree
In the article "Is it Time for a Change in Your Program?" Loui Tucker addressed the issue of pre-programmed dance events. I find this question is long overdue and I am glad that it finally came up for discussion.
I have been annoyed by the tradition of prepared dance programs in advance for festivals, parties, or in many clubs for regular dance nights, ever since I started dancing some twenty years ago.
In my opinion, all this is ridiculous and senseless nowadays. Dance music can be retrieved with a stroke on a keyboard. A direct relationship between the programmer and the guests at the party can and should be established. The program should please the people present here and now, and not satisfy the tradition of so many couple dances, so many line dances, so many Scottish dances, so many Scandinavian dances, etc. Why are these rules ingrained in stone?
I even have the audacity to claim that the immutable adherence to habits of yesteryear is hurting the folk dance movement. Young people today are busier than ever, things happen faster, they are used to perpetual motion, and this is reflected in the way they dance: DJs play music continuously, with very little break between songs. Imagine a twenty-something-old coming to one of our festivals, where people dance around with little booklets tied with colored yarn to their belts, pompous MCs sit on a stage slowly announcing the next dance [often with mis-pronunciation], and in the course of an afternoon or an evening the prescribed dose of such-and-such dance is being performed. This young person might find the experience amusing but an environment to which he/she could relate.
As I mentioned, prepared programs are not a good habit even for routine dance sessions. To corroborate this idea, I can think of an incident that occurred two or three years ago at one of the clubs where I dance: a folk dancer who was not one of our "regulars" came, changed his shoes, and was ready to join the crowd. Up on the blackboard was written the program for the evening. He came close and looked, and could not find any dance name that he recognized. He sat down. He waited and waited. After half an hour or so, he got up, took off his dance shoes, and before leaving he told me that he will never come back to this club. I cannot blame him.
There is a slight exception to my opposition to prepared programs. One of the clubs where I dance is Westwood Co-op. As such, rather than having one programmer, dancers take turns preparing the programs. As their turn comes, they take home the dance books and compose a program with dances that they like. To the rest of the dancers, some programs seem better than others. But the experience is for a singular evening, and at this particular club the week-to-week variety makes up for the fact that the event has been pre-programmed.
At clubs or festivals where an accomplished programmer is in charge, the time is ripe to take advantage of the new technology: there is ample time to look around, to assess the knowledge, the abilities, and the preferences of the dancers present, and to create a continuous flow of dances fit for that particular occasion. Add to that the element of surprise, and the success of the event will be ensured.
For her heretical statements, Loui Tucker feared that she might offend friends and even be banished from the Folk Dance Federation. I join Loui in expressing these fears, but I feel that the call to abolish pre-programming is justified, important, and long overdue.
And no, I don't want to lose dear friends over this . . . Gerda Ben-Zeev
Used with permission of the author.
Printed in Folk Dance Scene, June 2007.
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