Organising a Dance

In the course of a combined half-century of experience with dance events, Sheila and Flos have been the victims and the benificiaries of other people's attempts to organise dance events. So, here are some gleanings which might highlight detours to various pitfalls.


Having a good think before you do anything is always wise, and we're not suggesting that anybody decides to run a dance on a momentary whim. But do be aware that large events are always expensive. Even if you're going to sell tickets for an event, your bank balance will show a dip at some point before the event (even if it's a great success).

Type of Event

Most of the events we go to are celebrations: weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, etc. There was even a divorce party! Usually, people are happy to spend money at these times. But when the intention is to raise funds, a good deal of planning is essential. Unless you are exceptionally lucky, you won't know a sympathetic caller and band who are genuinely up to the job, let alone with a reputation adequate to pull in the punters. See Performers. And the cost of a suitable venue may be prohibitive, so some homework in that area is also called for. See Venues.
Make sure you know the difference between a Hollywood square dance (as in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) and an English barn dance.
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Setting a Date

Most of the good performers in your area will have diaries extending months into the future. Usually, if you pick a date six months hence, you stand a fair chance of booking one of the better units. You can also improve your prospects by choosing a time in the "dead bands" - March through to the end of April, or from the middle of September to the middle of November. Specifically, many musicians attend the Sidmouth and Whitby Folk Festivals in the first and last weeks of August. Remember, too, that most local musicians visit, or are working at, Shrewsbury Folk Festival on the last weekend in August. Also on that weekend are the Towersey and Wadebridge Festivals.
Whichever week in the year you decide upon, it is worth remembering that most events are planned for a Saturday evening. So, if you are flexible enough to consider a Friday evening or Sunday afternoon, you better than double your chances of booking good musicians.
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Unless you're running a "closed" event (i.e. admission is by pre-sold ticket or by invitation or membership), then you need to ensure adequate advertising. In a small village, you might get away with a few posters in well-chosen positions. But always check your poster design does the following things:

  1. Says where the dance is held.
  2. Says when the dance is to be: date and time of day.
  3. Says how much entrance will cost (even if it's zero).
  4. Is clear enough to be read at a distance of six feet.

Just write down the words "where", "when", "cost" and "clarity" on a piece of paper, and tick them off when you have a proof print in front of you. If your event is in aid of a good cause, make sure that it is mentioned. Should you have booked a reasonably well-known band, include their name, too. If you are lucky enough to get a popular caller, that might well bring along more people, too.
We feel duty bound, while we're at it, to point out that advertising in an appropriate journal is also very cost-effective: for the cost of a couple of hundred handbills whose exact destination you cannot control, you can place an advert which will be printed 1500 times over, nearly half of which will be posted to the homes of people who are already interested in dances. This is a plug, obviously for our magazine's advertising. Since Shreds and Patches goes to print every four months, this lends weight to the idea of planning six months ahead. Return to the menu.

Avoiding Problems

Losing money on a venture when you're hoping to bump up funds can be painful and embarrassing. There are a few measures you can take to reduce the chances of this happening.
Try to sell tickets before the event, or at least get promises on enough tickets to cover a major part of the outlay. Don't get worried if you're still a few short a few days before the event, if the dance is open to the public and you know that you have placed enough advertising in appropriate places: we have often worked at dances where the attendance was double the figure expected, and most of the people arrived in the first twenty minutes of dancing. This is one of the reasons why you should think twice about booking artists who aren't top-notch.
There is another little item that can kill a dance stone-dead - hay bales. I know it looks kinda folksy, but the sheddings from hay bales can give a dance floor the grip you expect from black ice. And even people without hay fever can be allergic to the dust. I haven't even mentioned the fire hazard or the sweeping-up in detail, because enough is enough.
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For a summer wedding or other celebration, a marquee often seems a happy idea. For the purposes of dancing, however, they are not ideal. Grass or coconut matting don't provide good footing, and panel flooring is rarely without drawbacks. This is not to say that people can't have a good dance, merely that they'll need to be careful. And bear in mind that even on a summer evening, heating might be advisable.
In a permanent location other than a large private house, fire regulations may apply. This is highly unlikely to bother you, though: limits on attandance are usually calculated on seated figures. In a hall that seats 200, you are unlikely to enjoy dancing when there are more than 60 on the dance-floor.
In any venue, there may well be local limits on the time of night beyond which music may not be played. If there is a caretaker, there might be a contractual limit to working hours. This could be important at the other end of the evening, too. You will need to know how soon in the day you (and the band) can get into the venue. If there's a phone number for the keyholder, you will probably need it. If there is a barrier to a car park, you definitely will.
In fact, the better you know the venue and its staff, the better.
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Utilities and Facilities

You absolutely must check that there is a safe electrical supply to the stage (or whatever area is to be used for that). It would also be wise to find out if that supply is controlled by sound-level limiters. Most bands will put less strain on a standard power socket than a domestic microwave oven. Even if the band find the venue small enough to play acoustically, the caller's larnyx is unlikely to hold out for hours.
Make sure there is a water supply, and that it will be turned on during your event. The same applies toilets, and their water supplies. Do I need to tell horror stories?
Never assume, just because there is a bar or kitchen in the venue, that you will have access to it on the night.
Check that you will have access to the broom cupboard.
Check that you will be able to use chairs (and tables, if necessary).
Ideally, you should know the locations of light switches, curtains sashes and window openers.
Locate the fire exits and fire extinguishers, and preferably memorise their types. If you're hiring professional performers, they will also do this.
Currently, legislation on licensing for music is in a state of flux, because it is being being debated by people who don't go to dances and don't understand music. The venue's guardians should be able to inform you on this point.
With venues controlled by any form of local government agency, you may find that your agreement with them for the use of the premises includes clauses about Public Liability Insurance or Portable Appliance Testing. if so, ask your prospective artists about these. Professional artists will already have this covered.
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Publicly available venues will have access by wheelchair (and other mobility aids) already arranged. Private venues are free of this obligation, but you can make provision by organising a few pairs of strong volunteers' arms. The same considerations apply to toilet facities. Bands whose members have special needs usually have their own workarounds for this, but you might want to ask about that.
Under Venues, we have already mentioned the question of times of ingress. Your band will also thank you for warning them if they need to haul instruments and equipment up flights of stairs. Most bands prefer having a restricted number of people around while they are setting up for a performance.
It is appreciated that, at some celebrations (particularly weddings and anniversaries) this might not be possible, and that timings may be elastic.
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For your own satisfaction with an event, it is vital that the music is suitable for dancing, in style and quality: there's folk music and there's folk music; you can't dance to Tom Paxton. For further consideration of this, see Repertoire.
Since your best chance of getting eveyone dancing is to use simple country dances and a competent caller, you need to make sure that the band know plenty of suitable tunes. A bunch of musicians you might have heard in a pub might sound quite impressive, but can they play at the right speed? Do they know 32-bar and 48-bar jigs, hornpipes, reels, marches and waltzes? 4 hours' worth? Your best guarantee for finding good performers would be a word of mouth recommendation, unless you have seen your prospective artists in action. So, go to dances and chat to the organisers. Or try to find someone who goes to every possible dance. Or talk to a caller who has worked with a lot of local bands. Sheila can always help in this way. Similarly, if you are confident you are talking to a decent band or musician, they will have worked with several callers, and will know their competences and limits.
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Advantages. An agency can often be found through Yellow Pages, or via the Internet. Any specialist agency which has been in operation for a long time will presumably be competent, and therefore capable of finding you suitable performers. Once you have come to an arrangement, the agent will take responsibility for communications with the artists, and issue you with a contract which has been refined by experience. Ideally, you need make only one or two phone calls. It is possible an agent can also organise or recommend caterers, licensees and other suppliers. In the remote eventuality that an artist or band find themselves unable to fulfill their obligation, an agent is well-placed to find a replacement at short notice.
Disadvantages. Agents charge a fee, generally added to your total bill, and sometimes arrange payments to the performers. This means that you will pay about 10% to 20% more. A non-specialist music agent, unfortunately, is likely to know less than you do about barn dances, but will probably sound confident. This can lead to problems with repertoire, as discussed below.
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The importance of this subject lies in the getting the right kind of music to dance to. The beauty of English country dance is that it can be tackled successfully by children as well as adults of advanced years. We have often seen grandparents dance with a grandchild as a partner. The unfortunate thing about English country dance is that it hasn't been able to hang on to its descriptive name. There are, for instance, English Country Dance Clubs where almost all of the dancing is American, often very complicated, usually performed to American, Scottish or Irish tunes. The bands who play for these clubs are not always able to play the right music for the simpler, genuinely English style of dance. This complicated style of dance is sometimes called "posh" dance, so you would probably want to avoid "posh" bands. (Do not confuse this use of the word with The Posh Band, an excellent and ironically named outfit.)
In a search for a descriptive name, some have attached the Gaelic word ceilidh to English country dances. This word originally meant a communal gathering, but became attached to the social dancing they often included. The same word is used in Ireland and Scotland for mixed musical evenings. Since it was stolen by the English to refer to their own communal dances, it has also been called English Ceilidh, and recently eCeilidh. So most groups calling themselves an English Ceilidh band should be suitable.
Irish music bands are less easy to be sure about. The Irish have several forms of dance: ceilidh, set and step. Step dance is the flamboyant Riverdance style performable only by exceptionally talented and highly-trained dancers. Set dance is a quadrille form which requires learning and practice beforehand. Irish ceilidh dancing is not dissimilar to English. Unfortunately, in England, most of the musicians attracted to Irish music fall for the flashiness of the recent Irish fad for playing everything as fast as possible (though we have, locally, some fine Irish-style musicians who also deplore this tendency).
Scottish country dancing is more complicated than English country dance, and a closed book to most Scots. Highland dance is more like a sport. It might be informative to research the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society.
Finally, make sure you don't confuse Country Music or Country and Western Music (both American) with English Country Music. You're not going to get much dancing done to Willie Nelson numbers or Hank Williams songs.
We hope the above gives you some guidelines on choosing a band, and some explanation of how crucial your choice can be.
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You will find that some bands are happy to assume they have an engagement when only a telephone conversation has tken place. Others will insist on receiving at least a letter of intent. Some bands will send you a contract which has been refined by years of experience. Contracts ought to be nothing to worry about. They should serve as a protection to both sides in an agreement. Some, however, ramble on and may contain irrelevant items or specify small items, such as those covered under peripherals. You need to read through a contract and, if you have any queries or disagreements with any item, phone the person who issued the contract and agree which items can be struck out. Usually, you are presented with two sheets with identical contents. Make sure they remain identical. Sign both, when happy, and return one to the sender.
Inexperienced hirers are sometimes surprised to see clauses about cancellation costs. The reason for these is that once a contract (verbal or otherwise) is agreed, the band are effectively barred from seeking alternative work on the same date. If there is plenty of time yet to run before the date, and you find you have to cancel the event, there is a chance that the band can find a replacement engagement. The closer to the proposed event, the less chance chance they have of finding alternative work.
It is extremely rare that a band fails to meet an engagement, especially if you have enquired and found that they are regarded as professionals. Bands themselves are often well-placed to secure alternative performers for you, especially in these days of email and mobile phones.
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Here are some small items you might want to check with your prospective performers.
Drivers. Not all musicians and callers are drivers. If, say, you engage a four-piece band, and they arrive in two cars, you may have six people turn up; eight if the caller has a driver. With larger bands, it might be wise to enquire about the number of vehicles to expect, if there are parking restrictions.
Riders. This is a coloquial term for unexpected (and sometimes unwarranted) peripheral conditions in the small print of a contract. But there are a few that are reasonable, and are explained below.
Food. Performers often travel a fair distance. Added to that, they are away from home for considerable hours. Should you be offering food at your event to your guests, it seems uneconomic to demand that the band obtain food from somewhere else. But if you do, let the band know.
Drink. Most musicians enjoy a drink. (A lot of the events they play at are on licenced premises). On the other hand, even if they are not driving, they cannot afford to over-imbibe. If you are running a free bar, it is only fair to make it clear whether or not they are included. If there is no bar, but people are welcome to bring their own bottles, it makes sense to let the band know. If the event is to be "dry", it is also best to be forewarned.
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