Wednesday, November 20, 2013

We're Not in Uncle Fred's Barn Anymore!

In the early days of this country, contra dancing was a community event throughout New England.  Everyone gathered at "Uncle Fred's barn" or the community grange hall; musicians, callers, and dancers. No one paid to get into the dance. No one got paid to play music or call the dances.  It was a lovely gathering of folks who came together to socialize, court, and make something beautiful together. 
There is still a lot of that culture in modern day contra dancing, which on one hand is wonderful, but can often translate to an unwillingness to pay.  We sort of recognize that we're not in Uncle Fred's barn anymore - that there is hall rental and liability insurance to pay, that there needs to be a sound system these days, and musicians and callers often drive a long way to play for us. We're willing to pay something (usually less than $10) to dance, but communities often report strong push-back from the dancers if they want to raise the price to something even remotely resembling what one would pay for just about any other social activity or entertainment.
When I first started calling, I would hear other callers and musicians talk about "driving hundreds of miles for tens of dollars."  Now that I am a caller myself, I understand what they mean.  When I encounter musicians playing in restaurants or at festivals, I sometimes ask if they've ever played for contra dancing.  They're usually curious and start asking questions, but when we get around to the money part, they laugh in my face.  One man said, "I wouldn't pack up my equipment for that price!"  And this is from a profession usually considered "starving."
It is wonderful that contra dancing is affordable for most people. My community in Gainesville sends out regular notices telling folks that if they can't pay the entrance price, to contribute what they can and enjoy the dance.  But we also say, if you can contribute more, please do. Very rarely do we get a dancer who does either. 
If we paid more to dance, and paid our talent more, we would probably get a lot more high-quality musicians and callers interested in participating, but we would also lose some of that "Uncle Fred's barn" feel.  I'm sure there will always be tension between the two ideals. 
Most of us contra dancers can afford to contribute more to the cause.  If you're one of those who can, next time you go to a contra dance, hand over a $20 and say "keep the change."  Make sure you verbally appreciate your musicians, callers and organizers.  Trust me, they are NOT doing this for the money.