The business of lindy hop

Zack Richard’s great post about running lindy hop businesses. Hooked up by Jerry @ Wandering and Pondering on the facey. Of course. He was linking to the #improvrespect piece, but I couldn’t give one fig about that discussion, so I didn’t even finish that piece. But he did remind me that Zach writes good stuff, so I flicked back through his earlier pieces and found this one.

I’m interested in the way we use ‘be like Frankie’ as a model for ethical business practice. He’s a pretty good role model for dance stuff. But it’s unusual to see one person become so important as a model for sustainable business practice. It does worry me a bit; smells like a cult to me. And there are some dodgy gender things at work here. And I do worry that the reality of the man is lost in the idea of the man that’s used to sell ideas. But I guess that’s how history works: the reality of the person is subsumed by the idea of the person.

…any way, Zack outlines some ideas that fit nicely with my own point of view, but he frames them in terms of Frankie’s legacy, and the history of lindy hop. Which are very interesting approaches. I like the ethics outlined in this approach, but the cultural studies scholar in me is a bit suspicious. A bit uneasy. At any rate, if you’re just looking for content, and not engaging with narrative and ideological practice in a critical way, it’s a great piece. I definitely recommend reading it.

This bit caught my eye:

Yes, we must be wary of the “ballroom studio model” that hires undertrained and underpaid staff who painfully review fifteen years old instructional videos and then regurgitate washed-out, dumbed down material to the students. To that we say: whatever their level, keep your teachers and yourself well informed and inspired to strive for betterment. Turn to Frankie and his constant need to create and top himself.

I really had no idea (naïvely, it seems) that other scenes had the same problems we do here in Sydney. It’s a relief to see that our problems aren’t unique, and that other people have thought about solutions for them.

How to run a lindy hop party

Ok, so here’s a sample approach to running a lindy hop event in Sydney. It has a bit of planning involved, but I’ve found you do need some plans. If you play the whole thing by ear, you will screw someone over.

This is a long post. Every now and then someone comments that they find my posts too long. To them I say: sucks to be you, bro.

Budget
You need to keep track of your spending. Even if you’re not legit, and are just treating this like a private party, you will need to be sure you have enough money in your bank account to pay the bills. Even if it’s a little dance.
So what’s in your budget? Everything. I put everything in it. Because it’s things like petrol to drive a sound system to a gig that get left out, when they’re actually a fairly big expense. Put everything in your budget. I usually do an ‘estimated income/expense’ budget, and then fill in the ‘actual income/expense’ parts as they’re finalised.

Here’s a draft budget for a little DJed gig in a venue with a sound system in-house already.

Expenses:

  • Venue hire: $150 (5 hours @ $30 per hour) -> make sure you include bump in and bump out time, usually an extra two hours. So for a 3 hour event, you’re paying for 5 hours venue hire.
  • Venue hire bond/deposit: $0 (you’ll get this back after the gig, but you still need the cash up front for a lot of venues, especially council or church or big corporate venues).
  • Cash Float: $140 (for a smaller event, $200 for a bigger one) -> in $5 notes (that’s important). You get this back, but you need the cash up front.
  • DJ pay: $75 (3 hours @ $25 per hour).
  • DJ rider: $20 (soft drink or chips or whatevs) -> you don’t have to do this, but I’ve found it’s a very cheap way to make your DJs happy.
  • Stationary and extras: $50 (envelopes to put pay in, cash box, paper for printing out signs, dodgy hand flyers, and running sheets, clean up kit, etc)

[NB: I have also started adding in the cost of public transport or Goget hire for my event management. That’s an added cost for me (especially car hire), and I need to count that in there, as transport is an ESSENTIAL part of any event. Same goes for including petrol and parking. I use Goget rather than cabs, because they are less stress, and are actually free after midnight.]

=> That’s $435 right there. Which is ridiculously cheap for a dance event.
So you will need 44 people paying $10 each to break even. I’d allow 50, because shit happens. That’s if you’re not paying tax or being legit. This is totally achievable in Sydney. I actually like to aim higher, so I have a little cushion, and perhaps a bit of profit to make into a nest egg, or heck, to just cover your time. If you’re lucky. I find my smallest mid-week events are usually about 60 people. My larger independent weekend events pull about 90-100. And the bigger events I ran for my previous employer, with the promotional pull of a big dance school, can sit on about 140.

That’s all here in Sydney, with a competitive live music and events scene. Other cities run huger events. But remember: 20 people is a party. That’s good shit. You don’t need to be huge to be successful. I’ve run bigger events in Melbourne that pull in hundreds of people. I don’t actually like it so much – my latest plan is for a mini-event in a mini-venue. Fun!

Ask yourself: is your venue big enough for 50 people? 90? 140? Can you afford a larger one? How will you handle too many people arriving? I’ve actually had that problem: it’s exciting to have hundreds of people turn up, but it’s not safe to mash them into a tiny venue. And they will only remember having a shitty, crowded, hot time.

Some people run their events assuming they’ll make enough money on the night to cover their costs, so they don’t bring any extra cash. I don’t do this. I always bring enough cash to cover my expenses, just in case. So I have a little envelope with the DJ pay all divided up and ready to go. And I think about how to protect my cash against theft. Because shit happens. I also make sure it’s all in useful denominations – $5 notes for the float, etc etc. I usually try to divide it up ahead of time, because it’s really hard to count cash in a dark, loud, sweaty room full of dancers at 3am when you are totally exhausted.
Important: pay everyone promptly, and correctly. Do NOT wait for them to ask you for cash. Don’t be a dick.

Items:
aka ‘stuff you need’

  • Door kit (desk lamp; cash box or pencil case or something to put the cash in; mints and a bowl for them; door sheet to keep a tally of the number of punters arriving (I usually divide it up by door shifts, so I have an idea of when most people arrived, and when we were most likely to have door cash count problems); cash count sheet (so you can count all the money quickly on the night, then do a second count a day or two later when you’re recovered – put it all on one piece of paper); door list to record all the comps getting in for free; sign with the event price on it; a copy of the running sheet for you, for the DJ, for the door; pens, pencils, sticky tape, gaffa tape (the real stuff), scissors, blue tac; a sign up sheet for your email list; hand sanitiser); your emergency plan.
  • Clean up kit (roll of strong garbage bags (don’t use cheapies, they’ll make you cry), chux cloths).
  • Toilet paper. Trust me – you will be glad you have it.
  • Sound gear (RCA cable to connect laptops to the sound gear – always bring your own), power board, extension cord, small torch (yes, this is important), adaptor plugs for the RCA cable.
  • Desk lamp, for the DJ or the door desk. Better to have than not have.
  • Plastic cups, bottle opener, chocolates, bottles of water for you and the DJ, your own drinks/snacks, especially if you are doing BYO drinks.
  • First aid kit. If you’re doing this a few times, buy one. At least buy some ice packs – good for injuries, heat distress, etc etc. I buy mine from the St John’s Ambulance people because they are a good cause, and their products are the best quality. Don’t scimp on first aid gear.

-> all this can cost about $50, maximum $100. But once you have all this junk, you’re covered for the future events.
Special note: Don’t get the cheap gaffa tape. I’m SERIOUS. The cheap stuff is impossible to clean off, and yet it doesn’t stick properly. Use good gaffa to do things like tape down trailing cables, stick fabric to mirrors (extra important in a dance studio venue). And then it comes off easily, and doesn’t make a mess. It’s also easier to tear.

Running sheet:
Make one. DO IT. And start it well before the weekend. And put EVERYTHING in it. I’ve been at events that don’t include everything in their running sheets, and it’s total bullshit.

Things to include:
– Venue hire confirmation.
I’ve been involved in approximately one million dance events where the organiser hasn’t confirmed the venue, and we’ve turned up to a locked or double booked space. I usually ring and inquire and leave my details and name, then I make the booking, then I ring and email to confirm (this is when I usually ring to ask about key collection – about a couple of weeks or a month out), then I ring and email to confirm again the day before the gig. This last one is when I double check key collections or organise a key collection time.
A note: if a venue organiser gives you a sad story about being double booked, implying that they’d like you to change your booking, don’t do it. Be properly sympathetic and understanding, but don’t let them push you into changing your date. It will be a massive pain for you, and it’s important to learn to be strong when dealing with venue managers, bands, sound guys, etc etc. You are the boss of this gig. I find that older men try this on me quite regularly. So I just put on my no bullshit, polite but capable voice and body language whenever I deal with people.
Sadly, the cheaper end of the venue hire scale (where we lindy hoppers tend to live) is where the dodgiest venue mangers also live. Learn to smell their bullshit a mile off. Follow your instincts – if you feel like they’re dodgy, they probably are. Run away.

– Event start and finish times
– Bump in start and finish times, bump out start and finish times
– All the specific details for the bump in and bump out.
List exactly what has to happen. DJ set up. Door set up. Rubbish pick up. Toilet tidy. etc etc. You’re less likely to forget something important this way.
– Door set up and tidy up times (the door close time is often before the end of the event).
– Sound gear set up start time (be detailed).
– Leaving home to travel to the venue time.
– Time to arrive home after the event – if it’s 4am, will you make that 8am key return time?
– When to collect the venue key (even if it’s the day before)
– When to return the key (especially if it’s the day after – will you be up at 8am to return a church hall key?)
– Any gear collection/delivery times.
Getting sound gear delivered? When will it arrive? Allow extra time for fuck ups and late delivery. Do you need to collect anything on the day? Bag of ice? DJ? Lights? Slab of beer? Add that into your running sheet. This one is REALLY important, and something most people forget.
– Volunteer shifts: start and finish times, who does what, etc.
Include door shifts, bump in, and bump out times. This one is IMPORTANT. Don’t play it by ear. Roster your volunteers into spots that suit their skills and preferences. Are they great with people? Put them on the door. Are they fantastically organised? Get them to handle the first door shift. Are they rubbish with people, but very diligent and responsible? Put them on tidy up.
– DJ shifts.
Which DJ is DJing when? Don’t do this randomly – they’ll have set preferences, and will be best suited to some shifts. If they’re a crazy hardcore fast DJ, don’t put them on first. If they’re good at blues and lindy, maybe put them later in the night so they can do both. If they’re great at making dancers feel relaxed and comfortable, put them on first, so they can warm up the crowd.
Circulate this information well ahead of time.
– Cash drop times.
If you make heaps of cash, do you have a time set for when you’ll collect that extra cash and squirrel it away safely?
– Door close.
When will you close the door? Set aside time to do a quick cash count and door tally. It probably won’t be accurate, but it’ll give you one extra layer of accountability.
– Performances.
Allow 5 minutes for every 3 minute performance. It takes time to do announcements, applauding, getting performers on and off stage.
– Comps.
Even a jack and jill needs to be slotted into a running sheet. If you are running a comp, even a little one, you’ll need a whole other running sheet and plan for that. If you do this stuff, keep it short and sweet.
– Any snowballs or welcome dances or birthday dances or any of that stuff. Most DJs can just pull a song out of their bum, but newer DJs can’t.
– Any important announcements.
If there’s an after-party, announce it at a set time, and put that in the running sheet, so you won’t forget. Welcome people to your party at about half an hour in, or an hour in. That way people will know who you are, and they’ll feel welcome. MCs are actually great for helping a party flow. But keep your speeches short, light hearted, and friendly. DJs can do this, but that’s not their job – it’s an MC’s job.
– Introducing and back announcing DJs.
Put it in your running sheet, so you won’t forget.
-> I recommend putting these things between DJ sets, so you don’t mess up a DJ’s flow.

Emergency plan:
This is my latest addition to my door kit. It is very very important. It’s like a birth plan when you go to have a baby – you won’t be in a good position to make good decisions when it happens, so plan ahead.

I include:

  • Contact phone numbers for the local police station (as well as the emergency number 000) – the NSW police have an easy search box on their site. This will be very important to have on hand if you have randoms turn up at 1am.
  • Contact phone numbers for an ambulance – even if it’s just 000, it’s important to have it written down.
    -> I write all this on a little card that is stuck to the back of the door sign, so people can see it ALL the time.
  • Put your first aid kit right there on the door table in plain view. Do NOT hide it. It tells your punters you are serious about safety, and it makes it easier to find.
  • Make a plan for accidents: what will you do if someone falls and can’t get up? Think ahead, and plan out what you would do. Would you call an ambulance? When would you make the decision to call the ambulance? Would you move them? Would you stop the music?
    Make a plan now, because you won’t be able to when it happens. If you are running the event, it is your responsibility to think of this stuff. Write out this plan – don’t just think about it. Write it down, and have it in an accessible place, and tell the door volunteers about it.
  • NEVER assume that because X ‘is a doctor’ that they will handle an emergency at your gig. That is a big mistake: you don’t really know if they are competent, and you don’t know if they’ll be there and willing to help out.
  • Do you have the venue manager’s phone number? Why? Five reasons:
    1) One MLX I turned up at the late night venue to set up, at about midnight, to find someone had knocked a pipe in the kitchen (which was also the band room) and water was gushing into the room. We couldn’t reach the venue manager, we didn’t have the brain to call a plumber, so we just taped that shit up with gaffa tape. Seemed legit.
    2) Another year I turned up at the late night venue and the security code did’t work, and the alarm went off. So I had to call the event coordinator, who then called the venue manager. Meanwhile, I got to say hello to a particularly unappealing security guard. And his gun.
    3) Earlier this year an alarm went off during a huge dance with heaps of people and a big band, right in the middle of a students’ performance. The venue manager came running to fix the alarm, and luckily we didn’t have to interrupt the performance. Much.
    4) One MSF I was just pulling into my accommodation’s drive way, after a 30 minute drive home, when the first late night DJ called to tell me he’d arrived at the venue and there was no sound gear in the main lindy hop room. None. So I called the event coordinator, and she called the venue manager. Meanwhile, I had the ‘blues’ DJ in the other room play ‘lindy hop’ music at slower tempos until they got the situation in the other main ‘lindy hop’ room fixed. Thing I learnt: DJ coordinators need to be on-site at the beginning of every party in the weekend. Even if it’s the second night.
    5) Last year at Canberrang there was a fire alarm, fire engines came, and everyone had to empty out into the street in the middle of the night. To sub zero temperatures. Someone actually contracted pneumonia.

    Shit like this always happens, so be prepared. And buy good gaffa tape

Promotion:
This is a tricky one, and depends on what you want to achieve with your event. Decide ahead of time: do you want millions of people? Do you want just a few people? What is your ‘vision’ for your event? Are you planning a solid old school scratchy hot jazz party with hardcore lindy hop? Is this a late night beer-and-cake party with lots of shouting and a wide ranging style of music? Think carefully – all your PR decisions will be shaped by these ideas.

Things to think about:

  • what tone will your PR talk take? Will you be friendly and chatty?
  • will you use lots of in-jokes (and alienate peeps who don’t know you)?
  • will you be professional and kind of distant?
  • will you be talking to new dancers, who need a lot of things explained to them (eg ‘social dancing’, ‘hardcore lindy hop’, ‘hot jazz’, etc etc)
  • will you be talking to experienced dancers who travel a lot?
  • are you addressing blues dancers, lindy hoppers, balboa dancers?
  • How will you contact people?
    I like a three-pronged approach: paper flyers (cheap photocopies are actually cool for smaller or more ‘indy’ dance parties), word of mouth (your volunteers talking about their gig, for example, you talking to all sorts of people, your teaching friends mentioning it in class, etc etc), and online. Online is a big one (facebook is most powerful, but twitter, instagram, a designated website, and EMAIL are very powerful too), but face to face is actually your most powerful promotional tool.
  • Make a PR plan.
    You don’t want so spam all your friends on fb 6 weeks before the event, then go silent for six weeks. Plan it out. Designing, making, printing, and distributing flyers takes time – more time if you have less experience. Are you friends with lots of peeps on facebook? Do you have good relationships with teachers in your scene? Do you have access to an email newsletter?
  • Only tell people useful information.
    Don’t just randomly spam them on facebook with useless shit. They want to know: when it is (so perhaps a post about why Saturday the X of X month is a great date is important), where it is (a post about the venue itself – use a photo! – is great), what music will be on show (who are the DJs? tell people! use a youtube link to a song that really captures the vibe you want for your event), and what will actually happen at the event (is there a comp? are you byo or selling drinks? Do you want peeps to bring a plate to share? Tell people!)
  • Use a friendly, open, yet professional tone.
    You can be personable, but don’t tell everyone all your personal information. Be accessible and friendly, but not stalkery and creepy.
  • After the weekend:
    Follow up on your FB event with a nice note thanking your volunteers, DJs, and other workers by name (ALWAYS do this). Post some photos. Link to other people’s photos. This is PR for your next event. It’s also just a fun thing to do. Part of the fun of lindy hop is remembering past events that were really great.
  • Don’t play the martyr card.
    Don’t ever beg people to come, cry about having spent a million dollars on food or the venue or whatevs, and don’t shout that no one is buying tickets for your party. Nobody will like that, and it will make them cranky, and they will AVOID your parties. Also that is weird shit – don’t do that.
  • Be honest and open, and run events that actually meet people’s needs.
    Just because you want a late night blues party with a hip hop DJ dropping phat beats, doesn’t mean other people do. And perhaps someone else is already doing this, but better than you ever could. Know your scene, know what they want. And do not ever try to ‘educate’ or ‘give people what they need’. That’s patronising shit. Stop that.

All this stuff is important, even if you’re just running a small dance in a studio. You have bills to pay ($500 remember), and you want people to come to your party. So find a way to get them interested.

The venue:

  • Clean up
    It will take longer than you think. Will you be up for it at 4am? Plan it now, because you will be too tired to think straight then.
  • Set up.
    • It will take longer than you think. Just opening the doors, turning on the lights, and walking about being excited will take 15 minutes. It’ll take 15 minutes to set up the door. And other 15 minutes to set up the DJ table (if all the gear is in place, and ready to go. which it rarely is). If you’re decorating, allow at least an hour.
      If you’re doing all that by yourself, it’ll take 1 hour and 45 minutes. If you have volunteers, you’ll still need to explain what to do, and trouble shoot as you go along. Allow AT LEAST one hour bump in time for any event. Longer if you’re decorating.
    • Do you actually know how to set up sound gear? If you don’t, you’ll need to organise someone to come in and do it for you. Do NOT just assume the DJ will do it. They are there to DJ, not do tech support.
  • Rubbish disposal.
    This is a big one. One wheelie bin probably won’t cut it. If that’s all you have, you’ll need to be sneaky and see if you can put rubbish in other properties’ bins. But don’t get caught or fuck shit up for the venue manager.
    Does the venue have a skip? Where is it? Can you find it in the dark? When you look at the venue, go and physically touch the bin and see if you can open it – don’t rely on a verbal description from the venue manager. Ask the venue manager: “Are we expected to empty the bins into the skip?” Some venues are ok with you leaving the full garbage bags on-site. Most aren’t. Remember: dancers make a LOT of rubbish. Mostly empty plastic water bottles.
  • Lights.
    Where are they? Can you turn them off? Could you do it when you’re totally exhausted, at 4am, in the dark?
  • Cleanliness:
    • Is the venue clean before you start your gig?
      We use one great studio that often has quite dirty toilets, so we need to allow time to clean them before the gig. If you’re cleaning toilets, you can’t expect volunteers to do it without checking with them first. Allow time for this. Some volunteers have never actually cleaned a toilet before. inorite.
    • General cleaning.
      Say to the venue manager – “Will we be expected to clean the venue after use? What does that specifically involve?” If that means vacuuming the whole joint (I’ve had to do that) at 4am, perhaps that is too sucktown for you and your meagre volunteer resources. If you do have to clean extensively, put that time in your running sheet. DO IT NOW.
    • Venue manager contact details: get a phone number, and test it then and there. You will need it 5 minutes before the gig starts and you can’t get the front door open.
  • Electricity.
    Where are the power points? Take a photo. Does the venue have 3phase power?
  • Sound gear.
    Look at it, test it, try it out, take photos.
  • Furniture.
    What is there in the venue? Are you allowed to use it? Or move it? You will need a DJ table and chairs, a door table and chairs, and probably something for your punters to sit on during the night. Look at it all in situ, take photos of it, measure it, count it.
  • How big is the venue?
    Measure it. Take photos of EVERYTHING.
  • Toilet paper.
    Is there heaps? I usually allow about 5 rolls per cubicle, if there are 6 cubicles for the venue. So allow about 30 rolls. Yes, it’s a lot. But dancers use it for all sorts of stuff besides wiping their bums. Ask the venue: do they supply it, or do you? If it’s on-site, where is it? Physically touch the rolls, so you know it’s not locked in cupboard somewhere.
  • Soap.
    Bring some.

Once you’re at the venue and the party’s started, there’s more work to do. If you’re running this party, you have to manage this party. That means that you can’t just dance like a fool all night and then suddenly think at 4am “Oh shit, we have to clean up.” When you are running a party, you have to keep part of your mind on the the mechanics of the whole thing.

You need to keep an eye on:

  • The DJs.
    • Introduce them, thank them individually, pay them promptly.
    • If you need to give them feedback, or to get them to change it up during their shift, ask them, specifically: “Hey mate, peeps are looking to dance, but they’re having trouble getting into it. Could you please drop a favourite like ‘Easy Does It’ in there in the next couple of songs?” Don’t give vague advice or vague comments like “Everyone is really tired.” That’s an observation, not actually useful advice.
    • Don’t hover. Do not hover. Don’t hover. DJs are working, and unless they give you open body language that says ‘hey, talk to me!’ they won’t want you hovering – just let them do their thing. I find event managers do this quite a bit: they just. can’t. let. go. I personally find it absolutely maddening.
    • Don’t kiss DJ arse. Yes, they’re great, but too much sucking up is weird. Say thank you, and tell them “You rock!” when they pull something awesome, but mostly just them do their thing. Don’t micromanage.
  • The volunteers.
    Have they turned up for their shift? Are things going ok at the door? Have you had a crazy amount of people turn up, leaving your door people with one million dollars in small notes to deal with? Have you thought of a cash drop process to deal with this? Who’ll do it? Where will you keep that money? Have you thanked a volunteer coming off shift? Did you check in with the new shift of door volunteers? Are you being patient and kind during bump out, even though you’re absolutely shagged and kind of grumpy?
  • The punters.
    You need to keep one eye on the people in the room. You might be having the best time ever, but is everyone else? Are they sitting about talking? Are they dancing like crazy fools? Are they only dancing to the slow songs?

    My usual plan: I want people to have a lot of fun. If I’m running a dance, I want them dancing. Sometimes that means crazy fun, sometimes that means calm, gentle fun. I rarely aim for calm, gentle fun, because lindy hop. But a blues event is probably looking for calm, intense fun.
    If people are sitting down, why? Is it because they’re tired? Did you notice whether people were dancing the last five songs, and have only just sat down? Or have they been sitting down all night? Is the room too hot? Too cold? Too crowded? What time is it? All these things will help you decide what to do next. If you want them up and dancing, you might have to suggest (politely) to the DJ that they play a favourite – ‘Splanky’ or ‘Easy Doest It’ or whatever songs works as a nice friendly invitation to dance for your scene.
    But be prepared to change your ‘plan’ for the party: you might be aiming for crazy fun, but they might want to dance slowly, talk more. You might have wanted old scratchy super hot jazz, but they might be responding to sugergroove at moderate tempos… or getting their funk on with Aretha. You might have wanted calm, quiet chatting and slow dancing, but have ended up with a room full of adrenaline junkies shouting at each other and swinging out like fools.
    Go with it.

Managing people:

  • Means being able to delegate in a rational way. You need to look at a situation, assess the priorities, and then delegate jobs to deal with each issue. You can’t just do everything yourself. If you plan things ahead of time (eg estimate that it will take one hour to hang decorations), you’ll be able to put volunteers to work in a sensible way.
  • My rule: be polite to all people at all times. If you are cranky, take a time out. Be nice. Smile. Laugh. Problems are interesting challenges, not fucking terrible tragedies. Thank people. Don’t get all up in their grills hassling them and micromanaging them, though – let people be competent, trust them and delegate. Take responsibility for dramas or problems: the buck stops with YOU, so step up and take responsibility. Tell volunteers to handball difficult punters to you immediately. Be a manager, not a pain in the arse.
  • btw, if you are managing an event, you can’t DJ. It’s just the way things are. You probably shouldn’t teach or perform, either. Who’ll trouble shoot while you’re showing off?

MOST IMPORTANTLY:
Respect your volunteers and DJs. You can’t actually do this without them. They are actually more important than you are. Be polite at all times. Listen to them. Don’t micromanage, but don’t just assume they know what to do all the time. Explain clearly and simply what you want from them. Listen to their suggestions, and take them on board.
Volunteers are the people who help you promote your event. Just by telling their mates that they’re volunteering, they’re telling them that they think this event is important and good enough to be a part of. So make them happy bearers of good news, not shitty people with a gripe to share.
Also: just be a decent person, ok? Get over your issues, your insecurities, and just BE NICE.

And finally, enjoy this. Enjoy the real-time challenges and pressures. Enjoy the excitement. Enjoy the problems! Enjoy working with people. Be flexible, and able to amend your plans on the fly. Take suggestions and advice. You could be wrong – how exciting! New ideas that you don’t have to come up with!

I know a lot of people reading this will be all “Oh, that’s overkill. Chill out, man!” especially if they’re thinking about a smaller event.

You don’t have to do this sort of stuff. But I do. Because I’ve been doing this for fourteen years now, and I find that it’s when things aren’t planned out properly that people get screwed over. Me or other people. And it’s really stressful.
I’ve found that developing these sorts of processes with smaller events helps you prepare for running larger events. A large exchange, for example, is like running 6 or 7 huge parties in one weekend. Except you’re getting progressively tireder and physically trashed. So your plans are even more important.
If you have comprehensive plans, you can hand over your event to someone else. We developed this approach in the early days of the Melbourne Jazz Dance Association running the Melbourne Lindy Exchange. We were all volunteers, so we needed to be able to drop everything with no notice if our day jobs got intense, our families needed us, or our health failed. So we developed a good way of documenting our planning, and then sharing our planning. These days I use google docs to share documents: version control is gold. I use it even for little parties, so I can circulate DJ rosters, keep track of budgets, and so on.

And if you do document your plans, you can develop templates for future events. I tend to reuse running sheets, because the basic structure of a dance event doesn’t actually change very much – we still have to bump in and out, roster DJs and bands and volunteers. Same goes for budgets: complete budgets help you remember what to pay for, but they also help you remember what to actually buy in the first place. I often annotate budgets with notes about where I bought cheap beer, whether they delivered, etc etc etc. And running sheets with contact details for venue managers, DJs, and so on are just gold for subsequent event planning.

I think that planning out an event ahead of time can also help you decide whether this is something you want to do. It’s quite a lot of work the first few times, because you don’t have the time management skills, the patience and the people management skills. So it helps to see just what you’re getting yourself in to before you actually put down the cash and do the PR.
I think that your sense of scale also changes after you’ve done a lot of events. I now think of a ‘small’ band night like our Swinging at the PBC gigs with international and interstate bands as relatively small and simple projects. My idea of ‘big’ these days is a five day weekend event with half a dozen bands, international teachers, heaps of venues, stacks of volunteers and DJs. But if this your first time, a DJed party at your house might be ‘big’.
I’ve also found that the hugest events mean that you can’t give lots of attention to the tiniest things – being a proper host and welcoming or farewelling people as they arrive or leave the party. Making cute paper invitations. Planning a birthday jam for a friend. So a ‘small’ event can actually be quite detailed, and really much nicer… can you see why I’m moving away from larger events these days?

I think that a well-planned smaller, local event is much more important to a local scene than a huge exchange. It’s the everyday, cheaper, accessible local stuff that skills dancers up to run events, to social dance, and to be part of a socially sustainable community. So they are much more important. They also run on smaller budgets, at greater personal financial risk, make smaller profits, and are kind of relentless in the way they demand labour and time over and over again, from relatively inexperienced folk. But this is where we learn to DJ, we learn to be social dancers (not just social dancing, but being dancers in a social space), we learn to work with bands, we learn to create professional networks and relationships. So it’s worth putting time and care into them.

Don’t be a poo: cross promotion in lindy hop

This is a post about cross-promotion, and the reciprocal benefits of not being weird about it.

Quite a few swing dance teachers and event organisers won’t mention, let alone promote, other swing dance organisations in their own city, because they don’t want to ‘promote’ another dance business. I’m always a bit surprised by this attitude, because it’s quite clear that when you cross-promote other dance businesses, you do good things for your own business. And when other people do well – particularly in term of lifting their profile in the wider community – we all benefit.

This was made particularly clear by a random facebook comment made by Duncan, administrator of Swing Out London, recently. He noted that S.O.L. (a really impressive online guide to the huge London lindy hop scene) had seen a huge spike in hits in that week, and he was wondering why. He hadn’t done any new promotion, and nothing had really changed on the site. Another commenter noted that a large London dance school had recently had some massive publicity through a tv show. I suspected that show’s audience had immediately googled ‘swing dance London’ (rather than the specific school’s name), and hit on the well-maintained, SEO-happy S.O.L, which does all the things a good swing dance website should.

Swing Out London had benefitted directly from the success and high profile of another dance project. And we can assume that so did all those other dance businesses listed in its guide.

S.O.L. is one of those projects which we should all support. It has a very clear, and well-managed listings policy, that helps users find what they’re looking for – lindy hop and other jazz and swing era dances – and it helps make clear the differences between jazz and swing dance and ‘other’ dances. This is good for people who are ‘selling’ jazz dances, as opposed to west coast swing, jive, or rock n roll. It’s also non-partisan, which means that it lists any event, so long as it fits into the swing and jazz era dances.

Yes, it might be promoting your ‘competitors” events, but you actually benefit from being listed along side your competitors. It means that you are grouped together under ‘quality’ or ‘relevant’ events, which means that punters will come to your event with expectations that match your promotional strategies and product. You’re not going to send unhappy tango dancers off into the night to bitch about your gig.

This seems counter-intuitive for people coming from a traditional business model. How could it possibly help my bottom line to encourage people to spend their money with another business?

There are a number of ways we can benefit from cross-promotion.

Punters develop expectations about your business that actually match your product and services. So, again, you won’t get people turning up expecting tango, and going home cranky to badmouth you on facebook. You’ll get punters plugging into a network to find products like the one they got at X’s event the other week. When punters start branching out beyond your little domain, they are effectively saying “I want MORE OF THIS.” So why not feed the addiction? :D .

It’s good for peace of mind. This is the reason I’m quite happy to cross-promote, and why I actively support events, teachers, bands, and DJs that I think are great. It just makes me feel good to say “I think X does GREAT work!” It’s also easier to openly support other people, than it is to pretend they don’t exist. Or to actively work to sabotage the success of their project (which is what refusing to promote or acknowledge other peeps does).
I won’t, however, promote, support, or draw attention to events that I think are rubbish. If I think a particular organiser or event is dangerous or unsafe or ethically wrongtown, I will critique it publicly. But if I just think it’s a bit un-excellent, I’ll just move on. I find that I benefit from honestly supporting stuff that I think is great. I get sent free tickets or free CDs, or I even just develop good friendships with people whose work I admire. And I usually just don’t bother trying to suppress my excitement or pleasure in something new and fantastic that I’ve found: I WANT to tell people about these things. And it’s just plain exciting to blabber about a new CD that I love, or a new party I’ve been to. As a DJ, I want other people to play CDs I love, so I get to dance to them! I want other people to hire bands I love, so I get to dance to them! I want other organisers to do well, so I get to go to their parties as a punter, with no responsibilities!

You are a lindy hopper/jazz fan/vintage nut, too. If you’re not, I’m not sure why you’re in this business. If you love lindy hop, and someone else runs a successful, top quality party, you get to go dance! If you love victory rolls and trading 1930s hand-painted ties, and someone else runs a swap meet with great products and stalls – you get to trade ties and win! If you lead a hot jazz band, and someone else runs a successful (and great) jazz band that gets lots of gigs, they’re not only feeding a hunger for good music in the community, you get to go to good gigs!

=> these scenes are all small. We all benefit directly from the success of others.

As a business, it does really good things for your reputation to be seen as open and willing to work with other organisers, teachers and businesses in the swing dance world. Conversely, being a dick and refusing to mention other businesses (either in classes, or in online conversation), or even demanding students and troupe members never attend other classes or parties (yes, this really happens!), makes you look like a dick. A number of organisations just in Sydney have reputations for being dicks because they won’t cross-promote. Word gets about, and people remember the sourness and ill-will that comes with petty refusal to wish someone else well. Particularly in the lindy hop world. And the strongest selling point we have for lindy hop is its capacity for joy.

But if you are out there in the public eye, saying wonderful things about other people, everyone will remember: you are a good stick. You said good things. You are filled with good will. And that will trickle down into your own projects. Much more importantly, saying wonderful things makes you feel good. It’s much nicer to be positive and supportive than to be nasty and selfish. Be good to yourself, ok?

If we really are a community, we all benefit from stronger, more diverse, more prolific cultural and business activities in that community. If I run parties, I benefit from another dance school teaching heaps of classes and prioritising social dancing skills in their classes. Because those peeps will then go on to social dance. If I’m a jazz band leader, I benefit from dance classes that use jazz in class. If I run dance classes, I benefit from great social dancing parties, because they give my more advanced students in particular a place to dance and get the jazz feels. If I’m a teacher, entering a high-profile dance comp with a great reputation and good media profile is really good for my profile! And so on.

But what if I have a dance business that tries to offer all these things to ‘my’ students? Wouldn’t my profits suffer from the ‘competition’? Nah, mate. Swing dancers like new and interesting things. A scene with a wide range of music, activities, events, classes, competitions, and organisations caters to that need for the new. It also helps retain dancers. And we need to retain dancers, so we can add to the ‘brains trust’ that is the average ability level and dance knowledge in the scene.

What if my party/class/event is on the same night as someone else’s? Wouldn’t their event automatically count as competition for mine? Only if you’re offering exactly the same product or experience as that other person. And why would you offer an identical product, when we’ve just noted how much dancers like new stuff? This is the interesting part of jazz dance: we are built to enjoy innovation and improvisation. So we are constantly looking for more stimulation. The more experienced a dancer is, the more interested they are in new things. They want to be inspired. Hopefully!

So you’re really only in trouble if your product doesn’t change, if it’s static. And let’s be serious: you’ll die of boredom if you teach the exact same classes, run the exact same events, play the exact same music every night forever. Think of other people’s projects as stimulation and impetus for your own development. Have you taken a lindy hop class yourself lately? Have you danced with anyone new lately? How’s your own dancing going? Are you teaching at your best? How’s your music collection? Bought a new CD lately? Been to a weekend event lately? Hired a new band?

I know that working within a recreationist community makes it feel as though we need to hang onto the past and never change things. But let’s think about what lindy hop and vernacular jazz music and dance are all about: they are about utility. About innovation. About improvisation. About change. No, you don’t have to start swinging out to One Direction to be ‘new’. You can still recreate a historic solo jazz routine from archival footage, muscle twitch by bone twist. But you also need to remember the purpose of jazz dance: to challenge and be new. To ask questions. You can use new venues, new bands, new class content, new teaching tools!, dance with new people, travel to new places, have new ideas. Jazz can accommodate that. It wants that.

If you haven’t been doing these things, you can guarantee your teaching/DJing/dancing/choreography/events are getting boring. And you won’t do your punters any favours by trying to keep them ignorant of other, more interesting stuff in the scene. You’ll just lose their attention, or do bad things to their dancing. Nobody wins. Being aware of, cross-promoting, and participating in other people’s projects will be good for you, and for your projects. Not to mention making it clear that you’re not only not afraid of and not threatened by new things, you embrace them!

Be like the tap dancers in a jam: keep good solid time. Get into that circle of life. Be accountable for your own actions. Recognise the actions of others, the value and effort of their work. You’ll be pushed to improve yourself. You’ll do better work. We’ll all benefit.

Don’t be a poo.

Another shit-stirrer post about teaching

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about why people teach, and what they get out of it (for obvious reasons).

There is this idea in the lindy hop world that we should all sacrifice lots ‘for the community’. As though ‘the community’ was this really huge thing, larger and more important than all of us, and yet somehow not including us at all. I’m not sure where this idea that we should sacrifice our own health and spare time for the sake of other people’s dancing came from. I sometimes think it has to do with the revivalist impetus: that we have to keep lindy hop alive no matter what. Which is problematic for so many reasons. Starting with a) It wasn’t actually dead before busy white people started getting into it in the 1980s; b) If the communities that developed it have moved on to other things, perhaps a vernacular dance has lost its utility, and social dances should be useful and relevant above all else.

This is what I think:

  • communities must be sustainable. Culturally, socially, economically, environmentally… and so on.
  • The people in the community are that community. That includes the teachers and volunteers and event organisers and so on… all the people who are working their bums off to ‘keep the dance alive’. This means that their lives and work have to be sustainable: they have to earn enough money to pay their bills; they can’t ruin their health and relationships and lives with overwork; they have to find joy their work – it cannot be a burden. ie NO MARTYRS.
  • The ‘community’ is not a discrete bubble. All ‘communities’ overlap and interact with other ‘communities’. So the ‘lindy hop community’ is also a part of, or overlapping with, the ‘jazz community’, and the ‘vintage lifestyle’ community, and the ‘live music industry’, and the ‘wider local community’, and the ‘national community’, and so on. We are no better or worse than the people who don’t dance lindy hop. Lindy hop doesn’t make us special; we are already special. And so are the people who don’t dance lindy hop.

I know that a lot of lindy hop teachers I’ve met and worked with in Sydney and Melbourne feel as though the value of their teaching is assessed by the number of students in their class. As though they somehow fail to be good or important or useful teachers if they aren’t funnelling hundreds of new lindy hoppers onto the floor every year. I used to feel this way. But now I don’t.

I think that we all realise that huge classes are not good learning or teaching environments. Students don’t get the time or attention they need from teachers, nor do they develop the social bonds that help make a good community. Their learning and sense of ‘group’ is focussed on the teacher, and often, on the larger school identity. Rather than on the smaller, more important relationships with other people in their class, and on the social dance floor. Further, classes that focus on rote learning, on running through a sequence of steps over and over again until the students have it ‘perfect’ is not great learning.
It’s as though this sort of class deliberately undoes the culture and practice of social dancing. If you are pushing through a rote sequence of steps, no matter what, you cannot stop and listen to your partner, you cannot adjust your dancing to work with your partner and make it work, and you definitely cannot listen to and respond to the music. And that is very sad. It is also the opposite of lindy hop: this is not preserving a vernacular dance.

I see students come out of dance classes unable to ‘start’ dancing on the social dance floor until someone ‘counts them in’ or helps them ‘find one’. As though there was this rule that we HAVE to start dancing ‘on one’, or that steps have to perfectly align with an 8 or 6 count sequence. More importantly, those same students haven’t learnt how to make a real connection with a dance partner, because their attention in class is so focussed on the teachers; they’ve never learnt that it’s ok to just bop about on the spot with a new friend, chatting, and enjoying the music. They feel that they have to execute that series of prescribed moves perfectly if they are to be ‘good dancers’. And of course, those prescribed moves are only available (for a price) from a dance class.

This isn’t the students’ fault. Or even the teachers’, really. It’s the fault of a pervasive ideology of ‘learning through memorisation’, and a push to acquire huge class numbers as an indicator of ‘success’ – primarily financial. It’s also accepted that the retention rate of any class will be low – that people will find lindy hop really hard in their first class, and that they won’t ever come back. And, to be blunt (as though I was ever anything else), I’d be scared off by a huge class focussed on rote-learning a series of strictly ‘perfect’ steps.

The saddest thing about all this, is that this is not what lindy hop – or jazz – is all about. It makes me sad that teachers feel they have to push their classes to become bigger and more ‘successful’, instead of taking time to enjoy the time they spend with students in class. They are so intent on acquiring the ‘sexiest’, most ‘sellable’ steps from the latest round of competition videos, that they forget that dancing is actually lots of fun, particularly when the steps are simple and the focus is on the music and your partner.

I’ve recently shifted my own focus – in a very determined way – to classes which are all about social dancing. That means great music. That means learning to work with a partner – and not just for a 30 second rotation in class, but for a whole song in class. I don’t teach fixed patterns of steps; I teach a pattern, and then build on it, encouraging the students to figure out their own combinations. With Marie and Lennart’s example in mind, after the first few partner rotations in class, I don’t ‘count students in’ any more. I let them find their own way into the music. To me, these are the real skills social dancers – lindy hoppers – need. Nobody needs that latest trick that Famous Dancer X pulled out in a comp. A competition is not social dancing; the skills are quite different.

The nicest part of this shift in focus is that I find teaching so much more satisfying, and so much less anxiety-making.

So why am I writing this post now? It’s because this story about Stefan Grimm has been making the rounds in my academic network. I used to work in academia, but gave it up because it just wasn’t any fun. The students were neglected by shitty class environments, the research wasn’t fun any more because it was squeezed into restrictive grant-getting processes.

Reading this piece about universities as anxiety machines, I was struck by the similarities between the ‘dance class industry’ and universities. And not just because they’re both centred on pedagogy (or are they? What university still prioritises learning – whether through research or teaching?) The discussion about unpaid labour (normalised by the idea that ‘that’s what you do to get ahead’), sounds a lot like the exhaustion and exploitation in the lindy hop world justified by ‘doing it for the community’. The

…normalised surveillance of performance in class through attendance monitoring, learning analytics, retention dashboards and text-based reminders about work/labour/doing, and in the entrepreneurial demands of attending careers fairs and employability workshops and cv clinics, and in attempting to find the money to eat and live.

…sounds a lot like lindy hop today.
Get bigger classes. Where are you on the leader board? Have you hunted down the latest marketable step or move from the latest round of competition videos on Youtube? Did you go to that workshop and ‘collect’ moves?

And for ‘professional’ lindy hoppers (as though we aren’t professional unless we are traveling the world every weekend), the pressure is far higher. Not teaching on a repetitive injury? Not working hard enough. Not disguising disordered eating as ‘eating healthy’, ‘the paleo lifestyle’, or, most ironic of all, ‘keeping well’? Not truly committed to dance. Haven’t taken up a dozen ‘strength and maintenance’ exercise regimes on top of your lindy hop training? Just aren’t trying hard enough.

…this form of overwork and performance anxiety is a culturally acceptable self-harming activity. …My culturally acceptable self-harming activities militate against solidarity and co-operation that is beyond value…

(all these quotes are from ‘Notes on the University as anxiety machine’)

This is, of course, the bottom line. Because teachers (especially the highest profile ones) don’t spend quality time with anyone other than other teachers for extended periods of time, this stuff is all normalised. And they aren’t allowed the time and quiet to question the working conditions of their ‘jobs’. They are expected to work and work and work ‘for the community’. And if they do ask event organisers for things like, oh, a quiet room with a door that closes and a real bed to sleep, there is this niggling perception of them as ‘difficult’.

I don’t know where I’m going with this, really. Beyond arguing that we should shift our focus to more socially sustainable practices. And we should question the ‘for the community’ ethos that justifies socially and physically unsustainable work practices. Also, we should teach lindy hop like a vernacular dance, not like you’re going to be sitting an SAT test.

Mickey Davidson speaks about Norma Miller

Louis Satchmo Armstrong Jazz Camp Faculty Interview — Mickey Davidson

Anaïs Sékiné hooked this up on the facey and I think it’s grand.
As I said there, I really like the bit where she says that young people have a responsibility to preserve artistic heritage. I think that’s a cool thing: it tells young people they are important and capable of looking after something important. That dance and art are important, and not just a right, but a responsibility.

And as I listened more, I got more excited. This is such a great interview! I like the bit about having to have ‘clean rhythms’. I think I might have given the impression in my post about Sea of Rhythm that tappers are kind of slack about timing, and that anything goes. No. WRONG.
Being disciplined was quite central to all the classes at Sea Of Rhythm, working with African and tap dancers. There was a strong emphasis on being really tight in your rhythms. And we all had to dance in front of the WHOLE group, quite often, and if you weren’t right, if you weren’t tight, you were told, “No, do it again.”…. “No, not right, try again.” It was very different to lindy hop classes, where there’s a lot of kid-glove action, and students are really babied a lot.
…I think this is my favourite part of a ‘rhythm based’ approach to teaching and learning lindy hop: you need to step up and be precise. And then you’re allowed to improvise. But improvisation is NOT just making shit up: it’s clear, concise decisions.

…and I liked Mickey’s story about being apprenticed to Norma: having to fetch coffee and do jobs. That’s a real dance apprenticeship, that teaches you how to be part of the group, before you get to dance. This reminds me of a story an Indian temple dancer told me about learning to dance: she had to be apprenticed to a master for a long time, doing tasks like making food, cleaning, taking care of the master’s needs. This was at once a matter of learning humility, but also a matter of learning the day to day movements that would later inform her dancing. How to move like a temple dancer, even before you learn to dance.