Posted to rec.folk-dancing on December 3, 1999 [Go to original posting]


Here's a long essay, in which I ramble on about ideas that have been fermenting in the back of my head for a while, with the hopes that others will find my "thinking out loud" of interest.

Let me open with a story from another newsgroup, which I'll use to illuminate assumptions that I see in our contra dance community:

I frequent genealogy newsgroups (kinda part of my day job) and recall about two years ago that a fellow wrote that he had posted the surnames he was researching on the proper newsgroup a few weeks earlier and had not gotten a response. His message, which I wish I'd saved, was a politely formulated suggestion that he was being unfairly ignored by said newsgroup, and that he thought he was entitled to bring a politely formulated complaint. He asked how long should he have to wait to get an answer? (In other words, why wasn't someone finding his ancestors for him?)

So I and others wrote back with these explanations:

  1. The people who knew those families are now deceased or elderly and infirm.
  2. The people who knew those families are alive and well but do not use the internet.
  3. The people who knew those families do use the net, but have interests other than genealogy and do not read genealogy newsgroups.

    Plus we suggested:

  4. Just because you have voiced a demand does not mean that someone else is obligated to meet it.

Now, what does this have to do with dance?

What I found telling was the budding genealogist's consumer mentality, which I analyze thusly:

The consumer mentality (CM) is one that insists that as soon as I articulate a need or desire, someone else is responsible for satisfying it, and if someone doesn't do so fairly promptly, I have grounds for a grievance. It is a strikingly passive stance; unwilling to do X for myself, I expect X to therefore be done for me by others.

CM is obviously the necessary driving force behind the production and consumption of consumer goods and services, and its value in those contexts is off-topic in this newsgroup. But when CM shows up in our dance communities, I sense that it is a harmful rather than helpful force.

Our dance organizations are nonprofit organizations. Those who work to produce local dance series and large dance events labor for no wages or, if you're a performer, low compensation. If you ever get irritated with the foibles of your local dance organization and find yourself wishing that it was "run more like a business," then you are hereby nominated to lead the campaign to *pay* your organizers and performers prevailing wages like a business would and double or triple admission costs accordingly.

An advantage of the nonprofit organization, beyond its trade-off of little or no compensation for labor in exchange for low admission prices, is that in this "unbusinesslike" setting, there are no strict distinctions between management and labor and customer. Many of us inhabit more than one role at once, being both organizers and performers, or dancers and performers, or dancers and organizers. I would argue that our dance culture benefits from these loose, flexible role arrangements; they enable and promote actual community "ownership" of the dance. A dance modeled on the privatized, for-profit model would necessarily have to establish formal roles (AKA employees, owners/bosses, customers) and the community's ownership and participation (beyond passive consumership) would perforce be curtailed or eliminated.

Contra dance organizers and performers are drawn to this alternative, nonprofit culture for a reason—the same reason that Buffalo's own Ani DiFranco started her own label rather than sell her artistic soul to a big record company. (We are so proud of her here!!) I think our musicians value community venues as much as, if not more than, commercial ones; they value their artistic freedom, and they value the responsive and appreciative audiences that contra dance gigs provide. We don't passively sit and chatter while they play in the background, we actively use that music!! (Not being a musician, I invite those who are to speak for themselves.)

For their part, organizers notice that passive "cultural" entertainment (which consists mainly of picking this videotape or channel or CD or website over that one) is fairly antisocial. We delight in organizing experiences in which people actually do something together, in which all are needed, to make something joyful and beautiful happen—in real time and space, using the talents of ordinary people instead of machines (sound systems excepted). Something in which is the point is definitely not to make a profit—although breaking even is always necessary.

Dance organizers care about providing opportunities for direct, tangible, sensory, unmediated experience. In this technologically saturated age, we are rapidly and eagerly replacing unscripted real life experiences with sensorily impoverished, scripted, mediated ones. (Example: At an educational technology conference in Buffalo recently, elementary school teachers were taught how to produce virtual field trips for their students using the internet—as though passively watching a screen was more educational than taking the kids to the nature preserve, the corner bakery, the post office, City Hall.)

What happens when we inject CM into this rich, noncommercial culture? We get Dance Consumers—as opposed to Dance Participants. I don't like proposing such stark, either/or dichotomies, since nearly all of us who contribute to the health of our dance communities have our "Consumer" moments. But, since I want to get a point across, I'll blaze ahead.

Some observations:

  • Dance Consumers want to know if they'll meet any single men or women at the dance, which leads to...
  • Dance Consumers rarely dance with newcomers unless they are attractive and single.
  • Dance Consumers happily eat the refreshments but never bring any.

Dance Consumers say, "Dance organizers should [fill in the blank]" rather than offering, "Can I help with [fill in the blank]?" Okay, I confess that this whole essay was inspired by a recent thread here [in rec.folk-dancing]. Certain dancers want their organizations to provide "experienced dancers only" events. My counter-suggestion: Dancers who want these events should start planning them, with our blessings. Find yourself a hall, book the performers, develop a guest list, so you can include and exclude whoever you wish. This dance organizer thinks you will gain valuable dance organizing experience from throwing a private party for people of your own choosing, and hopes that you will bring that experience back to your home dance group. But I think that organizing a public dance for which only certain segments of the public are welcome is just plain wrong, unethical, possibly illegal in some of the halls we use, or, if you prefer nicey-nice euphemisms, "inappropriate."

Dance Consumers think in terms of what I deserve from the dance instead of what the dance deserves from me.

Without reciprocity, when there is all taking and no giving, there is no community, just consumerism.

Cynthia M. Van Ness
Read David Kirchner's reply to this article