Theme nights

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Theme nights

Post  Sonia on Mon Feb 09, 2009 4:20 pm

I commented on a suggestion in my International group about theme nights, and Jeremy posted a timely and thought-provoking reply just as I was drafting an email to our group of leaders.

When you add a demo or lesson, how much of the evening does it take up? Is part of the time devoted to the regular repertoire? Do you let the dancers know what's coming up ahead of time?

Do you have more info on what the Toronto folk dancers are doing? I looked up the Ontario Folkdancer website, but they don't seem to have their articles online.

Anyone else have input about theme nights and variety in your groups? Do your dancers like a lot of change, a lot of continuity, or some of each?



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theme nights & guest teachers

Post  Jeremy Hull on Mon Feb 09, 2009 5:02 pm

Sonia, to answer your questions, we devote our usual hour of teaching time to the guest teacher, although sometimes we might decide to extend the teaching time if people are into it and the guest teacher is willing. We ask that the guest teacher bring appropriate music and either leave us the music or direct us to an appropriate source. If they have dance notes or directions we ask for a copy of these as well, or we write up our own. Usually we will ask the teacher to return a second time to review the dances, make sure we got it, and maybe present a bit more material. But the rest of the night follows our usual format of request-based programming, with the newly learned dances thrown in for practice. And we do announce the upcoming guest teacher ahead of time so people will know what to expect, and can decide to be on time to catch the teaching, or to avoid it if it doesn't appeal to them.

The Ontario Folk Dancer magazine isn't online - they print and mail it by regular mail, very retro. It seems like the association has periodic Cafe nights in the Toronto area - maybe every few months. Each of these is based on a different culture - the one coming up on March 14 is billed as a Spanish Dance Cafe with a potluck supper and Spanish dancing lead by Tamar Cohen. It doesn't look like this one is a joint effort with any other organization, but in the past some of them have been. They give this email address for more information: There have been some articles on these cafes or theme nights in previous issues of the magazine. For more information on the magazine you could contact the editor, Kevin Budd:

Jeremy Hull

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Re: Theme nights

Post  Sonia on Tue Feb 10, 2009 6:29 pm

Thanks for the information, Jeremy!


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Café Events (by Bev Sidney of the Ontario Folk Dance Association)

Post  Sonia on Fri Feb 27, 2009 5:58 pm

Following Jeremy's suggestion, I contacted Kevin Budd, and he forwarded my question to Bev Sidney, who sent a detailed reply, posted here with her permission.

I hope it's as interesting and edifying for you all as it was for me. I particularly noticed their efforts to encourage new teachers and leaders.

Do any of you have similar events in your communities? Let us know what you're doing and how it's working!


From Bev Sidney of the Ontario Folk Dance Association

The OFDA (Ontario Folk Dance Association) is an umbrella organization, with about 230 members (down from 400+), meant to promote folk dance. The bulk of the membership lives in Toronto (where there are several international classes held at various times through the week) or the nearby areas, and like so many other folk dance organizations, the membership has been declining over the last number of years - with dancers aging and no younger enthusiasts to replace those that "retire" from the activity.

The Origin of the Café Events
So, in order to try to encourage new dancers as well as to keep older members keen, we thought that we'd hold regularly scheduled "cafés". In fact we schedule the cafés to coincide with the publication of our magazine, and have reduced the cost of mailing the magazines by distributing to the members who attend the cafés. The features that would be emphasized in planning for these events would be
  1. an opportunity for more socializing than is commonly possible at classes, and where dancers from different groups could meet and mingle
  2. a dance opportunity that would be fun for the participants (recognizing that there would likely be a wide range of abilities attending).

In brainstorming sessions, we recognized that the organization was not as active in holding special events as in former years. Weekend workshops with recognized, international teachers no longer seem to be attractive - at least some of the more recent experience has been that the participation didn't always cover the significant expenses involved. We decided that we have pretty good local talent, and that we could try to utilize that resource base, as an alternative, and that we would just have mini workshops.

We made up a list of "themes" that seemed interesting to us, and which we thought would be fun for our members. This list of themes has plumbed the talents of some of our members who have special dance interests and good teaching skills (ie. East Indian, Canadian, Kurdish, Yiddish, etc.); as well, suggestions came from membership about other possible themes of interest, along with the names of people who are in the community and who teach ethnic dance of some description. These have been dance teachers in local ethnic communities (ie. Serbian, Macedonian, Bulgarian...), or teachers who run classes for the community at large (ie. Salsa, Belly Dance....).

At first we weren't sure that we'd be able to continue to come up with ideas, but it's been about 5-6 years since we started along this path, and we have not yet had any shortage of ideas!

The Theme Hour
It has evolved to asking the Guest Teacher to bring some dance material which would be suitable for our typical group (older, mainly women, with a wide variety of dance experience). We want the less experienced to be able to participate, so most often the material is not complex, but because it’s something new to us, even the basics of the dance form are challenging and fun – one of the best examples of this was the time we had an Ethiopian instructor; she had us walking around in a circle and trying to shift our heads from side to side - totally foreign manoevre for us, and we looked pretty goofy, but it was fun and a good learning experience.

We’ve come to expect that we probably won’t do the dances that we “learn” at these events, but it doesn’t seem to be a problem
to anyone. Generally, people are happy with the variety and new experiences. It’s just an introduction to what’s out there in the world.

Sometimes a teacher will be involved with a performing group, and we’ve been able to have them come along to provide a performance during the hour. Other times there’s been the opportunity to have musicians accompany the teaching.

As well, the hour session can include a short interval of “culture corner”, with demonstration of costumes, musical instruments, social traditions, etc. It has become evident that the participants at these events, while they enjoy watching a performance/listening to a speaker, prefer to be dancing rather than listening or observing, so we’ve suggested that any passive activity should not be any longer than 20-30 minutes.

The Potluck Supper
We figured that including a potluck supper would make for a nice social opportunity and so we organized the evenings to include a potluck meal, at which we provide coffee, tea, and water. The meal is always a highlight, and somehow, most of the time there is a nice variety of mains, sides and desserts. We did have some concern about everyone having a fair shake at the offerings, so we decided that we’d let one table at a time help themselves to the mains, and we number the tables, and do a draw to determine which table will go up first, next….etc. A typical evening would be organized like this:

6:00-6:30 – Intnl. Dancing
6:30-7:30 – Potluck Supper
7:30-8:30 – Guest Teacher
8:30-10:00 – Request Program
10:00-10:30 – Clean-up

However, it’s been 5-6 years now, and some of the mainstays on the Executive are becoming fatigued with the requirements of putting the potluck together for each café (We use real dishes and cutlery to minimize garbage generation, so people have to store and cart
dishes/cutlery/etc. each time, and while they’re cleaning dishes in the kitchen they can’t be out dancing).

Our latest thinking is that we’ll move away from having a potluck supper each time, and try potluck fingerfood snacks/desserts instead – still have the munching opportunity, but without the labour intensive setup/cleanup). We’re not sure how the membership will respond to this, but hopefully, it’ll be acceptable, and that will make any potluck suppers that we do have, somewhat special. The schedule for our non-potluck supper events will look like this, for now:

7:00-7:30 – Intnl Dancing
7:30-8:30 – Guest Teacher
8:30-8:50 – Break
8:50 – 10:15 – Request Program
10:15-10:30 – Clean-up

We’re thinking that we’ll just put the drinks and snacks out for the whole evening, and let people help themselves whenever they choose. The break timing will be flexible; we’ll see if it looks like people want to get started dancing again any time from 15-30 minutes, and will have to poll people to see if this works out as an alternative for socializing over supper.

So, this café initiative has been and continues to be a work in progress. One of our Executive members is constantly asking what we can do to make things better, and this sparks ongoing refinements.

Attendance and Money Issues
The attendance is always a mystery, and we have no sure-fire way of knowing whether we’ll have 35 people come out, or 60, but the numbers seem to fluctuate between those poles.

On the subject of covering expenses, we are in a community centre for these events, and the policy of the facility is that the events will be open (and accessible) to the general public - no fee is to be charged at the door, but we can ask for donations to cover costs.

We’re now offering a teacher $80 for a one hour session, and when there are more people involved, as with performers/musicians etc., we have paid up to $300. In lieu of a rental fee we make a donation of $100 to the community centre each time we hold an event there; as well, there are always sundry expenses, such as coffee/tea/milk/decorations….etc.

We also decided, along the way, that we want to give our members a preferential rate on any costs associated with participating in our events, so for these cafés we’ve established a “suggested donation” of $6 for members and $8 for non-members. Some people put in more, some less. Sometimes we cover our expenses, or even surpass them; sometimes we go into the red.

Side Benefits
When we started to have these regularly-occurring cafés (Oct,Nov,Jan, Mar, May) we were always looking for someone to run the music for the request dancing portion of the evening, and we were always asking the same few people if they would volunteer to do this for us – teachers who run groups in the city.

It became clear that developing more leadership within the dance community would be a good thing, and so we set about putting
together some leadership workshops. These were pretty well attended, and out of that we acquired a roster of capable programmers who now volunteer to take on a portion, generally 30 minutes, of the evening’s programming requirements… the pressure’s off the local teachers and the neophytes are accumulating experience.

As part of the leadership initiative, we organized a one-day teaching workshop, and then subsidized any members who wanted to take a 10- week course run by a local professional dance educators’ organization. Thirteen people signed on for the 10-week course, and once the course had been completed, we arranged to have the teacher trainees demonstrate their fledgling skills at one of the dance cafés.

I wouldn’t say that the café events have been introducing a great number of people to folk dance, although there have certainly been guests brought along, and sometimes a person will wander in, having read about the dance event in a local paper.

We probably could do a better job of advertizing the events, if we wanted to use them as an entrée for people into the world of folk
dance. As it is, the cafés do seem to fill a desire to have ongoing social folk dance events. People have responded well to almost all of the cafés we’ve held, and I think that they look forward to them. They have been a way of introducing an element of something different than just attending a dance class and doing the same repertoire of dances, so hopefully keeping people’s interest engaged.

Well, I certainly had no idea that I’d generate such a lengthy report when I set out to put some thoughts together! With any luck there will be some ideas that you can co-opt and if there’s anything else that you want to know, I’ll be happy to try to answer…. :-D

Bev S.


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