Thursday, 9 October 2008

Some Thoughts About Dancing and Music at Events

I have just returned from a weekend devoted to my college class reunion. I won't embarrass myself by stating which one it was; however, I do want to recount the experience of our Saturday night dinner and dance.

This was obviously a time when we all wanted to renew old acquaintances and spend a lot of time talking and learning about what we had all been doing for so many years since we last saw one another. The evening went along swimmingly until the band started, shortly after dinner. At this point, it became impossible to talk so we just sat staring at each other. The band, to be sure, was very good and they tried to keep the volume down, but although many people danced, it effectively killed the party.

I experienced this situation many times during my career as an event producer and it reminded me of the necessity to continually be cognizant of the client's purpose for holding an event. An event planner/producer must understand why the client is bringing all these people together. Sure, a loud dance band is great for a group who knows and works with each other daily. Unfortunately, it is not good when the group wants to discuss business or renew old friendships. The assumption that what worked when we were all young and single and saw each other regularly is irrelevant for a reunion after many years of not seeing each other.

So what can be done about this dilemma? The organizer and client want the event to be successful and having a dance band and music makes it at least seem as if everyone is having a good time. It also makes it seem as if everyone is getting their money's worth out of the event. Yet at the same time, most people want to spend the majority of their time talking to old friends, or in the case of a business meeting or convention, discussing business or common interests.

There are several ways to solve it. The first is not to have any music - and indeed this is sometimes best for a talkative group. No music is better than musical wallpaper that nobody is interested in or has to shout over. When the dance time comes, however, there are other ways. One - and probably the best if it is possible - is to put the band in another room, preferably the same one as the bar, which guarantees that people will visit the room. Another is to try what my parents' generation did, and that is to organize the band's music into sets. I have always thought that this idea is one whose time has come again.

When I was in high school, I played in a big band and we used to follow this concept. It involves organizing the evening's music into sets that last approximately 10 to 15 minutes. Each set consists of perhaps three songs and the songs can be of a certain type. For example, one set can be high-energy rock while another set can be slow, belly-to-belly waltzes or foxtrots (yes, there are a couple of very good options for slow dances, complete with proper steps!) In this way, if someone doesn't like fast, it is only a short time until a slow set will be played. The best part of this way of organizing the evening's music is that the time between sets can be varied according to the requirements of the client, such as wanting to have guests talk more (as in my reunion). Thus, if it is a dancing crowd, the time between sets might only be 3 to 5 minutes. If it is a talking crowd, the time might be 10 minutes, so that there is a 15 minute music-10 minute talk pattern to the event. The band would probably still take their regular breaks after an hour or so but this could probably be varied through negotation.

The other interesting thing about dance sets is that they were - and could now be - based on what was known as "dance cards." These were cards that everyone was given before the event that permitted them to go to people they wanted to dance with and write in the names next to the particular music set (i.e. first set, second set, etc). Obviously, this is great for a singles-type dance, but it could also work with other types such as weddings, reunions, or even business meetings. No doubt, there could be other creative ways to use the concept, such as an ice breaker in almost any type of event with dance music. It certainly forces people to talk to each other yet still allows for a lot of spontaneity without disrupting the greater flow of conversation at an event. It also eliminates that embarrassing moment at the end of each song when neither party really knows if the other wants to stay up on the dance floor. With sets, they must quit at the end of the set.

Perhaps it's time to re-examine the way we use dance music at events. There has to be a better way.