So you wanna be an organizer. Maybe you want to start a swing scene in your area. Maybe you want a different KIND of swing scene in your area. Maybe you’re joining/taking over/inheriting a scene from/with other organizers. Regardless of how you got here, I’d like to just say “Thank you”, “Bless your heart”, and “Buckle up”.
Listen, I’m not going to spend much time on how to find a place or set up your sound or anything that practical (and very scene-specific), but I do want to pass along a few tools gleaned from years of mistakes that keep me (relatively) sane. Hopefully they will keep you sane too.
Burn out is real. It’s fast. And it’s coming for you. No one comes to swing dancing because they have a deep and abiding love for spreadsheets, negotiations, and literally scrubbing the floors at 1:00 AM. We came to dance and, like fools, we decided to give back to our community as though these goals aren’t completely at odds on the space/time continuum. Let me tell you, I regret each and every time that I bugged an organizer I felt didn’t have time for me and my feedback. I didn’t realize that while I was shuffling the hours away, they were getting down and dirty with the NOT-DANCING, running about with teachers, DJ’s, volunteers, bands, and yes…refilling soap dispensers. Suddenly inundating your “happy place” with urgent janitorial issues, awkward personnel conversations, and problems with the point-of-sale tech can only lead to plopping down exhaustedly in a chair somewhere and surveying your sea of happy, bubbling dancers with BARELY CONTAINED WHITE-HOT RAGE-ZENTMENT. (That’s not a word, unless we’re counting the ones I make up, in which case, that’s totally a word.)
Listen, young grasshopper…you need to dance.
I suggest that everyone on an organizing team know where their emergency exits are. Maybe it’s an hour on the dancefloor with “Do Not Disturb” hanging from your neck. Maybe it’s a nearby event organized by people who are not-you. Maybe it’s a private group practice with other dancers you know, love, and are inspired by. Whatever your thing is, you need to give yourself permission to take full advantage of it. Because that delightful meld of two hearts and bodies to a beat…won’t happen over rental contracts. And that quirky release of experimental moves with a partner you trust…won’t be gotten from sorting the cash box. And the only way of becoming the organizer that your community trusts to recognize and nurture and lead them in their newfound passion is by re-connecting to those passions yourself.
BUILD A TEAM YOU TRUST
It’s so tempting to just take any offer of help that comes along, especially when you’re overwhelmed and needy. I used to think that anyone who wanted to volunteer time was probably good with doing whatever needed to be done. But I’m going to revise that now to reflect a more Silicon-Valley attitude: better to be under-staffed than poorly-staffed. There are always things you can cut from a program that will lessen the responsibilities for everyone. But it will take you four times as much time (that you don’t have) to argue about the event’s vision with a stick-in-the-mud, or correct a negligent person’s mistakes, or track down an AWOL comrade. I’m not saying we’re all perfect (I have definitely done all three of those things), but I’m saying that you should have a team full of people you TRUST, LIKE and RESPECT. Things can get TENSE at meetings, y’all. You need to have people that you feel good about compromising with, listening to their opinions, and giving each other props. If you don’t have that, it’s really just a matter of time until your group falls apart and files under “has-been swing scene: irreconcilable differences”.
ACTUALLY GET SOME TOOLS (a non-comprehensive list)
I love Boomerang. I send out a lot of emails to a lot of different people, and sometimes I can’t remember who I talked to, about what, and when I should be following up with them. Boomerang allows me to set pings when someone hasn’t responded after a few days, or ping myself with a to-do regarding that person at a later date. It’s a great way to keep on top of your multiple contractors (DJ’s, teachers, volunteers, bands).
Google Docs are the shit. I’m in two organizations, each with their own neat little folder, where we upload a ton of stuff that we all work on together. It’s reliable, cavernous, and easy to access from mobile and laptop. Also convenient, using a group chat system like Slack has vastly cut down on our emails with one-liners like “who’s working on this project?”, “I don’t know…I need more information to decide”, and “did you buy the thing for the thing? Can I add it to the sheet about the money things?”
Get a password management system, and make sure multiple people can get to it. It doesn’t have to be everyone. But there’s nothing more frustrating than the inability to access your event’s website because so-and-so had the account and they’ve been gone a long time, and no one knows how to get a hold of them, or how to take the silly thing down.
GRATITUDE IS KEY
No one owes you a goddamn thing. Okay, scratch that, they owe it to you to be reliable when they sign up for a shift or to do the thing they told you they would do, but even that doesn’t really have consequences besides never-asking-them-again. We’re in a volunteer industry, and it can only exist as long as people are INTERNALLY MOTIVATED to take part.
Appreciate your teammates. Capitalize on your strengths (it will get done faster and better) and don’t spend your precious time berating each other for weaknesses. Volunteer to fill in the gaps, and thank others who fill them in for you. Did I say you need to work with people you trust, respect, and like? I’LL SAY IT AGAIN. Work with people you trust to make good judgement calls, show up to the conversation and, like a good neighbor, just f’ing be there for you. Work with people you respect to call you on your shit, who know more or better or different than you, and who take care of their bizness like a boss. Work with people you like, who have a sense of humor, a levity about stressful situations, and who you would hug to feel better after a hard night. SO MANY HUGS. Your team needs to be solid, like the rock of Gibraltar.
HOPEFULLY, THIS ISN’T SCARY
There’s not really a profit to organizing. Monies tend to funnel right back into the scene (as they should). Yes, it will cut into your dance time. Yes, it will create more stress. Yes, it may be discouraging or frustrating or bewildering. BUT. You’re creating a sacred space for communion with a higher rhythm. You’re providing a way for people to connect and express themselves that they would never have considered otherwise, and which society sometimes downright SHAMES them into never trying. Okay, so you’re not the holy priest/ess of the community. But you’re the architect. You’re the builder. You come in before dusk and erect a wooden platform in a glen. Where a stonemason has built up a temple, you are polishing the splinters off the pews. And no matter the scale, you’ve helped create the space, a special place, where people can come, dance, and be merry.