As you may or may not know, I'm a swing dancer. I started dancing back in my freshman year of college, because I saw some high school friends doing it and it looked like fun, and a week or three later asked if anyone in our crowd wanted to sign up for dance classes at the university arts center. One of the classes on the pamphlet she had was Swing/Tango/Foxtrot (I wanted to learn swing dancing) and so I was in! I had a blast, started dancing several times a week, dragging along everyone I could get to come with me, and in general totally loving it.
The next year, I made a new friend Jesse, and introduced to dancing. She took to it with a vengeance, and we danced A LOT for a couple years. She surpassed me and started dancing with people better than me, and then graduated and went off to grad school in Ann Arbor, Michigan. There, she became heavily involved in the dancing scene, and ended up on the organization committees for a couple events in the area. Her boyfriend Zach also got into it (she took him dancing and he took to it -- it was a lot like how I got her started in undergrad!) and eventually the two of them decided to create and run their own event: Pirate Swing! And they asked me to help run it.
In (my edge of) the social dance world, there are several types of events (which differ greatly from dance competitions, and Im' not going to talk about). There are regional events, like local dances: a DJ or a band comes and plays at a venue, people in the area go there to dance if they want. There's an entry fee somewhere between $5 and $20 depending on the venue, music, and duration. There are Dance Exchanges, where for several days (such as a Friday afternoon through a Sunday night) there are 6 or 7 dances arranged, each with live or DJ'd music at a variety of venues in a local area (such as, around Washington, DC, or downtown Pittsburgh). There's a single fee ($50-$100) for the whole weekend, and people come from a 1-day-drive radius and sometimes fly in for the event. Typically locals volunteer to house folks who are traveling, so you only need a hotel if you really want one. Then, there's a workshop: also about three days long, but with lots of classes during the day and then dances in the evenings. Again, housing is a big thing. There are some number of instructors who will teach the workshop classes, and in general, the bigger / more expensive the workshop, the better & more famous the instructors are. Usually, if there's live music, the more expensive workshops will also have bigger-name bands. A workshop usually costs something between $65 and $250, depending on how big it is. People come from further away than you'd expect for these.
Pirate Swing is a workshop in Ann Arbor, MI. 2010 was out first year, and we had a little bit of experience in what we were doing, in large part because Jesse and Zach were so heavily involved in planning other events and running them already. We had about 135 people sign up, two live bands, 6 instructors, and a whole bunch of classes and dances. We had a (pirate-themed, of course) costume contest at the Saturday night dance where we gave the top winners passes to other swing dance events, and all in all everyone had a fantastic time.
Last weekend, I was back up in Ann Arbor, MI for Pirate Swing 4. Jesse and Zach now live near me in the Baltimore/DC area, so we drove up on Tuesday, which took approximately 9hrs, and then slept in, in anticipation of a lot of prep work about to come.
Wednesday: After a light breakfast of a couple ladles of squash soup and a half of a grilled cheese sandwich, I had one main task for the day: building shelves. As you may know, I'm rather good at designing and building shelves, I've got several walls of built-in shelves all over my house. For the dances at our Friday-night/Friday-late-night and Saturday-late-night venue, we knew that our registration numbers were substantially higher than last year, and so we knew we'd need to be more efficient in how people stowed their stuff at the dance. Usually there's a rim of chairs against the wall at this place, and people's stuff goes on/under some chairs. Then there's people sitting in the chairs, people walking around the edge of the room in front of the sitting people, then a ring of people standing getting ready to ask someone to dance (or waiting to be asked to dance), and THEN there's the dance floor. Well, that works ok up to a point, but we needed to use a lot more of the dance floor space as actual dancing real estate. So, no chairs, no stuff on/under chairs, and no people sitting in chairs. Instead, I made over 100 cubbies in three shelving units, and set them up in out-of-the-way locations in the dance venue. My design for the shelving units was a simple one that would let us break down / set up quickly and easily. Zach's dad (who lives up in Ann Arbor) had the lumber at his house when we arrived, and so my task for Wednesday was to turn all the raw lumber into shelving units that could be easily transported and assembled on Friday. It took about 6 hours in the workshop, but with some help from Zach acting as ballast, I pre-drilled the holes for every dowel and screw in every piece of wood I was going to use, and before our dinner of chicken we were ready to go with the shelves.
Thursday: Foodies who live near Ann Arbor, Michigan know about Zingerman's Deli. Foodies much further from there know it, too: I was accosted once in a store in downtown Pittsburgh by a guy who asked if, the next time I came back, I could bring him a sandwich (I was wearing a Zingerman's shirt at the time). Jesse and Zach and I went out to breakfast at Zingerman's on Thursday to power us for the long day ahead. If you go to a workshop like this, there's a bunch of event swag that goes along with it. Usually there's a t-shirt that you can buy, and Pirate Swing does that. We also give, to everyone that registers for the event, a bandanna with our logo for that year printed on it (the same design as the t-shirt). We picked up three large boxes of t-shirts and bandannas, and then headed onward to Office Depot for the annual Folding And Stapling Of The Brochures.
See, we have a 4-sheet / 16-page brochure that contains all of the information you need as an attendee for the event. What we do for an hour or two is take every set of 4 pages, staple them down the center, and then fold them over like a book. We had somewhere between 250 and 300 of these to do this year, and with a few sore muscles and minimal grumbling, we got them all stapled and folded in record time.
Then, we headed off to a community theatre we like, because they were going to lend us props! We walked out with three looks-like-they-washed-up-on-the-beach barrels, 4 antique lanterns, a treasure chest, a little globe of the earth on a funky swivel stand, a little rigged sailing ship, and a pair of steel manacles connected by a foot of chain. Perfect! These would all adorn the sigh-in table and might make it into some of the costume photos on Saturday's big dance. All of these fit into the car, along with the box of brochures and three boxes of t-shirts and bandannas, though Jesse had a few items piled on top of her in the back seat!
I had the evening off, and went to the local climbing gym with a friend of mine in the area, and her regular climbing crew. I didn't do too badly for myself, considering how little I've been climbing in the last few months. My grip was ok, grip stamina not as good as I'd have liked it to be. I'll be back on the wall at home soon, so I'm not too worried.
Friday: If you're going to have 250 dancers, a band, and 8 instructors, you're going to need to feed a lot of people. In general, registrants/attendees are responsible for their own food, but at the late-night dances we like to put out enough food that people can dance as late as they like. And since our Saturday late-night dances run until 5am... we thought we'd make sure that nobody that stuck around to dance that late went home hungry. We also have a dedicated staff person whose job it is to prepare meals for all of our instructors, from the time we pick them up at the airport to the time we drop them back off: breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks. It's a ton of food! So, as you might imagine... we bought a ton of food. The food went to the venue with the kitchen, and then I picked up a rental car -- from this point onward, I was going to need to be able to travel independently.
As soon as I had my car, I headed to the airport to pick up a pair of instructors and two attendees. The instructors, I dropped off at their host home for the weekend, and then the attendees came along with me to the dance venue, where they were going to be indentured servants ("volunteers") until the evening. We didn't work them too hard, though.
Our chef began preparing a pad thai feast for the evening for the instructors and band. We set up the registration table, complete with barrels and lanterns, and then as the hundreds of t-shirts that people had pre-ordered were set up for easy retrieval and distribution, I began to assemble the sets of storage cubbies I'd prepared the parts for on Wednesday.
Once the cubbies were ready, I rigged a few carabiners and some light-duty rock climbing gear from the scaffolding at the ceiling of the building, form which I could easily hoist our Pirate Swing flag, a 7'x5' rendition of our logo, hand-painted by the awesome artist that designed it for us, another local denizen and the artist for all of our previous events as well. (There's a Hoisting Of The Flag during the Friday evening dance as we officially kick off the festivities).
At some point in all of this, we got a phone call from the band. One of the members, the bass player, drove in and was already present. The other 4 were supposed to fly to Michigan from NYC, but got the news that their flights had been cancelled. Not delayed, but actually canceled. As soon as they heard that, they rented a car and headed our way with haste -- but there was no way they'd arrive by the appointed hour.
At 7:30pm, registration / check-in began. By 8 a lesson was underway, and at 9pm, instead of the band kicking off, we had some DJ music to get the evening started. At 10pm, Jesse and Zach and I performed our song, where we re-wrote the words to Paul & Storm's "The Captain's Wife's Lament" and created "The Housing Girl's Lament", a tale of woe where a LOT of dancers sleep over at one person's house and drive the housing coordinator crazy, all with the goal of making sure that everyone at the event who was either sleeping at someone's generously offered house/spare room/couch/floor, or who was offering such space, knew who to talk to (Jesse, aka The Housing Girl) if they hadn't met their people yet. Soon after that, we had The Hoisting Of The Flag, to great applause and cheers from all assembled. At 10:15, the band arrived. We quickly fed them and got them set up on the bandstand, and by 11pm they were well underway. While we'd planned to have a DJ take us out till 2am, the band just played the entire time! So despite a little bit of a potential rough patch, the event started without a hitch and we had a lot of happy people having a very good time.
Saturday: Classes start at 10:30am on Saturday, but there's something we need to do before that. In this year's event, the most advanced skill level of dancers needed to audition with the instructors so that there weren't people in the classes who would hold the rest of the class back. There are always people who think they are better than they are, and that causes learning speed problems... so we have the teachers screen the students, and anyone that doesn't make the cut takes the next highest level, along with feedback from two different instructors on why they didn't feel that student was ready for the most advanced level, and corresponding "homework assignments" about what to concentrate on while in their classes for the rest of the workshop. I myself have auditioned for the advanced track in the past and made it once, and didn't make it the other time -- but because of the very specific feedback I got from a couple excellent instructors about what I wasn't doing that they wanted to see me do, I felt that I got a tremendous amount more about of the classes that I took than I would have otherwise.
Handily enough, advanced track auditions were held in the same venue that I was going to be babysitting all weekend (we like to have one in-charge person in each location, in case anything comes up), so I didn't need to go anywhere after auditions were done. At that point, one pair of instructors stuck around for the classes they'd be teaching, all the students who had made it into the advanced track took a drive to their class location, and anyone who had signed up for the classes I'd be babysitting the whole day were arriving and warming up.
We have three skill levels of classes, and three pairs of instructors. Each skill level meets in its own venue for the whole weekend; each pair of instructors teaches all three skill levels, and so rotates from location to location as the weekend passes. My designated location was that of the 2nd skill level, the one just below the advanced track. That's also the right level of classes fro me to be taking, so any time I wanted to, I could step into the class that was taking place.
I've had a bout of the flu which had kept me feeling crappy for a couple of weeks. As a result my lungs were crappy, my stamina was crappy, and I had very little desire to dance. I knew I needed to conserve energy -- we were running a 250-300 person weekend workshop with only a handful of dedicated staff, and I knew that last year with ~90 people less, I was exhausted by the end. I had to pace myself! So I listened to the classes and watched, but rarely did I get in rotation and dance.
Lunch break was an hour and a half long, and all the instructors came back to my venue, where our chef was running the kitchen and had prepared the individually designed sandwiches for each person (and the staff made our own sandwiches as well). Then the instructors all were chauffeured to their next class location, and the afternoon classes got underway. At some point I put into the oven the two lasagna trays that our chef had prepared the night before after the Pad Thai was completed, and so by the time everyone had finished the second set of classes and was dropped off at my venue for dessert, we were just finishing up making the garlic bread and everyone was ready to eat!
Saturday's big evening dance was held at the university's largest ballroom, and according to our numbers we had about 325 people in attendance that night. Our costume contest was 50-60 contestants deep, with 14 winners, two of whom had parrots on their shoulders, and one of the 'parrots' was a stuffed animal safety-pinned to her jacket shoulder, and the other was a live macaw, with a wingspan of about three feet at full spread. We had two photographers set up for both roving life photography and photo-booth setups, one as candid/self-posed photos in front of our awesome Pirate Swing Flag, the other with a portable Seamless White setup: a curved white background and a white semi-reflective floor, with strobes bright enough that the entire background drops out when the photo is taken, and the person/people in the photo are on a completely dead white background. Also, our band was already in town for this dance, and so everything there went off beautifully, with one additional bonus: one of our instructors just happens to be one of the band's favorite singers, and so she sang with them the whole night.
I should talk for a moment about the band. Gordon Webster is one of the best dance band leaders I've ever had the pleasure to see, hear, and dance to. Gordon is based out of NYC, and he's got a band. Not just any band... well, actually, yes. Any band. He's got a couple dozen musicians that he works with regularly, and for every job, he picks from them to assemble exactly the group he wants. Gordon conducts the band from the piano. And while I've heard that phrase used a lot referring to groups up to the National Symphony Orchestra, where the conductor leads by playing the piano and gesturing with his hands, Gordon doesn't just conduct... he creates.
A lot of the time, you go to a live music performance and the band is playing for you the music that they have played many times before. They have rehearsed it, they have practiced how it will go. They have a pretty good idea of when their solos are going to take place, how long the song will go on for, and just about everything about the performance has been determined before they start to play. Gordon Webster, on the other hand, genuinely creates the music as it is happening. I've watched him for a couple years now: he stands up as he's playing, signals with one hand to one member of the band, indicating who is going to solo and how long they're going to do it for. They have no idea what he's about to do, and I don't think he's got all that much of a plan -- he's also a dancer, and so he designs the song to match what he feels is going on on the dance floor. The eyes of all the band members are constantly on Gordon, and they go where he leads... and the results are stellar. The instructor of ours that Gordon loves to have sing with him is one of the musicians that he regularly loves to work with -- when he learned that she was on our instructor roster, he started begging us to let him have her to sing with him one night! We'd heard her perform with him before. We knew better than to even think about saying no.
The evening at the ballroom ended with Gordon Webster's signature piece "I Like Pie, I Like Cake", a 5-minute song that he stretches into a 12-15-minute piece that starts with everyone out on the dance floor, ends up in the middle with everyone pressed up against the stage mesmerized by what he's doing with the music, and ending with the dance floor going wild again before he finishes.
The Saturday late-night dance started at half an hour past midnight, but I didn't get there until about an hour after that; I was busy packing us out of the ballroom and helping getting all the sound equipment, the drum kit for the band, and all the stuff we still needed at the registration table into the cars to take to the late-night. I arrived at the late-night just as it was time to take one of our instructors, who had been DJing for us for the first hour of the dance, back to his host house to sleep for the night. It was about a 35-minute round-trip, which meant that I arrived back at the late-night just as a big treat was getting underway. See, Gordon Webster was only advertised for the Friday and Saturday dances, and late-night is always a DJ. But Gordon like an idea that Zach and I came up with: at some point on Saturday late-night, the DJ would end a song but not start another, and Gordon would start playing piano instead. We'd set up microphones on the piano that afternoon for this to happen, and it worked seamlessly: People in the back of the room didn't even know that it wasn't the DJ any more until the end of the song, and there were murmurs of "Oh my gosh, it's stealth Gordon Webster!" He played for about half an hour, and then DJs took it the rest of the way to 5am. That was also the night we lost an hour to the stupid time change, so our bodies thought it was 4am. Which, I can tell you, is still plenty late enough at that point. There was an hour of cleanup and then we were all able to be in bed by 6:15am. 9:45 we were up and about, which, really, is a pretty good nap.
Sunday: One of the great things we offer at Pirate Swing is Office Hours: 5-minute one-on-one lessons with the instructor of your choice. Since our instructors LOVE to teach, we need to forcibly rein them in at the end of their 5 minutes, and so I built a bunch of 5-minute timer boxes that (at the push of a button) show 4 minutes of green, 30 seconds of yellow, 30 seconds of yellow+red, and then stay on red after 5 minutes have passed. Well, the teachers ran past their 5 minutes last year, so we changed it this year to turn red after 4:30 (4 minutes of green, 30 seconds of yellow, and then red) and things worked out rather beautifully. Designing, building, and programming the timer boxes was a big project of mine last year, and I had to pick between two methods: The Old Way, which involves a few rudimentary circuit elements (resistors, capacitors, simple 555 timer chips) and a LOT of tweaking to make everything come out right. Or The New Way, which involves making a simple circuit board with a little computer the size of a single computer chip, and which can be reprogrammed in a matter of seconds. I went with The New Way, and when this year I had to add 2 more boxes and reprogram the 6 that I made last year, I was very glad that I'd chosen the way I did!
At some point during office hours I was tasked with making the sandwiches for all the instructors' lunches (they'd told us via a web form we put up what they wanted for pretty much every meal!), and then once I and a couple volunteers finished making everyone's sandwiches, I got to make myself something to eat as well ("Breakfast"!) and then I headed back down to my regular venue to open it up for afternoon classes with the third set of instructors.
Classes went off without a hitch, except that a lot of people (like, 2/3 of the folks) were late getting there after lunch, which was kind of irritating. We try to start all of our classes exactly on time to discourage people from showing up late like that. Well, it seems that Saturday's training hadn't taken effect :-( Also, I couldn't figure out how to get the volume on the sound system in the venue high enough. Previous days we'd had a sound board plugged into the house amp system, Sunday I had only the house amp system... we needed another stage of amplification between the instructor's iPhone and the speakers. We managed to make it work, but since it was a musicality class, we'd really have liked a bit more power. Well, we'll know for next year.
After that class ended, I got a couple people to help me carry the cubby units from their various locations to the back door of the place, so that I could take them apart and load them into my car with a minimum of carrying of heavy piles of wood. I sent the instructors to their next spot along with all the remaining food. A volunteer swept the floor and dumped the bags of trash that I collected, and then... for the first time in 5 days.... I was alone. I didn't realize what a difference it made, but after those days of 100% go-mode with dozens or hundreds of people around, and the only time I was solo I was driving somewhere to get someone or to meed a lot more people... suddenly, all the hard stuff was over and I was alone and didn't have a time-restricted agenda. Well, not a tight one.
I sat around for a while and reveled in the fact that I wasn't on my feet. I eventually got out the screw gun and disassembled each of the sets of cubbies, and stacked the wood into my car. I think I gave myself a good two hours to decompress -- including some time on the piano -- before I finished sweeping out, closing up, and driving myself to the final destination for the evening, where we were having our sunday night dance and late night food.
When I arrived at the Sunday night venue, a jam band was in full swing, being led by one of our more musically inclined instructors. My mandolin had been delivered (we'd brought it from MD and I'd left it at Zach's dad's house) specifically so I could join in, and I got about 45 minutes of music in before we switched over to a DJ. For a couple tunes I was able to use someone's violin, which is easier for me to play (for short durations) than the mandolin. After that I headed downstairs and had some food, and began to relax for the evening again.
The relaxation wasn't to last, though, because we needed to shuffle a great deal of stuff between my car and Jesse&Zach's. The drum kit we'd rented for the band needed to go back to its owner, and I was so tired that while I was having a great time visiting with people, I was unlikely to dance more than once or twice more. So, it was decided that I'd go back to the hotel and sleep, and then I'd be the one to chauffeur the instructors on Jesse's duty roster to the airport while she slept in. It turns out this was a very wise trade, since she was up LATE cleaning up the Sunday night venue.
Monday: Since I'd gone to bed early the night before, I got more than twice the number of hours of sleep I had the previous night, and was up and showered in plenty of time to drive 15 minutes to pick up instructor #1, and then drive 15 minutes right back to the hotel to pick up instructors #2 and #3, and drive everyone to the airport before 8:30 for their various flights.
On my way back to Ann Arbor, I was still reveling in the fact that I didn't have a serious agenda with a timetable attached to it, so I stopped off at a Tim Horton's near the hotel and had breakfast. I thought about going back to Zingerman's -- I really wanted a ruben, and hadn't gotten one when there for breakfast a few days before -- but I didn't really feel like driving that far out of my way. (But I really wanted the ruben.) After breakfast, I went back to the hotel. I'd been gone long enough that it was clear I had stopped somewhere other than just the airport. Jesse knows me well, and asked right off whether I'd gone to Zingerman's and gotten a ruben! I told her I had thought about it, but hadn't in fact done it.
An hour or two later we were packed and ready to go out of the hotel. We stopped off at Zingerman's (several locations, actually, for several different types of food), and the last one was the deli, where to my delight I got a ruben to go! Then we dropped by Zach's dad's place to drop off the wood from all the cubbies, pack everything that was coming back to MD with us into one car, and piled all of the pirate props (barrels, lanterns, etc.) into my rental car. We stopped by the theatre and gave them back all of their wonderful props, and then dropped off my suddenly-now-empty rental car. Then, we got on the road and headed back to MD, driving for 8.5 hours through a two-hour-wide rain storm that had exactly the same path as us. We'd drive through it, get ahead of it, and need to stop for gas or a bathroom... and when we got back on the road, you guessed it, we'd be driving through the same rain storm again, as it had caught up with us and passed us!
So, that was Pirate Swing 2013. We had an amazing event, and we're already eager to do it all again, because we're insane, or something like that.