Running a barn dance or English ceilidh

People often ask me for help in running a barn dance or English ceilidh (which are basically the same thing for the purpose of this discussion). Here are some tips to guarantee a great evening for everyone.

The floor

You are after several things in a dance floor:

  • It must avoid sapping the energy out of the dancers and preferably give it back;
  • It must be safe to dance on (not too slippery and no tripping hazards);
  • It must be a sensible shape for the dances;
  • It must be large enough for the number of people without being so large as to lose atmosphere.

Regarding the surface, a sprung floor is best but you will be very lucky to get one and unfortunately they are getting rarer. Most venues have a hard wooden floor, which is fine. Concrete is just about usable but very hard on the joints and dangerous if dusty. Carpet is also just about usable but to be avoided if possible. Grass is only usable for short periods and then only if flat and firm.

The usable area is roughly equal to the largest rectangle you can draw on the floor -- while most dances are in individual sets for 8 or 10 dancers, some require a big circle or similar. Big chunks cut out of one side are bad, as are unusual shapes such as L-shapes.

You need a minimum of 1.5 square metres per simultaneously dancing person (this will be very squashed), and 2 is better. That said, remember that you will probably won't get everyone dancing until the last dance, so don't worry too much for a beginners' dance if the calculations show it will be a little squashed, as long as there is room for that last dance. If the floor is very big, it can lack atmosphere, and people will feel conspicuous getting onto it.

Other venue considerations

Sports halls and other halls with lots of hard surfaces and no soft surfaces are difficult because the amplification will echo a lot. If there are lots of heavy curtains then you're usually fine, and most bands will be able to cope with most halls with modern amplification, it just might not sound quite as good.

Bands like to have a stage and must be able to see the full dance floor, but most will be prepared to set up on the floor if there isn't a stage. In a large hall a stage will help the caller to see everyone at once.

You need more lighting than you would have at a disco, but still need to avoid harsh lighting. Basically people need to be able to see across the room clearly. The band in particular will need a reasonable amount of light, so they can be seen and see what they are doing (even if they don't have music to look at, they might have notes on the stage, as might the caller).

If the venue is outdoors, don't forget to make sure that the band have a reliable power supply and a covered area to play in in case it rains.

You will need to provide some seating for people when they aren't dancing (probably about 20% more than the number of people, assuming that everyone will want to be sitting down at certain points in the evening, for example the interval). Try to ensure that this is well integrated with the dance space. If all the seating is in a separate room with the bar, then you run the real risk that everyone will spend all evening there and won't do any dancing!

Other things

Make sure you warn everyone in advance that they are going to be dancing. They need to come wearing comfortable shoes and loose clothes if possible.

The band will need time to set up, which will involve playing some tunes to check that their amplification equipment is set up optimally, so don't expect to be making wedding speeches in the room at the same time! It will generally take about an hour, although some bands need up to 2 hours and some can get away with half an hour. They will need to be able to park fairly close as there is usually a lot to carry in.

People always have a great time once they have got into it, but in a room full of people who have never danced before natural shyness can occasionally be a problem. The caller does this a lot and will therefore do his or her best to get people dancing, but what will help a lot is for the nominal "leaders" of the event (for example the organisers, bride/groom, birthday person) lead by example and dance themselves, at least for the first few dances.

The band will want an interval in the middle in most cases -- they won't want to play for more than about 1.5 to 2 hours without a break, and the dancers will need a break by then anyway.

The length of the dancing will be naturally limited by the fitness of the people there -- at a beginners' event, about 2.5 to 3 hours total dancing is usually about right, plus an interval in the middle of some description. People usually want to get home by midnight (before babysitters start costing more) so unless you are putting everyone up for the night, you will probably find people disappearing after about 11 p.m., and certainly after 11:30.

The interval takes at least 20 minutes. Nibbles will take it to 30 and proper food to 45; if there is desert as well it will usually take an hour.

People won't want to dance the moment they arrive. If you are running a birthday party and lots of people are going to turn up to haven't seen each other for years, they will probably want to spend the first half an hour or so at least catching up with each other. People usually do more dancing after the interval, and if you are holding a dance in the height of summer you will tend to find that more people dance once it gets dark outside; it is often worthwhile getting the interval in earlier as a result of this (the caller will be able to advise here and will probably want to control when the interval is).

The band and caller will usually expect to be provided with drinks of some description. Remember that most do this because they enjoy doing it rather than to make a living!

Most bands prefer to be paid in cash so they can split it up between themselves on the night. Many will accept a cheque if necessary but check first. Nearly all will expect to be paid on the night.

And finally...

Every week hundreds of these events are run by people who have never done them before, and they are almost always a great success. Good luck!