In my role as Manager of Special Events I’m in charge of the celebrations surrounding the 4th of July. When I came in to this position, July 4th was the only event that did not make money for the museum. It was a scattered sort of event, with dozens of random activities, the event needed a serious streamlining. Back in March I talked on this blog about some of the problems, and my first thought about making the event more cohesive. I did not get a full reenactor’s timeline off the ground this year, though having a few more reenactors join us, and a few more time periods represented was a really good start.
What I did manage to do was add two opportunities for folks to get up, move around, and connect to history by using their bodies: a swing dance for adults on Friday night, and an Old Fashioned Field Day for kids on Saturday the 4th. This post is about Friday’s dance, the next one will be about Saturday.
When stumping for the reenactor’s timeline I approached one of the active members of Portsmouth’s vintage community, and asked if he would get a picnic together for the 4th as part of the timeline. He wasn’t very interested in that, but suggested to me that Portsmouth did not have any swing dances, and that we might be ripe for a dance instead. After Adam told me there was nowhere to swing dance on the seacoast I did some research to ascertain if that was true. The only stuff I could find was a dance club at the University of New Hampshire (The Hepcats) and a defunct group on Facebook. I emailed the local dance studios, some of them sometimes offer swing lessons. Boston has a huge swing community, and we’re not that far away. I know they swing in Lowell, and in Manchester NH. Hmm.
Several months after Adam suggested SBM host a swing dance the new head of role-players here at the museum came up to me and asked if, as the events person, I could add a swing dance to one of my events. Well two different people asking for it, and enough interest in vintage outings in the area and no one else doing it, this swing dance was looking more likely.
It took a lot more than just that, The July 4th event went through several more incarnations: we almost hosted a strawberry festival, pancake breakfast, Barbeque, the curatorial team really wanted a pony (I’m not kidding.) but by the time we made it to June the dance was one of the only parts still standing. We scheduled it for Friday night, July 3rd, the same night as the Portsmouth Fireworks. I hired a big band, a tent with a dance floor, and a network of people to get the word out. We made posters, and I did a lot of posting on Facebook. I was so worried that no one would attend that I comped in a couple of dancers on the understanding that they would stay on the dance floor and drag out reluctant attendees too. I got a couple willing to do a dance lesson in the hour before the band played, and asked for their advice on hosting a dance (provide hand sanitizer and breath mints.)
We sold tickets online in advance, but sales were slow. I was a nervous wreck in the afternoon leading up to the dance with the usual July 4th stuff still scheduled to happen the next day, plus the dance was so brand new. The band arrived in plenty of time, the dance instructors, and plenty of SBM employees and volunteers showed up to help out. I supplied pizza to all the volunteers and employees who had agreed to work late (we all missed dinner because of the dance) and the first attendees started to arrive before we’d all finished our first slice. By the time the lesson was well under way the dance floor I’d ordered was nice and crowded.
|Folks of all ages, abilities fill the dance floor at Strawbery Banke on July 3rd.|
|The crowd was swinging and the band was hopping at Strawbery Banke on July 3rd.|
And people danced! The lesson was noisy with enthusiasm, and once the band started up people stayed on the dance floor. The dancers I’d invited did a great job of drawing people out who were reluctant, those that had taken part in the lesson tried out their moves. We attracted some more experienced folks as well including quite a few HepCats from UNH who were still around for the summer. A few attendees were even in their vintage best. I only made it out on the dance floor once, but I was so thrilled that everyone else seemed to be having a good time. When the dance ended just as dusk was falling, many folks made a point of coming up to me and telling me that I had to do it again next year.
My volunteers, the SB employees, and I cleaned up fast since it was late, and the tent would be used again first thing in the morning. The band cleared out quickly too and we almost managed to get everything done before the Portsmouth town fireworks started. We all went out on to the lawn to watch the display, which showed rather well over the trees. It was a lovely end to a successful evening, even if we all got stuck in fireworks traffic on the way home.