Some Unpleasant Repertoire Arithmetic

Here is a thought experiment for Israeli dancers:

1. Come up with a list of 10 dances that you really look forward to doing.

2. Without making any requests, count how many of those dances get done in a given evening.

3. Let me guess the answer.

Forty years ago, my guess would have been at least 8. Today, my guess would be no more than 4. What happened?

In some sense, Israeli dancing now suffers from too much of a good thing. Choreographers have created many great dances (as well as many mediocre ones) over the last forty years, and this poses challenges to dancers and to session leaders.

At any given session, how many times a year will each dance in the repertoire be done, on average? For example, suppose that the session meets 50 weeks a year, and each week there is time for 60 dances (you have to allow time for teaching). If the repertoire consists of 150 dances, then the average dance will be done 20 times a year. Because 50 sessions per year times 60 dances per session divided by 150 dances in the repertoire = 20. Arithmetic is what it is.

Let's agree to call the average number of times a dance is done a year the frequency, or F. Because F is an average, some dances will be done more and others will be done less. Let's say that 1/3 of dances are popular favorites, each done twice as often as F, and 2/3 of dances are "other," each done half as often as F. In our example with F=20 and a repertoire of 150 dances, the 50 favorites would each be done 40 times a year, and the 100 "other" dances would each be done 10 times a year.

I think that a lot of people could enjoy a session where popular dances are done 40 times a year and other dances are done 10 times a year. It would be neither too intimidating for people just starting to take up Israeli dancing nor too boring for experienced dancers.

But the last time that Israeli dance sessions could operate with F = 20 was about 1980. Since then, choreographers have added at least 10 "hit" dances per year to the repertoire. If your repertoire consists of the top 50 dances as of 1980 plus 350 dances added since that time, that gives you 400 dances.

At 60 dances per week, a repertoire of 400 dances means F = 7-1/2. In other words, the average dance would only be done 7-1/2 times a year. A "popular" dance would only be done 15 times a year (once every three or four weeks), and "other" dances would be done less than 4 times a year (once every three months). That would be problematic, because most people cannot remember dances unless they are done more often. Also, if you have a favorite dance, you have to go a long time without doing it, especially if the session leader puts it in the "other" category.

One way for a session leader to increase F is to increase the number of dances per session. A session leader can do that by extending to later into the evening, by cutting the music off to shorten the length of each dance, and by doing less teaching. We have seen all of that happen. Maybe it gets you up to 100 dances per session. That brings F up to 10. So now your popular dances are done 20 times a year, and your other dances are done 5 times a year. I think that is still problematic.

Today, any dance session is up against the upper limit of its repertoire. Inevitably, some dances that were once popular are going to get lost, as much as session leaders and dancers would prefer otherwise.

I am guessing that we will see some of the following happen:

  1. Session leaders will become more and more selective about introducing new dances. Unless they really expect the dance to become a classic, they will pass on it.
  2. Session leaders will "raise the bar" for old standards. They will let more once-popular dances fall out of circulation.
  3. As really fun dances get lost, session leaders will try to re-teach them.

As a result, sessions will become more idiosyncratic. You might know a lot of the dances at one leader's session, but you find that when you try dancing at a different leader's session you face a relatively unfamiliar mix. I believe that this already is the case with partner dances. There are partner dances that appear to be really popular in Boston or Los Angeles that I never see done in the Washington, DC area.

Dancers also will change their behavior.

It would not surprise me to see some regular sessions (not just workshops) become "dual track." I have heard of sessions where for part of the time there are partner dances in one room while there are circle dances in another room. Maybe in the future we will see sessions where there are two rooms, each with a different program, with no overlap, the entire night. You might run from doing this dance in one room

to doing this dance in the other room.

And there will be times when you pass up a dance you like for a dance in the other room that appeals to you more.

Might be fun. Or might be stressful. But the number of fun dances keeps growing. And the time available do dance is limited. The arithmetic is inexorable.

Other essays in this series