There are two choices here; either a dance to music that is pre-recorded (mp3) or live music from a band. Each has their own merits and both can be equally successful.
A dance with recorded music is usually less costly than hiring a band. I have amassed a varied folk music library over the years and this provides a dance with a large ‘band sound’ at a fraction of the cost. The recorded music I use has been purchased from my own personal favourite ceilidh bands, ranging from the traditional to some funky beats and colourful instrumentation. I do hold the relevant performers licence to use this music legally.
I have sometimes heard the criticism that dancing to recorded music might lack the immediacy and atmosphere that a live band provides. Indeed I must confess to thinking this myself at one time. However, I can honestly say that I have never received feedback to this effect from someone attending a recorded music dance. I work hard at maintaining a fun and vibrant atmosphere throughout the dance – once you are in the thick of a Grand Chain you won’t even be aware that the music isn’t live! It’s the dancers that really create the atmosphere, not the band.
Barn dance bands vary greatly with their sound and instrumentation. There may be as little as 2 musicians or as many as 10 at a festival ceilidh! Most of the music comprises of traditional English, Scottish or Irish folk tunes but may have other world influences. Bands often have their own unique characteristic sound which they work hard to culture, often using instruments that are not considered particularly ‘folky’.
Bands usually charge a fee per band member, the larger the band the more you pay. Bands are often a separate entity to callers although you will find that frequently a band and caller will work regularly together by preference, as in my case.
I work closely with several local bands. ‘Jiggery Pokery’ are an experienced group of 3 musicians with a mixed folk background. The line up usually includes a guitar, fiddle and piano accordion. I also work with a band called ‘Swallowtail’ who are a talented bunch of instrumentalists on the fiddle, acoustic guitar, banjo and melodeon and have an especially accomplished repertoire of old time American blue grass and Celtic sounds. Finally, ‘Rattle on the Stove Pipe’ band consists of fiddle, guitar/banjo and melodeon but occasionally a drum enters the mix too!
I can also book other bands depending on your preference. Indeed, you may prefer to book a band directly yourself.
Most bands will bring their own PA (Public Address sound system – the amplification) and larger bands will also have a mixing desk and technician who ideally will be placed some distance from the stage.
Most people have in their head an expectation of the type of tunes they expect to hear at a folk dance. This is very much determined by their past experiences of folk dance. For instance in Scotland traditional ceilidh tunes are played on strings perhaps with an accordion and the music is lively and always danced – never walked. Scottish reels are fast paced and fun. If you grew up in 1970’s England like I did you probably had ‘country dance’ lessons in the primary school hall! You would also expect all dances to be more of a hoe-down style and indeed many people are still very attached to this gingham-clad ‘barn dance’ image.
Modern folk dance has come along way since then. A modern British ceilidh will take influences from across the country and the world. It will include tunes that are recognisably Scottish, Irish, English or from some other musical tradition like American Square dance or Contra. Folk dance and music is constantly evolving and to some extent reinventing itself. My preferred style of dance music is the modern British ceilidh.