NEFFA puts on a large folk festival every spring in Massachusetts, which brings attendees and performers from all over to spend a weekend soaking in music, dance, crafts, good food, and general down-to-earth folkiness. Naturally we'd expect a lot of these folks to be barefooters and/or welcoming to bare feet, which is generally true and especially in the dance halls. It's really rather nice to do contras on a well-maintained wood floor, and have all that fine feedback about where you're going, weight shifts, and surface friction. It's the only way *I* would dance those styles, and in spite of occasional "...but aren't you afraid of ..." comments I've never had my feet stomped on, because a> people who routinely dance are generally better coordinated than that, and b> the heightened situational awareness of a barefooter generally results in feet either being rapidly removed from an area of pending danger, or simply never getting into it at all. And the one or two times the edge of someone else's foot [shod or bare] has touched mine in the thick of a crowded dance it's never come close to causing injury. People at folk-festivals are generally more in tune with the benefits of going barefoot as a whole, and value the freedom to do so indoors and out without any worries for the entire weekend while hobnobbing with a few thousand of their closest friends.
With one minor exception, up until relatively recently. The main food area is set up in one of the hosting school's cafeterias, with outside vendors using some of the existing kitchen facilities and also bringing in a whole lot of their own infrastructure. For years in the past, gaily hand-lettered signs got posted at the public entrances to that area, "NO BARE FEET". They never made any sense to me, and I really resented having to drag my flats all the way over there just to go into one place and have lunch, so I finally made a bit of a stink about it to some of the NEFFA board members. I pointed out that it really was a bit of an affront to the types of people who attended the festival, there was no legally supportable reasoning for it, and that people should be able to handle their own decisions on the issue rather than needing a faceless adminstrative nanny. Finally someone on the board did the necessary research and got back to me, acknowledging "you're right, there are no laws or regulations about this" with regard to food areas, and the next year the signs disappeared.
Hopefully forever, because I think a strong point was made to the Board about our attendee base and their personal freedoms. Folkies are good about picking up their own trash, and the school's custodians are all over the realtime maintenance of the whole place, and I've never even seen anything hazardous on that cafeteria floor that I'd have to avoid let alone ever stepped in anything bad. And that's coming out of having worked an afternoon's worth of sound and lighting setup in the gyms and auditoriums, barefoot of course, where many more foot hazards could be present. Part of our job is to find and remove those anyway since those spaces will be home to hundreds of barefoot dancers for the rest of the weekend, and there's nobody more qualified to evaluate that than a longterm barefooter who understands what he's looking at and/or feeling.
Well, that was what I wrote back in 2016, and things were basically fine
for two years afterward.
Then, in 2018, our happy complacency was grievously shattered, leading
to some nightmare negotiations and a year when blind ignorance prevailed
It all started during the 2017 festival, when a friend of mine who was relatively new at the barefoot thing but really enjoying the benefits, was sitting quietly in the cafeteria minding her own business, and one of the Mansfield school staff decided to come over and start harassing her. My friend wasn't yet really used to handling confrontations in her own barefoot journey, but tried to reason with the staffer, which basically failed over the din of a noisy room and led to some bullshit accusation that my friend was yelling at the staffer in an aggressive fashion. Absolute crap -- having any conversation in that room at peak mealtime is difficult at best, and it was all extremely upsetting for my friend.
News of this rapidly reached me, and I steamed over to the cafeteria to find this person and try to get things straight. The offender turned out to be some kind of kitchen supervisor for the school, a rather large and arrogant woman who clearly derived satisfaction from her day-to-day power trip over a bunch of middle-school kids. I laid it down that NEFFA had researched all of this previously and that any such harassment of *our attendees*, responsible adults with their own lifestyles and decision-making capability, was unwarranted and wholly unacceptable. Plenty of people were barefoot all over the rest of the facility all weekend, and the cafeteria or any other food-function area was no different. No, it was not a "health code issue" related to food service either, and I stood there deflecting various other typical excuses. She seemed to genuinely not know the facts, and expressed surprise at what I was saying. I handed her an Outbarefoot card, as it was all I had convenient at the time, and asked her to research these things for herself. We managed to end the conversation cordially and finish out that 2017 weekend without further incident, but it was a warning of things to come.
In reasonable advance of the 2018 festival, I reached out to some of the NEFFA staff I knew how to contact, to get assurance that we were still a foot-friendly event. A month-plus out, it seemed like we were all set -- certainly, nobody within the NEFFA committees had any issues. Then, two weeks before the event and far too late for any corrective pre-action, it emerged that we were not. The cafeteria was being clamped down on again, in a way that had evidently sneaked itself into the year's contract without anyone noticing. The entire ensuing email thread, somewhat sanitized, is readable here. Note the timestamps carefully -- things were not helped by the long delays in responses from the NEFFA end, where prompter action might have been able to head off the problem. So here we were, backslid into the same sorry state as three-plus years ago, but now it was coming from our venue instead of NEFFA itself.
I agreed to uphold my commitments to the event and showed up to work my ass off as usual, but several of us were still really angry about the situation. The school pasted up some really obnoxious signs at the cafeteria doors:
and as the weekend went on it became clear that I had been flat-out lied to about our non-cafeteria options and outdoor vendors -- if we hadn't brought plenty of our own food supplies, the choices all weekend would have been trolley-dogs and pizza. The school people even stuck their signs up around a small snack/break area in the building I spent most of my working time in, which had been my usual convenient source of coffee for a couple of years. Clearly, someone had all the wrong paranoid brainwashing about food functions, and was pushing their offensive power-grab as far as they could.
We made it through the festival and it was generally okay, and when I sat in on the on-site NEFFA board meeting there seemed to be general sentiment that this really needed to be fixed, *again*, for next year. I wondered if it was our same foot-phobic kitchen staffer behind all this, or someone higher up the food chain, so to speak. I came close to filing an official complaint with the school board, but agreed to hold off until the NEFFA negotiators had the chance to get through all of their own discussions.
So let's try this again...
I had been told that NEFFA's year-to-year contracts were generally done around wintertime, so I made sure to ping the folks involved on an infrequent schedule just to keep it in their minds. I was still prepared to write to the school officials on my own to present the case, not on specific behalf of NEFFA but clearly related to the event and generally appealing for a little sensibility. C'mon, I thought, even their very own iconic "MHS Green Machine" Hulk image, proudly re-created on an interior gym wall a few years back, is barefoot! [Although heel-striking to hell-n-gone, apparently...] Hundreds of people dance under his steely gaze all weekend, with whatever they choose on or off their feet as long as it doesn't harm the floors.
Although the process was slow, NEFFA was indeed working on this, and shortly after we got through the Arisia from hell some better news emerged: we were clear on the feet thing, the cafeteria would no longer be off-limits to the unshod. Hooray! Footwear was still demanded in the kitchen and prep areas, which was okay since it generally didn't affect festival attendees, but the blatant illogic about the cafeteria had once again been laid to rest. Notification of this came to me via two paths, summed up in a much shorter email thread.
Great, but now there was still some damage to un-do. Parts of the folkie rumor mill had apparently gotten the idea that *all* of NEFFA had become barefoot-hostile, and people were actually scared about it. I floated the idea to the upcoming festival's food-vendor liaison of using some different signage at the cafeteria doors this time, to solidly countervail the unfortunate misinformation from last year, and she seemed amenable to that. I prepared some simple materials -- the brown "bf OK" signs I had printed on nice thick stock, and a couple of the short-form 5-myths sheets with the Massachusetts letter added. The combination would make a good attention-getter with a clear message, and then explain the facts to anyone who might be confused.
After I got on-site I took this package over to the guy in charge of the plentiful signage that NEFFA posts all over the school. He accepted my material but seemed dubious about the 5-myths sheets, like it would be too much for someone to stand there and read. I maintained that the "OK" signs should go up at both cafeteria doors at a bare minimum, because NEFFA definitely owed that clarification to its community after the sad eff-up of last year. He didn't argue with that, and said he would get to it when he could as his crew was running a little behind on the normal stuff. He decided to frame my signs on backing sheets with a little surrounding NEFFA-format text, and eventually taped them up. A bit later in the festival than I would have liked and he chose to leave out the 5-myths sheets, but the point is that *my* signs went up in an official NEFFA capacity and stayed up for the rest of the event. Compare here: one year later, same doorway but other side, same Italian Ice cart in the background...
So we're back to "green" on NEFFA, although I have to wonder how long it will be until the next insulting assault on our sensibilities. As schools keep leaning toward "lockdown" philosophies and the notion that the precious little darlings inside must be kept in their sterile bubbles protected from any real-world stimuli, the're going to lose sight of how to host events for people who are used to thinking for themselves.
Read more barefoot advocacy