How did Budafest become the biggest West Coast Swing event in Europe, and one of the biggest in the whole world?
In 2011, the word combination “West Coast Swing” meant something only to very few people in Europe. It might be hard to imagine nowadays, as regular WCS classes and parties are held in most (if not all) European countries, and at least one WCS event is held somewhere in the continent almost every weekend, but back then, there wasn’t much going on.
Europeans from different countries discovered this beautiful partner dance thanks to watching the top American Champions on YouTube and started building up their local scenes. There were only a handful of events in the continent at the time: Swingvitational and UK Champs in England, French Open, West in Lyon, and Sea Sun and Swing in French, Warsaw Swing (not Halloween yet), Swing and Snow, Sunny Side Dance Camp, and Kiwi.
The First Budafest
Adam Balasy and Rita Jori, Hungarian Boogie Woogie champions, started teaching WCS in Budapest, Hungary around 2007. 4 years later decided it’s time to have their own event. Until then, they have been traveling all over Europe to dance and learn, but it was neither simple nor cheap, so not everyone could afford it. Therefore, they made up their mind to provide their students with the experience of learning from the top pros without having to fly or drive far away.
The venue for the first Budafest was the old factory building Adam and Rita used for teaching their weekly classes. They invited John Lindo and Jessica Cox, two of the most well-known American Champions, to teach the 90-100 enthusiastic attendees, and the party was on.
Who would have thought that within ten years this little homey event will become the biggest in Europe, one that attracts top dancers from all around the world?
Budafest indeed had almost no competition from other events in Europe back in the days, especially not on the same dates, but still, it was not the first and didn’t start as the biggest.
What were the keys to its incredible success then? I did my best to find out.
Maintaining High Quality
First of all, Budafest has always delivered. Adam and Rita make sure to have well-known and beloved pros on staff every year. Not all the events can afford that, but they keep a high standard on each and every edition, which definitely makes Budafest stand out.
It started with John Lindo & Jessica Cox, then they added Jordan & Tatiana, and Catriona Wiles to the staff, and in the next couple of years many other top pros joined the party: Benji Schwimmer, Ben Morris, Jennifer Deluca, Michael & Brandi, Maxime & Torri, Victoria Henk, Maxence & Virginie, Gary & Susan, PJ & Tashina, Alyssa Glanville, Jakub & Emeline, and Semion & Maria.
The Perfect Budafest Venue
As already mentioned, the first venue was an old factory building, which was only able to accommodate a small and cozy event. However, the third Budafest edition, in 2013, was already quite big (about 500 attendees), and Adam and Rita found a new location for it: a small hotel on the Buda side of Budapest. This hotel turned out to be very problematic, but more on that later.
Having an unpleasant experience with this venue made Adam and Rita look for something really great. They set to work on it and with the help of Gabor Lugosi, who became an inseparable part of the organizing team, made a deal with one of the most luxurious hotels in Budapest – The 5-star Intercontinental hotel!
Budafest 2014 was the first edition that took place in the new venue, which serves the event to this day. The Intercontinental is located directly on the Danube River with a magnificent view of the Buda castle. It’s also very centrally located – a few minutes’ walk from the city center with good public transportation connections.
Another important advantage of the Intercontinental is its size, which allows hosting an event with 1100-1200 attendees, and, last but not least, its prices: The room cost per night is much cheaper than in western European 5-star hotels.
Just like a wise event director once told me, everyone can manage an event as long as everything goes well, but it takes a good or even a great director to handle mishaps properly. That’s what Adam and Rita have proven to be.
Snowed In Budafest
The first big problem they had to deal with occurred in 2013. The number of attendees grew significantly and they decided to hold the event at a small hotel, that offered a fantastic deal for these off-season dates (€ 16 per night for a quadruple bedroom including breakfast). Unfortunately, everyone was snowed in the whole weekend, and most hotel services were almost non-existent: The cleaning staff left on Friday and only returned on Monday morning (leaving the event team in charge of cleaning the toilets), the queue for a meal ticket was about 90 minutes long and there wasn’t enough food for everyone, and on Monday morning the hotel staff refused to clear the snow off the road, meaning taxis could not drive up the hill. As a consequence, over 50 westies missed their flight (and that’s how the tradition of dancing at the airport was born).
Adam and Rita felt sorry for their guests and compensated them with a 50% discount on the next year’s edition. Thanks to their efforts, instead of making the event a disaster, it became a talking point and maybe even made Budafest more popular.
The Floor is Lava
The next year, 2014, Adam and Rita encountered another unexpected mishap – the wooden floor in the ballroom just fell apart. They had to reassemble it every night, but they didn’t want to prevent their 600 guests from partying, so they found a better solution: Thanks to Adam’s father in law, they managed to bring the Europa Ship from the other side of the river, even though the captain was drunk somewhere in the countryside (but that’s another story). They had to deal with the digital sound system on the ship, but eventually, even this issue was solved. The ship was an expensive addition, but it stayed to this day because the attendees love it.
By the way, learning from this experience, as part of the preparations for Budafet 2015, Adam and Rita made sure the floor will not fall apart during the event again:
The Budafest Atmosphere Gimmicks
Every event has its own story and atmosphere. It is a big part of what makes an event attractive, and Budafest definitely has some special traditions:
Budafest’s Sunday Boat Party
What started as an emergency solution (see “Handling Mishaps”) became a prominent part of the event with the traditional after-party on the boat on Sunday evening. The cruise along the Danube River, which includes an impressive view of the illuminated Buda Castle and other monumental buildings at night, is a memorable experience. Besides, those parties have their own traditions, like the pros wearing bathrobes (what led other attendees to dress the same way for the occasion).
Taking an example from Hip-Hop performances, where the audience throws baseball caps and shoes to show its appreciation (yeah, I know throwing shoes doesn’t sound so appreciative), Adam and Rita wanted to find a special way to let the crowd take part and show their love to the performers. Knowing the attendees sit on the floor in the first rows during shows, the organizers also wanted to make them feel comfortable. That’s how they came up with the idea of providing them with pillows they can sit on and throw at the performing dancers (you must admit pillows are safer to throw than shoes). The pillows became one of Budafest’s symbols, which made them a popular souvenir everyone wants to have at home.
In this context, I’d like to add a personal note, after a friend brought it to my attention:
At the end of the event on which the pillows were first introduced, Adam told the dancers they can take them home as a souvenir. Nowadays, they are taken right when they are brought to the venue, meaning fewer pillows thrown during Saturday comps and shows and almost none during Sunday pro-winners J&J.
I believe it’ll help everyone if we leave the pillows in the venue until the end of the event. It will be more convenient to seat on the floor during shows; the pros and our friends in the finals will feel our love and appreciation; and we will, eventually, get a souvenir with a true sentimental value: A pillow that was thrown at pros who performed one of the best dances we’ve ever witnessed; at a rising star who nailed it at the Advanced finals and made it to All-star; or at a Newcomer winner who danced his first spotlight on the pro-winners J&J. It’s definitely worth much more than a pillow we just took out of a plastic bag, isn’t it?
Budafest’s Pro-Winners J&J
Budafest was the first event to conduct this kind of show. Adam and Rita saw how pros elevate the dance level when they partner with less experienced dancers at parties and decided to show it to everyone. The winners of the 4 lower divisions – Newcomer, Novice, Intermediate, and Advanced – get to draw one of the pros on staff and dance a spotlight with them on Sunday evening. It’s a unique opportunity many dream of, and it’s one of the most popular shows, which made other events conduct their own pro-winners J&Js.
The (Relatively) Low Cost of Budafest
Comparing to Western European cities like London and Paris, the daily budget one needs in Budapest is very low (according to one of my favorite websites “Budgetyourtrip”, Paris and London are double as expensive). The Intercontinental hotel is also cheaper than the ones who host events in Western Europe. Moreover, the time of the year, the beginning of January, is considered very much off-season in Hungary, which makes prices even more affordable.
French Open, for example, was probably the biggest WCS event in Europe when Budafest started. However, the cheaper alternative in Budapest was more appealing to the non-french westies. In addition, French events had a legal problem playing music until late at night, which forced them to cut the parties short.
British events, such as Swingvitational and UK Champs, traditionally sell only full packages (Swingvitational did change that policy at some point) – event pass + hotel accommodation – what makes them even more expensive.
Furthermore, flights to Budapest have become significantly cheaper in the last couple of years thanks to Wizz Air, who became one of the biggest low-cost airways in Europe.
I believe this last point is already clear to you, and you may even be feeling it yourself now.
Learning about everything Adam, Rita, Gabor and their wonderful volunteers did and keep on doing for the event attendees, who they consider their guests and friends, lets you understand what people find so unique in this event. The dancers who attend Budafest know that if any problem arises, the event directors are in the same boat with them (literally), and they will do their best to assist. The empathy they feel makes them want to come back every year.
When I asked Adam and Rita what was the key to their success, this was their answer:
“Being big was never the aim. We are WCS teachers, dancers and organizers in that order. We want an event that we would love to attend. BudaFest is an event we would really really love to attend as participants… :)”
Well, seems like most European westies and many other internationals agree with this statement 🙂
These are my conclusions. I hope this article can help other event directors to grow their events, so we’ll have more big and successful events like Budafest in Europe. After all, we’re all here to make the WCS community bigger and bring westies together more often.
I’d like to thank all the good people who helped me to create this article: Adam & Rita, Catriona Wiles, Renars Sirotins, Iulia Dancescu, TJ Bednash, Ran Halprin & Marina Mamshina, Eszter Moricz, and Roee Enbar.
If you wish to get to know Adam & Rita a bit better, you can watch the interview I did with them and other EDs during the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020.