Creating a Vision
adapted from an e-mail (2003) to an organizer dealing with strident demands by a few dancers for more challenging dances
What you're going through isn't unique to your series. It's happened at most contra dance series with which I'm familiar, and for that matter, a similar thing happened in the modern western square dance movement, both in the early 1960s and again more recently. There seems to be a tendency for a small group of active dancers—what Ralph Sweet once labeled the "overactive 10%"—to try to make things fit their own view of how dancing should be, which leads to the gradual—or not-so-gradual—exclusion of just plain folks who like to dance but perhaps not as often as the others.
The callers can play a key role in fixing the problem. It helps if the committee is clear with the caller about their expectations. Any of these statements might be part of the committee's vision, but they can't all fit into one evening:
• We're looking for an evening that includes simple dances at the start so that newcomers can meet with success on the first few dances.
• Our goal is a program of high energy contemporary contras with a lot of swings for everyone.
• We hope that the first half-hour of dancing is specifically aimed at families with young children, including a variety of dances that more experienced dancers will also enjoy for their novelty.
• We encourage you to provide one or two explicit style pointers during the course of the evening, perhaps a few tips about timing, or how to share weight in a swing, or what the role of the man is in a lady's chain, or how to move from a swing to swing transition.
• Our dancers expect to be introduced to new dances that are on the cutting-edge of dance choreography.
• Please feel free to teach a couple dance as part of your program. We understand that this may take time that might otherwise go to a contra, but we're interested in learning these dances as well.
• Our dancers expect most dances to keep everyone moving all the time, rather than dances with clear actives and inactives.
• We want at least one of the dances each evening to be a traditional contra dance, one of the so-called chestnuts.
• We welcome a variety of dances in various formations, including contras, squares, triplets, circle mixers.
Good callers can present many different kinds of programs, but it's the job of the organizing committee to get clear about what you want. The Thursday night dance in the Boston area, for example, has a very explicit set of guidelines for callers. They may not be the guidelines that you would want for your own dance series, but a caller coming to that series—even one who's never danced there beforehand—is given a very good idea of what's expected. The clearer you are about what you want from you callers, the easier it is for them to provide that.
Somewhere in the early years at our several local dance series, we sensed some of those problems developing. A group of us—local callers, a few musicians who were also active dancers and a few people who were dancers only—met specifically to discuss what's now commonly called "center-set syndrome." CSS at its worst is characterized by any of the following symptoms: hot-shot dancers lining up to dance with other hot-shot dancers in the center set, clamoring for ever-more-complex dances, disdaining to do squares or mixers, vocal complaining when those dances were presented, refusal to dance with newcomers or generally making them feel inferior, high proportion of extra twirls, spins, and other flourishes, frequently making the perpetrator late for the ensuing figure, constant motion even to the extent of adding in all kinds of extra movements when not called for in the dance, etc....
Anyhow, we all (maybe 8 or 10 of us) met over pizza one night to discuss the situation and what we might do to counteract those tendencies. After decrying the situation—there's nothing so pure as dancers offended by the antics of other dancers <grin>—we adopted a few strategies. First was that as individual dancers, well-known figures in the local dance community, we vowed to set a good model. This meant making an active effort ourselves to invite newcomers as partners and to dance part of each evening with folks (new or not) who were not particularly skilled dancers.
We resolved not to rush to the head of each set, but rather to walk with our partner and to join in often at the bottom of the sets. If you can't elbow your way to the very first spot in line, it's often easier for a new dancer to be the last couple in line, learning the 2's part. You then get to be a 2 all the way up the line, rather than learning one part from, say, the 4th position in line, and then have to switch to the 1's part. By joining in near the bottom of the set, or at least by spreading ourselves out, we felt we could exercise some leadership by example on the floor, helping by our presence to prevent the "clot of confusion" that sometimes occurs in the back of the hall when all the newcomers end up there. We also felt that by dancing in side sets and by not rushing toward the top of the center set we'd send a message that there was good dancing to be had throughout the hall.
We agreed that when we were on the dance floor we'd try to model the sort of behavior we wanted to see from other dancers. This meant making an effort not to talk when the caller was explaining a dance. We also walked through the figures as the called explained them, rather than racing through a contra corners, for example, to show others that we already knew how to do this.
We agreed to refrain from "helping" the caller by adding our own explanations on the floor, figuring that in the long run we'd do better if folks learned to listen carefully to the callers' instructions. If those instructions weren't clear, then that was something the callers needed to learn and since the callers were part of the local community, we saw that improving their skills was a way to improve our local dances.
Around this same time, but not as part of that meeting, several local callers made an informal agreement to help each other develop their skills as callers. We'd get together from time to time to discuss programming: "I loved the progression from Dance A to B to C, introducing a different set of basic figures gradually. By the time we got to G in your program, everyone was comfortable with the basic moves in the dance and was ready for the particular challenge of G." Similarly, "Were you aware that you had three dances in a row that all contained down the hall four in line, turn as a couple?" At each other's dances, we'd provide feedback about the evening: "During the walkthrough to _____, when you said "X," we were all confused. As soon as you said "Y" folks around me instantly understood what you meant."
Did this immediately stop the sort of individualistic behaviors you're describing? No, I can't say that it did.
Did it lead to maintaining the sense of openness that our group cared so much about? You betcha! We continue to have two dance series a month, each thriving after many years.
> Do you recommend having any kind of direct conversation with the "overactive 10%"?
Diplomats sometimes refer to a "free and frank exchange of views" when they're describing a session where strong opinions are expressed. You know the particular individuals and I I don't, so I can't say whether it will help. Some folks are more community-minded, and some less so.
I do think that talking in terms of the greater dance community is helpful. It's possible that these individuals simply don't realize the effect that their actions have on others. On the other hand, you may be dealing with competing visions of how dancing should be. You're concerned with the health of the broader community, and these problem dancers are more concerned with their own fun. Worse, there are people who feel that more high-energy challenging dances are the way to go to build a long-term dance, and see that dancing aggressively is a way of weeding out those who aren't up to the challenge. (I exaggerate, slightly, but that's the net effect of their actions.)
Perhaps if you decide to get some folks together to discuss the health of the series, you could include some of those "problem dancers" as part of the group. They are regular dancers at your series. Placed in a situation where they hear everyone talking about what we can all do to make our dances more welcoming to newcomers, they'll want to be part of the solution. That way you don't have to be pointing fingers directly at them. And if they vocally disagree with the vision that you and your fellow organizer outline, at least those disagreements will be out in the open.
Historically, I'd say that many of us go through these phases, where after we learn the basic moves we go through a period of hot-shot dancing. I remember—early 1980s, I'd say—when we discovered twirls on a ladies chain, rather than the courtesy turn. At first it was one twirl, then two, then more and more and more faster faster, the women spinning energetically and the men just as eagerly cranking them around and around. [This style came to be known as a "Black and Decker turns."] At some point, most of us realized that in our quest for ever-fancier embellishments we had lost the connecting with our partner (or neighbor, depending) and that there was beautiful contact and connection to be had with a simple courtesy turn.
Many dancers craving hotter moves eventually take up other forms of dance, whether it's ritual dance (Morris, rapper, longsword) or social dance (tango, swing). Some of us have discovered English country dance, with its greater complexities in figures and movement. That doesn't mean that they don't still try to get their ya-yas at a contra dance.
As a caller, I do stress with my dancers at home that if they're going to do embellishments, they make sure that they're on time for the next figure. (Improvise if you must, but only on your own time and in your own space; no lifts or dips on swings—they're potentially dangerous to neighbors.) I also stress that these are embellishments, not the figure itself, and that it's crucial when dancing to take note of the folks you're dancing with. The sort of twirl that's appropriate for dancing with your partner, an equally experienced dancer, may not be appropriate with a neighbor who is clearly less comfortable with the basic figure.
The essence of contra dancing, I tell folks, is using the basic figures to be sensitive to the folks with whom you're dancing. Indeed, that's one of the refinements that makes community social dancing so much fun—you'll be dancing the figures very deliberately (perhaps just turn one time around on a swing) with a child or a newcomer adult, and the next time through you find yourself in a foursome with an equally-experienced couple and you let 'er rip, and then back again. Most hot-shot dancers haven't arrived at the point where they make those kind of accommodations, but in time, with good leadership, many will realize that.
Good luck! I agree with one poster who urged you not to wait. One person going away from a dance having had a bad experience will, over time, spread a lot of negative publicity about the event. The other focus for your work could be making a concerted effort to invite newcomers: each person at your meeting, for example, will aim to bring two new dancers to the next month's event, perhaps with a potluck supper beforehand, or a potluck dessert break, some activity to add to the social, community-building nature of the event.