Challenge Dances and Inclusiveness
adapted from a post to the trad-dance-callers group, November 2004
From time to time on discussion groups, someone inevitably will argue that the solution to declining attendance is for the organizers to arrange for more challenging dances. The best way to keep dancers interested, so goes this train of thought, is to offer ever-increasing levels of challenge to provide fresh stimulation.
Jim Mayo is a seasoned caller who has been involved with the modern western square dance movement for some 60 years. MWSD definitely went that route, so that dancers' introductory lessons in that form went from a few nights to now a standardized 36 weeks of instruction before one is deemed a Mainstream dancers. And beyond that, there are programs at Plus, Advanced, and Challenge levels, each with a correspondingly smaller set of dancers. In response to one such post, Jim wrote:
"I believe that the experienced dancers are willing to help if the leaders keep them aware that the future depends on their support of entry opportunities.... If they (the eagers) could also be persuaded to continue support for those less demanding programs to assure a supply of eager associates into the future, that would be a wonderful circumstance."
[Insert sound of wild applause from this corner]
We're fortunate at our local dance that we have a large core of experienced, skillful, and sympathetic dancers who understand this and who make a point of asking newcomers to dance.
• Some of this is just the personality of these helpful individuals.
• Some I've reinforced, by making a point of catching them during the break (or at the end of the dance, or by follow-up e-mail or telephone conversations) and telling them that I noted their efforts and appreciate what they're doing.
• Some is developed during my brief, before-the-dance-starts meeting with newcomers and others present, in which I tell the newcomers that we're fortunate to have at this dance many helpful experienced dancers [and at this point my voice rises to reach the ears of those very folks] WHO WILL SEEK YOU OUT AS PARTNERS DURING THE EVENING!
• Some is supported by my reminders (perhaps every two or three months) from the microphone that there are three people you should be sure to dance with in the course of each evening:
1) someone whose name you don't know,
2) someone whose skill level is significantly different from your own,
3) and someone you really want to dance with. And no, when you ask a
person to dance, you don't have to tell them which category they fall
• Finally, I think that we're helped by being a reasonably isolated dance community, with just two local dance series each month. Yes, folks who want to dance a lot will travel an hour or more on the weekends or nights without a local dance, but for many people, one or two nights a month is plenty of dancing. Once every few years, depending on the calendar, I hold an evening for experienced dancers, with fewer walkthroughs and a more challenging program, and explicitly advertised as such. At these "hot dances," I always make a short speech, thanking the dancers present for supporting the regular monthly dances, reminding them that our form of community dance can only thrive by continually welcoming new dancers into the fold.
(Periodically, folks will request that I do more such events but I refuse... I think that if there are too many such opportunities, then many experienced dancers will just go to these events and will skip the regular dances, where their expertise and their example is needed.)
I know of larger urban centers that hold regular challenging series, and maybe it works there, where there are accessible community dances that welcome newcomers and teach them the basics. For the most part, though, I think of dance weekends, special workshops, and camps as places where the hard-core dance enthusiasts can enjoy more challenging programs in company with other enthusiasts. Our primary emphasis needs to be less on challenge and more on keeping the dances accessible and welcoming to a steady stream of new dancers. That's the approach that made this form of social dance so appealing to generations.