by Loui Tucker
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This article appeared originally in the December 2012 issue of Let's Dance!
BACKGROUND. Several times in the last 75 years our dance community has attempted to deal with shrinking participation. Committees have been formed that studied the situation, published reports, and made recommendations. Articles have been written pointing out the obstacles and challenges, and offering solutions. (I wrote a couple of articles on the subject myself back in 2006.) Most recently, the Federation has been encouraging various dance communities to hold New Dancer Festivals to attract new dancers and encourage former dancers to return, and has offered financial as well as technical support to groups willing to sponsor such events.
It seems we are always looking for ways to attract dancers to our circles and, given that our current dancers are aging, ideally the new dancers would also be younger dancers. To add to the equation, the balance of men to women that existed in the very early days when the entire repertoire consisted of couple dances has deteriorated badly, to the extent that we are also looking for ways to specifically attract more men.
WHAT TO DO? I want to start by asking a question: Why do people choose to try dancing of any kind? If you're looking for something to do that will get you out of the house, why choose dancing over, say, bridge or tennis or volunteering at a rest home or working out at the gym or going to a movie? All of those activities will do the job.
I believe people seek out opportunities to dance because they are seeking human contact, perhaps something as simple as the touch of a hand. Dancing seems to include the assumption that there will be some social contact, and probably some physical contact as well. If that is what people are looking for, why not do what we can to capitalize on that aspect of dance? Yes, holding hands in a circle or a line amounts to physical contact. But couple dances, especially mixers, provide significantly more contact. Couple dances usually offer more than just contact with hands and, with mixers, you dance with more than one partner, which provides the most "bang for your buck." The area where we can best compete with other forms of both recreation and exercise is in the area of human and social contact.
In addressing the imbalance between men and women on our dance floors, I think this aspect of dance needs to be stressed if we are going to bring more men, and more young people, to our dance halls.
WHERE ARE COUPLE DANCES SUCCEEDING? I have been gathering anecdotal evidence showing how couples dancing tends to increase participation by young people and by men. I want to be very clear: These are anecdotes, not scientific proof to support my position.
Item #1: If you have ever been to an evening of contra dancing, you will know their dance halls are generally crowded, there are plenty of men, and young people represent a significant portion of the dancers. Contra dancing is all couples dances.
Item #2: A long-time dancer recently decided to become a teacher and start a local dance class. There were already several dance classes in that area, but they were all either exclusively non-partner dances or included a limited number of partner dances. This teacher decided to offer a class that was advertised as having at least 50% couple dances. Within a few months the new class was larger than any of the other classes in the area and frequently there are more men than women.
Item #3: A shy young man, new to the area, was looking for a way to meet women that did not involve the bar scene or the internet. The advertisement he saw for a local international folk dance class showed a couple dancing in ballroom position. He went to the class assuming that he would be learning partner dances and he would have some contact with the women in the class. Fortunately for him, he attended a class where 60% of the dances are couple dances. He's still dancing today (eight years later) and enjoys the non-partner dances in the group's repertoire, but has said he might not have kept dancing if he'd first attended a class that did few or no couple dances.
Item #4: The repertoire of my Israeli dance class is about 50% partner dances. Almost half of the dancers are men, and occasionally there are more men than women. Four times a year I host a "Mostly Couples Dance Party" for the Israeli dance community with a program that is 95% partner dances. Thirty-five to forty couples attend.
Item #5: Our waiter at a local restaurant noticed one of my dance-related buttons ("Life is short, dance often") and commented that he loved to dance. He said his favorite dances were salsa and meringue, and he wanted to learn tango. When I mentioned I did international folk dancing, he mentioned that he'd been in what he called a "folkloric performing group" years ago, and maybe he should visit my group. And then he said, "Do you do many couple dances?"
Item #6A: A local group that focuses its energies on high-school-aged dancers has a repertoire that is 75% couple dances. When I asked why there are so many couple dances, the leader responded: "There are three reasons. First, peer pressure keeps everyone coming because, if one person decides not to attend, at least one other dancer isn't going to get to dance either. If there are set dances done during the evening, it could mean there will not be enough people to form a set and five or seven dancers won't get to dance. Second, teenaged boys dance because it means dancing with girls. They will learn the other dances, particularly the stamping, shouting dances created for men, but they come dancing to have contact with the girls in the group. Finally, couple dances are more interesting to watch, and this group performs several times a year."
Item #6B: Just because boys grow into men doesn't mean they don't still go dancing in order to dance with the girls.
Item #7: I have never heard a man complain that there are too many couple dances in the repertoire ("Of course they don't complain! They always have partners!"). Women who have a regular – or at least semi-dependable – partner generally would like more couple dances. It is the single women without a regular partner who want the number of couple dances reduced, often to zero. It also seems that if a single women acquires a semi-dependable partner, her vote changes ("Of course... because she now has a partner!").
A LITTLE MORE HISTORY. When international folk dancing was in its infancy, the repertoire was 100% couple dances. International folk dance clubs and classes were made up primarily of married couples who wanted an inexpensive night out. There were also a lot of dance clubs for teens and young singles. As noted above, the boys came expecting to dance with the girls and the girls came expecting to dance with the boys.
I remember starting dancing in the 1970s, and the international folk dance classes were still a place to see and be seen, a place to meet. My social life in the 70s revolved around dancing and dancers.
I am sure there are lots of reasons men have left (or never joined) our dance circles, but I would like to focus on this one possibility: Men come to dance with women and stressing non-partner dances has made the activity less attractive to men. I would like to try to lead us, as a community, back to doing more partner dances.
IT'S NOT GOING TO BE EASY. I'm not saying the change should be abrupt or arbitrary. Making such a change is rather like the old question about which comes first, the chicken or the egg. We can't tell men, "Hey, if you come to our dance class, we will do more couple dances," unless we are prepared to do that. And if we are willing and able to play more couple dances, how do we get the word out and convince men who are not currently dancing to give it a try?
We certainly cannot just pick a number and start doing, say, 50% couple dances at every class, workshop, party, or dance event. The change was gradual in the other direction, and I'm advocating a gradual change back. Of course, nobody's going to enforce this. It's just a suggestion, an experiment, something to consider, something to try. Some ideas:
Assuming you attend a class that does only non-partner dances, start with a small change – say, 10%. If you're doing 30 dances in an evening, that means changing just three of those dances to partner dances. If you already do some couple dances, figure out what percentage of a typical dance event is couple dances and come up with a similar plan for increasing the percentage. If you're doing 10% couple dances, try for 15%.
Work with your group and come up with a list of 10 to 12 couple dances (don't forget mixers and sets) you all know reasonably well – Salty Dog Rag, Cumberland Square, La Bastringue, Vrtielka Čardáš, Ba La, Korobushka, Black Nag. Focus on dances that are not too "couple-y" so that two women will feel comfortable doing the dance together. Agree to add three to four each evening from the dances selected to the existing repertoire.
If you include mixers in the formula, that will allow one of the women in a pair of women who start the dance together to dance with men in the group as the dance progresses.
If you are a woman who wants to participate in this experiment, and you don't have enough men in your group, consider asking another woman in your group to be your semi-regular partner. You could offer to split the lead part with her – you dance the lead in two dances, and she dances the lead in the other two. This eliminates the stress of finding a partner when a partner dance is played.
If you get to a point where you're tired of your selection of couple dances, invite someone from a nearby group that does more couple dances to come teach you a few of their favorites. Or send an emissary to the other class to learn some of their partner dances by dancing them with their group. Also keep an eye out for interesting couple dances when attending regional dance parties and workshops.
I've made it my personal goal to play 25% couple dances at the international dance class that I lead and also at any event at which I'm asked to set up the evening's dance program. Right now 25% is difficult and I'm almost always short by a couple of percentage points, but that is my goal.
I think we also need to make a specific point to do more couple dances and more mixers at the New Dancer Festivals we hold. I believe if we increase the potential for human contact and interaction, and we will increase the yield from those events.
I know this is going to be a sacrifice for a lot of women. I'm asking them to potentially give up some of the dances in the evening program that they might otherwise dance. I believe it will ultimately be worth the effort and sacrifice. I believe that, as more couple dances are added, we will return to the time when international folk dance classes were a good way for men to meet women and women to meet men. I hope we will be able to say to our friends, "You want to meet someone? Come dancing with me!"
As I pointed out in the first section of this article, we are constantly looking for ways to attract dancers, specifically younger dancers and specifically men. I think increasing the percentage of couple dances is worth a try.