DO WE REALLY WANT TO ATTRACT YOUNG DANCERS?

by Loui Tucker

Return to Dance Writings Menu

This article first appeared in the March 2011 issue of Let's Dance! magazine.

---------------------------------------------------------------

     Want to get young people interested in folk dancing? Ban it! Can't you just hear the conversation in the Dean's office?
     "Honest, we were only fighting, just a little lovers quarrel. That was all it was!"
     "Son, who are you trying to fool? Don't you think I know a Hambo when I see one!"
     Susan Wicket-Ford, Stockton 2006 Talent Show

         If we tell teenagers that folk dancing is best appreciated by mature adults in a committed relationship and they should save themselves for it, they will be sneaking off behind the barn to practice their racenitza faster than you can say "Quick, quick, slow." They will be gathering for clandestine folk dance parties in darkened basements when their parents are out of town.
         If we pass laws prohibiting folk dancing for anyone under 21, young people will be found in deserted rural parking lots gathered around a boom box daring each other to "do Florecica again!"
         All kidding aside, I am actually going to say something radical: I don't think we should be focusing our energies on getting young people into folk dancing. WHAT? WHY NOT? Bear with me – this is going to take some explaining.
         First, I think young people are already being exposed to folk dancing, perhaps not in every school or church youth group, but it is happening. I have plenty of colleagues who specialize in teaching dance to children from kindergarten to teenagers and up into college. Young people are dancing. No, not in the numbers we saw in the 50s, 60s and 70s, and yes, their contact with dance is more successful in some communities than in others, but it is happening.
         I'm more interested in what causes them to stop dancing in their twenties, which was when many of the dancers my age started dancing - in junior college, college, and freshly minted college graduates.
         One drawback today that didn't exist 40-plus years ago is the age difference between the young people potentially joining existing adult dance groups and the age of the folks already in those groups. For example, when I joined at 21, there were plenty of other young people and the experienced dancers were in their 30s and 40s - a gap of 10-20 years. As it stands now, if a young dancer just out of college, who was used to dancing with dancers about the same age, wanders into an adult folk dance group, the age gap is going to be more like 30-50 years and there will be few if any other young people.
         I've said before in other articles that we also face greater competition from other dance forms: ballroom dance, salsa, hip-hop, line dancing, even contra and swing classes. Young people have more types of dances from which to select. And you know that if it's on television or has been made popular by a movie, young people will be interested in taking those classes. We can't do much about the competition factor [unless you happen to have an "in" with a television or motion picture producer...], but there are two more factors that will continue to be a problem for us: (1) marriage and (2) families.
         If a young dancer marries a non-dancer, we're probably going to lose the dancer. Sure, there are few instances where we actually bring the non-dancer over to Our Side, but it is less likely. I suggested at a dinner recently that, much like certain religious groups that frown on inter-faith marriage, we should start having interventions when a young dancer starts dating a non-dancer. I said we could even find out when the wedding is taking place and, when the minister intones that line "If any of you know why these persons should not be joined together in Holy Matrimony,..." we could all stand up and say, "We do!" [Relax, I was just kidding!]
         But even if two dancers get lucky, find each other, fall in love, and get married, there's the children and family issue. Raising children is hard, time-consuming, energy-sapping work, and fitting in an evening or two of dancing is not easy when you have children. If a couple can find the time and energy to go dancing, there's the cost of child care on top of the cost of the dance class. Few, if any, dance clubs offer child care on site (what a concept!) and few are child friendly when a dancing couple has children who are old enough to be able to join in the dance. Yet, that idea (child care solution for dancers) isn't where I'm going with this article either [though it might be the subject of a future article....]
         So here's where I'm going: I can think of at least four couples who've returned to dancing within the last two years because their children were (1) finally old enough they could be trusted to stay home alone or (2) had graduated from high school and gone off to college. These former dancers came back to dancing after a 15-20 year hiatus! I know of two women who married non-dancers and, in the last three years, found their way back to dancing (divorce in one case, death in the other). Perhaps this is the market that is waiting to be tapped: former dancers who are suddenly free to dance again.
         I am considering exploring the cost of placing some ads in local papers that say something like:

"Are you a former folk dancer? Do you miss it? Guess what: we're still dancing and would love to see you back on our dance floors. Phone number, website...."

"Is the nest suddenly empty? Got some free evenings in your week? Come back to your roots - international folk dancing! Remember how much fun it was? We're still dancing and would love to see you back in our circles. Phone number, website..."

         Once we get back some of the 45-year-olds and 55-year- olds who used to dance, and we've lowered the average age a bit, then we can start thinking about attracting the 30-year-olds with incentives like free child care and classes designed for their children.