by Loui Tucker

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This article first appeared in the January 2006 issue of Let's Dance! magazine


What’s the difference between a dance class and a dance family? A dance family, like any family, stays in touch, cares, celebrates, and welcomes new people to the table. You know you have a dance family when you start celebrating birthdays in class, when you celebrate the anniversary of the beginning of the class, when you develop traditions for greeting newcomers, and when you have members exchanging phone numbers and email addresses.

A dance class can become a dance family almost by accident, without any effort on anyone’s part, due to the nature of the people in the class. You can also encourage your class to become a healthy, happy, welcoming family, and that is the subject of this article.

A dance class that has the same members year after year does not, in itself, create a dance family, but you must have that returning core population to make a class into a family. Why do people return month after month, year after year, to a dance class, and how is a dance class different from, say, a French class or a Chinese cooking class? People generally take classes to acquire a skill or a body of knowledge. Once that skill or knowledge is theirs, they stop attending the class. They might take a more advance level of the same subject, but you don’t hear of people taking Beginning French or Chinese Cooking classes for decades.

By comparison, dance classes generally foster a “Let’s keep doing this” attitude. Even if people master ballroom dance techniques or tap or ballet, they will continue to attend dance classes to practice and improve their skill. That is clearly the case with folk dance classes, but it’s not just a matter of maintaining your skill level. In most folk dance classes, new dances are added to the repertoire on a regular basis and old dances that have dropped from the repertoire are reviewed.
Our folk dance classes encourage long-term commitment and attendance in the first place. Once your class has an established dancing population, creating a dance family just takes a little leadership, planning, and organization.

Connect and Communicate.
Start with a class roster. If you notice class members exchanging phone numbers and email addresses, take that as the cue to do something formally for the entire class. Set up a clipboard with a form asking for name, address, phone, and email. In my case, I added a column for “Occupation, hobbies and interests” and a column for birthdays. Let the list grow a few weeks until you are sure you have everyone. If you know you’re still missing a few members (out of town, business conflicts), contact them personally if you can.

Type up the list and print enough copies for everyone in class, plus a few extras. I know you’ll be delighted when Pat and Chris read the “Occupation, hobbies and interests” column and discover a common interest in golf, and the entire class finds out that Dick is a house painter. Then you’ll start hearing about people getting together for movie dates and lunches. In my class, a woman in the class used the class roster to email a man she thought was interesting. They are now a couple and recently celebrated the second anniversary of that first email exchange!

All of these activities that encourage connectedness help create your dance family.

Everyone loves a party – all you need is a reasonable excuse! They can be “private” parties for just your class members where you celebrate birthdays and significant anniversaries (or a wedding or graduation?). You can also publicize a party to other local dance groups. You can turn just about any holiday into a party: Valentine’s Day, Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day, Spring Equinox, end-of-summer, etc. You can have “theme” parties too. Last year we had a very successful Tie-Dye Party. The photo taken of the group wearing tie-dyed shirts was eye-popping! Or how about a Western theme party or a Black-and-White Ball? Take a vote and have a small prize for the best costume.

A party is also a great way to do some fund-raising, either for your group or for a local charity. Have a “We Need a New Amplifier” Party. You can have a “Help House the Homeless” party and raise money for a local homeless shelter or encourage those attending to bring blankets, used clothing and canned food.

Before leaving this subject, let me add a brief word about birthdays. If your class has more than a dozen people, consider having a combined birthday celebration during each month. This solves more than just the problem of having to remember each birthday. Think back to when you were in elementary school or junior high and you had to choose sides for a game. Were you one of the popular ones who always got picked right away or were you one nobody wanted on the team? How will it feel if someone brings a cake and a card for everyone to sign for Jack, only to discover that Jill’s birthday is the next day, but nobody realized it and nobody brought her a cake or a card? You can quickly revise the birthday song and sing “Happy birthday to Jack AND Jill” but that usually isn’t enough to mend Jill’s self-esteem.

Far better to announce “This month we’ll be celebrating all the May birthdays - Jack, Jill and Jocelyn - on May 15. Who would like to bring a small cake?”

Provide Alternatives
On nights when you cannot dance at your usual location (the floor is being refinished, or someone else needs the room for a one-time event), use that opportunity to get your dancers together for an optional social activity that doesn’t necessarily include dancing. Plan to meet at a local restaurant for dinner and then go see a movie together. If it’s summer, plan a potluck picnic at a local park (dancing on the grass?). If a class member has access to a recreation room at their condominium or apartment complex, have your potluck there and follow it up with a showing of a favorite dance-related video (Strictly Ballroom or Shall We Dance?). Is there a dance or folk music concert you can attend as a group (and get a group discount on the tickets)?

You can also visit another local dance class – and it doesn’t have to be folk dancing! Go as a group to a class that specializes in Hungarian dancing or contra dances.

When we moved into our new house that had a big back yard, we used the annual floor-cleaning break as an opportunity to have everyone in the class over for a housewarming, potluck, and dance party!

The Power of Email.
If you have not already done so, create a group email for your dance class members. It is the easiest way to send out general announcements (“Don’t forget the December Holiday party is this week!”), remind the class about alternative events (“If you want to get together on the Fourth of July, we’re having a potluck at Mitchell Park. Contact Jerry for more information.”), announce dance-related events (“Kolo Festival is Thanksgiving weekend. If you’re interested in car-pooling, contact Sarah.”), or ask for help (“Does anyone know a good place to get shoes resoled?”).
This summer, when one of our members suffered a stroke while on vacation, the entire class knew about it via email, and then got frequent updates on her condition as the weeks went by. Because visitors were not allowed, sending her emails provided us a way to show our love and support. Photos were taken during class and put into a small book for her to enjoy.

A dance family cares about its individual members, and email is a wonderful way to stay informed and connected.

Focus on the Family.
One characteristic of a family is its specific and special focus - itself. Our identification and connection to our family is like no other. That feeling can be enhanced by making dance class more than just a dance class and by causing members to think about dance class when they aren’t there.

Have you ever looked around the room at your dance class and noticed that a lot of people seem to be wearing blue? It’s almost as if a memo went out saying “Wear blue to dance class tonight” but not everyone got the memo. Have fun with that concept: announce at some point in the class, or send an email a few days before class, that “This week’s color is RED.” The next week, every time the door opens, every head will turn to see whether that person is wearing red and what and how many garments are red.

When you run out of colors, try stripes, dots, and plaid. Then try pairs-and-triplets night and have members organize themselves into subgroups and dress alike. Let your imagination go!

The goal is for class members to be thinking about dance class the rest of the week, not just the hour or two before and after class. This heightened awareness increases the possibility they will talk about dance class to others (“I’ve got to stop by a second-hand clothing store on my lunch hour. I need something pink to wear to my dance class tonight!”). Every time we talk about dance class, we have the potential for gaining a new dance enthusiast and a new family member!

Welcoming Newcomers to the Table.
A dance family, of course, welcome newcomers. It can be as informal as knowing that two or three members always make a point to approach visitors, find out their names and the dance level, and invite them into the circle. If you have a set time for announcements during class, take that time to introduce the visitors, ask how they heard about the class, and if they have any dance experience.

A dance family understands that on nights when newcomers are present, there will be a few more mixers and a few more dances for beginners. Family members will ask visitors to dance the couple dances. If the newcomers stay all the way to the end of the class, applaud their effort.
Have someone get contact information (phone, address, email) so you can do some follow up. What can be more welcoming that getting an email or a phone call or card in the mail a day or two following a class saying, “Gee, it was nice of you to come to our class and we hope you can come back soon!”?

After Dancing Social Time.
Some people will go directly home after dance class. Some people need time to unwind. Find a local restaurant that stays open late enough and gather your wound-up dancers there for post-dancing socializing. Tell jokes, recommend good movies, and gossip (in a friendly way) about class members who are not there (“Do you know if they are dating?” “Have you heard anything more about John’s daughter?” “What’s the name of that really tall new woman who just started coming dancing?”). Talk up the next big dance event and review the one that just happened. Our after-dancing group has hatched all kinds of schemes and surprises (“It would be nice to be able to send one of our members to Stockton Dance Camp this summer – let’s start a scholarship fund!”)

And make sure visitors know about your after-dancing soiree. It’s a good way to reinforce your “Welcome to our Family!” message.

Team Teaching.
If one of your members goes to another dance class, or attends a dance workshop, encourage him or her to share one or more of the dances learned. I believe therapists call this “buying in” and it increases everyone’s connection to that dance and to whoever teaches it. It’s like owning stock in a company and being that much more concerned with the overall welfare and future of the company.

Watch out: the dance may have the official name of Hora de la Whosits, but if Crista teaches it, it will forever be known as “Crista’s Dance” and Crista will lead it – which is a good thing.

Okay, it doesn’t have to be a t-shirt. It can be a dance bag or a hat or a scarf or a bumperstrip. Work together on a message and/or a logo and get it printed on the object of your choice. (We’ve had three different t-shirts in just over 25 years, the last one created for the class’s 25th anniversary.) Whatever you decide to do, it works like gang colors and is another way to reinforce the connections to your dance family. When dancers wear the t-shirt outside of class, it’s both advertising and a conversation starter.

Your dance family will have its moments of drama (“I am so upset with Bill! I can’t come dancing if he’s there!”) and times of sorrow (“Mickey died over the weekend. The funeral services will be....”). They will need counseling (“The weather is getting warmer. In consideration of others, please use deodorant and at least put on a clean shirt before class. If you sweat a lot, bring an extra t-shirt.”) and gentle reminders (“Take your conversations outside if you’re not learning the dance.”). But it’s way more fun than going to a Chinese cooking class every week for 25 years!