Allow me to give you some background on our situation here in Tucson, Arizona.
Tucson is a pretty elderly city; we are a place many snowbirds come in the winter. In the summer, our population is around 400,000. In the winter it doubles. When I got here in 1998 there was one folk dance group in town: The Tucson International Folk Dance Club (TIFDC), which was rarely getting more than seven people. Now we have three groups TIFDC (which now focuses mainly on intermediate and advanced dances and gets around ten to fifteen people), The Lighthouse Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) Club (which gets twenty on a bad night and thirty on a good night), and the University I-Dance Club (whose attendance numbers vary wildly depending on the time of the year). I currently run the Lighthouse club. I founded the I-dance club, but was overwhelmed at work, so gave it up to another dancer about a year ago.
I have to admit I'm fairly autocratic in the way I run the Lighthouse group and in how I used to run the I-dance club. That is, there are no committees and I make all the decisions, but I let people voice their opinions any time. This seems to work okay, although I know I can't keep everyone heppy.
The University group is at least partly a fluke. In 2000, the Turkish Students' Association here (which was very strong; they all went back to Turkey after 9/11) decided that they wanted to perform at our local heritage festival. One of them had taken a class with me and knew I went folk dancing so asked me to come and help. Along with another local folk dance teacher, I did a series of dance workshops with their community. First, we did a series of participatory dances. Then, with a smaller group, we also did some choreograpnies. The group of students that ended up being involved with this wasn't just Turks, but many of their friends, including a Colombian, a Russian, two Albanians, a Greek, a Costa Rican, etc. After the heritage festival, they decided that they wanted to have their own folk dance group. Many of them had tried the TIFDC and had trouble with the group, for reasons I'll try to articulate below. About a month later we had an open house and the I-dance club was born.
My other group, the Lighthouse YMCA Club, started with a beginners class for Y members. It actually caught the attention of former folk dancers, however (presumably through word of mouth), who had given up on folk dancing. Now they are back in full force. This group is actually the most stable (and fun) group in town (in my opinion!).
I think that the following are crucial for making a university club work with young people. I know that many of these ideas will be very unpopular with older, more experienced dancers, but I feel that if we can provide a venue for both kinds of dancers (as we do here) then both communities can be served. Some of these ideas I came up with on my own, some are stolen from the Old World Dance Co-op, run by Rick King in Detroit, Michigan.
- Avoid the words "folk dancing" at all costs. We use "international dance club." For some reason the term "folk dancing" has very negative associations for many people.
- Age group. You need a quorum or cadre of people in the right age group. When a young person shows up at a folk dance these days and sees nothing but gray hair, they have a tendency to leave. A sufficient number of young people in the group is crucial. For getting this initial group, I'd suggest:
- Offering classes at the university.
- Contacting the ethnic clubs on campus and seeing if they'd like to learn their dances, etc.
- It never hurts to try youth groups at the Jewish Community Center, etc.
- Performance. One thing that seems to attract younger people is the possibliity of performance. If you tie participating in the recreational dancing to being an integral part of a performance troupe (but not vice versa, of course), it can really help.
- Dance level. Take the level of dancing way down. At the I-dance club, we rarely do dances with more than one or two figures. Here's the program that I used at our last open house: Zemer Atik, Savila se Bela Loza, Kingston Flyer, Pata Pata, İstanbul Bar, Gori More, La Bastringue, Carnavalito, Ve David, and Lesnoto.
The Y club is a little more advanced. I try to keep the program for that group really varied in level, with a gradual progression through the evening. My regulars know that when a new person shows up, I drop the level significantly for the first hour or so.
- Keep the energy level of the dances higher than you would expect. Experienced dancers folk dancers like to do a lot of slow, pretty dances. New young dancers want to skip around.
- No "crunchy" music. If you have a choice bteween a rock-and-roll version and a traditionally instrumented one, chose the rock-version. Once you have people hooked, then you can try to rerfine their tastes in music to more traditional sounds.
- Mood lighting. If possible, dance in a darkened room.
- Couple and set dances. These tend to have fallen out of favor in most international folk dance (IFD) communities, but they really are a draw to the under-thirty crowd. (At the Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Folk Dance Club, we used to offer an annual waltz workshop that was very well attended by students who wanted to learn how to waltz for their formals.) Mixers are really important.
- Ethnic diversity. My heart is in Macedonia, but theirs is not. I really try to teach a real ethnic mix. I include dances from Scotland, England, and the United States (I call a couple of simple contras or squares). We've done Salsa (which was very popular). Where possible I've tried to bring in Asian dances, although they haven't stuck very well (which is funny because many of our dancers are Asian). We still do plenty of Balkan and Israeli dances, but I think they like the spice. My rule is one in five dances is a couple or set dance.
- Greeters. If you have some members who are particularly good at talking to people, set them up as the "official greeters," people who go over and welcome new people in.
- Advertising. Try the international student clubs and the international student office at the university, they may have a computerized internet listserve. We get TONS of students from that. We also blanket the dorms with posters.
- General attitude. I've found that it is important to get people moving and dancing. I teach styling but don't emphasize it. Also, the MAXIMUM time for a teaching should be less than five minutes. If it takes more than five minutes to teach, I also try not to let there be significantly long breaks between dances. I have found that using my computer with MP3 files really helps with this because I can set up playlists.
- Make it free. Our student club is free to everyone. We ask for donations in the summer to pay for air conditioning. We're fairly lucky that the campus Catholic church lets us etheir basement for free. The YMCA lets us use their gym provided we let Y members in for free; non-Y members pay $15 a month.
- Have free food. Students love free food.
- Students to lead. I get the students to lead. I almost never lead dances (although I always stay nearby to coach if necessary).
- Students party! Students want to party, correct? So don't schedule folk dancing during their favorite party times. Students have to study, correct? So don't schedule folk dancing during prime study times. The student group here meets Fridays from five to seven p.m. The Y club meets Tuesdays from seven to nine. Neither goes late enough to interfere with student party or study plans. The student club used to meet on Saturday mornings that nearly killed me but it seemed to work as well.
- Keep it simple. I said it above, our university club never really makes that much forward progress in level. It's always pretty much a beginner group.
I do, however, encourage the more experienced dancers to try out the Y club and I still encourage the student club to perform. I have access to a number of costumes through our other performance group here. And I get the students to perform at least once a semester. There is an international student dinner where we perform regularly.
Now you may be saying, "But these are rank beginners . . ." Well, many of them are. But I've found that hard footwork dances are not very interesting to watch anyway, so I've been working on choreographies that move a lot, with showy costumes. People rarely notice that the students aren't all on the same foot! You'd be surprised what you can do with a group of inexperienced dancers.
- Play it louder! Play the music two settings louder than you personally like it. It makes a big difference in the energy.
The preceding is an edited version of a letter titled "Some Thoughts on Attracting New Dancers" sent to Helen Winkler in Toronto, Ontario by Andrew Carnie. Andrew started dancing in Calgary, Alberta, continuing in Toronto, Ontario, when he attended the University of Toronto, and has danced and taught at various places, including MIT, Detroit (OWDC), Ann Arbor, and Santa Cruz.