This was the original post to a new e-mail list, Square Dance 2050, which was to be a discussion group by people who expected to be square dancing in 2050 and wanted to discuss how to achieve that goal. In the end, not much happened on that group—it never reached critical mass. However, Patricia wrote an outstanding initial post, and these questions are still relevant today. -- Clark

Solving the Age Gap

by Patricia Wahle, June 2001

As I see it, one of our biggest obstacles to keeping square dancing alive is the age gap. I'm sure I don't need to inform any of you that square dancing hasn't done a very good job of being multi-generational. It needs to be multi-generational, IMHO. In the 70's, square dancing was appealing to people between the ages of about 20 & 80, which was anybody born after 1950. Unfortunately, it is still appealing to anybody born after 1950, which is now people between the ages of 50 & 80. Having about 1/2 the attendance we had in the 70's is a mathematically sound result, because we're appealing to people within a 30 year span instead of in a 60 year span.

It also isn't news to any of you that square dancing can appeal to people born after 1950, and that younger generations can enjoy dancing with people from a variety of ages. But there aren't very many of us from our generations. Being truly multi-generational doesn't just happen because we say we'd like it to. We have to make an effort to include each new generation to keep an activity multi-generational.

I've said a lot of times in whatever forum was available some of the things that would help to include the next generations, but it usually seems to fall on deaf ears. However, I can see that all changing in about 10 years. I agree with the sentiment I've heard from many people that square dancing as we know it will only last another 10 to 15 years. Our current leaders will no longer be doing what they're doing by then. We're going to have quite a shake up because we've relied on the same people for so long, but we can and we will find new ways to do things. The way I see it, we have 10 years to start this train heading in the direction we need it to go. Then we'll really get a chance to see it take off.

What things do you see that need to be changed to appeal to your generation? Other generations around you? What do you think your co-workers want in an activity?

How can we better integrate the under-50 generations into square dancing? What things need to change? What can stay the same?

How do we look hipper and still be the same activity that we enjoy? How do we open up our doors to new people without losing the people we have?

Some of the issues that I think need to be addressed are:

Clubs & Volunteers:

People are not the joiners they used to be. Club involvement in any activity is down. At least at the entry level, we need to have dances that are put on by a (possibly paid) committee, where the people can come just to dance. Once they're hooked, they might want to volunteer or join a club, but they're not going to jump at an opportunity to join clubs and committee meetings before they're hooked on square dancing.


With the number of people who are single, we can't afford to exclude this group of people, and again, saying we'd like to include singles is not enough, it doesn't just happen. Many people do come to square dancing to share an activity with their significant other and don't want to split up and dance with other people all night. But singles rotations help to make sure that all singles get a chance to dance if we square up as couples. If there are a lot of singles at a dance who are the same sex and can't dance the other part, if every couple would form a habit of splitting up one tip each night to dance with singles, the singles could dance every tip with someone.

Teen clubs and Family clubs:

Teen clubs often have trouble financially supporting themselves because teens don't have jobs, and family clubs who offer a discount to families can also start to have difficulties. It struck my attention when Kip Garvey posted on sd-callers recently that he was the only 1 dancer out of a large teen group that kept dancing into adulthood. Why support teen clubs if they only give us 1 dancer on average? Because that club gave us more than just 1 dancer, because of the type of dancer it gave us. Most of our most dedicated callers and dance leaders started dancing as teens. That 1 dancer that kept dancing from that teen club has probably taught hundreds of dancers, entertained hundreds of dancers, and taught other people who have taught and entertained hundreds of dancers. I've been noticing as I look though the resumes of the people running for the BOG of CALLERLAB that most of them started as teens. If we don't have teens now, we will lose 1/2 or more of our leaders for the year 2030, even if we get them one per club. It is important to help teen clubs because it helps the overall health of square dancing.

Music selection:

Most callers don't get new music because they have mostly older people who don't want to listen to rap music all night. But we don't have to switch over to an entirely new age music program to help with the age gap. It's amazing what just one song in a night from their generation can do to make people feel like they are one of the many people who are a part of this activity. Can we encourage callers to play at least one song each night for the younger generations if they have even one dancer there from that generation as a way to say they are welcome there also?

Dress code:

In spite of the recent relaxations by some organizations in the dress code, the Nationals this year will again have monitors who will kick people out for improper attire. IMHO, those same monitors should have another job: to count the number of dancers under 30 they see there, because yes, those two jobs are related. The dress code gets a little more outdated with each new generation. Some people say we need a dress code so that people don't show up in unwashed, tattered clothing, but I say why can't we use something that is part of today's society, like business casual, or something. If my work place had the dress code that square dancing had, I could sue them for discrimination and win. Why should my social activity be so different?

Attitudes toward other generations:

I remember a post on sd-callers that we wouldn't want to market toward generation-X because we don't want a bunch of purple-haired dancers. Even if we imagined for a minute that we really didn't want to dance people with the wrong hair color, generation-X isn't everyone under 50, it is a particular generation. I happen to know that I am not in generation-X, but I think my sister is. Most people in generation-X don't have purple hair anymore, especially the boys who are starting to bald, and no longer want to draw attention to their hair. Generation-X is now approximately 30, but we still have an attitude of not wanting to recruit them. Because they had purple hair when they were teenagers. Can we adapt to the fact that they've changed and look at who they are now? What's really wrong with purple hair anyway?

Geographical differences:

IMHO, Callerlab had the right idea when it set up international standards 25 years ago. It is good for the activity if people can move from place to place and be able to continue to dance, and it seems to get more important with every new generation. It's a small world and only getting smaller. People can and do move around a lot because of their jobs or families or a need to "see the world." Many regions are still doing things the way they used to do things in spite of Callerlab's suggestions. As the people who've "always done it that way" start to leave the activity, do we have more of a chance of standardization. Is more standardization just going to put shackles on each region and limit what we can do?

Competing activities:

There are a lot of different activities that people want to take part in. We have two options: either convince people that they should choose square dancing above all other activities, or format square dancing so it will fit as one of many activities. I think the solution includes some of both. By the time you're committed to 2 weekends a month for your club and you're supposed to visit other clubs to be sociable, that leaves you at most 1 weekend a month to pursue other activities. Also, IMHO, one of our biggest killers has been that we created too many "special" dances. You can't possibly try to attend all of them and still have a life, so attendance goes down at all of them and none of them seem very "special" anymore.


Too often it seems we stop people from having fun in the name of having fun. Dancers are going to do things on their own that aren't exactly the way the caller taught them. They are people with personalities, not robots, and they should be encouraged to express their personalities and have fun with the other people in the square. Unfortunately, a lot of flourishes that people add make it difficult for other dancers in their square to dance. Instead of discouraging flourishes, we should have workshops on how to add your own flourishes effectively, without disrupting the square. Keeping your place whenever another dancer needs to interact with you, remembering which way to roll if you went the other way, changing places smoothly, etc.

These last two issues aren't really generational, as much as general square dance issues.

Dancer ability:

Part of poor dancer ability problems deals with teaching problems, but leaders also have to have the courage to quietly and politely ask the people who cannot dance and cannot learn to dance to not return. Losing that 10% can double your dance attendance in a year because the people who do come will have more fun and they will want to do this activity more often. It is hard to do, and noticing and being sure that any particular dancer needs to leave is difficult, but it is necessary to have a fun activity. Square dancing is not like other activities where you can flounder by yourself and not affect anyone else's fun. It is a team activity and we have to be able to work with each other.

Where we dance:

Many city downtown areas have gone down hill and are quite frankly not safe places to be. But many of the places where we've always danced, the Czech cultural center, the Women's club, the VFW, are located in these areas. Then there's the churches: I wouldn't want to discriminate against anyone from another religion, and I'd be perfectly happy to dance with people from other religions (and do, in fact), but are Jews & Muslims going to come to the Protestant church for their social activity?? We need a recognizable place to dance that is in a nice part of town near where a lot of people often pass. At least as a place where we have beginner lessons, we need a place that people will see as "the square dancing place" as they pass by. If they were interested in square dancing but couldn't join when they last heard about it, they'll know where to go to find square dancing. The good places in the good parts of town are expensive. If we want to grow with society, we have to grow with inflation, too. Now there's another can of worms, the price!

I guess my "dream" square dancing would have a non-profit organization that leases a store front in a mall and holds beginner dances every night. Regular dances would be either club run or organization run. There'd be a singles rotation or people would be welcome to square up as singles at all dances. Couples would split up at least one tip each night and dance with singles or friends from other couples. Families would be welcomed with a discount and people would make an effort to include the families. Callers would choose music with a variety of types and ages for each dance. There would be no dress code for dances. Dances around the world would follow the same call lists. There'd be 4 big "special" dances each year within each area, other dances would be more like workshops and smaller dances. Dancers would be taught multiple applications of calls. Dancers would be encouraged to "whoop it up" and add their own styling to the dance. Dancers who are not fun to dance with would be talked to and possibly eventually asked to leave. And I'm sure there are some other things I haven't thought about.

What do you agree with? What do you disagree with? What issues do you see in square dancing? What needs to be changed in square dancing? What can be changed? How can we change it? What are the most important issues?

If you have answers or opinions to these questions, write them up and e-mail them to me. I may collect them and add them to the end of this page. Please include where you are from, if you are a caller or a dancer, the year you were born and the year you started square dancing -- Clark