Will Square Dancing Survive?

The discussions on the sd-callers list can get a little technical at times, and the following e-mail was in reaction to such a discussion. In this case we were talking about which applications of Lead Right are actually used.

John Corrigan of Delta, British Columbia wrote

Hi to all.

As interesting as it maybe to discuss how many lead to the rights you
can call before the floor falls apart or the effect of calling a half
of a swap around, we still need to figure out where new people are
going to come from in order for our activity to survive. As the Roman
empire fell apart I am sure that the senate talked about everything
except the actual problem.

We need to devise a way to get new people into our activity at a
reasonable age so they will stay for a little while, thinking about
somewhere between 45 and 50. The program would need to be quick and
easy to teach and maintain, probably less than 10 weeks and setup so
that people could exit and re-enter when they chose. We would need to
also have a place to dance after they have learned which means a
separate structure from our current level system. We must disregard
our labels for these people because they mean nothing to them and
square dancing is what we tell them it is. Also we need to have new
ways to attract them.

Has anyone had particular success with any methods which others can
use?  I watched a group of exhibition teen round dancers called the
Dancing Jewels in Penticton this year and thought they would make
great ambassadors for our activity as well as help us to show that we
are not all old people. Ideas or suggestions anyone?

Clark's ideas on how to "save" MWSD

Many have been worried about the decline of square dancing since the mid-1980's. Over time people have proposed many solutions, some of which actually work. I recommend the following course of study to understand how society has changed, how we can recruit in this new era, and how we may wish to change our product:
  1. Obtain and read Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert Putnam. You can start reading here. This will explain how society has changed and what we are up against.

  2. Obtain and study the Callerlab Focus Group reports (start with the summary and then read the full report). Now you will have an understanding of how non-dancers (and ex-dancers) view our product.

  3. Obtain and study Ian Henzel's plan for square dance recruitment (see bottom of here). When used as he advocates it has proven to work and work well. Almost no one is willing to implement his plan without modifications, and often these modifications defeat key elements. Many organizations are unwilling to do all the work necessary to recruit Ian's way.

  4. Obtain and study documents about multi-cycle teaching. Make sure you can list 5 or 10 reasons why this system works and why it works when more traditional systems fail. I see 7 different papers here plus the Multi Cycle Lesson Plan from Callerlab.

  5. Obtain and study each of the Winning Ways documents. Callerlab has taken the time to collect, write up, and maintain this collection of ideas that have worked for others. Perhaps some of them will work for you.

  6. Obtain and study the Community Dance Program (CDP). Understand the style of teaching and dancing it engenders and figure out if this is what you want.

  7. Obtain and study the Square Dance ABC concept. While this idea is new and mostly unproven, it is the current "hot" thing and many are very interested in it. We need people to give it a try and report on their results.

  8. Understand what the "open dance format" is. Visit several open dances in your area to develop an understanding of how this can work. Seeing is believing. I recommend visiting a contra dance or traditional square dance. Start by looking here. Understand what Open Country Hannover does. Also read How Contra Dances Work and pay attention to part 3 which describes the difference in organization between MWSD and contra.
Once you have digested all of the above, you will have an understanding of how society has changed, how what was done in the 1950's and 1960's won't work today, and what people today want and don't want. You will also have an understanding of open dances and see how dance forms similar to ours organize and attract dancers, including high school kids, college students, and families. You will understand a spectrum of how to offer square dancing from ONS to ABC to CDP to Basic to Mainstream complete with lessons.

Now you must take that knowledge (much of which you still don't really understand or believe) and compare it to your square dance experience and what you really know and believe. Figure out your next step in dancing, organizing, or calling. What do you really want to do? What would be fun? What do you have the skills for?

I predict that your reaction to much of the above will be one of disbelief, or "that isn't dancing" or "I wouldn't like that". Frankly, what most existing dancers are looking for is a robust Mainstream (or Plus) program (i.e., lots of people, lots of clubs), side-by-side with a thriving Advanced program (for those who want it), and perhaps some Challenge opportunities for that who really want that. At the Mainstream (or Plus) they expect to dance with their spouse, perhaps with a relaxation of dress codes, and most of the people around them look like them. They would be happy with a younger crowd, and perhaps a little more energy.

If we are callers, we would be happy just having dancers, especially ones who can move, dance, have energy, whoop and holler, and appreciate our singing calls. Why not offer square dancing in some form to a new group that has never danced and has no expectation of learning Mainstream. Offer it outside the normal bounds of club-style MWSD.

In fact, this is what Callerlab is encouraging you to do! They call it their Program Policy Initiative and it is available here. I gave a talk about it which is available here.

Clark Baker
Belmont, MA
August 2005

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