Let's Bring Folks Back
to Recreational Folk Dancing
By Sanna Longden
This article was originally published in the June 14, 1993 issue of the "Ontario Folkdancer." It was solicited by editor Jane Aronovitch because of reports that Sanna and Mars Longden were leading a lively group in Evanston, Illinois, while many other groups in North America were declining. Sanna's session at the National Folk Organization's February 1994 conference in San Antonio, Texas encouraged some participants to begin making efforts in their own communities to offer more support to recreational folk dancers.
The Longden's seminar at the 1993 Buffalo Dance Circle Memorial Day Camp started a spirited sharing session that continued throughout the weekend and led to successful changes in several groups. The Longden's led a similar session at the 1994 Buffalo Dance Circle on Memorial Day weekend, and also participated in discussions on the subject at the July 7-10, 1994 Door County Folk Festival in Wisconsin.
International recreational folk dance groups are having a tough time surviving in the 1990s. If these grass roots organizations wither and die, the health of our performing ensembles, international festivals, academic programs, regional camps, and ethnic workshops is also endangered: Recreational dancers are the audience, the participators, the target market, the membership the foundation of most other folk dance activities.
It is clear that change is necessary if recreational groups are going to regain any vitality. I offer here suggestions that can lead to renewed vigor, based on those that my husband Mars and I have tried with some success. We empathize with our brethren and sistren out there in the folk dance trenches and hope our experiences will help in their own efforts.
We also encourage festival organizers, dance professors, artistic directors, and ethnic dance teachers to support the recreational groups by including them in their events, publicizing them, sending college students to them, sharing facilities, and participating in their activities. Simplistic but true, if we work together, we can revitalize recreational folk dancing.
A basic reason for the decline in interest and attendance is that many recreational groups have continued to carry on in the same ways they did during the golden years of folk dance, in spite of changes in society and people's leisure needs. Most other social dance forms are a better fit for our contemporary culture, particularly for younger people quickly learned patterns, familiar rhythms, do-you-own-thing choreographies, continuous partner changing, and often great live music. The idea of working for weeks to learn a seven-part, uneven-meter Balkan dance choreography done to a scratchy recording does not attract people who just want to do some dancing, especially if the only part of another person they get to hold is the belt!
Mars and I have been working hard to maintain the health of our group in Evanston, Illinois, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in September of 1993. It averages 65 dancers of all ages and abilities, often an even man/woman ratio, people in their 20s and younger, newcomers every week, and lots of energy. In order to maintain and improve this state of affairs, we identified four needs: (1) attract new dancers, (2) keep experienced dancers, (3) bring back former dancers, and (4) make every evening fun for all of them.
ATTRACTING NEW DANCERS
The perennial problem is how to bring in new people to replace those who have left town, had babies, gone country/western dancing, gone contra dancing, gotten divorced, gotten infirm and keep them. A separate class that gives beginners basics and confidence is one good way to do it.
- NAME CHANGE: Changing the name from "Beginning Folk Dance" to "Move to the World's Music" has helped bring many new people in the door.
- TIME CHANGE: Our beginner's class meets upstairs from 7:30 to 9:00 p.m. while the general group meets downstairs from 7:15 to 10:45 p.m., rather than during the first hour of the main group or on another night; both of these systems have built-in problems.
- PROCEDURE CHANGE: We bring the beginners downstairs at 9:00 p.m. with a big fanfare, and then immediately program several dances they were just taught. Our regulars act as hosts and the added energy of twelve to twenty more people offsets the temporarily lowered dance level.
- PLACE CHANGE: When attendance began to shrink, we were able to move to a smaller and friendlier facility.
- PUBLICITY CHANGE: We let people know about folk dance through the contemporary concepts of continual outreach and marketing by targeting certain populations and places. We find, however, that although each separate effort brings in one or two people, the best marketing device is word of mouth friends bring friends because they have fun at our group.
KEEPING ADVANCED DANCERS
Keeping advanced dancers is almost more difficult than attracting new ones. Those few who aren't raising their families or specializing in Scandinavian, Hungarian, or Balkan tend to arrive late and clump together waiting for the "good" dances.
- SUPPORT TEAM: We organized a support team to offer a chance to be leaders without risk.
- TEACHER TRAINING: We also offer the team teaching guidance, dance notes, practice tapes, and encouragement at our Saturday morning meetings, as well as advice and practice on the important skill of dance programming.
- SPECIAL EVENTS: We have ethnic dance workshops, costume and theme parties, and live music nights. However, many regulars don't like workshops "too much work" and I just want to dance" so it is not unusual to have fewer attend when there's a guest teacher.
- AFTER PARTIES: Our hummus-and-pizza after-parties are a main event on Monday night dancing, which doesn't end for Mars and me until 2:00 a.m. (don't phone early on Tuesday!). These get-togethers reinforce the community aspects of folk dancing and for some are the best part of the evening a reason to keep returning.
FINDING FORMER DANCERS
Besides trying to attract new dancers and keep experienced ones, we also make an attempt to reconnect with former aficionados.
- BRING 'EM BACK ALIVE: Our annual "Bring 'Em Back Alive" party usually attracts more than 100 people. They sign up on a list of old friends and follow up our mailing with phone calls. We offer kids' dances, babysitters, and free coupons for another night of folk dancing to both those who Brought 'Em and those who were Brought.
- STREET DANCE: Another event that brings back the old-timers as well as current dancers is the annual Labor Day Street Party on our block (or "Rain Dance," from much damp experience). That's when we see people who haven't danced in years, as well as neighbors who being their picnic guests.
MAKING EVERY EVENING FUN
It doesn't matter how hard we work to attract newcomers, keep regular dancers, and bring back old-timers if the dance evenings themselves are not fun. We try to make everyone happy, at least part of each night, by programming with an eye on the changing crowd, asking different people to lead, welcoming returning friends, remembering birthdays, encouraging those sitting out too long, and introducing out-of-towners. All this, of course, is in addition to pulling records and tapes, teaching and calling, even dancing. Fortunately, Mars and I enjoy this part of managing a group.
Reaching out to others, having their comfort take priority, is essential if recreational folk dancing is to thrive. Our activity can no longer afford the luxury of leaders who are socially uncomfortable or who use their groups as personal power bases. Those who are not at ease with the human part of group management might designate some friendly people to be their social committee. This personal attention helps create the community feeling that is one of the main reasons to support recreational folk dancing.
As of January 1994, after 25 years of managing groups, Sanna Longden chose not to be a leader any longer. Sanna still participates as a dancer, social committee, and guest teacher, but is concentrating her energies where she feels she can make the best contribution presenting at educational conferences, doing school residencies, teaching university courses, leading public family functions, participating in folk dance organization events, making instructional video tapes, and writing articles.
In 1997, Sanna formed Pourparler (from the French word "to speak"), a conference sponsored by the National Folk Organization that has taken place all over the United States. Pourparler is a gathering of dance and music educators from North America who are dedicated to teaching folk/ethnic/world/traditional dance in schools and/or community events.
Used with permission of the authors.
Reprinted from "Let's Bring the Folks Back to Recreational Folk Dancing" by Sanna Longden
in Viltis Magazine, May-June 1994, Volume 54, Number 1, V. F. Beliajus, Editor.