So You Want to Start
a Dance Class
By Loui Tucker
STARTING A DANCE CLASS
As someone who has run three dance classes a week, the first question that comes to mind is: "Why would anyone want to start their own dance class?" It's a lot of work, a near-constant responsibility, and fraught with diplomatic land mines.
It could be because you've just moved to a new city and there are no dance groups or classes at all (how could that be?). Perhaps there are some dance venues, but not on a convenient night; or there are some classes, but the dances are too easy or too hard or there isn't a mix of dances that you like. Perhaps you are at that point in your life when taking on a dance class seems like a positive step.
Whatever your motivation(s), I hope this article will be of assistance, and if you are just an innocent dancing bystander or just curious about the process read on!
I hope this first step is obvious: before you even begin your search for a hall, if the area already has a class or classes, take the teacher(s) to lunch. Explain why you want to open your own class. Invite the advice, assistance, cooperation, even the support of those teacher(s). Establish a collegial tone and an open door policy. If there is an existing dance population, please don't start a holy war in your area by deliberately alienating the current teacher(s) and dividing the dancing population.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
With the blessing of the local leaders, now you need a dance hall and you need to reserve it for a time and date that are convenient to you, and hopefully without causing a conflict with or seriously impacting any existing dance class(es). Assuming you don't have the degree or credential required to teach at a college or university, consider starting your search in other places where there are already classes: community centers.
Most cities have at least one community center that offers classes to residents of the surrounding areas. Pick up a catalogue of current class offerings and see if they already have other dance or exercise classes. If they have similar classes, convincing the manager of the center to add another dance class should not be difficult. You can still pitch the idea of a class if they don't have such classes, but it may be a harder sell. And don't forget to check out any community centers that are focused on the ethnicity or religion of the local inhabitants, such as a Jewish Community Center or Slavic Community Center.
Other possibilities include exercise facilities and gyms. If they don't have a full slate of exercise classes, perhaps they will welcome a low-impact aerobic activity such as folk dance in their schedule.
Check the local yellow pages for other classes specializing in other types of dance such as ballroom, Latin, tap, ballet, and jazz to see where those classes are held. A local dance studio might be willing to rent their hall to you as well.
Finally, connect with local wedding and event planners. If they have been in business for very long, they know the location and availability of all the available church and private halls.
You may think that a hall located close to any existing dance population would be ideal, but that may be less critical than you imagine. Existing dancers will travel farther for certain features, a great wood floor, for example. On the other hand, if you're starting the first dance class in your area, a centrally located hall is your best bet. New dancers are not that fussy about the dance environment, and will look first for activities close to home.
MAKE YOUR LIST, CHECK IT TWICE
You've found a wonderful hall with a great wood floor in a centrally located church basement! The price is right, the location is perfect you're in love! As with any relationship, step back, take a deep breath, and consider some of the following (not necessarily in order of importance):
- The floor (size, condition, and maintenance).
- Parking (quantity, proximity, and cost).
- Ventilation, air-conditioning and heating. Is the hall going to become a sauna every summer?
- Neighbors who might complain about loud music late at night.
- Acoustics and noise conflicts. Is a choir rehearsing across the hall at the same time?
- Storage (unless you plan to bring all your equipment with you to class).
- Kitchen access (temporary storage for refreshments and hot water for coffee and tea?).
- Access to public transportation.
You can't have everything (in a relationship or a dance hall), but don't be fooled by a pretty face, umm, dance floor.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
Once you've narrowed down your choice of dance halls, start talking to the dance hall managers about the possible date and time for your class. Keep in mind what day, what time, and for how long you'll want to hold your class.
Besides picking a date and time that are convenient to you, take time to consider both any existing dance classes and your prospective attendees. Even if you are clearly offering alternative content (easier dances, harder dances, different mix of partner/non-partner dances, emphasis on a particular ethnic group), you are still asking current dancers to either (a) switch to your class or (b) add another night of dancing to their schedule. Also, if you schedule your class on the same day as (or even one day prior or one day after) a popular existing class, you are inviting discord. If the existing class is on Mondays, try for a Thursday. If the existing class is on Wednesdays, try for Monday or Friday. A day or two in between will give dancers a day to rest and give you points for being diplomatic and a good sport.
Also, take a look at other important activities in your community. If you're new in town you may not realize that everybody attends Bingo Night at the local Elks Club every Thursday night or Contra Dancing draws 80 to 100 dancers on Monday nights. You probably don't want to complete with a really popular long-standing event.
DON'T BITE OFF MORE THAN YOU CAN CHEW
If the existing dancers are used to a two- or three-hour class, go ahead and schedule a class of similar length. If you're starting the first dance class or a class for beginning dancers, however, go easy on your students. A one-hour class will probably be long enough. It is a better tactic to leave them wanting more rather than exhausting them. Once the class is established, your students will be first ones to tell you when they wish the class were longer.
Keep an eye on the future when you're scheduling your class. Even if you're only looking for a one-hour class at the beginning, leave yourself room to grow. If your new dance class is sandwiched tightly between two established classes, you'll have to change the day and/or the time slot if you want to increase the length of your class.
DOES MONEY MAKE THE (DANCE) WORLD GO AROUND?
When it comes down to paying for the class, you may not have any choice if you are working with a community center. They must charge for their classes in order to exist. Even if you are able to hold the class and not charge for it (a local church offers you free space and you don't need the income), consider charging for the class anyway. Contrary to what you might think, it actually is NOT such a good idea to provide the class for free. It is my belief that your students will value what they pay for. Also, if they are compassionate and thoughtful people, they will not want you to lead and teach and work for free. Finally, no matter how altruistic and good-intentioned you feel at the outset, there may come a time when you will start to resent the time spent on something for which you are not paid.
That said, there are a number of funding scenarios you should consider if you can:
- You collect the fees from the students and pay by the hour to rent the hall.
- The institution collects the fees from the students and pays you by the hour to teach.
- Either of you collects the fee and you split the income on a percentage basis.
Consider these factors before you decide:
- If you pay by the hour, and the class grows, you get to keep the increased income. However, if that happens, will the facility want to renegotiate and, if so, how often? If you don't agree to pay more for the hall, will they want to bring in someone who will pay more per hour for the hall?
- If they pay you a flat fee per hour, and the class grows, they keep the increased income despite that fact that you created the increase. Will you resent that?
- A percentage split works for both you and the hall. Renegotiating will not be necessary if the class grows.
[In case you are curious, two of my three classes use the percentage split and in the other I am paid a flat fee for my time.]
BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COME
So now you're like a bride with a hall, a caterer, a band and no groom. You need dancers!
MARKETING YOUR DANCE CLASS
FIRST YOU HAVE TO GET THEIR ATTENTION
Think about that catered-wedding-but-no-groom (or bride) scenario. How would you go about getting a groom or bride? You would provide a flattering photo, a few positive personal details, testimonials from friends, and a way to contact you. You get that information out where prospective brides and grooms might be looking. That's advertising.
Put this article aside for a minute and go get a couple of your favorite magazines Time, Sunset, Ladies Home Journal, Sports Illustrated. Flip through the pages and look at the advertisements. What do you see? Bright colors, bold printing, graphics, images, catchy phrases. You're probably not going to get a lot of detail unless it's in tiny print in the disclaimer. The pitch for a car doesn't include the specs; the ad for some tasty new food doesn't list the ingredients. After all, the goal is to get you to the showroom to drive the car, or into the restaurant to eat the food.
Now look at the flyers and other advertisements for dance classes. Sometimes there is a simple graphic at the top. The information is all the same font, usually Times New Roman because that's the default font on most word processing software. Lines of text are centered in one big section, so you have a big gray blotch in the middle of the page. It's all printed lengthwise on 8.5 x 11 lightweight paper, it's rarely a bold color and never glossy. Can you spell b-o-r-i-n-g?
Did you notice that if there is one bright spot of color or something shiny or something that's a different size, that is what will catch your eye?
You need to approach advertising your dance class the same way that Oldsmobile and Hertz and Burger King approach selling their products! Sure, it's going to be more expensive, but if you don't get people to come to your store and sample your product, all the time you spent setting up this dance class will be wasted.
SELL THE SIZZLE
It doesn't take much to improve a piece of advertising. You may need to enlist the help of a graphic artist or at least someone who knows their way around a word processing program. If you've got competition whether it is promotional material for another dance class or Thursday night television you've got to make every effort to stand out and grab the audience's attention.
- Pick a different font or fonts. If you don't know how to change the font in your computer's word processor, find out how! Bump up the size too think bold and eye-catching.
- Turn the paper sideways. Experiment with columns, tables, text boxes, text art, backgrounds, and borders. Try a different size of paper: a half-page, a bookmark, even a well-designed business card! Spend a little more on the paper and get something that stands out either in color, weight, or surface. Consider making your promotional material a large postcard, which will make it easy to address, slap on a stamp, and mail. The message side just has to encourage the recipient to flip it over to get the details. If you're going for a tri-fold brochure, be sure the front makes people want to open it!
- If you have access to a color printer, add a splash of color. This does not necessarily mean taking it to Copymat or Kinko's and paying for color copies. You can get great copies with an inkjet color printer. You're not talking about thousands of copies just a hundred or so to begin your campaign.
- Think up a catchy phrase. Go back to those magazine ads and look at the tag lines. Invite some friends over for dinner and enlist their help. Keep it short and simple:
"Tour the World One Dance Step at a Time!"
"Pass Some Time in the Arms of Strangers..."
"Folk Dancers Hold Hands with the Nicest People!"
"Think of it as Ethnic Aerobics..."
"Salsa Is More Than Just a Condiment!"
"When We Party, We Think Polka!"
"Move to Music From Around The World"
"More Fun than a Barrel of Monkeys!"
"Join Our Circle"
- Take (or acquire) some photos of people smiling, laughing, dancing, clearly having fun. Get the best one or two or three converted to good quality black and white. Don't just slap them across the top of your flyer in a row. Put them down at a jaunty angle. If photos are an impossibility, pay for some good-quality graphics that tie into your catchy phrase.
- Avoid that gray mass of type in the middle, what newspaper editors used to call "the long gray line." All that is required is your attention-grabbing phrase in a big bold font, the date, time, location, and cost (in a box so that it stands out), and a way to get more information (phone number, email, website). Keep in mind that a list of ingredients does not sell a new food. Sizzle sells food. Your new dance class has to appear to be so wonderful it will entice couch potatoes away from their television sets and on-line shoppers away from e-Bay.
- Everything else (map, driving directions, testimonials, more photos, details about the floor, your teaching experience, the parking, the teaching schedule, the refreshments...) goes on your website.
- If you have the ability and time, put up a web page yourself. Otherwise, talk to your friends (and their teenagers) and find someone who can do it for you. It does not have to be elaborate. You're just including all that information you used to cram onto your flyer. Include your email and/or phone number for people with specific questions or concerns ("Is this appropriate for my elderly aunt?" "I've got two left feet and I want to dance at my sister's wedding next month can you help?") Here is where you can put more photographs and graphics. If you can get some good quotes from dancers about what dancing means to them, sprinkle them around your web page:Dancing changed my life. I used to sit home feeling sorry for myself and now I have lots of friends and I'm out of the house dancing five nights a week."
"If you can walk, you can dance join us!"
"I met my husband at a dance class."
"Dancing for two hours sure beats sweating on the Stairmaster at the gym."
"What a great activity. I wish I'd found folk dancing years ago!"
INCENTIVES AND COUPONS AND FREEBIES OH MY!
Every advertiser knows the value of incentives. It is a rare consumer who will ignore a coupon with a good offer.
Announce that your opening night will be a free party. Dancers will come so they can check out the facility, listen to the music in this new venue, see how long it takes to drive to the new location, etc. Some will make the comparison to their existing "brand" and decide not to switch. Such is life. Others will come, enjoy their experience and make a different decision to switch to the new class you are offering, or add it to their weekly schedule as the mood and opportunity strikes.
First-timers who hear or read about the party will come because it's free and they have nothing to lose but an hour or two of their time. You'll get first-time dancers who will fall in love, and others who will be disappointed and never come back. That's the way it works. You just have to get them in the door ONCE, and a free party is a big draw for a lot of people.
Your promotional material can include one extra line: "Your first visit is free. Come dance with us and find out why we love it!"
You can have a tear-off portion of your promotional material be four or five small coupons good for $1 off your admission price. This will encourage repeat business.
If you can afford it, get some small denomination gift certificates for a local ice cream parlor or fast food restaurant. Give one to anyone who stays until the end of the party.
Purchase a gift certificate to a local music store as a door prize and raffle it off at the end of the evening ("You must be present to win.")
Refreshments are an easy bonus. It doesn't have to be elaborate popcorn, cookies, crackers, lemonade.
As your class grows, you can develop additional incentive programs: "Bring someone new to class and, if they come back a second time, YOU get in free!"
DISTRIBUTION GETTING YOUR MESSAGE OUT
You've developed great promotional materials, and your website looks wonderful, but how do get them into the hands of potential consumers?
Obviously you'll give your materials to the dance leaders (you had dinner with them back in "Starting a Dance Class?," remember?). If they have a mailing list, offer to buy the list for a one-time use and mail your advertisement (remember the postcard I suggested earlier?) to current dancers. Perhaps those dance leaders have an email list and they would be willing to forward an electronic copy of your flyer (saves the postage too).
You'll want to reach "cross-over dancers." These are the dancers who are currently doing some other kind of dancing. It could be a specific type of ethnic dancing (Hungarian, Greek) or ballroom or swing or line dancing. Look through the local yellow pages for dance academies and studios, and research dance classes offered at community centers and community colleges. You can either mail or drop off a stack of your promotional materials.
Is there a store in the area that sells dance-related gear such as dance shoes, leotards and tights, or petticoats for square dancers? Can you put some of your flyers on their checkout counter?
Consider reaching out to people looking for exercise that doesn't involve running on city streets or going to a gym. Drop in on local Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, or TOPS meetings.
If the gyms and exercise studios in the area don't mind the competition, they might be agreeable to having some of your brochures or postcards in their lobby or locker rooms.
Contact the local churches to see if they have a bulletin board where you could post a flyer. You can probably post something at the Pete's and Starbuck's stores. Can you get access to the laundry room at some large apartment complexes? People waiting for a load of laundry to finish will read just about anything!
If it is not cost-prohibitive, advertise in the programs of local events the ballet, the symphony, the high school play. That's where your "FREE Night of Dancing" coupon can be useful.
INTERNET ADVISING WITH CRAIG'S LIST
Craig's List (www.craigslist.org) is a phenomenal marketing tool. It costs nothing to post an announcement about a dance class. People cruise around this site looking for everything from free moving boxes to stereo equipment for sale; from apartments to rent to volunteer opportunities; from a house-sitter to events to fill up their weekend. It is organized by state, region, and city, so you can look for and post items where they will reach your potential dancers. I know people who visit the craigslist site every day just to see what's new.
There is a site charge only for companies posting job openings. Everything else is absolutely FREE. I can attest to the success rate with several ventures.
There are lots of other dance and dance-friendly websites. I'm not going to list them here, but if you contact me via email (firstname.lastname@example.org), I can provide the list of sites I've found. Most do not charge for a listing, but will expect you to have a website of your own and include a link to their webpage.
Are They Pounded on Your Door Yet?
PLANNING FOR YOUR FIRST CLASS
YOU BUILT IT AND THEY CAME
You've located and rented the dance hall. You've advertised your dance class. Are you ready for the first class? Assuming that you're starting with a beginner class, here are some things to think about before you open the door to your new students. Some of these tips and tricks are also useful if you're opening a class for existing, experienced dancers.
WHY TAKE A CLASS?
Why do people take classes not just dance classes any class? Yes, they want to learn a skill, whether it's a Chinese cooking class or a bridge class or a yoga class. Certainly people will come to your dance class to learn a skill. Beyond the need for a skill, why do people sign up for a class when they can hire a private tutor, research the subject in the library or on the internet, or buy or rent a video?
One important reason for taking a class is social interaction. Sometimes the social interaction is a general need. This could be a couple looking for something to do on a night out away from the kids. It could be someone suffering from Empty Nest Syndrome who needs to fill the hours previously occupied raising children. It could be person new to a community just needing to meet people.
Another reason that people sign up for a class involving a physical activity, anything from aikido or water ballet, is they need the exercise. They may have no exercise program or they may be going to the gym regularly but are bored with their current routine.
There is the search for a mate. Whether young and single, newly divorced, or recently widowed, people often turn to classes when looking for companionship. Dance classes are particularly popular because there is the expectation of some physical contact.
You will have young people who are looking for a way to connect to their folk-dancing parents. You will have people who danced in college who now want to re-connect with the activity of their youth. You will have people who are preparing for an upcoming wedding where there will be dancing.
IT'S NOT ABOUT THE DANCES
Having acknowledged that your students are looking for more than just the ability to dance, you should shape your class around serving the many other needs of your students. While you can't meet EVERYONE'S needs ALL the time, you can structure the class so that everyone has SOME of their needs met SOME of the time.
First and foremost, don't focus on the teaching of the dances or mastering the dances. Remember that old advice to workaholics: Nobody lies on his or her death bed saying, "I wish I'd spent more time at the office." You don't want your students to go home after class and say to themselves or their loved ones: "Well, I can now do a dance from Serbia very well and I've got a good start on mastering a couple dance from Denmark."
It's not about the dances! You want your students to go home, collapse on a couch with a flushed face and say, "Wow, I sure had fun at that dance class!"
BUT YOU STILL HAVE TO DANCE
Keep in mind that (1) not all slow dances are good for beginners and (2) not all dances taught to beginners should be slow. Specifically: Joc de Leagane is a lovely slow dance but it's too complex for beginners; Hora Agadati is fast, but not too difficult for beginning dancers.
If anything, err on the side of teaching too many medium to fast dances. It's the easiest way to meet the needs of those folks who are looking for some exercise. Besides those people, you want to have your first-time dancers get a bit of a buzz from the endorphins that their bodies produce when their heart rate is elevated. Endorphins will give them a feeling of well-being, and that feeling of well-being can mean the difference between maybe returning for a second class and definitely coming back for a second class. Make sure your dancers break a sweat!
In terms of social interaction, it is still not about the dances. Just about any dance will do, but some are better than others. In a class for beginners, at least one dance should be a mixer, perhaps two. [If you have fewer than 10 dancers in your class, mixers can be difficult, though not impossible.] The other dances should have at least a simple hand hold (not a basket hold, not a shoulder hold, not a belt hold). If you've ever been lonely, you know the value of the touch of a hand.
In general, pick dances that have:
No more than two parts.
One simple handhold (arms down is better than W-hold, and avoid swinging arms).
No complex rhythms (stick with 4/4 and 2/4).
No abrupt changes in direction.
Slow to brisk pace.
ACQUIRE SOME ANGELS
Square dancing has long had the tradition of "angels" experienced dancers joining squares of beginning dancers to help them learn and execute the calls. If it's possible, convince a few friends who are experienced dancers to be "angels" for your beginner classes. It is so much easier for beginners to learn a dance if they have more than one person to follow. (I have seen beginning dancers so focused on the steps they will almost lead a line right into a wall.) The beginners also need to see good dancers so they'll have something to aspire to. If beginners have only a room full of beginners plus one teacher, there will be some who look around the room and think "Boy, what a bunch of klutzy losers!" You want them, instead to think, "Wow look at him! I want to get good enough to dance with him!"
TEACH QUICKLY AND FOCUS ON THE FUN
Don't worry about overwhelming your first students. ANYTHING and EVERYTHING is going to overwhelm them. It's only a matter of degree. Go ahead and throw a lot of material at them. Some will learn ALL the dances, some will learn NONE of the dances, and most will be somewhere in between. My philosophy, and many will disagree, is it's better to have fun stumbling through five or six dances than go over and over and over and OVER the same two dances for an hour.
My personal rule for beginners is: If you can't teach a dance in under seven minutes, the dance is too difficult. Teach it, dance it, smile, chat. Rinse and repeat. In a 90-minute class for beginners, the first few weeks you should be able to cover 5 dances, possibly 6, dances and still have time to repeat a few of the favorites at the end of the class. Just don't fret about doing every step correctly. Forget styling and formation and perfection; focus on enjoying moving to the music, experiencing a unique group activity, and connecting to each other through dance.
LEARN FROM YOUR STUDENTS AS THEY LEARN
Prepare at least double the number of dances you actually have time to teach so you have a wide selection. While you are teaching, assess the ability of your students as they dance so that you can adjust the difficulty level and speed of the dances. Just because you have a class for beginners does not mean none of your students have ever danced before. You may have a college student who grew up doing tap dance, a middle-aged mother who's been taking jazzercise classes, and an elderly gentleman with years of ballroom dancing under his belt.
While they are learning the dances you'll be learning about their individual ability and hopefully selecting the next dance based on what you're learning about them. Are they whizzing through the dances? Pick a more complex dance. Are they looking a little winded and running out in the hall for water? Slow it down. Did that couple-mixer you taught have everyone smiling and excited?
TEACH ANOTHER ONE
By the way, the most challenging of the dances should NOT be the last one you teach. It's better to put the most difficult of your choices next to last, and the last dance should be accessible to everyone. By the time you get to the end of the class you'll have a good closing dance selected that, based on your assessment of their ability, everyone will be able to do and enjoy. Make it one with especially nice music that they will all go away humming.
LOOKING FORWARD A FEW WEEKS
Once your class is into the fourth or fifth week, start cutting back on the number of dances taught and give more time to enjoying the dances the dancers have learned. A simple formula after the first few weeks:
2-3 dances they know.
1 dance they need a walk-through or visual reminder.
1 new dance.
3-4 dances they know.
1 dance they need a walk-through.
1 new dance.
2-3 dances they know.
Review the two dances taught.
1-2 dances they know.
The goal is to teach 1-2 new dances per week and leave the rest of the time for practice, review, and interaction.
Giving you a list of dances that I would use in a beginners class isn't going to work here. I don't know your repertoire and you won't know mine. The key is to start with dances you love to dance. You can't convey your enthusiasm if you think your dancers should know a dance, but if the music came on you would not get up to do it yourself. Start with dances with music you love, music that is complex and rich and makes you smile.
Try to start beginners out with dances that are not "step-critical or "timing critical." This means if they start with the wrong foot, it is not going to prevent them for executing the general movement of the dance, or if they are a bit too fast or a bit too slow, nothing bad will happen.
For example, Zemer Atik should be started with the right foot, but if a beginning dancer starts with the left foot, it's still possible to do the dance. Similarly, if the beginner takes three steps instead of four, but still manages to lean in the correct direction at approximately the right time, it doesn't destroy the enjoyment of the dance. Ersko Kolo and Hora pe Gheaţa are other good examples.
For couple dances, try Swiss-Finn Mixer (sometimes called Chaos Mixer) which is just walking, clapping, and elbow turns. Ve David works well with beginners if you don't stress the proper execution of the buzz turn at the end, and just let them walk around.
You can say that a dance is popular or that it is fun or that you enjoy doing it. DO NOT introduce a dance by saying it is "easy" or "simple." Perhaps the dance is easy to you. But what happens to the person who cannot seem to learn that dance? What happens to that person's self-esteem? "The teacher said that was an easy dance and I couldn't do it?! What a klutz I am! What's the point in doing this anyway?!" A dancer with a bruised ego won't be back next week.
You can tell them that a dance is from Serbia. However, DO NOT talk about the Pirin Mountain region of southern Bulgaria or the Pontic Greece dance styling. DO NOT bore them with the rhythm pattern or how many years the dance has been in the repertoire or who taught it to you or the multiple variations that can be found or how it has been modified over the years. You'll only be rewarded with glassy stares. Remember the two main reasons your students came to your class: exercise and social interaction. The love of ethnic dance and all the layers above and below it will come much later.
Consider simplifying, abbreviating, and truncating, as in the suggestion above to de-emphasize the buzz turn at the end of Ve David. Another example would be teaching Alenelul without the shoulder hold and teaching it in a semi-circle with a simple handhold until your dancers have the footwork under control. You can add the traditional formation later.
One week you can teach just the first two parts of Ali Paşa and alternate them with the music. Your students will not realize they have not been taught one of the parts or that the footwork doesn't seem to go with the same melody each time. The next week you can add the third section.
Leave the turn variation out of Rumalaj and let them enjoy it that way until they can handle doing the optional turn.
If you really like Kulsko Sira, but the third and fourth variations are clearly too difficult for beginners, just teach them the first and second variation.
FALLOUT AND DROPOUTS
Be prepared for fallout. Not every beginning dance student will return for a second week. Some will walk into the first class and know within three minutes that they will not be coming back, but they will stay through the first class just because their mother raised them not to be rude. If you have 30 students the first week and 20 the second week, the 10 who dropped out will have 10 different reasons for not returning. Perhaps one of those reasons will be something you did or did not do. The other nine will have reasons entirely beyond your control.
If you're really curious and have some extra money and time, print out some oversized pre-addressed postcards to request feedback. You could include a checklist with items like:
___ I learned a lot
___ very friendly people
___ wonderful form of exercise
___ you made it fun to learn
___ lots of people I want to know better
___ too many dances to learn at once
___ the dances were too fast for me
___ I didn't like the music
___ slow and boring
___ nobody my age to talk to.
Add a space for personal comments. Hand the cards out at the end of class. Ask participants to either drop them in a basket on the way out or mail them if they'd prefer. You will probably be surprised at the information you obtain!
No matter what you decide to do, and no matter how many dancers return for a second or third or fourth week relax and enjoy the dancers who are there, and get out and teach them some dances!
TURNING YOUR DANCE CLASS INTO A DANCE FAMILY
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.
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, 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, 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?"
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, welcomes 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.
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!
Used with permission of the author.
Printed in "Let's Dance," July, September, and November, 2005, and January 2006.