Folk Dance Federation of California, South, Inc.
Attracting and Retaining New Folk Dancers
By Mindy Belli, 2018
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Perhaps because beginners are now so out-numbered by experienced dancers, we have discovered that when someone bravely shows up to try folk dancing at a folk dance group, they will feel more comfortable and be more likely to return if the teaching and program are modified to accommodate them. Those modifications can be frustrating to the typical music programmer (and teacher), and boring for more experienced dancers.
This problem is even worse in a large group or one constrained by rules and traditions, because flexibility is more difficult. In addition to those problems, beginners are likely feel intimidated if surrounded by advanced dancers, even if those dancers try to help them. But there are solutions.
For many newbies, an hour or an evening dedicated to beginners is more likely to keep 'em coming. It is also likely to frustrate more experienced dancers or frustrate the programmers and teachers. Below, you'll find tips for attracting newbies (to support a special hour or evening), based partly on the new media available today.
Whether you dedicate a special time to newbies, or simply want to better accommodate them in your current group, you might benefit from the following tips. They are a blend of the advice given by Loui Tucker at Stockton Folk Dance Camp and given by Jan Rayman to describe what she and Marc learned from their group for beginners, the Foothill International Folk Dancers in La Cañada, California.
TIPS FOR TEACHING BEGINNERS
- Be extra patient. If your group will include more advanced dancers, encourage them to also be patient. This might seem obvious, but many have forgotten how very difficult it can be to learn folk dance steps.
- Provide very descriptive and clear instructions. Simple terms such as "step-together-step" or "step-behind" are meaningless or even misleading to new dancers.
- Don't try to teach the steps for the first time while playing the music and doing the dance. Announcing steps during the dance is a great reinforcement, but is not sufficient and can be intimidating and disheartening to a beginner because they often cannot keep up. During a dance, try to announce steps in advance.
- Keep the program moving along, not too fast and not too slow. Start the music quickly, so you can keep the group on the floor and dancing. Also, repeat and/or slow-down the more challenging portions of a dance. Using a remote controller for the music player makes this much easier.
- Be prepared to accept that some newbies just won't catch on to folk dancing, usually because they are uncoordinated or cannot move in time to the music. Try to silently identify them and gently leave them behind by focusing more on the other dancers. If you spend a lot of time repeating basic steps for one dancer, the others won't learn enough and they will become bored. In such cases, you can strive to help such people feel some sense of accomplishment (that is, they learned something) and know that their effort to learn is recognized and appreciated.
- Most importantly, try to make people feel good about themselves. Acknowledge their efforts to learn. It's also helpful to explain that advanced dancers are a minority and something special.
PROGRAMMING FOR BEGINNERS
- It's best to create a program of introductory dances that build upon one another, so the grapevine and step-together-step learned in one dance will be used in the next dance.
- Select material that is relatively easy and has beautiful, exciting, or interesting music.
- If a very experienced dancer attends, have a least one dance they can enjoy (and show off a bit if that's their style). With a mixed-experience group, have a dance that's new to everyone both the experienced and the new dancers.
- Be sure to prepare a contingency program because it's hard to predict what mix of dancers will show up. Modify your teaching plan to suit the mix of people who attend.
- Try to provide a broad repertoire and encourage newbies to tell you which dances they like and which they don't. Dances that might be popular include Zemer Atik, L'Homme qui Marche, Senin Canına, Eastbourne Rover, I Walk the Line, and Believe.
- It can be fun to repeat a dance to different music across the weeks, to hold dancers' interest.
- Try to list all the dances taught and danced (along with videos) on the group's website [including the proper special characters!].
- Include some challenging dances in the second half of the session. Some new dancers will be determined to learn a difficult dance (such as Vlaško) if the music or movements are captivating. When they learn a difficult dance, they will feel more accomplished.
PUBLICIZING A DANCE GROUP
- Try to use more than one means to inform the community of your dance group. We suggest a website for the group, a Meetup.com group, an article in a local newspaper, and advertising in a local or neighborhood news e-group such as Nextdoor.com. Try to have a positive listing on Yelp.com. You could also invite a local reporter, blogger, or the like to attend a session (perhaps for a special event designed to appeal to them and to provide them more to write about).
- If you create a website for the group, try to use a well-known domain name, such as ".org" or ".com." Foothill International Folk Dancers used ".dance" domain name because they thought something was missing, so we don't advise it.
Thanks to Loui Tucker for the advice she gave in a lecture at the Stockton Folk Dance Camp. Additional thanks to Marc & Jan Rayman and for beginning a new group specifically to teach beginners how to dance AND to teach themselves how to attract and retain beginners; the Foothill Folk Dancers in La Cañada, California. Finally, thank you to Jan Rayman for honestly reporting in detail what worked and what didn't.
Used with permission of the author.
Printed in Folk Dance Scene, March 2018 under the title
"Ideas for Attracting and Retaining New Folk Dancers."