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Folk Dance Federation of California, South, Inc.

We've Got Competition!
(or "Why Young People Aren't Joining Our Dance Classes")
By Loui Tucker, 2006

Loui Tucker


The International Dance Community has been spending a lot of time lately wondering why we can't get more young people to attend our festivals and enroll in our classes. We each have an opinion, two or three ideas, and a half-dozen examples of things that worked for some other group but won't work in our own. Every time we attend a workshop or concert or dance party, we count the heads that are not grayed, compare that number to the figure we got the last time we counted, and wonder if we're making any progress.

Before I get into my own ideas, I want to explore the reasons why we are fighting this battle in the first place.

A Little Historical Perspective

Who joined dance classes in the 50s, 60s and 70s? First, there were married couples looking for an inexpensive night out that didn't involve going to a bar or nightclub. While they might each have a night out alone (men to the Lions Club and women to the Ladies Auxiliary), there were only a few things that a couple could do together. For my parents it was bowling; my aunt and uncle played Bridge. Lots and lots of other couples took up some form of dancing. Remember that, in the early years of the International Folk Dance movement, all of the dances were couple dances and square dances were a big part of every event. It wasn't until the 50s that non-partner dances appeared in any significant number.

Next, there were young singles looking for a mate. If you were shy or otherwise socially challenged, the international dance clubs were a perfect way to meet people without having to be introduced or make small talk. Dance classes meant not standing around a smoky bar sipping watered-down drinks or joining a church or synagogue in order to attend their socials.

There were also people who loved to move to music, but wanted something more challenging than the foxtrot. The international dance community had plenty to offer them. Some of those needing a greater challenge became teachers and square dance callers and festival organizers.

Finally, there were people just looking for a social group. Although there were fraternal organizations like the Elks Club and the Oddfellows, and women could join church groups and the PTA, dance clubs offered social activity without a lot of formal structure or hierarchy.

Keep in mind also that, back in the 50s and 60s, regular exercise was not part of everyone's weekly routine. Men worked outside the home during the day and women worked in the home. In the evening they listened to the radio and chose from a selection of a half-dozen television programs broadcast in black and white. In the 50s and 60s my uncle was considered a local oddity because he ran laps around the high school track five nights a week.

In the early days of international dance, there was an age gap between the oldest dancers and incoming young dancers – it just wasn't as big as it is today. Then, the oldest dancers were in their 40s and, to the incoming dancers in their 20s, the 15-20 year gap was not such a stretch. Today, with the majority of dancers over 50, the young dancers are looking at a 25-30 year gap. It's the difference between hanging around with folks your parent's age and hanging around with folks your grandparents age.

The Competition

Our dance community has a lot more competition today than it had 30 years ago when the movement was still strong, vital, and attracting young people by the dozens.

Today's married couple consists of two people who work outside the home and then have to take care of the home too. I'm told that generally both of them are too tired to think about going out during the week. There are the kids to think of, their recreation, their after school classes, their homework, and their bedtimes. It's easier to rent a video or DVD and stay home in front of the computer or big-screen TV with hundreds of cable channels. Plus babysitters are expensive, often costing more than the evening of entertainment or dance class.

For the single person looking for a mate, there is the Internet with its chat rooms and the anonymity of email. For the really serious, there are dating services that focus on every possible sub-group from religion to sexual orientation to political affiliation to musical tastes. Want to date only gay Jewish Democrats who love opera? There is probably a dating service out there just for you! A dance class is now viewed as highly inefficient.

For the person who just wants to dance, there is now a smorgasbord from which to choose: salsa, ballroom, tap, swing, and hip hop classes can all be found in most recreation centers. Once a dance form gets some publicity through a movie or television program, classes spring up all over the place – think Riverdance and the explosion of Irish dance classes – and you've added another layer of competition.

Exercise is now scheduled into nearly everyone's daily life. You can join a fitness club, take a jazzercize, aerobics or Pilates class, or buy exercise equipment, set up your own home gym and hire a personal trainer. Dedicated exercisers also look for a big bang for their buck. The goal is to be dripping with sweat within 15 minutes running on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike. Dancing is for wimps! Two hours at a dance class is too much time spent and not enough calories burned.

For the person looking for a social group, there too we have lots of new competition. City Recreation Centers offer a wide variety of classes, sponsor clubs, and organize trips. Stay at home and you've got virtual communities galore via the Internet and you have a choice of eventually meeting in person, or remaining anonymous.

So What Do We Do?

Seems pretty daunting, huh? And yet, as you can imagine, I have my ideas. The first is to change this from a monologue into a dialogue. How much good is going to come from us talking and writing and proposing about the problem when we're still only talking to, writing to, and proposing to our own troops? We must start a dialogue with the group(s) of people we want to attract!

This article first appeared in the May 2006 issue of Let's Dance! magazine.
Used with permission of the author.