The collective feeling of a dance community can be magical, or frustrating. Most people who’ve danced for a few years have experienced this. If you are a scene leader undoubtedly you’ve come across a myriad of common issues, and a whole bunch of other ones that only people in your town would understand. I’d like to offer a few ideas for scene leaders looking to put the kick back into your community.
To give some context, I started dancing in Denver around 1996. This was the height of swing’s second revival. Nightclubs had live music and dancing, the radio was playing neo-swing, commercials featured swing dancing, lines went out the door and around the block at our local venues and the clubs would get so full that people danced to the sound of the band from the parking lot. It was truly an exciting time.
Then the fancies of the public moved on… MTV didn’t play Brian Setzer anymore. The 10 different clubs around town with swing nights all shut their doors except for 2, and their attendance was minimal. The local arts and entertainment rag declared the Swing fad “dead” on front-page articles. Our Zoot Suit Riot turned into a Zoot Suit Pity Party.
Those of us who considered ourselves life-ers in the community were left with the very difficult task of rebuilding our community without the benefit of hindsight. There was a lot of trial and error. I didn’t do all the work of building up our community in Denver by myself, but I did build my life around being a big part of it and I did a great deal of work to that end. I re-tooled my work life so I’d have more time, until finally (this part came later) I had to quit my day job to promote dancing in our city full-time.
In hindsight, the community that was a fad was bigger, but the one we grew organically was stronger. Then we had some strong times and some not so strong times. In general every 3 years or so the community waxes or wanes, or at very least changes and this is a good thing. Once in a while I meet a couple who started dancing trick-laden 6-count in the heyday of the various bands with “daddies” in the name, they quit for a while, and then they come to visit our largely 8 count world with its chunk-a-chunk and scratchy recordings and they are nothing short of appalled. You can’t please everyone – but you can create a positive, energetic community where people feel included, excited, and happy and the feeling will be infectious.
If you seek exact answers about how to build your community or answers for why your community may be failing at this exact moment, there are none. Every city will find different answers and every promoter will have different strengths and different challenges to overcome. For instance college towns have to have lower price points, and they may have to deal with the fact that they are losing their dancers with every graduation ceremony. Big cities may have to find times that work around people’s work schedules, and small cities need to concentrate on dancer retention. This blog post is about learning to examine, change, inform, evolve and propel your community, and some of mindsets and strategies that I’ve had success with. Every city needs to deal with transit issues, scene politics, dancer retention, and making the finances and volunteer needs work.
By and large people are pleasure/pain motivated animals. They gravitate to what makes them feel pleasure, run from what brings them pain, with the caveat that we will endure pain if there is pleasure at the end of the road. Learning to dance can be laden with frustration, but if a person is inspired they will endure it. Music that feels like you are hammering a square peg into a round hole is painful. Feeling like not many people challenge you as a dancer or that your friends don’t make as much effort as you do to come out dancing is not pleasure, and will eventually lead to scene attrition. You have to overcome these difficult times as a scene leader, and you can’t do it without getting as many people as possible to be a part of the solution and not a part of the problem.
What I can say in general terms is that you must make people excited about what you do, you have to offer a clear path for their development from newbie to regular, you must be genuinely excited about the dance and the music and convey that in how you teach, DJ, and promote and finally you must be willing to change and continually improve your dancer’s experience, no matter what your own agendas or visions of what lindy hop is to you. We can all evolve.
Your scene values
As a useful exercise, it’s good to sit down and take inventory of what you are truly selling people as a promoter, and what the art of swing dance represents to you. It needn’t be one thing. Most scenes are complex and you may have 2 or 3 markets that you need to serve. But the idea is that you need to know what priorities you have for your community. It might be that you want to promote community. You may be geared toward getting people interested in the dance history or the music. Perhaps you want to create awesome performance culture. You may want to connect to the national conversation about the lindy hop and bring in fantastic and inspiring teachers and make a place where there is a very high level of social dance. You can’t say “all of the above” because you can’t promote everything effectively; at least not until your scene is hitting on all cylinders.
Now here’s the kicker – it doesn’t have to be what your scene is about right now. Many scenes in America were centered around groovy music and causal dress for a long time, and it was really fun, but it ran its course. As the scales tipped toward a more vintage, better dressing party crowd some promoters managed to kill off more than they could convert in order to change the community. We didn’t have the knowledge and skills we have now. You CAN change your scene, just not overnight. In Denver what built our scene is a crowd hungry to compete and who loved the accessible fun music played at the social dances (2 markets to serve that crossed over). Seattle prided itself on excellent dancing and the rarest and most pure music and most accurate style to build its name. New York has so many crowds with different needs that it still finds itself a small scene when compared to the population, but on the plus side you can find a little of whatever floats your boat. As a whole the failing scenes I see do not have a collective hunger for the same thing — the collective drive is something which I see as a key to success. Although perhaps some magic and unique places may be that they are big enough not to need unified values. Korea has wonderful drive to move their skill forward as well as the largest community and there are good reasons for their success. Montreal has the best and most performance teams around.
The point being that your scene will move toward a period of growth when it’s clear what your scene is about and that many people are excited about what’s going on.
Initially, people come to a dance for the prospect of meeting people, or because a friend recommended them. They will mostly have an idea of jazz that doesn’t relate much to what swing jazz is. But as they become better dancers they will learn to enjoy the music. I say this over and over that you must play good music – not just accessible music. The best way to have new dancers fall in love with Lindy is to have your good dancers on the floor, excited and dancing their best to inspire new people. I think of it this way: when babysitting kids you don’t feed them ice cream just so they’ll love you. You develop good habits for the long run by giving them the good music, even if it’s takes a while for them to learn it, it’ll stick with them longer. I advise knowing the difference between swing and 1940s pop music; inspiration over novelty.
That being said, I do have a running document of every request I’ve ever received, and when I see that person sitting out a few or about to leave, I play their favorite song. Music is a driving force in humans all over the world. For more on my take on music, check out my DJing blog.
Human beings have partaken in ritual for thousands of years. You should have things that make your community unique. Most scenes shim sham. In Korea they do ALL the line dances every night. In LA one venue lets you bring 10 friends on your birthday. In Omaha they have raffles for fun little prizes. These are important. Newbie jams are highly underutilized. Create rituals that make your dances more than just a dance.
The name game
The sound of a person’s name is the most beautiful sound in the world — to them. Try this out sometime: just sit across from a friend and say their name a few times over and over. They will smile. Perhaps laugh a bit. (I just tried this out on the person next to me and it totally worked…per usual) A person’s name is a primary part of their identity. If you make an effort as a scene leader to facilitate this, you’ll improve your community.
Some ideas for doing this;
- When rotating in class, add “introduce yourself to your new partner” and wait a few seconds.
- Walk around the room before class and introduce yourself to a few students. Then use their name in class. I use a rhyme to remember people. “Joe with the chapeu” or “Sue with a shirt of blue”, etc. I often say, “Greg has a question, let’s all listen for a moment” or “Jamie has this step” to reinforce my memory and to help others learn.
- Add pictures to your registration system. (I’ve used an Polaroid iZone and a iPad)
- Take a few seconds to have students meet the people next to them in class.
- Have people who are doing their birthday dance write their name up at the DJ booth, then call out their name at the birthday jam instead of a general “all birthdays” kind of announcement.
- Tag people on Facebook often. Facebook has it’s ups and downs, but we all love to be invited, even if we don’t come out that day, we remember that that person likes us and wants us around.
I once heard a parable about a bunch of folks at a baseball game. Somewhere in the crowd a woman stands up, slaps her boyfriend and leaves. The woman is angry. The man is embarrassed, a young child is scared, another man laughs, a woman a few rows away empathizes, a priest is concerned and another man sitting nearby is too involved in the game to notice.
Your student’s experience is similar. Some are frustrated, some are bored, and others are self-conscious. Some are pre-occupied by other things in their life. There’s no magic method to reach all people. Like most teachers, this has been a frustrating thing for me. I want all people to have the chance to fall in love with movement and connection, but not everyone can be reached, or is ready for what you offer, or takes the same meaning from your words. Nor is any teacher capable of imparting information that they spent years gathering, in an hour. It takes time. That’s why developing the community is as important (if not more) that the dance. As teachers, it’s our job to show what we love, and let the student’s own love develop in time. The longer you can engage them in the community, the more likely this is to happen.
The best thing I’ve come across for teaching is a martial arts teacher who said of explanation: a teacher should always say “just enough”…. Some days the class will need 15 minutes on a rock step itself. Other days it will need 15 seconds. There’s no way to tell ahead of time. Don’t give information people aren’t ready for. Don’t push. Show, show simply and show patiently. Never say “and another thing”… One idea at a time.
Something I picked up from my tap teacher is that every once in a while, when he sensed our frustration level was high, or the day was just a little less productive than usual, he’d stop for 3-4 minutes and tell us a story. Any story will do as long as it’s family friendly and funny. I felt like I was really getting to know him over those times, and it helped to develop my bond with him and with tap dance. I use this technique regularly just because a scene that knows one another is a stronger scene.
I have more to add onto this topic, which I will save for another blog, but sufficed to say, good teaching is the lifeblood of a scene. Develop this in yourself and you’ll build your numbers quickly.
Building your own market
There is a mindset I see frequently that I call “fighting over how to split up $.25 instead of making $1 for everyone.” I would encourage anyone who needs to work with other promoters, venues or dance schools to try and build their own markets. Try to increase the size of your community, not subdivide it further. If you have a love for what you do and a vision for a better community, I assure you that there are enough students and dancers for everyone.
300-person Jack and Jill’s and other impersonal things
One trend which I see hurting events is large Jack and Jill’s which start with 100 + competitors and come down to 6 or so finalists in one cattle-call prelim. For the partner less competitor, or motivated-to-improve dancer, Jack and Jill’s are a highlight of the weekend. They are also an icebreaker that’s kicks a weekend off with some nice outfits, good dancing, new stories and luck-of-the draw good nature.
Nothing feels worse than not making it past the prelims when it’s a giant mess of people. It feels like the judges just picked the usual suspects, and there’s no hope for even trying. I recommend semi-finals or more divisions to increase participation and get everyone to feel like they are a part of something.
This is just one example, but dancing is very personal, once it loses that, you’ll lose people. No matter what your success is, never let yourself “franchise” it. I give much applause to the producers of New Orleans Swing Festival for their constant reinvention of their event, and the personal feel.
Seek your kind
One thing I’ve found is that the students who will stick with you are a lot like you. I’m a techie in my 30s. By and large the people who stick with my classes tend to be in my age range, do similar things for a living and tend to like my jokes, which means they’re pretty smart too.
An example of catering to the wrong market: I’ve tried to work with singles groups before to bring in people for lessons. I tried to teach them dancing and getting them into what I love… But I didn’t understand that they really wanted to drink and socialize. I wasn’t a single, and I didn’t understand or relate to my market. On the surface I was pulling numbers for a time but I wasn’t organically growing my community, and probably even hurting my long term because the singles group guys were hitting on my regulars. Live and learn.
More importantly, people can smell a poser from a mile away. If you aren’t true to what you love, people will sense it and you’ll come off like a used car salesman. Cater to the vibe of your town. In Seattle, people love Balboa because it’s detailed and analytical; in Denver there is a lot of country and rockabilly, so catering classes a bit to that crowd worked. Southern California has success connecting to the Silver Screen / movie era and the legacy of the dancers who lived there. New York has never stopped having jazz like some places did, so the music there is pretty modern compared to other places. These are generalizations but the idea is that you should factor the vibe, the people, and the history into your scene. Don’t try to apply an identity that works elsewhere to your town – work with who you are. I’ve seen towns try to recreate the magic and music of New Orleans, or SoCal, etc and they were never able to create the same spark. Be the you-est you.
In on one or three
One thing that I observed that hurt our scene in Seattle a lot was a rift between how the two main venues taught the basics. In on one is easier for new students to pick up, but in on 2/3 teaches connection from the go. When two of our venues taught the dance differently, dancers from one venue found the other dancers hard to dance with. This fragmented the community, and dancers would choose not to dance at the other venue.
I think a good analogy for scenes is that the excitement level of dancers adds water to the lake, and if dancers are excited then the level of everyone’s boat will rise. It may be in the best interest of your scene to get on the same page as other teachers.
I would also add that I think the overwhelming trend nationally among teachers and among preservationists is to come in on 2/3, and as I said before it also teaches connection from the go.
Whatever you do, if you are a teacher, you have a responsibility to keep your skills current and to improve. I’m not saying you have to win competitions to be a good teacher, but you do owe it to your students to develop yourself on an ongoing basis.
Looking nice is a form of good manners. I’ve found typically that leads are more resistant to upping their game when it comes to wardrobe, but if there are a few influential leads who dress nicely then the others will follow suit. (Pause for pun) Follows typically have a bit more enthusiasm for dressing, and when that becomes integrated with the culture I find it to be a positive force in the community.
Clothing swaps are a really nice way to get people together outside the dance. Fashion shows, and dress up nights are two other great ideas. In Seattle we would have one night every couple of months where all the leads would surprise the followers by showing up in suits. Dressing nice is one more thing for people to get excited about. It also shows respect for the dance as an art, the band playing that night, and it makes your swing outs look good.
Inspiring your best dancers
I can’t stress this one enough. Good and/or committed dancers will fuel your scene, fund your events, inspire your newbies and they’ll push you to create an environment that will perpetuate itself.
Attitude of inclusivity
I encourage an overall attitude of inclusivity. I’m a big fan of adding things like “no partner required” and “all ages” to my flyers and web copy. Select pictures for your website that emanate a sense of joy and diversity of age and race.
I discourage making house parties large but exclusive. I’ve seen this create bitter feelings among those left out. If you are a scene leader, you may have to accept that you are not just a person, you are representative of an attitude. If your aim is to build community, it’s good to represent that. Cliques are a natural tendency in any social setting, however the resulting stratification can build resentment and cause attrition. Or if you do want to have some exclusive time, avoid posting pics on Facebook, and keep things on the down low. Right or wrong, the Facebook of scene leaders is not a private place in our society these days. Just as in any professional situation, your Facebook can be a valuable marketing tool and constructive statement or can undermine your mission.
Where will your new dancers come from?
Every scene is different. Your new dancers may come from college students, single working professionals, hipster couples, dancers of other styles, or high school students. If you know (and are honest about) your market of new dancers then you can market more effectively. I have used Groupon very effectively to fill classes, but I know they are one-session people. They came to classes for a good deal, not because they saw something they were inspired to do. I’ve used it for cash flow but not organic community development. You want to target a group of people that realistically can attend and would enjoy your dances.
For a time, it was popular to advertise dances with variations on the theme of “Hot Girls Swing Dance”. As cringeworthy as it is now, people felt that it was compelling and brought people in the door. But it brought the wrong kind of people. This is an example of good (in terms of memorable, and compelling to some) advertising, but with a negative effect (painting the scene as a hook-up place, bringing people who weren’t there to dance, just to pick up women). This is why I’m more in favor of organic marketing that is thought about in terms of who would you like to be there, not just how many people would you like there.
Theatre groups, actors and dancers of other kinds are great resources. Be honest about whether or not your venue and class times are good for high school students, working professionals, families, empty nesters, etc.
An interesting exercise is to make up your ideal new student as a fictitious character, then describe him/her. You can do a few model students… We’ll start with one. We’ll call him Bob.
- Bob is active, young at heart, and positive.
- Bob does not mind driving or commuting to a central part of town for his nightlife.
- Bob has a decent 9-5 job and has evenings and weekends free.
- Bob is social, but looking to expand his social group.
- Bob dresses well.
- Bob is respectful to other peoples boundaries and asks people to dance politely, and even if he’s looking to date, he isn’t being overt about it.
- Bob knows that he needs some classes in order to be good at dancing.
- Bob knows that he is equally responsible for making friends as other people are, and doesn’t mind making the effort to introduce himself and remember people’s names.
Design a flyer with Bob in mind and perhaps design web copy, as well. Then think about where Bob may be hanging out, or where he may be looking for his next hobby. When you choose different means of promotion, think about whether they would work for your target demographic.
Here are some examples that might work for this target demographic:
- Coffee shops.
- Blog articles about his town.
- Yoga studios.
- Rock climbing gyms.
- Places with fancy beer.
- Bike shops
- 5k/10k charity runs.
- The dog park
- The Apple store
- Positive comments about things by his Facebook friends. (Never underestimate the power of a personal testimonial)
- Four square
- Activities websites
- Entertainment newspapers
- His coworkers
- The bus
- Hiking groups.
- The list goes on, but you get the idea.
You can’t market effectively unless you know whom you’re trying to reach. But also, make sure you aren’t being exclusive. Make sure you are marketing in a way that’s open to people all ages, colors, orientations, gender identities and even religions. The photos you choose on your flyers should reflect that, and so should your language.
I also highly encourage scene leaders to also look toward the quickest way to inject energy into your community: make a big thing about recently transplanted dancers. When people move cross-country they are making a big life change. It can take months to get truly settled. They miss their friends. Invite them out to a potluck or cocktail party. Ask them questions. Be a good host. Don’t underestimate how hard a cross-country move can be. New energy in your scene is almost always a good thing.
Conversely I think that creating a travel culture is important. When a group of dancers dance frequently with one another they compensate for bad habits, habituate things, and reduce their vocabulary. Travel breaks this. It brings fresh ideas and readjusts bad habits. Traveling as a group is always fun. If you’ve ever had the experience of being the only dancer from your scene that travels to a particular event, it can be fun, but it’s not a bonding experience. All Balboa Weekend is one event that offers discounts for group registration (In addition to being very high quality). The inspiration and excitement will fuel your scene. More importantly the conversations you have, the classes you take together, and the experiences you have will drive all off you to seek excellence in some aspect of the dance – and seek it together.
One way to bring real life to your scene is to share a common language when it comes to the dance. There are always new ideas floating around and some really classic ideas that advanced dancers should know. Inviting a bunch of people to your house and having snacks and youtube clips night is easy, low cost and very community building. Showcases, Strictly ‘s and Jack and Jill’s all have their own magic moments. ILHC has so many new great moments every year. Prepare your playlist ahead of time.
It’s often said that the most important part of any business is marketing. Without a doubt word of mouth is your cheapest and most effective method. Make sure in addition to word of mouth that you’ve explored such things as
- Yelp. People look here. Bootstrap with a couple of reviews from friends.
- Radio. I’ve been able to advertise swing related events on swing jazz radio programs for free.
- Instagram. George Gee takes video and pictures of his band every night. It’s very effective. And, more and more people are using this every day as people look for non-facebook outlets for their personal media.
- Mail chimp. If you aren’t creating an email list you are overlooking a very effective method of reaching people. And for most small lists it’s free. Send about once a month.
- Bogos. Buy one get one free. Give your committed dancers a pass to bring new people. It might be what tips them over the edge.
- Sandwich boards. In a big city, ironically people often stick more to their neighborhoods than in smaller, more drivable cities. Something on the sidewalk that informs your passerby is a one time cost and will pull your local traffic.
- Promoted Facebook ads. Surprisingly cheap, these are a good way to reach a targeted audience. Try two ads with different content and see which gets more clicks.
- Posters. Most cities have postering companies that will place ads all over the city for you… Like the posters you often see for ballets, shows, etc. They are very cost effective, and a nice way to get your 7 touches in (see below).
There is a rule in sales that you must ‘touch’ someone 7 times before they become a client. A touch can be a seeing an advertisement of yours, hearing about you from a friend, an email, a phone call, a Facebook invite etc. make sure that you’re pushing out enough information about your classes and dances that people will hear about it more than once and ideally 7 times.
The salesperson that arrives empty-handed leaves empty-handed
At the peak of my promoting, I had an entire shelf 3 feet wide and 8 feet high of promo material for classes, dances, etc. It’s hard for people to remember when your classes are. One year I made refrigerator magnets. About 4 years later someone called to register for classes, and said they were calling because of the magnet. “How could I not”, they said, “I’ve been staring at it for 4 years.” There is an ongoing power of your marketing efforts that’s hard to measure. Residual benefit is hard to measure, and I feel lasts longest in printed media and swag like pens, shirts, magnets, fans, coasters, etc.
You also have to understand, as a promoter, the power of imagery to shape people’s expectations. Iconic images of swing create an emotional link and set a vibe. Pick your photos with care. The Los Angeles photo archives online have lots of royalty free images and using some image on flyers is important. You can tell so much about what something is going to be like from a flyer. A flyer should have one idea, and it should *show* what it feels like to partake in the dance. 123rf.com has cheap royalty free photography and pinterest can provide good inspiration. Dafont.com has nice free typefaces you can use. Of course you can always use your own photos, but don’t make the rookie mistake of borrowing without asking.
Jazz it up.
The love of Lindy Hop, like any long-term relationship, is an evolving love that can and should change. One of the constants is jazz dance. All the line dances are nice goals for people. Mastering the movements in the various jazz one dances helps people to improvise. Which brings them closer to the core of what the dance truly is. It gives you as a promoter a simple performance you can do for gigs, maybe even with your students. I’ve seen scenes with no jazz classes have a hard time gaining traction. They are a useful tool to keep things changing, which is a good thing.
Consistency is key to getting traction with your venues or classes. Every week or every month is great. I’ve had bad luck with every other week, taking summer breaks or things like “no class on fifth Mondays”. You would really marvel at how quickly people scan your website and fail to read details. It’s a way that you may actually be working against yourself if people are showing up to nothing.
Clarity of information
At the peak of my dance business in Denver I got to the point of needing a full time assistant. The assistant was a dancer in our scene. One day the phone in my office rang and I let my assistant field the call. The call was from an out of town dancer who wanted to know the dance and class schedule for the week. My assistant could not answer the questions accurately. It was then that I realized that I hadn’t publicized the events well. Even people in the community didn’t know when the dances were. I realized this was a problem impacting our scene negatively. This can be a good test – if the people in your scene can’t tell you about it, them your potential new students aren’t going to be able to either.
Work with bands
The pinnacle of a scene is having lots and lots of live music. This is the goal. A lot of bands that have never worked with dancers make the typical mistakes: playing all the cheesy songs, playing too fast or too slow (and not much in the middle), too many Latin numbers, etc. Develop your relationships to bands that play what your dancers like and it will feed your scene from so many angles. Don’t give up right away. Develop a feedback loop that can take some talented people and find middle ground with Lindy dancers. Write out what you want and communicate with them. If your normal dance is DJ’ed, it’s going to take 6 months to a year to find common ground with your bands, acclimate your dancers to band-night prices, and build familiarity. Get started now, it needs to be done before your scene will hit its apex.
Start a musical practice group
This is an awesome way to connect your people to the music and to each other. It’s very easy. Put the word out, find some people with similar abilities, practice weekly until you’re good enough to busk or play house parties, and you’re on your way. This is a fantastic way to create new layers to the dance culture in your city.
Promoters need to make money. For so many reasons. Anytime a person (i.e. a student) gets something of value, they need to surrender something of value, or they will never perceive the thing they are receiving as being of value. Aside from that, there are so many expenses a promoter encounters: insurance, snow days where no money is made, substitute teachers, flyers, equipment, music, posters. The list goes on forever. I highly discourage teachers from teaching free classes. Sometimes when someone says that they need a performance I will do it if I think it makes the world a better place… But “great exposure” never is and “a great opportunity” is often followed (silently) by “…to waste your time.” Take care of yourself and respect what you do. Make sure if you devote your life to something, that there is a living for you in it. In college towns, it may be that there is a context for free classes if many other things of value are given for free from the school. You will need to judge for yourself, but don’t be taken advantage of if you can help it.
Most classes I’ve seen are 4-6 weeks, but I truly believe that most people aren’t ready to hit the dance floor and feel comfortable for at LEAST 12 weeks. If you aren’t actively cycling people back into class with retake discounts, early sign up discounts, and a general message that retakes are good and normal, it’s going to be hard to produce competent social dancers. Try getting them to sign up on the last day of the previous session. Every day that passes between the last day of your class and the first day of the next session, the less likely they are to sign up.
Calculate what I call your “stickiness rate”, the percentage of people continuing on after their first class session. Work toward a higher number over time.
One tool I’ve used to help form my community is a survey. You will, without a doubt be surprised at the answers. Use multiple choice to make it easy. Some questions you might ask:
- Why do you dance?
- What got you started?
- What nights of the week work best for you?
- How much do you feel is fair to pay for a class?
- Are you interested in weekend workshops?
- Would you be interested in volunteering to help run swing events?
- What is your favorite kind of music to dance to?
- What are five words you would use to describe an ideal swing night?
Basic spreadsheet skills can help you identify trends. More them one trend may surface. I recommend Malcolm Gladwells’ TED talk on trends to help understand ways to see the data. Don’t necessarily blend everyone’s requests into a mish mash. You might be able to specialize for two groups to build engagement.
Teams can be a double-edged sword within your community. On one hand it keeps your high level dancers interested, the performances can inspire people, and it can give your intermediates something to work toward. On the negative side, teams can create cliques, the demanding rehearsal schedules can pull people away from social outings, and bad feelings can linger for people who didn’t make it in to the team. I am a huge proponent of teams in all forms and all levels. In my experience the positive pull outweighs the negative pull, and the net effect is that the community is strengthened by their existence.
One rule I’ve had with my teams is that part of their agreement for being on the team is that when they arrive at the dance, their first 5 dances cannot be with a teammate. I encourage making rules that minimize any potential bad feelings.
What I’ve determined is that the net benefit of a team is positive, but you have to keep its destructive tendencies to a minimum. I first realized this was true when someone said of my team that we were like Voltron – fine individually but a monster together. It was a good and accurate observation but a hard one to hear. Perspectives vary widely. Make sure your team mission statement is pro-community and don’t take on members that are going to hold their status over other peoples’ heads.
Bring it to the people
As a scene leader, make an effort to take time to really ask people how they are doing at a dance. Be open to feedback at your venue. Not every bit of feedback is worthwhile, but sometimes it brings harmony to your scene if people just feel heard. If you sense a trend, do something. Make sure you personally invite people to big things going on in your scene. It’s worth 1000 Facebook invites.
Practice listening without judgment or defensiveness. Consider all feedback an opportunity for you to strengthen what you do.
I am a huge fan of making sure everyone feels safe at a venue. Sometimes a well-meaning person may have issues with being too forward with new dancers, or perhaps someone in your scene isn’t good at reading body language that says “I don’t want to dance right now”. Many scenes have a lead that leads tricks and dips with everyone which is unsafe and inappropriate. There are other issues that exist from time to time that need a clear feedback loop. There is a Facebook group called Safety Dance that explores this issue in depth. As a scene leader you can spend 8 hours a day marketing and educating to bring in new people, only to have one person undermine your efforts.
When a problem arises, deal with it delicately, directly, and without shame, humiliation or self-righteousness. It may be able to be fixed, and if the offender can’t adjust their boundaries and behavior they can’t be allowed to attend dances until they can. Meet face-to-face. Approach the subject directly, quickly and end with a solid handshake or display of respect. Give it a week or two to sink in. This is no fun, but it’s part of the cost to be the boss.
Adopt gender-neutral language in classes
I’m so happy to see how many teachers are making an effort to say “lead and follow” instead of “guy and girl”. Our world is changing in a good way, and our community will be better off to acknowledge and encourage that.
I’ve seen teachers make jokes like “real men let go on 5” and so forth. I think it’s time to abandon this. Words are magical in the way they can conjure memories of people who have used words to hurt others. It’s woven into our culture, but it need not be.
At Yale they teach both roles to all dancers, and this is a great application of a unique identity. For me, I still like teaching people only the role they wish to learn, and one at a time (mostly due to information overload) but I am against prescribing the role for the student. Open your scene to new ways of being and it will grow. In fact, I think any mindset that paints ideas in black and white is destructive to scene growth, be that gender role or dance philosophy.
Numbers aren’t everything
I encourage scene promoters not to make every night equally as important. Don’t be the boy that cried wolf in terms of promoting and drown out your own voice in a sea of noise. In fact I think slow nights can be a sign of healthy balance if there are packed nights to offset them. When school starts, during mid terms or finals, during bad weather or around holidays can be unpredictable. Don’t hit the panic button — just use the downtime to refuel, pop in an old playlist and finally get some social dancing in for yourself… When you run the show, it’s easy to let your own fun times suffer in order to provide good times for others.
Look for long-term trends, not week-to-week numbers. People stay involved in a scene long after it’s not fun for them, in hopes that it’ll improve. That said I’m a big fan of tracking dancing attendance from year to year for comparison to last years at the same time. But don’t judge your year by one night — I’m a big fan of talking to people. If there is a point of contention in your scene, people are often reluctant to confront you directly. It’s up to you as a promoter to open up those lines of communication.
Turn bad nights into something fun. In fact, one of my best all time memories is a snowy night when the power went out and we danced to a boom box by candlelight, just 15 of us or so. Accept what is, and try to make the best of what you have.
Something to look forward to
Psychologists say that a person actually enjoys looking forward to a vacation more than they enjoy the vacation itself. I think this is true to some degree. Nonetheless, I think most good scenes spend lots of time building up future events. They help engage people. Talk to your classes about why it’s important. Most weekend events are more costly than a 4-week series. Each time people make a jump upwards in their dance budget it’s a make-or-break moment. Will they move forward, and get more involved or will they fall off? The big events are good times to create critical mass and forward momentum. A scene running at full tilt will have 4 events a year outside of weekly dances (at a minimum)
A well-known dancer visiting from another scene can be a good excuse to rally people and connect your intermediates to other ways of seeing the dance.
The power (and not power) of Facebook
Facebook events are a necessary evil for small events, and a good idea for bigger events. Make events for things you do. Don’t over post them or invite people who don’t live in your area. Although they also don’t really do a lot; if they bring 3 people that weren’t already coming I would say that they’ve done their job. Any more is gravy. Think about the last time you went to something that you weren’t already going to because of a Facebook invite. For me, I doubt it’s ever happened. Don’t ever count on them as a primary means of promotion… But don’t ignore them either. I’ve seen a couple of places that rely on Facebook as a primary means of information conveyance. I think this is a huge mistake. Email first, printed matter second, and social media third in terms of importance to your scene growth.
I’m a huge fan of putting class recaps on the Internet. My YouTube channel gets 8000 hits per month on average now. I put my classes up for students and it’s a nice excuse to contact them about their next step (7 touches). It’s a great way to keep your material straight, track your progress as a teacher and have a repository to draw from for future classes.
Tag your stuff
YouTube videos, i.e. class recaps can be tagged. Twitter accepts tags, Facebook as well. As long as they aren’t ironic, they serve a very real purpose, and that’s helping people find you. It will up your engagement with your audience, as the social media gurus say. Google also loves WordPress so if you are planning or redesigning a website, use WordPress with Yoast or other search engine optimizing plugins. Wix, etc don’t have as much ability to use plugins, etc. Basic web design skills are a must for any promoter, and easy to acquire through online tutorials.
One of the easiest things you can do to promote your scene is a jam circle. It’s instant performance, instant inspiration for all levels, and a great way to get people to feel the transcendence of dance. If your scene is fledgling, start with a slower song, it needn’t be a barnburner. Just start clapping and make it happen. Take a newbie into the jam and others won’t feel shy after that and the newbie will feel the magic of a jam.
After the party
One of the greatest things I’ve seen in any scene is in Korea. After the dance they invite the new dancers out for a drink. Another great idea comes from the Mobtown ballroom folks. At the end of each group class series they take people out for karaoke, to level the playing field as it were and have some fun. This fulfills one of the basic precepts about building your scene: people need to know other people or they won’t get involved.
Plan outings. Invite 20 people, expect 5. Bond, repeat.
A very cool scene building idea came out of New Orleans. I first saw buttons at Showdown reminding people to clap for the band and tip them. This is a great application of the idea that each scene is unique and what worked for other may not work for you. Not only does it help to educate new, visiting, or recently transplanted dancers, but also it shows a great collaboration with live bands. I’ve seen other places with buttons that say “I’m available to help new dancers”. Take a problem, offer a solution, and advertise the solution.
Fragmenting and defragmenting
As a scene grows you’ll see trends emerge. A good example is how once upon a time, most cities had lindy and blues scenes that were integrated. Then they split into two. And now many scenes have a lindy scene, a blues scene, and a fusion scene. In Denver we had a lindy night and a “teenagers go crazy to energetic music night”. We needed both. Some places have tried to make a balboa night without proper forward critical mass in their balboa numbers. Keep in mind that when you fragment your scene, there is a re-education process that happens. New class times, new dance times. It will take a toll on your numbers, and not everyone has interest in specializing, so you may lose numbers there. Weather happens, school year happens, and a million other things that can drop your numbers in a heartbeat. This time is the most critical time you might have as a scene leader, and it’s hard to undo. “Too many people” is a good problem to have. Don’t try to fix it too fast.
The value of reassessment
Never forget to look things over, and make some changes whenever things feel stale. Have you checked in with all of your local but nationally competitive dancers to see if they have interest in being involved? Are you developing new DJs? Rotating in specialty dances like various Shags, Balboa, Ballroomin’, etc? Have you encouraged someone lately? Smoothed over an old rift? Being a part of Lindy Hop is like being part of one big global family, and some of us were snarky teenagers once. Make sure you open up the space for old wounds to heal. Solicit feedback. Travel and bring back one cool thing to your scene. The list is endless, but just like the dance itself there is always room for improvement. Not everything in this blog applies to all scenes, but if your heart means well and you put your good ideas into well meaning, well thought out and well executed actions, you can’t help but attract more people into this dance we all love.
- Know what you’re about, and embody it.
- Advertise it with the fury of 1000 fiery suns.
- Share the knowledge, share the love. People can’t enjoy what they don’t understand so teach formally, informally, and often.
- Don’t swim upstream. Change things when they don’t work.
- Get people on board with getting better, having fun, and loving jazz.
- Don’t stop believin’. Hold on to that feeeeeelin’.
We are available for hire throughout the world. If you’d like an objective look at your scene, things to emphasize, things to change, etc we would be glad to help. See our classes page for things we teach.
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