Zoom Questions and Answers summary for FCSH webinar of 29 August 2020
Q. I've had great success at ceilidhs but I can't get them to continue. Except one where I started a new club after the second one I had done in the same area. Is this the only way?
: We did find that having a few special events helped us drum up interest in a regular series. We also started the weekly workshop because we had been told that the only reliable way to grow a group was to hold events more frequently; it didn't grow our group, but it did strengthen the commitment of the existing core of dancers.
Q. Where did you find your new members, and how did you persuade them to stay?
: Our new members (dancers who hadn't danced before) came because they saw either a Facebook post, an article we had written in the local newspaper, or a flyer in the local library/shop. How did we persuade them to stay — I'm not sure. There must be something that we do that they like. See answers about how we manage complete beginners and how we define success.
Louise: We're on hiatus because of the pandemic, so we've not done anything this academic year (which for us began two weeks ago), but generally we advertise heavily among students at the beginning of the year, and do demonstrations, and we partner with other student clubs (like the History Club) to do special events. It's much harder for us to recruit new dancers in the community — we're a small town, and although we've been very child-friendly in terms of the dancing at our monthly dances, our timing isn't so — we used to dance from 8-11pm.
Q. How do you prevent the same folks from joining the new clubs and remaking the same group?
: This is an excellent question, particularly if the goal is to raise the standard of dancing (however you define that). Having a clear set of objectives can keep a club on a new track. We had to set some clear standards in our club around gendered behavior, for example: we explicitly asked experienced dancers not to introduce their assumptions about gender at our dances, and we made it clear that if they weren't comfortable with people dancing any role, they were in the wrong place. We didn't kick anyone out, and I can't think of anyone who chose to leave; people who prefer a particular role learned how to express that preference in a gender-free way.
Bernie: I don't think you can prevent the same folks from joining new clubs, nor would we want to. What we do want is that everyone adopts our club's aims and norms.
Q. So what does it mean to be welcoming? Can you be specific?
: For us, welcoming means making sure people are being asked to dance; being careful, as a caller, to teach any new concepts as they come up; having "afters" at a local pub-type restaurant to which everyone is invited, so that we can get to know each other; having a clear code of conduct; name tags for every dancer. When I'm the caller, I introduce myself to people as they come in, especially if they look new (at home I know; further afield, I just say "hi, I'm the caller. I'm from Oklahoma; is this your home dance?" or similar). As Bernie says, these are all obvious but they are still rarely done regularly at many clubs.
Bernie: Reflecting on this after the webinar, I think it is clear that there is nothing groundbreaking about how we make someone feel welcome. However, do clubs do all the things they could to be welcoming? I think the caller has a huge part to play in making new people feel welcome as they are the person leading the evening. Things that we make a consistent effort to do are:
- Making sure someone greets a new person when they arrive and explains how things work.
- We explain how the first evening is free as they try us out to see if we are a good fit for them.
- Find out about their dance experience.
- Make sure that someone will ask them to do the first dance.
- During the first dance, introduce them to the group.
- Explain the group will help them during the dance so look out for hand signals pointing them in the right direction, or a nod of the head (also serves as a reminder to the rest of the group that there is no pulling or pushing).
- Make sure they are not sitting out (unless they want to).
- Talk to them during the tea break.
- At the end, thank them for coming and talk about how they felt about the evening.
Q. When you set up a new group, was there an older group already in existence, and is there a rivalry?
: Yes, there was an established group already in existence. I hope there isn't a rivalry as that club is very different to ours in the types of dances that are done.
Q. If the club services only the needs of those people that formed the group, then they can't be sustainable and I would argue they aren't trying to be. Is this the norm of groups you attend?
: Our group has changed its priorities as its population changed. I think that's natural in a university environment; change is the norm, in a sense. The university group has been more sensitive to (inter)national conversations about changes (the rise of codes of conduct; gender-free calling, etc.) than our statewide organization, and I think that part of that is my own willingness to go along with the students' preferences, as their primary caller. The same goes for our repertoire: we went from doing exclusively what in the US is known as "modern urban contra" to a format that looks a lot more like a lot of UK clubs: contra, English, squares, Irish sets, round dances (waltz, polka).
Bernie: The question suggests that we aren't adaptable. We set up with an aim of teaching dancers to dance with emphasis on technique and quality but our first year was spent working out how to do this so that those who were not part of the original 10 members bought into that aim too. In the first year, there were some evenings where I got it wrong and over-taught so it felt like the dancers were at school. Those were not fun evenings. It is the role of the caller/committee to be reflective about the evening and listen to the comments on the dance floor and adapt. It is all about the people coming in the door and paying their money. How do we meet their expectations and needs without sacrificing our core values?
Q. We are talking among the converted. Perhaps we should think about how to bring in "strangers."
: I thought this might come up in our conversation, but it didn't. I think this question is spot-on, and I was once lucky enough to run a "youth" (under 40) workshop at Pinewoods English Week on this topic. We came to some interesting conclusions, but what stood out to me was that although people came for the music and the dancing, what they stayed for were the meta-experiences: the social scene, the learning, the intergenerational community, etc. The obvious next step is to translate that into an advertising campaign-but it's not obvious what such a campaign would look like.
Bernie: I agree with Louise that an advertising campaign would be a good idea. We need to move away from the traditional A5 flyer printed at home that just has club details on it. A campaign that focuses on the experience of dancing would be my preference.
Q. Are groups popular because they focus on participation and activity, and not on quality and teaching?
: Your question suggests that groups cannot have both. Why not? At some point, there has to be some teaching. When someone turns up for the first time never having never done this activity before, how do they learn how to do it? When someone explains how to do something is this not teaching?
Louise: I wonder how many of us ask our dancers why they keep coming? That question was built into our group at the beginning because we were inventing it, and our extremely democratic system of running it kept that spirit alive, but I don't think I've ever asked the other groups for whom I call regularly why they come. It's an excellent point.
Q. In the new group how do you manage complete beginners?
: We take things at beginner speed, and we cultivate an atmosphere where experienced dancers ask beginners to dance, so that they learn more quickly. Personally, I think the gender-free environment helps with this because it just looks like a pile of people dancing together. Similarly, we have a strong culture of asking someone new to dance each time, which can be quite different in the UK. When I started social folk dancing, the norm was no more than two dances with a specific person in an evening, and I still largely hold to that unless I have no choice. As someone who turned up to her first contra dance alone, I found it surprisingly comfortable that I had no idea some people there were married to one another until months later! Generally, I think that a dance community that walks the talk of "anyone can ask anyone to dance" is going to be successful at both attracting and incorporating beginners.
Bernie: When I have new dancers arrive, I do change my program but I have a set of dances that I can just pick up and know will work for new dancers. These dances don't have figures like circular heys or ½ figures 8. I think having success early on in the evening is crucial. Our dance angels and I are very proactive during the evening so we give lots of reassurance to new dancers, I, as the caller, make sure I demonstrate/teach new figures and then everyone will do the figure. This stops everyone staring at/interfering with the new person trying to get a new figure right. If required, we might all do it twice so that the new person can practice again. I point out to new dancers to look out for hand signals from other dancers who will point them in the right direction. This also serves as a reminder to existing dancers that there is no pushing/pulling. I have a wireless headset so I can also be on the dance floor to point new dancers in the right direction.
Q. How large are the two clubs? Are they growing?
: We started with 10 dancers in 2017 and by February of this year we had 26 dancers.
Louise: Ours peaked at about 75 at the monthly dances, in ~2016. When I left for a year in 2017-18, attendance went down sharply and the last few dances were canceled; since then, we'd only had about 20, at best, at monthly dances before the pandemic. Both the students in charge and I learned a lot from that — perhaps we could team up with Colin to teach workshops on how to destroy clubs! (I'm joking, of course — but the lessons I learned could, and I hope will, inform what we do differently after the pandemic.)
Q. Aren't most 'new' people just those who dance at other nearby clubs?
: We don't have any nearby clubs, so the people new to our dance are truly new to the form.
Bernie: Initially, our "new" people were established dancers but we are now seeing "new" dancers who have not danced before.
Q. Colin said something along the lines of "people go to a dance and see a lot of older people plodding along in some complicated figure." Would having regular "beginner" dances help with that at all?
: I wonder if this is the role that some people imagine(d) ceilidh dances would serve? As far as we're concerned, all our monthly dances are beginner dances. I think a community needs that sort of event, absolutely. If all we have are advanced/experienced dances, where do people get the experience to qualify?
Q. Does anyone have proof that social media brings in new dancers? I'm always hearing that it's folks who bring friends that are the ones that try and stay.
Participant: A good website helps, which is upd,pated and maintained. Perhaps you need to get other members to do the tweets, etc.
Bernie: Agreed that a website is useful. I have had some dancers attend because they saw something that we posted on Facebook. However, I think just putting a post on your Facebook page is not going to work. From the social media training I have done, you have to actively use social media, e.g. posting on other Facebook pages/groups, commenting on other posts, liking and sharing relevant material. It is something I'm still working on.
Louise: We survey our dancers across the state, and several have found us through Facebook. We had just launched an Instagram for the student club when the pandemic shut us down — so I don't know if it would have helped, but the students were optimistic. My experience in other non-profit contexts is that if you're going to do social media seriously, you need someone who is engaging several times a week — if not several times a day.
Q. What have you done to encourage new people to take on leadership roles?
: We have a mentoring program for musicians and callers, which ranges in formality but is designed to offer an extra degree of support to those who have expressed an interest in/commitment to dance in some form. We also make regular use of volunteers, and if we notice someone volunteers consistently, we reach out to them about taking on a bigger leadership role. Among the students, there's an added incentive to take on leadership roles because they get recognized for leadership on campus, and it's a resume-building activity.
Q. How do you build community without enthusiastic & regular dancers? This is surely a development of dance clubs. We advertised on the neighbourhood network but only 6 months before Covid19.
: I don't think clubs survive without that enthusiastic core of regular dancers.
Q. What does the panel think of asking EFDSS or other agent to get a celebrity invited to a dance for national publicity? I understand the young princesses last century made square dancing and Scottish fashionable.
: I think that the world has changed since the Victorian era in terms of the scope and diversity of people's entertainment options, as well as the increased fracturing of the public sphere, thanks in part to the internet. My celebrities aren't your celebrities anymore! And dancing isn't an expected accomplishment of every educated person. I'm skeptical that a one-off celebrity appearance would make much of a difference. Rhiannon Giddens came to one of our Oklahoma City dances, and although it set our hearts aflutter, it didn't bring in any new dancers. Maybe we should have tipped off the paparazzi, though!
Bernie: Celebrity endorsements on social media seem to be popular. I read today that the UK Government paid for celebrity influencers to promote test and trace. Could the same be used to raise awareness of English Social Dance? I think we should be open to all possibilities.
Q. It seems like people stay within the dance hobby if they can develop their skills, learn harder dances, and follow their passions. How do you keep your experienced dancers engaged while still keeping the community accessible to newcomers?
: People love to learn, and I agree that a major challenge for the caller at a series open to all is conveying to each dancer what they can learn from the experience. I remember learning how to help other dancers; now, when I'm at a dance full of beginners as a dancer, one of my primary pleasures is dancing with a nervous new dancer and practicing my partnering skills. Even the most simple choreography can be danced better — particularly in English. But as Bernie mentioned, there's also room for "thinky" dances; new dancers often welcome the opportunity for a break, and there is value to showing those new dancers what they might aspire to.
Bernie: When I include a "thinking" dance I encourage all dancers to participate in it, with the exception of a dancer who has just turned up for the first time and this is their first experience of dancing (see my earlier comment about success). I feel quite uncomfortable with the underlying message that says we are better than you; sit and watch how we dance a difficult dance. There is a great sense of achievement from ALL when everyone has worked through a difficult dance and succeeded. To see what I mean, please see one of our videos on YouTube where we danced Gingerbread as our "thinking" dance. The group in the video contains dancers with different levels of experience. The best part of the video for me, is the sense of joy at the end as everyone has successfully completed the dance. Working together is what a dance community is about for me.
Q. There used to be more overlap and cross-pollination between Contra, Square, ECD, SCD, etc. communities than now. How do we counteract the tendency of people to only gravitate to their most favorite style of Country Dance?
: This is one area where I've heard young dancers express a prejudice against older dancers. I called the English track at YDW (Youth Dance Weekend) a few years ago, and several of the dancers came up to me and said that they'd never enjoyed English before — or had never even bothered to try it, because they'd absorbed the prejudice (which I've also heard from older dancers!) that English is what you do when you get too old for contra. To be honest, I don't know where that cross-pollination went: when I started dancing in 2008, contra dances regularly included squares, circles, and even triplets — but now those same series ban everything except longways duple minor contras (with, maybe, a four-facing-four). Although it was inspired by an Asheville transplant, our local group has been all new dancers for years, and so they only know what I teach them, or what they learn from each other — and I don't label dances "English" or "contra" before I teach them, I just say the title/date/choreographer. And yet they still develop favorites!
Q. Seems like starting a new group maybe easier than trying to reform a long time group? Changing bad habits, getting volunteers, etc.
: It depends how willing the group are to change. Can they really look at their club with fresh eyes and reflect on what they can do to attract new dancers?
Q. In the US, the CDSS provides a list of online dances. Are there other websites with online dances in UK and other countries? This would help us connect dancers and callers for mutual benefit.
: I know that AreYouDancing now accepts listings for online events.
Q. I would be interested to hear what Bernie and Louise would define as success.
: I define success as people having fun, and the group growing or sustaining itself (I think we've all seen the dangers of infinite growth mindsets, but I do think a healthy community replenishes itself as people move on or away). Note that, as I said above, I think that part of the definition of "fun" is learning.
Bernie: Agreed. I would also add that for my group, success is also are we improving. I make an effort to point out how well the group are dancing. If an individual is doing well, I make sure that I go and tell them. There are occasions when the group have asked if I can take a video so that they can "see" what a successful dance looks like. Example — "Chocolate is the Answer ". This was the "thinking" dance for the evening and this was the result. youtu.be/OPqrnPu6jNk youtu.be/XPbgSIZGO30
Both of these sets have new dancers (dancers that had not danced before) that had recently joined us. Both of these videos are a definition of success for my group. Breaking even is another measure of success for us.
Q. How did the new community like to gather and how often? Were in person gatherings part of building the group?
: Both our groups started as in-person dances, so I'm going to read this question as about gathering outside of dance times — if only to say, we were at our healthiest when we had after-parties for the dances and when we had organizing meetings that felt like social events. It helps, in other words, if the organizers enjoy each other's company.
Bernie: As a dance group, we don't meet or have gatherings out of dance times. However, I know of groups of dancers, who only met at our dance group who do meet socially on occasion as their friendships have grown through dancing together.
Q.Are any of you doing any Virtual English Country Dance Groups? If so, when do you hold them?
: Kindred Spirits FDC continues in a virtual format on 2nd and 4th Mondays of each month at 7.30pm. Email me at
for more information.
Louise: We have dances bimonthly that are a mixture of English and contra, sponsored by the statewide traditional dance organization, Scissortail. We list them on the CDSS online events page and on our website, scissortail.org.