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ePromenader Editor’s Message

Welcome to the summer, 2016, edition of the Promenader, in which we make up for the relatively thin content of the winter issue.

In this Issue:

Roving Reporter Dick Halstead is back on the beat after a winter break in warmer latitudes. In this issue he covers Dance-O-Rama from all angles: Its dancing, its raffle baskets and its organization & execution, with kudos to its MCs, JimGotta and Sidney Marshall; its 76 graduates listed by club; its Leadership Award ceremony and a profile of its 2016 recipients; and the “Prayer for Beginning Square Dancers” provided by Sally Baechle and read at the opening of ceremonies.

Dick also covers the Copy Cats class graduation, in which 23 new square dancers were recognized — surely the largest graduating class in the state — and Jerry Carmen’s 50th Anniversary as a caller.

Speaking of Anniversaries: Sharon Meyer submitted an article on the Cloverleafs 46th and Carol Ann Stahl submitted one on the Grand Squares 55th. This issue also carries our first international ad of the electronic Promenader era: The Napanee Pioneers celebrate their 50th anniversary with Tim Crawford calling on October 22 in Napanee, Ontario.

Ron Brown explains why there will be no more square dancing at the NY State Fair and Peter Emmel provides a Guide for Graduates that covers summer dancing and beyond.

In the Federation section, RAF President Warren Olson shares his thoughts on DOR 2016, welcomes our new graduates, and invites us all, new and old dancers alike, to the Fall Friendship Ball on September 24.

To the list of useful links on the RAF Home Page, we have added “Callerlab KnowledgeBase.” This will take you to a repository of “information useful to Modern Western Square Dance leaders and callers.” It’s filled with ideas for promotion and development of square dancing, including articles from clubs around the country describing their successes and failures.

In Memoriam: in this issue we remember Leo Gaesser and Luke Whitcomb.

Welcoming new dancers … and keeping them dancing:

What follows is a fresh take on a topic that has occupied the minds of dancers, club leaders and callers for many years. It is based on numerous conversations I’ve had, especially in the past few weeks. It focuses on retaining more of our graduates through two relatively simple ideas and leads to steps that clubs and callers can take right now to increase the number of 2016 graduates who stay with square dancing instead of dropping out in their first post-graduate year. Our clubs have already done the hard part by attracting and teaching 76 new graduates in 2016. Now its up to us to make sure they continue to have fun dancing.

The square dancing community nationwide has been wringing its collective hands over a steady decades-long decline in the number of dancers attending events at all dance levels and in all regions of the country. Various reasons have been put forward for this, and initiatives have been launched to counteract it, but still it continues.

Here in the Rochester area, a recent emphasis on recruitment has resulted in two successive years of significant increases in the number of Mainstream graduates. Retention figures are harder to assemble, but there is clearly room for improvement. The remedy doesn’t sound very hard, in fact it sounds like fun. That’s the subject of this rather long but, I think, worthwhile summer 2016 message.

Remembering the old adage about getting the same results if you keep doing the things the same way, there are several discussions going on among dancers and callers — nationally and in our own area — about doing things differently. One initiative centers around recruitment and retention of new dancers, while the other centers around re-vamping the mechanics of teaching and classes — the class cycle time, the number of calls taught in each cycle, and the structure of a typical class session.

To succeed in either of these areas depends on callers, club leaders, and dancers getting onto the same page and coordinating their efforts. Those who have been dancing for a few years are understandably skeptical that this latest go-round of innovation will work out any better than previous go-rounds that resulted in either a lot of talk with little action or a brief pickup followed by a return to the long-term downward trend. They’ve seen this before, but is that really the way it has to be?

Changes are already making a difference

We in the Rochester / Finger Lakes area are doing some things right and I think we may be seeing the beginnings of a genuine turn-around. This year, area clubs graduated 76 new Mainstream dancers. That’s up from about 50 in 2015. Continued recruitment success at that rate produces a graduate pool amounting to 10% to 15% of the current area-wide club membership. If each of those graduates is still dancing five years from now (i.e. if the retention rate were 100%), then square dancing in our area would be growing at a very healthy pace.

However, retention has not been so successful. I don’t know the exact numbers, but I believe that roughly 80% of graduates (4 out of 5) either don’t return in the fall or drop out during the following year. That’s a big number! And it’s one that I don’t think we need much of a committee to figure out what to do about.

Why do 4 out of 5 graduates not continue and become long-term dancers?

What can explain an 80% dropout rate by the end of the following year? Is it the heavy load of learning Plus calls over the summer that’s so discouraging? Is it the frustration that graduates feel when they emerge from Plus classes lacking confidence in their dancing? Is it that most of the encouragement they’ve been receiving from established dancers evaporates after classes are over, when established dancers revert to their established friends or focus on a new crop of Mainstream class members, leaving Plus graduates to make their own uncertain way? And what about those who opt not to even try Plus classes? What options do graduates have for continued dancing after graduation? (For more on this, see my article elsewhere in this Promenader issue.)

I think that we, established dancers, need to remember how the dancing world looks to a new dancer. There are two kinds of barriers to overcome: the technical barrier posed by the mechanics of dancing and the social barrier of entering an already established social group. Different people navigate those barriers in different ways and, if we want more to to get over them, then we, established dancers, need to work on lowering the barriers.

Lowering the social barriers — a responsibility of individual established dancers

If you are an established dancer, just think about why it is that you continue to dance. Most likely, it’s two reasons: (a) because it’s fun and (b) because you have built rewarding social connections with other dancers in your club and at other clubs. How much fun would dancing be if you didn’t have those connections to look forward to at every dance? Not much, I think.

So, retention might be more about social connections than about the dancing. We should all cultivate welcoming and inclusive attitude. We should get to know the folks in our classes and continually encourage them to keep dancing despite confusion and breakdowns.

The most important contribution an established dancer can make toward keeping new dancers coming back is constant encouragement. The most destructive thing an established dancer can do is criticize or avoid new dancers. Remember that it only takes a small amount of rejection to undo a ton of encouragement. Instead of avoiding new dancers, invite them into your square. Encourage them. Help them. Make them feel good about coming out to dance.

Many clubs understand and emphasize the social aspect of square dancing and have taken steps to bond with their class members. Every club that I know of has arranged special events that let their graduates know how much they care about them and that serve to nurture their interest in staying. Also, and maybe more importantly, established dancers in every club that I know of become personally involved with their class by serving as angels, helping them learn the calls and getting to know class members socially in the process.

If you are an established dancer, please do whatever you can to encourage class members, graduates and returning new dancers. If you are frustrated by the gaps in their dancing proficiency, keep your frustrations to yourself and help find ways to turn your frustrations into positive steps to encourage and promote improvement. Remember that for you a breakdown is an inconvenience, but for a new dancer it is a personal embarrassment that contributes to whatever feelings they have of not belonging in our square. It’s up to you to counteract that with words of encouragement and, perhaps by strengthening your own dancing, to where you can help prevent some of the breakdowns.

Lowering the technical barriers — a responsibility of clubs and callers

Most graduates have only been dancing for a year. They were doing other things with their time before they came to Mainstream class, and it doesn’t take much frustration to make it an easy decision for them to drop dancing as “too hard” or “no fun” and go back to doing what they were doing before or move on to try something else.

Many callers and club leaders are convinced that the way to cut down the frustration barrier is to simplify the dancing. In some areas of the country Mainstream is the dominant level. But in our area every simplification attempt that I’ve heard of (such as forming Mainstream clubs) has ended up either folding or evolving to the Plus level. The explanation I’ve heard is that once they get comfortable with Mainstream dancing, people inevitably seek the added challenge of advancing to the Plus level or beyond. Another possible explanation is that callers get bored and pull dancers forward by introducing “more interesting” calls, but I’ll leave that debate for others.

(As an aside, callers and most established dancers know that the degree of difficulty is not always in the calls. It’s also in the sequencing and in the left-right dancer positions — half sashayed or not. A “non-standard” Mainstream tip is much more likely than a “standard” Plus tip to break down an entire floor or experienced dancers.)

Addressing the dance level, and the mechanics of managing it to get the best outcome, is a responsibility of club leaders and callers. Dancers should be able to tell what to expect at any particular dance from looking up a club’s schedule listing and its flyers. Think of a new dancer deciding whether to come to your next dance. Will it be fun for them, or will they be standing around in broken squares or sitting on the sidelines being ignored?

Re-defining success — managing the pace of learning

My view is that we should let new dancers advance at whatever pace they choose. We should not make them feel like failures if they don’t complete the Plus program in their first year. We should help keep these new dancers dancing by providing consistent opportunities for Mainstream practice without stigmatizing it. There are many ways to do this, but the approach I like best is for area clubs to establish a policy of alternating Mainstream and Plus tips. Depending on the mix of dancers at a given event, the balance can be tilted slightly toward one or the other, but there should be several tips at each level.

From recent discussions with several area club leaders and callers, I can report that there is a move in progress for at least some clubs to explicitly adopt an alternating-tip policy and also to be more precise in stating on flyers and listings what level of dancing their events offer to dancers. Some even plan to post a flippable sign at the caller’s table, telling dancers what level the next tip will be.

For this to work toward improved retention of graduates, clubs will need to be consistent about it and ask their guest callers as well as their regular callers to abide by the spirit behind it. The essential idea is to provide “safe” practice opportunities for new dancers so that they can take part and “belong” in the ongoing club dance program, even though they may not be currently pushing to learn Plus.

The following may or may not be true, but as I understand the history, the terms Mainstream and Plus were originally adopted so that dancers would know what to expect from simply looking at a dance notice or flyer. Clubs and callers need to make sure that flyers continue to do that important job, by specifying the appropriate term on the following scale: “Mainstream” or “Mainstream with Announced Plus Tips” or “Alternating Mainstream and Plus” or “Plus with Announced Mainstream Tips” or “Plus Dancing.”

I personally think that if there are ANY Mainstream dancers at your event, the bias should be in favor of Mainstream tips and FUN. Plus dancers who complain should be reminded that your club can’t survive on its existing Plus dancers alone. An 80% dropout rate after graduation means that for each couple who stays with your club, you have to recruit and teach five other couples who will disappear within a year. The value of retaining graduates is obvious.

By focusing on encouragement from established dancers and adding reliable Mainstream tips at regular dances, we should be able to turn some of the post-graduate dropouts into dancers by giving them an extra year or two to practice. That’s a win for all.

Your Feedback?

If you've read this far, then you probably have an opinion on these matters and I'm sure it's worth hearing. Please drop me a note via promenader@rochester.rr.com or my personal email pemmel@frontiernet.net.

Peter Emmel