There have been some successes in changing how we teach Mainstream, for example, multi-cycle classes. Many of these successes have been documented as Winning Ways and are available on our web site. I hope each of you has taken the time to read and get inspired by these stories.
Our recent attempts to reduce the teaching time of Mainstream have met with resistance. Even if we knock 1/3 off the current teach time of Mainstream we have no evidence that we will succeed in recruiting or retaining any new dancers. To most people the idea of 20 weeks of lessons sounds just as daunting as 30 weeks of lessons. Also, every time we make even the smallest of changes to Mainstream, we upset our existing dancer base, which consists of the very dancers who support us week after week.
At Callerlab 2004 the Program Policy Committee (PPC) met and brainstormed this situation. I am not about to tell you that we came up with a solution and if you all just follow it, we will all have larger classes, more dancers, and fewer broken squares. However, we did come up with some thinking that I believe can have a positive impact on the future of square dancing. It mostly depends on what you do. I would like to share this thinking with you. It goes under the name of the PPC Initiative and was presented to and approved by our Board of Governors.
First, we acknowledge that our existing dancers have been resistant to change. The minor changes we have tried haven't worked and won't help recruit and retain new dancers. None of what I am about to say proposes any changes to our existing dance programs, or club structures, etc. They are in the capable hands of our program chairman and will continue on, mostly unchanged, serving our existing dancers.
Our thinking, and the main reason I am talking to you today, is that we want everyone to feel free to experiment in how they offer square dancing to those new to our activity. This may not sound like much. After all, we have always had callers who experiment or just plain do things their own way. Others carefully follow the rules and need to be told that it is OK to experiment.
I am a concrete thinker and like concrete examples instead of just an exhortation to "go out and experiment -- it's OK now." Well, the initiative doesn't come with a lot of examples. However, with a little thinking, especially based on my calling and dancing background, here are some ideas for you. Remember, none of this has anything to do with our existing dancers -- keep them out of it. Perhaps at the end of this talk we can rethink this and see if and where it might be appropriate to include them.
We know that rules and definitions are important. However, a new dancer is not interested in rules and definitions (unless he is an engineer). Instead he is interested in having fun, trying something new, and meeting people. He is relying on the caller to provide him with this experience. I bet most of us here can provide this kind of experience at a One Night Stand. So why not continue the enthusiasm in a dance series format?
Tony Oxendine has been successfully experimenting with a new group of dancers in his area. The goal of this year-round series is to have fun and be entertained each week. They are not doing this by learning Mainstream, but by having Tony teach them enough to dance and have fun. Tony says, "I teach about 40 calls in 10 - 12 weeks. I can tell you -- It ain't easy getting people to come out for lessons (no matter how short the teaching time). I do know this, however, most of the ones that started lessons are still dancing."
Think about the snowbirds-those folks who travel to Yuma, AZ, Florida, and Texas to escape the cold each winter. They want a fun activity and they are willing to learn. Callers in the snowbird areas have a very short season to teach square dancing. It is impractical to teach full Mainstream so they teach some subset. Some of those callers have been doing this for so long they could create a list and a teaching order of what these people will know when they return home. If the snowbird callers all want to get together and bang out such a list and teaching order, why not? And then, why not have some dancing available for them when they return home?
Another radical idea is an open dance format similar to what I experience at traditional squares and contras. This would be something more than a One Time Party Dance but not too much more. At these types of dances I find the following: most all the figures are taught, new dancers are expected and welcomed each week (though 95% of the attendees have danced before), everyone changes partners each tip, and the dance series is not run with a club structure. Why can't we do something similar with our MWSD form of dancing? My understanding is that Dragonwood Public Square Dances in Westchester County, New York and Open Country Hannover in Germany have implemented this format.
Jim Mayo has pointed out that ours is a great activity, able to be enjoyed in many different ways. For some reason, with all our rules, regulations, and standardization we offer it in exactly one way -- learn Mainstream in 27 weeks and you are a square dancer -- one size fits all. He and I both encourage you to continue serving your existing dancers but figure out a new way to offer square dancing to a new group of people. Get fired up about it. Support and encourage your calling buddies who are doing the same. Be a cheerleader. Break some rules. Put a smile on the faces of some strangers because they did some square dancing.
The point is that we want everyone to know that it is OK to experiment. Not only OK, but we want you to be a cheerleader when you hear of others experimenting. The PPC and the BOG are not just saying that it is now fine to experiment, but that in our opinion, such experimentation in how we offer square dancing to the non-dancing public is vital to our continued success.
Now we have to do some awfulizing. Do you know what awfulizing is? It is when you are afraid of something and to avoid it you think of all the reasons that you shouldn't do it. Sometimes when you face up to "what is the worst that can happen" you see that it isn't so bad. What is the worst that can happen if we all leave this convention and actually experiment and implement and get some people dancing? I don't know. Perhaps we end up with 300 geographically dispersed groups of between 1 and 4 squares of dancers all of whom know something, none of whom know the same thing, and none of whom can attend any Mainstream dance or convention. Heck, they don't even wear the right clothes!
Would this be so bad? Which would you prefer, 2000 to 6000 new people square dancing a year from now, or our status quo? Heck, I would take the new dancers any day. It doesn't matter if they don't all know the same calls, if they can't travel to dance, etc. All we want for a start is to have you, yes you personally, not the "you" sitting beside you or the "you" who is really "let someone else do it". We want you to get at least a square of new people dancing any way you can, especially if it is not teaching Mainstream in the usual way. As soon as they are hooked, let them get some friends in. Build your group. Don't let it get too far from the basics.
If any of these ideas are successful, we want to hear about it. If we are all successful and cause all the problems that some feel are sure to follow, we can deal with them. Perhaps we will form a committee. First, we have to get far enough to even have the problems.
Finally, I want to address some comments I have received over the last year. More than one caller has told me that the most important thing Callerlab could do would be to enforce the styling code and get dancers to stop doing the "arm around the waist" Dosado. Others say we should enforce the definition of Circle To A Line. Can't we please eliminate the slide and slap variation.
I acknowledge that styling and proper call execution are important, but what we are talking about today is the big picture problem of how to attract and retain new dancers. A big part of that is providing them with a fun dance experience.
Instead of getting upset with our existing dancers and our existing rules and regulations, I invite you to start with some new dancers, teach them your way, and don't take them all the way to Mainstream. Do one of the experimental ideas mentioned above and keep them having fun. As a caller you have the skills. You can do it. Trust me, it will be more fun for you teaching and calling for 1-4 squares of new folks than teaching 1-4 dancers 27 weeks of Mainstream.