The Heart of Community Dancing

Reprinted from “Dancing for Busy People


Calvin Campbell, Ken Kernen & Bob Howell

The Heart of Community Dancing

The success of any dance program designed for busy people lies in the ability to keep people interested and still stay within a skill plane that encompasses a broad number of people. Limiting the number of terms people need to learn is one way to keep the skill plane broad and open. The use of a broad range of music and dance formations provides additional ways to keep people interested without exceeding the skill level of the average dancer.

Dancing and Formations

The topic sounds very dull and formal, but it is the key to the success of a social dance program. Most people are accustomed to operating as part of teams in many other environments. One of the most satisfying aspects of human interaction occurs when people recognize that contributing to the success of a team can be very emotionally rewarding. Dancing as part of a group can provide the same rewards.

Line Dancing (solo) is one of the most popular forms of social dance of the nineties. The dances are usually done in groups, with all the people facing the same way, and most people tend to join lines. Even though you may see some variations in styling and even some added steps, the measurement of success, in this environment, is whether you can dance the steps as written and essentially keep up with your line. When dancers succeed, there is an emotional high that follows.

Square Dancing involves coordination with seven other people, but does not require much footwork. Instead, the emotional reward comes in being in the right place at the right time while moving in a geometric pattern involving the cooperation of all eight dancers in the square. Sometimes, all eight people are moving at the same time. There is also much satisfaction realized from the ability to be able to understand what the caller is requesting and to do it with precision and grace.

Contra dances and most other prompted dance forms such as trios, quadrilles, etc. add still another dimension. In these dance forms, people are expected to dance in time to the music. When it is done properly, everyone moves through the dance pattern at the same pace and sometimes the whole floor of dancers is moving together.

The key to all of these dance forms is the positive reward of dancing in formation and being part of a team, working in cooperation with other dancers to produce something that is more beautiful and satisfying than dancing alone. When the dance is finished you feel closer to your companions and you get a large emotional lift.

Since much of the enjoyment of the dance is moving through the floor pattern formed by the choreography of the dance, very few terms are needed by a leader to describe any one dance. Every time people are placed in a different formation or arrangement of ladies and men, the pattern is new and unfolds in a different way.

Using Music as a Tool for Enjoyment

Music creates and/or changes moods. It is another critical factor in providing plenty of variety without exceeding the skill level of the average dancer at a function. Many people experience problems in attempting to move gracefully to music. Any time footwork is involved the success rate falls off dramatically. For that reason alone, the dances recommended for this program require little more than the ability to walk in time to the music. Even people who can’t walk in time to the music may get much enjoyment moving in a pattern to music.

Once the dance pattern is learned, the dancer can enjoy dancing to the music and stop worrying about how they appear. They feel more secure, as part of a group, and perhaps less vulnerable. This means the music must be good. Different styles of music appeal to different groups of people. The goal in a program which employes many different dance forms is to also provide variety in music styles, rhythms and arrangements. Not everyone will like everything, but everyone will have their favorites.

Most of the dances in “Dancing for Busy People” list a specific recommended recording. Many have several recommendations listed. Which recording is used will depend on the makeup of the group and the environment. For example, a leader may choose to use very different music for the same dance in different environments. Elements such as room temperature, floor covering, age, mobility, altitude, and where the dance occurs in the program, become part of the considerations.

As a leader, you should recognize that dancers quickly associate some dances with a specific recording. When the music is played, the dancers expect a specific dance to follow. Sometimes you can successfully substitute another recording or another dance routine and sometimes the dance and the music are so closely associated that you should not try to change anything.

Friendships are Critical

Most people have limitations on how much they can or wish to learn about dancing. When they have either satisfied their interest in learning or have reached their limitations in dancing ability, then other factors take over and some people will quit dancing. Many of these people can be retained in a recreation by the careful cultivation of other reasons to stay with the group.

A very strong factor in retaining dancers over an extended period of time depends on the friendships that are made within the group of dancers and the support these friends give each other. People will continue to attend dances if they feel they have the support of friends. They will often come to dances even when they cannot dance, for some reason, if they have the opportunity to see and visit with friends.

The promotion of friendships among dancers should be an active part of every set of lessons and every dance a leader conducts. This can be enhanced by the dance material chosen, but it must be continued through every aspect of an evening or long term planning of a recreation program.

The dance material chosen for the evening is the obvious point to start. The leader(s) must know the capabilities of each of the dancers in depth. Then they must plan a careful blend of dances that includes fun, learning, surprise, nostalgia, excitement, tenderness, sadness, challenge and relaxation. The dance leader is like a conductor of an orchestra. To get the best out of the orchestra he or she must know the capabilities of each instrument. Then they must draw on the strengths of all the instruments and get everyone to work together as a team.

The dancers play a strong role in the success of any dance function. They must be willing to try new things. They must take an active role in seeing that everyone feels successful. Most of all they must be friends with each other and support one another. Much can be achieved by smiling and enjoying whatever happens. Part of it must be strong support of the dance leadership and the people who handle other details of running the dance.

If dancers are to become friends, then they must be given the opportunity to cultivate these friendships. Teaching dance styling where people are encouraged to smile at each other, make eye contact at various points during each dance and be aware they are dancing as part of a coordinated team effort will help. Dancers will feel a lot less need to do-their-own-thing when they feel they are part of a team and dancing as part of that team is part of the fun.

Time must also be provided to build friendships through other social interaction. During the rest breaks between dance tips, areas should be provided where people can visit. Refreshments should be placed in an area away from the dance floor. Leaders should expect that dancers will want to take time out from dancing to just visit. The more enthusiastic dancers need to realize that dancing may be the bricks that build a club, but friendships are the mortar that keep it together.

Events should be provided outside of the dance program to cement friendships. This can often take the form of going out after the dance to someplace for refreshments. Pick a place where people can sit around large tables. Plan the ending time of the dance to allow this type of activity to take place without keeping people up too late.

Another way to promote friendships is to take off an evening from the usual dance schedule and do something different as a group. Dance leaders should play a prominent role in this. It will give them the opportunity to get to know people on a one-to-one basis and for people to feel they are friends. Finally, don’t get too serious about the dancing. That’s not what it is really all about.

We live in a world of competition most of the time. Dancing needs to be one of the places where we can escape and relax with friends and friends are what is most important.

Parties, Themes and Dancing

Parties and themes form an important part of providing reasons for people to attend the dance rather than sit at home and watch the television. Community style dancing, with the very large variety of music and dance formations available, is an excellent medium for building themes for parties. For example, many of the dance routines can be adapted to Christmas music. Numerous Israeli dances can be used during the celebration of Hanukkah. Almost any holiday can provide a theme for a party.

People often enjoy dressing up for a special occasion whether it is Hobo night wearing the “grungees” or an elegant “cotillion” where the ladies all wear long dresses and the men wear coats for at least the first dance. It is part of our need to occasionally be actors or actresses and to play a role that is not part of our everyday and often humdrum life.

If you hold a formal dance, you might even consider printing a formal program for the evening and provide each lady with a pencil and small version of the program neatly folded into a small booklet that can be carried on her wrist. Early in the evening, the men are expected to arrange and sign up for dances with different ladies. Of course, the men need to make certain their partners and the single ladies get to dance as much as they desire.

Refreshments and decorations can do much to enhance the setting. On special nights the refreshments need to fit the theme. There are usually several people in every group that love to bring special snacks. Find them and work with them. On the special theme nights the light refreshments should probably be available during the dance. This means the dance program will need to have additional time built in where people have the time to enjoy the goodies.

Lighting is particularly important. If you can control the lighting in your hall, dim the lights during certain dances. Try placing candles on small tables. It encourages people to sit down in small groups and talk. Put table cloths and a center piece on each table.

On some evenings, consider having a special ceremony or a presentation. Something short, no more than five minutes in length. A simple circle and lighting of candles can do wonders to make people feel good and closer to each other.

Many people enjoy ballroom dancing. Keep some old favorites and some country-western music available. Play it during rest times. You may be surprised how many people get up and dance.

By now I hope you are realizing that a community dance is not only the dancing, but also the setting, the costumes, the refreshments, and most importantly the friends. It is a time to forget the outside world and just spend time enjoying life.

Once you have a successful theme or activity you will probably want to continue it as a tradition. Refine the theme every year, but be sure you keep what is best from year to year. People look forward to these and will tell their friends about them. It will keep them coming back.

Reaching the Customer

One of the most successful ways to start a dance group is to find existing organizations (churches, service groups, lodges, recreation departments, etc.) who are willing to sponsor a recreational dance group.

Many companies are becoming concerned about the welfare of their employees and their families and will provide space and even financial support for social dance groups. Many of these same companies will permit people outside of their work force to join the dance group.

Educational institutions often permit social groups to use their facilities. If these functions can be tied to student body events the cost of renting the facilities can be reduced. Dancing used to be a part of the curriculum of most schools. Budget cuts have reduced this activity considerably. Fortunately, volunteers are still welcome. Dances that require partners become valuable about the time when boys begin to find girls are interesting (about the 4th grade). Before that you are better to use dances that do not require opposite genders to dance with each other as partners.

Community style dancing can be very popular at the middle school, high school and college levels. It provides an easy way for boys and girls to interact socially without the pressure to date or commit to a relationship. You will notice that many of the dances do not require male/female partners.

Senior citizen communities or groups are excellent sources for dancers. These people often have more flexibility in their schedules and may prefer to learn during daytime hours with parties in the early evenings.

Learning How to Dance

It is important to give people a variety of options on how to gain enough dance experience to enjoy being part of an organized group. The goal is to have everyone learn a small common group of dance terms that can be used in a large variety of dances. There are many ways people can acquire the necessary dancing skills.

Learn one night at a time Many dance leaders operate programs where people can start any time they wish to join. The learning sessions are planned so the dances taught during any one session can be learned by people attending for the first time. On the other hand, people attending consecutive sessions will find they will learn new dances and movements each session. Over several sessions everyone will acquire the same overall set of dance skills. Under this system, people can attend on an infrequent basis and only need to remember which sessions they need to attend to catch up.

Progressive lessons People are expected to enroll at the start of the series and attend all the sessions in the series. This enables the group to progress as a unit and the leader does not have to review each movement each night.

Once a week Evening lessons held once a week for 5 to 6 weeks will work for many people. You may also consider holding lessons in the morning, early afternoon, or during weekends. Many people are primarily daytime learners.

Six consecutive days Many people who will not or cannot sign up for several weeks of lessons will set aside a week to learn how to dance. There is an additional advantage in this schedule. Retention of dances learned the previous day is much higher than dances learned the previous week or further in the past.

Learn while on vacation Teaching dancing in a vacation atmosphere has the advantage of giving people the chance to enjoy each other’s company while doing other recreational activities.

Community education programs Universities, community colleges and recreation departments are usually receptive to new class offerings. Short courses of 4-6 weeks fit very nicely into the typical school or recreation department schedule.

Learning How to Teach

The book “Dancing for Busy People” contains many pages describing teaching techniques in general and instructions for teaching specific dances. It is very important to recognize that dance leaders do not have to master everything described before embarking on becoming a dance leader. Many organized dance groups have multiple dance leaders. Some specialize in one dance type, some in another.

Many records and tapes have tracks where the dance instructions are performed by professionals. In this case, the dances are taught by the dance leader and then the dance could be called, prompted or cued from the recording. This not only helps the dancers, but also helps the dance leaders to learn by example.

The definitions page includes teaching hints and techniques. It is very important to be able to describe any movement using several different choices of words. Strive to be concise in your description and remember that a demonstration is essential for some people. Almost all of the dances used in this program should be able to be learned with no more than 3-5 minutes of instruction.

Watch and listen to people who are effective teachers. What do they say and what do they do? Many video tapes are available which include teaching the dances. Study and emulate the examples where people appear to learn effectively.

Finally, tape record yourself and try to critically follow your own instructions from the viewpoint of someone who does not know how to do the dance. Did you give enough directions? Too much direction?



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