Recruit young people!
Here is a collection of suggestions for organizers about how to attract more young people to a traditional music, dance, or song event or series. The list is long, covering several categories of ideas. Don't be overwhelmed. No one organizer or organization can do everything, and not everything is appropriate for each community. Pick the ideas from this list that seem most doable, and most useful in your setting. Sometimes a few small actions can have a big impact on the community. Good luck!
The suggestions here are organized into several categories:
- Programming: Tailor the events you organize to attract youth.
- Social and Community Dynamics: Make your community appealing to young people.
- Accessibility: Ensure young people can get to your events.
- Publicity: Publicize where young people will notice.
- Collaboration: Work with other groups and organizations.
- Affordability: Make your events affordable to young people.
- Note for Weekends/Camps/Festivals
For the purposes of this discussion "young people" generally means people under the age of 30. That's a large group encompassing various sub-categories, such as children, teens, high school students, college students, young adults not in school, and even young parents with small children. Different strategies may work or not work for each of these groups. In the long term, CDSS envisions a traditional music/dance/song community where people of all ages have the opportunity and motivation to participate, and the chance to interact with people from other generations as they do so. As you put these ideas into practice, think about your community's situation: who currently participates, who is missing, and how you can target those specific groups?
We are eager to hear about your ideas! Tell us about the success your group has had in building an intergenerational dance community. Let us know if there's something missing from this list, or if you've tried something where you live and found it effective or ineffective. You can leave comments at the end of this page, or email the Youth Intern with your suggestions.
- Develop an explicit vision for your event or series that includes youth recruitment and generational integration as major goals. Openness and accessibility to beginners, as well as clear and concise teaching may also be relevant goals. Elaborate the vision with other organizers and decide how you want to articulate your vision to the community. It is especially important to communicate your ideas to callers and musicians, but it is also important that organizers, attendees, and the general public know about your intentions. Personally model the behavior that you think will make the vision a reality, and encourage others to do so. If your whole community has a sense of shared goals, and an understanding of specific actions that can help to accomplish those goals, good things will happen.
- Have a compelling experience waiting for them, with good quality, charismatic, exciting performers and teachers. Performers (callers, musicians, etc.) are the public face of your event, even if they are visiting from far away. New people and young people will respond to their energy and excitement (or lack thereof), and associate that with the whole event. Even the person making announcements should be engaging and concise.
- Hire young performers. Young people on stage helps young participants feel like the scene is "for them." Young people come to see their friends perform, and young performers bug their friends to come to their gigs. Performers are likely to be interested in getting involved as organizers, especially if it helps them to get more gigs. You don't have to sacrifice quality - in many areas there are skilled young performers ready to do an excellent job playing or calling for your event. If you can't find any where you live, make it a goal of your group to develop leadership talent in the younger generation.
- Make family programs a part of your community or organization's mission. Children who grow up in the traditional music and dance scene are more likely to become lifelong participants (even if they take few years off to act uninterested in their teens). These people also often become leaders - musicians, callers, organizers, or just the kind of people who work tirelessly to get their friends involved. Think about offering family programs that also include ways for young people to step up their level of participation as they get older, by learning harder / more energetic / more intricate material, by joining a teen band that plays for the dances, by learning how to call, by joining a teen or young adult Rapper or Morris team, etc. This gives younger kids something to look forward to and be excited about doing someday, and provides added challenge at an age when teens are likely to get a little bored with family dance repertoire.
- Organize a youth demonstration/performance team (such as the Berea Festival dancers) where young people can hone their dance skills in a supportive team environment. Performances or demonstrations by young dancers in schools, at festivals, or in neighboring communities will help get other young people interested in your activities.
- Get young people involved as organizers, programmers, promoters, etc. Create a "youth outreach" position on your board or committee. Find someone young who is dedicated to the community and ask their opinion.
- Deal with inappropriate behavior in your community. The number one reason for young people (especially young women) not returning to a dance event is an uncomfortable experience with someone in the community. Sometimes excessive enthusiasm about inviting newcomers to join in can be interpreted as creepy; sometimes truly inappropriate harassment is taking place. If certain individuals are consistently responsible for this sort of thing, you need to deal with it as a community. Consider drafting a community policy on harassment. Speak firmly and directly to the people responsible. If things don't get better, it is ok to ask someone not to participate.
- Figure out ways to bridge cultural gaps and help newcomers understand the context they are entering. Some of the behavioral norms in the dance world (especially contra dance) are vastly different than the social dynamics that are familiar to many young people. People twice your age asking you to dance? Sustained eye contact with strangers? Flirting with people you've never met? Appoint some young people (of both genders) who are already part of your community to act as ambassadors. Have them introduce themselves to new young folks who attend and ask them to dance. Get them to explain how things work in this community - people will ask you to dance and look you in the eye and it doesn't mean they are hitting on you. These ambassadors can also follow up at the end of the dance, offering to get in touch with the newcomers and invite them to the next dance.
- Curb your enthusiasm. Encourage older members of your community who are eager to help out beginners (and especially attractive young beginners) to chill. It's great to ask new people to dance, but an extra-curricular beginners session during the walkthrough is probably not helpful. Save the sleaze dancing and six twirls per ladies chain for the people who already know you.
- Organize social gatherings. Getting together outside of the dance or music activities can allow young people or newcomers to connect more quickly to other people in the community and get used to the intergenerational social thing. Maybe that person you thought was creepy is actually just a little awkward, and getting to know each other better helps smooth interaction on the dance floor. Feeling that you are part of a social community - rather than a disconnected group of people with the same hobby - encourages regular attendance.
- Hold your event in a location that is easily accessible to young people in your community. If you live in a college town, try for on-campus or near campus. If you live in an urban area, locate near public transit and/or near the neighborhoods where young hipsters tend to reside. One dance group moved their regular contra from the Senior Center to the local campus, and they have experienced a great increase in youth participation.
- Offer rides or ride sharing tools to facilitate carpooling. Many young people (especially in urban areas) don't own cars or are worried about spending money on gas. If you can't locate events near them or near public transit, help to organize rides. Email lists or Facebook events are good ways for people to ask for or offer carpooling. Online ridesharing tools allow people to post when and where they are traveling and find matches. Some rideshare sites allow you to create a group for your community, so people can post rides offered or needed just to the group. Search online for rideshare sites focused on your area, or set up a group on Facebook, or an email list for carpooling.
- Think about your registration deadlines in light of academic calendars and timeframes on which young people operate. Young people often don't know where they're going to be living or going to school, what sort of employment situation they'll have, how much money they'll have, whether they'll be able to get a ride, what their class or exam schedule will be, or any number of other factors about their lives a month ahead, much less six or nine months. (And others of us are just procrastinators.) If you require registration for your events well ahead of time, that might exclude many young people who just can't plan ahead due to the circumstances of their lives. Consider holding some spots for last minute registrants, allowing registration up to the last minute, or having a lenient cancellation policy for people whose plans change.
- Use Facebook. Facebook is a great way to get out the word about what's happening. It allows people to spread the word to their friends and peers; to see who among their network of friends is attending an event; to write notes and comments that talk up a band, a caller, or a specific event; to post photos, videos, articles, links, etc. that help people get a sense of what they might encounter at your event. Facebook allows you to communicate directly to a targeted constituency. It is like electronic word of mouth. Create a Facebook group for your event/series, create individual Facebook events for each of your scheduled events, use your status to tell people what you are excited about or looking forward to. If you aren't on Facebook or you don't know how to use it, appoint someone from your community to be in charge of Facebook publicity.
- Use personal contact. The number one way to recruit young people is through personal contact with other young people. Like, "Hey, you have to come to this dance. It's the best band and you'll have an awesome time, I promise." Young people often travel in clumps, and clumps often form around social leaders. Seek out those people - the people who have charisma and organizational skills and influence over their peers, and empower them. Get them involved on an organizational level. Encourage them to become callers or musicians. Ask them to teach the beginners workshop. Make them youth publicity coordinator. Ask their opinion. Let them know their presence is important to you, and seek out their input.
- Use email lists. Getting an email the week before the dance is a good way to remember that it's coming up. Better yet, get the young people who are acting as ambassadors to send encouraging emails to their friends or to newcomers who might like to come again.
Make eye-catching posters with graphics and minimal text. Advertise whimsically rather than informatively. Don't write an essay describing your dance or music form on your poster. Just emphasize that it's fun, social, and easy, with awesome live music. Put up posters in places where young people are likely to see them. But, keep in mind that posters are not a substitute for personal contact.
Seek collaboration with other organizations that have captive audiences of youth - schools, colleges, summer camps, rec depts, Boys and Girls Clubs, fairs, festivals, etc. Put on events for them, or during their festivities. Invite them to your events. Publicize through their announcements.
Communicate with other organizers of dance/music/song events, and find out about their experiences. If there is a community near you that is overflowing with young participants, ask them how they did it. Consider starting a statewide or regional effort to recruit more young people to your events and groups.
Seek out homeschoolers. In many areas there are strong communities of homeschoolers who are becoming very interested in traditional music and dance. Your events can be a great social occasion for homeschool families, as well as providing interesting curricular opportunities to study music, dance, and history, and maybe make a homeschool project out of getting involved in organizing events.
- Have a student/youth/low income price. Many young people are poor. Students usually feel like they don't have any money. People in their twenties actually don't have any money, because it all goes to paying off their mammoth student loans. The types of young professionals who get into traditional music and dance are probably artists and farmers and teachers who still have no money. Having some sort of sliding scale or policy that recognizes limited means can be very helpful in making your events affordable. A difference of a few dollars can have a big psychological impact for a college student or young adult.
- Offer free admission for volunteers. For those in your audience who are truly short on money the opportunity to volunteer in exchange for free admission can make regular attendance possible. There are lots of ways to help out - setting up or cleaning up the hall, schlepping sound gear, sitting at the door, doing publicity, maintaining a website, etc.
- If you organize a weekend, festival, or camp, offer scholarships for young people or people with limited means. Make sure that the availability of scholarships is clearly publicized in the same place where the price of your event is listed. Some young people will be daunted by a large price tag, and not bother to read the fine print.
- Offer food. Who among us does not love free food? Food gets people chatting as they mingle around the table, and helps people to get to know each other.
If you organize a dance weekend, Camp, or festival, ask yourself if there are young people participating regularly in local weekly/monthly events. If not, focus your energy there. Weekends or festivals are a big commitment of time and money, and young people shouldn't be expected to make that commitment unless they are already "hooked" on your activity and actively connected to your community. If yes, do everything you can to make your event affordable and accessible to young people. Try to get groups of young people to attend together so they don't feel isolated or overwhelmed. Get young people on your Board or Committee, and hire young performers (do everything else on this list.)