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Newsletter Highlight: Dance Revitalization in Palo Alto

Deadline: The deadline for our next issue (April-June) is February 1st, next Tuesday. We’d love your submissions.

We’ve also posted a few articles from the current newsletter online and I wanted to highlight one today. Joyce Fortune wrote a wonderful piece entitled Revitalization: How Do You Make a Dance Come Back to Life (pdf) which looks at some of re-energizing strategies used by the Palo Alto dance to increase their attendance. I recommend reading the whole article, but here are some of the points that caught my eye.

The Food. Instead of selling snacks, the Palo Alto community added a regular potluck table at the break, something that can be surprisingly effective at strengthening a community. It’s great to have something outside the dancing itself, food especially, that facilitates conversation. A predictable potluck also creates an opportunity for people to contribute something and strengthen their community ties.

The Welcome. The Palo Alto dance “mix[ed] up the faces at the front desk… asking for multiple people to sit out only one dance.” It sounds like this did a lot for relieving organizer burnout. Like with food, more door-sitting shifts created “an easy volunteer job that people can do and feel like they are contributing to the dance community, which they are.”

The Talent. The dance makes an effort to showcase a variety of musicians, callers, and sound people. While fun, accomplishing this can require some legwork finding talent, as well as some care getting everyone on board. It can be a matter of balancing: familiarity and predictability can be assets, but so can variety and risk. I’ll add that making space in your schedule can also be a part of a long-term investment in creating more new callers and musicians. In turn, I’ve seen frequent anecdotal correlation between more new talent on stage and more new dancers on the floor.

Post-dance connections. As well as creating an e-mail list for the dance, they have been making sure to connect with new faces. Joyce notes she has “made a point of talking to newcomers and getting their email address to send a follow-up email to them as well as adding them to our regular list.” This takes effort from the organizers but really pays. I note they have an active Facebook group, with several posts a month. These include information about the upcoming dances, photos, and videos. They also advertise their quarterly follow-up potluck and meeting, which is fabulous.

Fostering a newcomer-welcoming dance culture. Having lots of new people is, happily, a familiar circumstance. Unfortunately, so is wondering why many don’t return. In addition to talking with them and sending them a follow up e-mail, Joyce and others took it upon themselves to make sure they had a good time on the dance floor. “We actively help them to learn how to ask people to dance,” she notes, “and make sure they are only sitting out voluntarily.”

The process. Perhaps most of all, the process by which these changes came about. Joyce cared about the local community. She identified that the organizers were getting burnt out and needed help. She did her research about other dances. She asked for advice from other organizers. She brought others on board (“six committees with eighteen people”!). They identified their goals and effective ways to address them. They also took some risks and expended a lot of effort. It was the right kind of effort — not the kind that wears you down, but the kind that you can build on.

It’s great to hear about.

– Max

Don’t forget we want to hear from you. Send your newsletter submissions to our editor Caroline Batson (caroline@cdss.org) by next Tuesday, February 1st.