square and round dance in eastern ontario

The Elephant in the room

So you’ve completed your first year of dancing. Congratulations! At this time (Spring), most clubs are honouring you and all your fellow new-dancers. Some clubs call it a Celebration, others call it Graduation. So what is it?

It’s obviously the end of one season and it’s the completion of a level (“Basic”) for you, so what's going through your mind? Do I pass? Do I fail? Do I go to Mainstream? When do I go to Mainstream? This is like the “Elephant in the the Room” that no one talks about.

The Basic level is NOT a Destination Level. This means that you don’t strive to stay in Basic; it is a preparatory level. You will likely want to move forward…But when...
- When you are comfortable with current level,
- When you have built a good foundation for the moves to come, and
- when you are ready to learn more.

What dance level should I be in?

It’s not just as simple as saying “I want to move on to Mainstream” (or maybe you feel you “have to go to Mainstream”). Not to put the weight of the square dance movement on your shoulders, but a big and growing issue is that a lot of dancers are currently dancing in a level that they are not properly prepared to handle  -- and it frustrates callers and other dancers alike.

You may have seen it in your own Basic/Mainstream club: Mainstream squares breaking down because the dancers don’t know where they should be. You can allow some latitude for learning new moves, but a lot of breakdowns are on moves that the dancers have been doing for years.

You yourselves might have noticed where dancers should be -- but they didn’t get there. While we love all these people, we have to realize that some just haven’t yet built a strong enough foundation in the fundamentals and have difficulties with the Basic moves, let alone the new Mainstream moves.

This is typical all over, especially in North America,. It has many repercussions:
- The weaker dances are frustrated
- Some experienced dancers avoid the weak squares when squaring up
- Some experienced dancers move up to a higher level to avoid these weak dancers -- maybe before they are ready -- and become weak dancers in the next level, themselves
- Dancers quit dancing altogether
- Callers lower the dance level by calling slowly or using mostly the easy moves (which in turn causes other dancers to want to move to a higher level, etc, etc).

It’s too late for those who are already in the wrong level; hopefully they’ll persist and slowly build expertise by osmosis. However let’s concentrate on YOU. I’m going to tell you how important you are to your club and to the Square Dance movement itself and why making the correct choice for next year is so important.

Keeping Dancers

We can’t survive without getting and keeping new dancers – in effect, you guys. However we’re not winning the battle.  While there are over 3000 dancers in Ontario, the numbers have been decreasing by 9% every year. People stop dancing because of age, not enough time, too much work, frustration, etc.

So while it’s important to get new dancers, it’s equally important to keep the ones that we have – you guys! And we haven’t been doing a very good job at this. The square dance movement in general has been only keeping 50% of the new dancers that they attract. That means that on the average, half the dancers who started in September 2011 won’t be dancing next year.

So why do people not return? A survey was done by Callerlab to determine exactly why ex-dancers quit. The bottom line---- It was too difficult and required too much of a time commitment.

Here’s the scenario. We convince you to take lessons. You stay for almost a year learning all this Basic stuff (51 moves) till your mind is saturated and then you “graduate”. Almost immediately, you’re expected to return in September and start learning the next level -- another 17 moves.

In the USA, this is called the “rush to plus”. A lot of clubs teach Basic, Mainstream AND Plus in the first year -- sometimes 6 moves in a night; heaven help you if miss a week. Because they don’t have open dances or club-level dances below the Plus level, everyone rushes to get to that level so that they can dance ... and then the callers have to call easy moves because the dancers aren't strong enough to handle full Plus.

The problem is that we have made our activity best suited for the person who wants to keep on going up the ladder. Our activity is such now, that if you don’t dance several times a week, you can’t build the needed skills, let alone keep up. (see Tony's article at the right)

We are, in effect, forcing dancers to rush up the level ladder. The sad reality is that there are more people in Advanced lessons than in Basic/Mainstream lessons. At open dancers it’s common to have 8-12 squares doing Advanced level and only 4 squares doing B/MS (and this is with angels dancing with the those squares). The biggest grouping of dancers needs to be at the entry level, not at the advanced level. Otherwise, as the older dancers fade away, they’ll be no one to replace them. Our model is effectively broken, yet we persist.

While we’ve been rushing to the next level, we have forgotten that square dancing actually is two words – one of them is DANCE. In our zeal to prepare you for the next level, callers become too complicated and many of us have sacrificed the dance part for the choreographic part. Maybe it’s time to slow down and smell the roses.

Next Year's Options

So now that we’ve set the wrong expectations on you, perhaps stressed you out in the process, we now come to the end of a season where there needs to be some decision made as to what option each of you should take.

  • Are you comfortable with the moves from the past year?
  • Are you ready to go immediately to a new learning curve?
  • Were you strong enough to have helped out others in your square?