growing the swing dance community

The Atlanta swing dance community is not at its best. It’s not struggling yet, but it has its challenges. It’s entirely natural — every scene goes through an ebb and flow, but I believe that Atlanta is in a valley.

So here’s my question: I know there are a few people who read this blog* who are heavily involved in their own scenes. At the very least, I know there are a few people who have more experience than I, and who have opinions on what works and what doesn’t. So I have a question for you:

How do you successfully advertise in your local city to increase visibility and the dance community? What scene-growth strategies have you found successful?

I’m also looking for answers from people who might be newer to the scene. How did you get involved? What did you find welcoming, and more important, what did you find off-putting?

All thoughts and comments are welcome — I realize this idea has probably been hashed out in a hundred places by a hundred people, so I thank you for the time you’ve taken to respond!

***

*Let’s be honest — most of it is because of the awesomeness of Jerry, who helps publicize the occasional dance post. Thanks, Jerry — you’re awesome.

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12 thoughts on “growing the swing dance community

  1. Central (read: easy to get to and easy for non-dancers to walk past) location, regular social nights, never a long social without a class at the start for beginners, make sure experienced local dancers help to populate this.

    Make useful information about the scene easy to find.

    Also, making friends with local event organisers, lindy-bombing, carrying flyers AT ALL TIMES, etc. We get loads of requests for dance teaching at local bars and clubs holding vintage-inspired parties – from which we get new dancers into the scene… but we don’t get those requests without putting ourselves out there.

    There’s a load of little things but they were the ones that came to my mind :)

    • Sara,

      Thanks so much for your response! We’re planning a couple outdoor lindy-bombs for the spring and summer, but it feels so far away. For now, I’m carrying business cards and a perky attitude for any time anyone asks me about dancing.

      Do you remember any events or lindy bombs which you found particularly successful? What about them do you think was successful? I think visibility in the local community is important, and having flyers readily available is key…but I’m curious if there’s a step to go even further?

      Thanks so much, and have a great day!

  2. Probably the most effective tactic I’ve seen consistently work is simply chatting people up.

    there’s a promoter here in DC who spends the majority of his night at a dance talking to people. He goes after newbies first, and also follows up with current or former students. What he does isn’t fancy. He asks simple questions: What’s your name? How’d you hear about this dance? Have you taken classes before? Then he quickly follows up with little anecdotes of how he started dancing or the process of learning to dance.

    His not so secret is dogged persistence. Even his partner marvels at his tenacity in any situation they find themselves in large groups. He spends the entire night chatting people up. He can’t keep track of everyone he talks to, so he has several anecdotes up his sleeve. He’s figured out a way to guide conversations so he can tell if they’ve heard a particular spiel before, so he can switch to something else if he needs to.

    What little dancing he does usually involves showing newbies the basic or going over class material with students. It’s important to note that he is not there to socialize just to socialize or to work on his own dancing. His business is dance and he is on the clock the whole night.

    His view is that eventually everyone out grows the scene. He’s been doing this about 30 years now, so he no longer has the interest in finding the perfect swingout or even to hit on women. He’s married and he has three kids he needs to put through college. So all his time is put into getting people to take classes. With constant turnover in the scene, rather than attend to the needs of intermediate/advanced dancers, he concentrates on bringing in waves of newbies. As people get into it, he leaves them to figure out where they want to go with the dance or fit into the larger scene because once they stop paying him for classes, he doesn’t have a whole lot of use for them. Sounds douchey, but a big reason why we have such a big scene in DC is because of this approach of constantly getting new people in the door and getting them to come back.

    Nina Gilkenson actually started with this guy a million years ago. With Michael, they have refined the approach to be less douchey because that’s just how they roll. Part of their success is because they smoke.

    Seriously. They take smoke breaks from dancing all night so one or the other is usually sitting outside the front doors to the ballroom, so they are in a position to greet people as they come in and also follow up with people as they leave. They can introduce themselves, find out if people are having a good time, and drop hints on upcoming classes and events.

    They key in both of these instances is that it takes some serious work to get people to come back, and that involves being proactive and personal. You can only do so much to get people in the door. Someone needs to put a bug in people’s ear that they too can learn to tuck turn like a rockstar, or that there’s a big event next weekend a a cool out of town band, or that people are going to the diner after the dance. If you leave it to word of mouth, you’re going to miss a lot of people. Someone has to do the heavy lifting of face to face networking.

    The caveat is that committing to building a dance scene will leave you with little time to dance for yourself. that’s why most successful promoters I know have been at it a long time. Since they’ve grown past the need to dance all the time, they have the time to spare on the less glamorous work of scene building. Nina and Michael strike a decent balance but they’ve been at it for almost 15 years each themselves.

  3. On the note of lindy bombs are there any indoor shopping areas? This time of year lots of the songs that might be played are danceable. I think that people seeing normal dancers just out having a blast will bring it to their attention much more than an ad, no matter how perfect.

  4. Pingback: dance posts: reference / archive | The Lindy Affair

  5. Interesting comments. I am a reluctant organizer in my brand new, baby scene of St. George, UT. I have to say that I am quite unhappy because I have zero time to dance for myself. I am convinced that this is not the role for me since I’d much rather be out there teaching and performing and dancing with others. (Right now I am doing it all since I am the only teacher in town and I’m training swing dancers from scratch.) What do organizers get out of it since they are not able to participate in the hobby of dancing? What sort of person do I need to find to get involved and do “the less glamorous side” of swing dances so that I can get my sanity back? Please help! I am ready to throw in the towel. I have put in a lot of blood, sweat, and tears for the past 2 years, hoping to have recruited more volunteers, only to have them throw in the towel after a month or two each time.

    • Tiffany,

      I recently moved to a small town and have been working to grow a scene myself – so trust me, I understand your pain. Some days, I just want to cancel classes and stay home!

      You’re doing a great thing putting in all this time and effort – but I’d recommend being honest with your scene. Some cities are just too small to sustain a Lindy Hop scene.* You can teach classes & host the occasional dance, but it’s hard to become independent and sustainable. I’ve found success in joining with a local ballroom scene – they host dances where they promise to play a lot of swing songs, they provide a dance space, and they help me advertise & organize classes. This can help you grow a base of people who are learning – and once you’ve reached a critical mass, you can become independent with your own dances, etc. Be aware that a lot of small-town ballroom scenes are older, so they tend to like smoother jazz or Big Band.

      No matter what, make sure that you dance a little at each dance you throw. It’s the best way to 1) keep your sanity, and 2) show others how much fun dancing can be. Best of luck to you, Tiffany!

  6. Hi, I found this blog because I got the same question as you and hundreds of people around the world. I started two years ago and every time I get involved more with the dance, I’m from Mexico City, the first two months of classes were horrible and I almost quit because I thought I had no talent and that filled me with frustration. The reason I start to improve was because we were a small group of people and the classes were practically particular, I am grateful to my first teachers for their patience and willingness to share all their knowledge. That made me more involved. My teachers knew more than me but they were also beginning their learning process. They contacted some dancers from the USA, and the three of us split the costs. That was my first investment and I did it because they made me feel part of their team, then we invited other teachers to come to Mexico, do not have many resources but there are always people who want to support the other cities scenes. And so more and more people began to join.

    Now, every time I see someone with the same enthusiasm that I had two years ago I come to support without expecting anything in return, I try to motivate them as my made to feel motivated me, hoping that more people get involved and become part of the team to help grow the scene (People needs responsibilities in order to feel they are really part of a team). Yet attend classes less than 20 people and there are times when no one shows up. We organize social dances in public places but people come just to watch us dance and it is difficult to integrate them.

    What has happened with you and your scene? I see you posted this two years ago when I met the lindy hop, how are you doing now?

    PS Sorry for my english, I hope its clear enough!

    • Eduardo, it’s great that you’re so involved in your scene! I think you’re right ontrack – the best way to grow the scene, I’ve found, is to be enthusiastic and to encourage enthusiasm in others.

      If you’re having trouble getting people to show up week after week, I recommend trying to create personal connections with everyone. Learn everyone’s name and a few details about them. Ask “Will I see you next week?” and try to get them to say yes! The commitment and personal connection really encourages people to come back, even in bad weather or a busy week. And like you said, responsibilities also help!

      Have you tried offering a special like “Bring a friend & get in for free”? Those kinds of promotions really help expose your group to more people, which is a good thing. You can also hand out fliers at your public social dances for a “Free first lesson,” or something similar – and obviously, you should always offer a beginner’s lesson at your public dances.

      I am no longer in Atlanta, but I know a few things they’ve been doing which are really successful. First, they now offer more classes in a wider variety of class topics – people always want to learn! It’s especially important to offer classes which become more difficult so people can improve.

      Atlanta has also developed a stronger community outside of dance – dancers host potlucks and park days, which has given the scene a strong sense of community. Community-building is a great way to get people to show up each week because everyone wants to hang out with their friends. Have you tried getting everyone to go to the same local place for food after your classes or dances?

      Good luck with growing your community. I say patience is probably the biggest key – it’s hard to start from scratch! I’m happy to talk about it more if you have an specific questions.

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