Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Square Dance's Slow, Twisting Death Spiral

Tim and I were out dancing last night at a Challenge 1 club. I was talking with one of the oldtime dancers. He told me about dance nights twenty years ago when eight squares (sixty-four dancers) would show up for Challenge 1 dancing. We had two squares and two extra couples last night.

The square dance population is aging quickly. Since I started dancing with DC Lambda Squares eight years ago, I'm wagering that the average age of the club has increased eight years. And it's still a viable club. Elsewhere, it can be pretty glum in Square Dance Land. Many clubs have folded, or are down to a single square. Part of the cause is self-inflicted: many clubs have dress codes and are couples-only. When a partner dies, which is happening with increasing and heart-breaking regularity, the other partner, usually the wife often quits square dancing for good.

An old age square dance population also has other issues: mobility and focus both being challenging for older dancers. Thankfully, in the clubs I dance with, the dress code is relaxed, but it's still a couples world. Tim and I have been able to dance as a couple, but that would certainly change if we were dancing in a different part of the country.

In DC Lambda Squares, we have diminished numbers, too. Each year, getting new students for square dance classes is increasingly difficult. Because square dancing needs at least eight dancers, it is an activity that requires ample space, and a caller (it takes specialized training and knowledge to move square dancers around the floor). The expense of rent and caller fees looms large for clubs organized like DC Lambda Squares. Another kind of club arrangement is a caller club where the caller rents the hall, and charges a door fee to cover expenses. In either model, the dancers have to pay enough to keep the enterprise afloat. Lately, fewer dancers are doing that.

Can this downward trend be reversed? Probably so, but to do that will require some painful readjustment.

The biggest challenges for the activity appear to be its image, its learning curve, competing activities, and a viable support model.

Image may be the biggest public relations nightmare. Crinolines and cowboy boots keep people off the dance floor. People coming to the activity cannot picture themselves wearing the outfits, and in fact, more clubs are going casual except for regional square dance events. (My own aside, "They look so gay!") Frankly, the costumes are offputting for most people.

Has anyone noticed that square dancing is, well, square?

Other image issues include square dancing's rigid gender role prohibition about men dancing the woman's part, and to a (much) lesser extent, women dancing the man's part. One of the main reasons for gay square dancing was to provide a place where dancers could dance whatever they wanted, and in fact, many gay square dancers are skilled in both roles. Another image problem is that non-dancers remember their disastrous introduction to square dancing in grade school. Introducing children to square dancing when those kids are at an age where they *hate* the opposite sex usually means that they will never get over their aversion. And believe me, they always remember their square dance adventure in fifth-grade gym. It wasn't pretty.

Square dancing also has a big learning curve. It takes about a year to learn proficiently, the first couple of square dance programs (Mainstream and Plus about 100 calls or movements). Most potential square dancers don't feel they can commit to a year's worth of classes, before they get to dance. Instead, they would rather go to a dance, and simply dance! The learning curve is a killer! The square dance community is wrestling with this by offering ABC programs and other kinds of introductions to square dancing, but as long as square dancing remains an activity of aficionados rather than a social activity for dancers, those efforts are doomed to failure. In some ways, the ABC program hearkens back to country square dancing. In the old days, you came to the community dance. You didn't have to know the program, because the caller taught it to you as the night progressed. Dancing was a social activity.

Okay, I'm an aficionado. I like dancing on the edge - a program that challenges my skills. But you don't learn dancing in a class, you learn dancing on the dance floor, and maybe the square dance community needs to rethink completely its means of instruction and its daunting learning curve.

These days, square dancing has an extraordinary array of competing activities. Our society is rethinking what it wants to do socially. Square dancing not only competes with bowling or the Elks Club, but with the very notion about what people want to do with their "free" time. The demands on that time are increasing. People are working longer. Kids activities require more parental involvement. The internet has opened up new ways of social engagement that bypass old ways of getting out and socializing. This competition is real, and it's not only beating up square dancing, it's beating up all kinds of other socializing including bowling and the Elks.

Part of the solution is to identify social activities and situations that engage our society, and organize square dancing in those places. Saddleback Squares, anyone? (And I'm not kidding.)

So how can square dancing remain viable? The quickest way to turn it around is for clubs and callers to recognize that they will have to change radically their approach to the activity. The image has to change, and younger dancers have to be engaged in a manner that fits their lives: no long-term commitment to square dance classes, no outfits that make you feel like a freak, immediate gratification - if you come to a square dance you dance; no matter what your skills are, and great social and entertainment value for the money spent.

I think that can be achieved. It will be painful for the aficionados like me, but ultimately, it will save the dance. Our greatest challenge is to bring new people in the front door to enjoy our wonderful activity, because once they are in the door, they often decide to stay for the dance.