Monday, March 14, 2016

A response to the shrinking salsa community

This time, I am going to write about salsa community in CU. Recently, someone posted in CU salsa Facebook Group, expressing the sad feeling about a significant shrinking of salsa community. In particular, there were too many female follows than male leads. A great number of comments followed, which I tried to read all of them. After my experiences on the rise and wane of the Illini Swing Society, I had an urge to share my opinions on these comments concerning the future of CU salsa community. I really hope that history of the Swing Society will not happen again in salsa, but from the comments of the experienced salsa dancers (presumably the leaders of the salsa community), I feel that I need to give my two cents here. In a nutshell, I think the wane of salsa did occur due to a few unfortunate events. Yet, the experienced dancers also have responsibilities.

Two dance community building approaches

Throughout my years in various dance groups, I saw two approaches of community building. These two approaches are usually along a scale, rather than a choice between these two.

Approach 1: Pay more attention on beginners

A list of activities include:
- Advertise beginner/intermediate classes to attract more newcomers to join
- Provide a beginner-friendly environment for newcomers to practice

Approach 2: Focus more on intermediate/advanced dancers

A list of activities include:
- Form private groups to train for competitions/performances
- Travel to workshops or dance events

These two approaches differ greatly. In Approach 1, the approach is like how fish reproduce to survive: you try to reach as many people as you can. Many of them, after their first session of class, will choose not to continue. Only a few will come back, and attend practice dance events. There are a lot of reasons that newcomers choose not to continue. They may feel that the footwork is too hard. They may feel that they cannot find friends to dance together. They may have other commitments, and dancing is not his/her priority. Thus, to increase number of people to stay, you need to rely on the low probability by attracting a lot of newcomers in class. It is like fish that produce thousands of eggs, with only a few survive. The leaders of the dance community can do something to increase the probability of success, which I will discuss in the next section. Still, one should accept the low probability that newcomers will stay. To give you a gist of probability, CU@Salsa in the past could have >100 people in the beginner class. Only ~20 people will continue to classes at higher level. Number of people who will then go to a bar to class is even fewer.

In Approach 2, the approach is like how humans reproduce to survive: you try to consolidate the friendship among intermediate/advanced dancers, so that they become regular dancers in a scene. Not many people will be in this group, but once they are in, they will become brothers and sisters. It does take more energy to maintain these friendship, though, like it takes years to nurture a human baby.

My recommendations for a college town

Some comments of this Facebook Group post already pointed out that dance scenes in college town has a transient nature of members: most people in the scene will not stay more than 4 years. People who stay more than 10 years are even rarer. Although Approach 2 would likely make certain people come often to a dance scene, Approach 1 is a more reliable way to maintain the dance scene with a transient nature by maintaining new blood to come in. Moreover, Approach 2 tends to create insider groups that decrease the friendliness of a dance scene.

To explain my reasons, I would try to think as if I am a person who has never danced before, but would like to test his/her interest in dancing. Literature on teaching coins a term "expert blind spot", which, in this context, means that experience dancers take certain ideas so much for granted that the beginners are actually confused. You probably have experienced that some instructors like to say this move is so easy, but nobody understands the move in the class. Hopefully I can still remember how a dance beginner is like when I am writing this.

As a newcomer lead in salsa, simply leading a spot turn or cross body lead can be challenging enough. Am I stepping correctly? At what time my arms should be at what position? This issue may amplify as these moves are lead out of a class and in an open dance. Why can I lead this in class, but not in an actual dance? Probably instructors have mentioned certain techniques to provide effective leads, but knowing how to implement takes time. With all of these in mind, I bet the beginner leads are already scared to ask someone that they do not know to dance, especially to instructors. It is already scary to dance in a practice location. Dancing at a bar like Cowboy Monkeys, Soma, or out of town, is certainly out of question.

Most beginners, especially leads, do not think of activities in Approach 2 because they are too scary to think about. "I do not want to look silly on the dance floor," they may think. What they need is a place that has reduced scariness: a floor where there are more beginners, where fellow dancers are more friendly. In the past, we had McKinley Foundation. I like this place because it serves classes and then practice afterwards. The floor is large enough, giving beginners' space to practice their floor craft, in contrast to a bar where limited floor space makes floor craft more challenging (my dance friends, who no longer do salsa, told me about that). The location is in campus area, so people who do not have a car can still attend. The early dance time (9 pm - 11 pm) is probably also great for people who still have classes on the next day. It is unfortunate that McKinley Foundation can no longer provide the floor for salsa community. I guess the next best location would probably be in the Union, although room reservation may be an issue. I may also suggest dancing outdoor during summer time, although there may be issues on dance shoes.

Another issue that I am against Approach 2 is that it may make the dance floor less friendly to beginners. I like that instructors should encourage beginners to dance with more experienced dancers. Yet, when beginners look at the intermediate/advanced dancers keep staying in their groups together, they may find scary to ask. Worse yet, some dancers that seem advanced do not like to dance with people that they do not know. When I was a baby dancer, I found that it was not worth it to ask a good dancer to dance, since I perceived that he/she would reject me. I wondered: can leaders of the salsa scene sometimes actively ask the beginners to dance? This at least shows the beginners that the salsa scene is friendly to beginners. It is much easier for beginners to leave the dance scene once they find the scene unfriendly. Although it is still okay for the leaders of the scene to mingle with the fellow dancers, can they also try to ask 1-2 beginners to dance in a night as a service? I would also suggest including dance etiquette as a part of the class. When I first joined salsa, I found this instruction lacking, in contrast to other dance groups like Dancing Illini and Swing Society.

I am not totally against Approach 2. If some experienced salsa dancers join in in a new academic year, we should ask them to join by all means. I just feel that one can only find one or two of these people in a year, and they are also likely to be transient in a college town. Approach 1 should still be the main approach to grow a salsa scene in a college town. With more beginners to join a class, you have a higher chance to grow more intermediate dancers.

What may happen when a dance scene relies too much on Approach 2? I am going to summarize what had happened in Swing Society in the last few years:

Three or four years ago, there were a lot of talented swing dancers in the swing scene. They went to workshops together and did group competitions together. However, these talented dancers tend to form their own groups. People outside the group usually do not mix in. There were also talented dancers that were intimidating to beginners. Enrollment of beginning swing class dropped. Last year, many talented dancers graduated from school and moved away from Champaign, resulting very few people who could lead the club and in the danger of shutting down. Thus, this year Swing Society focused more on building beginners and made the swing scene more friendly. The club is now still recovering, though.

Doesn't this sound like what is happening in salsa scene? One may say the departure of many advanced dancers as unfortunate, but I think we can do something to mitigate such risk, such as focusing more on Approach 1.

Community building transparency (?)

I saw another comment about a lot of dancers do not appreciate the time that leaders of the salsa scene volunteer for its growth. My reaction to this is: if I know what you can help, I would like to help. Sadly, in these years, I still feel that I cannot help salsa community, except keeping coming to salsa classes to help.

This is an issue that I am not sure why. After being in salsa community in several years, I still do not feel a sense of belonging. I do not feel that the leaders want help. I am not asked to travel to dance. I only stayed at the Monday and Wednesday salsa dances regularly, just as a habit. I think that is the only way to contribute to the salsa community -- to participate.

When I look at the Swing Society, it is different -- it is a registered student organization. It has a structure that besides president and treasurer, there is a webmaster, lesson chair, travel chair, public relation chair, and so on. They have plans to train new DJs and instructors. It seems to me that I have more ideas on how to help with the swing society. Of course, I have traveled to swing workshops, too!

Yet, why do I feel uncertain that salsa community needs help? Is that because the leaders of the scene do not say it aloud? Is that because only those who are within the intermediate/advanced group know the ins and outs? It seems to me that it is a transparency issue.

Some comments also mentioned that the current salsa community is split into several smaller groups: salsa, rueda, and kizomba, thus the community becomes fragmented. I am not too sure why they cannot be combined. After all, I am not an insider of these issues. I do think that when I stay in the rueda group, there is a better sense of community. Whether you are a beginner or an intermediate, they mingle pretty well. They even have parties together sometime, with potluck rules apply. Is it because nobody in this group looks intimidating?

I am confused now.

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