Welcoming New Dancers

Welcoming Beginner Dancers

Below, I have jotted down some ideas about ways to make beginner dancers welcome, along with some resources.  Feel free to use whatever you feel might be effective, or adapt these suggestions to the needs of your group.

Getting feedback from beginners

Getting feedback from beginners can be really helpful.  Firstly, you get a perspective from someone who is experiencing the dance differently from you, which can inform your decision as an organiser.  Secondly, by asking beginners for feedback, you reassure them that the dance is for them — why else would you ask their opinion?

Here are some ways to get feedback from your new dancers:

  • Paper feedback forms on the night (here is an example).  Even if not everyone fills out a feedback form, the fact that they exist shows that you value feedback.  Paper feedback forms mean you can gather people’s immediate impressions of the event.
  • An online feedback form.  Whilst people are less likely to remember to fill out an online form later on than a paper form on the night, online forms allow for genuinely anonymous feedback.
  • Signs saying “please give feedback”.  See posters.
  • Talking to people at the end “have you had a good evening?”.  Even if there is a lot else to do at the end of the night.  My favourite bit of advice from Bill Keys:  “if it’s a choice between taking the decorations down at the end and talking to people, don’t put the decorations up”.

A beginners’ workshop

One way to help make your dance beginner friendly might be to add a beginners’ workshop at the start of the evening.  This is common practice at contra dance clubs in the United States.

A beginners’ workshop may help:

  • Familiarise new dancers with the most common figures, the culture and how to move to the music.
  • Reassure new dancers that they are not expected to magically know it all already.
  • Encourage good technique from the start, by actually teaching swing holds and how to take hands.  Good technique is important so that people don’t accidentally injure each other.

A beginner’s workshop could include:

  • A few basic figures:  swings, ladies chains, cast, setting and arming perhaps.
  • Dancing with the music.  (Beat and phrase.)
  • How to follow / go with body language, so that beginners can allow other dancers to help them on the dance floor.
  • “Better never than late.” — the concept that if you get behind it’s better to skip a figure and just get to the right place in time to start the next one.
  • Some etiquette advice, for example:
    • Anyone can ask anyone to dance.
    • It is ok to say “no thank you” if you don’t want to dance right now.
    • A dance is not a date.
    • It’s best to join sets at the bottom.
    • If you need more couples in your set you hold up the relevant number of fingers.
    • Reassurance that experienced dancers will want to dance with them, and that dancing with experienced dancers is the best way to learn.  Also the advice to dance near the top of the room where the caller can help.
    • Checking if beginners have injuries or disabilities which might change the way others should dance with them.

Some examples of contra dance beginners’ workshops:

Beginners’ Lesson at Glen Echo

Beginners’ Lesson with George Marshall

Dance angels

I first came across this term in this excellent article by JoLaine Jones-Pokorney of Gainsville Oldtime Dancers. 

The idea is to have some experienced dancers who are trained to dance in a way which supports beginners.

Dance angels complement the caller by helping to keep the set together and ensuring that new dancers have someone friendly to dance with.

A dance angel will:

  • Ensure that beginner dancers are only sitting out if they really want to be.  In other words, ask beginners to dance.
  • Enjoy the dance and let it show.  This reassures a beginner that they are not ruining the dance for everyone in the set by doing it less than perfectly.
  • Engage fully with the walk-through.  That is, listen to the caller and walk everything through fully.  (Just because a ladies chain over and back leaves you where to started is not a reason not to walk it.)
  • Know the dances pretty well, and not get easily confused by the dance.  When they do make mistakes, they need to be able to recover well.  (Demonstrating dance resilience is useful.)
  • Avoid improvising.
  • Look for ways to help new dancers, using eye contact and body language.
  • Empathise with beginner dancers:  with both the frustration and the joy of learning.
  • Follow Bruce Hamilton’s “When You’re Not the Caller” advice

Dance angels should not only be experienced dancers, but should have some training on how to interact with beginner dancers appropriately.  All too many people think that pushing new dancers into the right place is acceptable.

There are two possible approaches:

  1. Run a dance angel workshop for everyone at a club, to raise general awareness of how to dance with beginners.
  2. Provide specific training to selected individuals on how to support beginners, and then flag these people (perhaps using badges) as dance angels.  Beginners then know who would be especially good for them to dance with.  These dance angels should be carefully picked;  they should be people who are already good with beginners and they should be willing to undertake training.  They might get some reward, like a reduced price ticket.

I (Jen) can offer a Dance Angel’s workshop for your club or festival, in exchange for travel expenses.  Feedback on previous dance angels workshops:

“I think Dance Angels is one of those workshops that (as well as being a great event for people to attend!) gently changes the shape of the whole festival, making it more welcoming and inclusive and just changing the priorities of what people expect and think about and talk about.”

“Dance angels – as I am a beginner myself it allowed me to express how I felt what could be better for other newcomers in the future. “

“Dance Angels workshop went well — some great suggestions!”

Considering beginners when picking a caller

Not all callers are beginner friendly.  This includes good, competent callers who are held in high regard within the community.

A beginner friendly caller will:

  • Never single out individuals over the microphone.
  • Choose dances suitable to the level of the audience, not based on personal taste.
  • Never show frustration with the dancers.
  • Never push a dancer into place.
  • Be able to explain figures, room geography (up, down, heads, sides) and progression in plain English, and know when to do so.
  • Walk a dance through as many times as needed.
  • Never make jokes at the dancers’ expense.
  • Be relentlessly positive.
  • Be prepared to choose dances that are a bit on the easy side for some people in the room, for the sake of including beginners.

If a caller you regularly book doesn’t meet to criterion above, you might choose to have a chat with them about their approach.  Or you might decide that your events would be more beginner friendly if you booked a different caller.  Alternatively, you might decide that you don’t mind if your events are not good for beginners, as long as they are fun for your regulars.  That is a perfectly reasonable position, but if that is the case you might want to label the events as such so that beginners don’t attend and have a disappointing experience.

Protecting beginners from problematic behaviour

Beginner dancers are more likely to have bad experiences of the dance due to problematic behaviour of other dancers.  There are several reasons for this:

  • Beginners may be less comfortable about asserting their boundaries, in an unfamiliar space where they are trying hard to fit in.
  • Beginners may be less familiar with the etiquette.  For example, they may not know that it is ok to turn someone down for a dance, or that holding hands when out at the end of the set is not obligatory.
  • Beginners may have less practice communicating what they want through body language.  For example, they might not know that offering a hand high in a ladies chain means “twirl please”.
  • Individuals who knowingly choose to behave inappropriately towards others (as opposed to cases where there’s a misunderstanding), are certainly aware that beginners are more vulnerable for all the reasons listed above, and that beginners will be less likely to speak up if there is a problem.  Beginners get targeted more, especially young beginners, especially young female beginners.

So creating an etiquette guide and code of conduct can really help your dance become beginner friendly.  For some thoughts on this, and templates for you to adopt / adapt if you wish, please see our page on creating a safe dance environment.

Offsite Resources

For Organisers

“Dancing With Newbies” — Jolaine Jones-Pokorney

For Dancers

“When You’re Not the Caller” — Bruce Hamilton

For Callers

“Five Common Myths About Beginning Contra Dancers” — Greg McKenzie

“Your Introduction to Contra Dancing” — Larry Jennings (outline for beginners workshop)

“The Beginners’ Workshop” — Seth Tepfer