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Folk Dance Federation of California, South, Inc.

A Learning Experience for All
By Jan Rayman, 2017

Jan Rayman


I was asked to write an article about my husband Marc's and my new folk dance group, Foothill International Folk Dancers.
I think the reasons we formed the group and how it operates are probably the most interesting things about it.

Why We Started the Group

Foothill Folk Dancers 2017 In 1986, when Marc and I arrived in Southern California and joined the Pasadena Folk Dance Co-op, we heard many expressions of concern about how folk dancing here was getting smaller and grayer. There were (and continue to be) noble efforts to remedy the situation, but the problem has remained unsolved for the three decades we have been here. Now, as we are graying ourselves, we are distressed to discover that we remain some of the younger folk dancers in the area. Who is going to be dancing with us in the future?

Several years ago, I starting working to attract more people to dance in Pasadena by creating a website, advertising in Google, forming several Meetup.com groups, and a few other methods. These efforts were effective in bringing in new people, but only a few of those new to folk dancing returned to dance with us for more than one night. I had solved only half of the problem.

At Stockton Folk Dance Camp one year, Loui Tucker gave a lecture about bringing new people to folk dance and making them happy so that they would stay. She and several others in northern California had been quite successful, so Marc and I wanted to try some of her suggestions as well as some of our own ideas. One of the things Loui emphasized, and that we had already tried as well, was that whenever you have people new to folk dancing showing up at your group, you may have to change your teaching and program to accommodate them. Otherwise, you will miss an important opportunity to gain new dancers. Doing this is easier said than done when your dance group is relatively large and a cooperative (co-op). Regular members of the club arrive expecting particular dances to be taught. Teaching duties rotate, and teachers have sometimes worked hard preparing to present those dances. It is so disappointing to them when they are asked to change their teaching whenever new people need something different.

Another point Loui made was that new dancers do better when they are learning with other new dancers. Those of us who have danced for decades and lived through the "golden age of folk dancing" can make new folk dancers feel inadequate, even when we are trying to help them. It can be very disheartening to try to learn dances when most of those around you are already experienced dancers. There are many very accomplished dancers in Southern California who, with their expertise and enthusiasm, unintentionally intimidate new folk dancers. Simple terms that are obvious to all of us, like step-together-step or step-behind, are meaningless or even misleading to new dancers. When you already know a dance, it feels easy to you, and there is a temptation to invite the new dancer into the dance saying, "come on, it's easy." Then when the dance turns out to be a struggle, the new dancer thinks, "There must be something wrong with me, I'm struggling with this easy dance. If even easy dances are this difficult, I had better give up on folk dancing." Also, talking a new dancer through a dance by saying the steps at the moment they need to be done can have a similar intimidating and disheartening effect, because it is impossible for them to keep up.

A small group can be more flexible than a large one constrained by rules and traditions. In a new group in which we are the only teachers, we wouldn't complicate anyone else's plans or hurt anyone's feelings if we decided to change teaching plans at the last minute. Also, a smaller group may be less intimidating to new dancers. Marc and I wanted to try out some of Loui's proposals and to experiment with some of our own ideas about recruiting and retaining new dancers. With rent, insurance, advertising, and other expenses, we knew it could be expensive to build a group, but Marc had won a monetary award at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and we decided to devote it to starting our own folk dance group. We formed Foothill International Folk Dancers in October of 2015. We meet on Thursday nights at the Community Center of La Cañada, Flintridge.

How It Worked Out

Of course we made some mistakes at first, but we have treated all of them as learning experiences, and we continue to make a great effort to improve. Eventually, we were lucky enough to find (or did they find us?) a couple of enthusiastic and highly effective women who are well-connected in our community and who have been very supportive of our efforts. Things picked up for us when these two women, now close friends of ours, started bringing their friends to try dancing with us. Our group would not be as good if they had not done this. Some of these new people brought their friends.

Not including ourselves, we had twenty-eight people show up for our first session. Fifteen were dancer friends who came to support us. Of the remaining thirteen, some of them didn't know what folk dancing was or were expecting a different kind of class. We had twenty the next week, with twelve dancer friends coming to support us. The remaining eight new dancers needed a lot of help to get started and some were hopeless, despite our efforts to teach them. We were discouraged, but we kept trying because we knew it could take a long time to build a group. The few people in our tiny classes received a lot of help, allowing them to become folk dancers.

I created a website and that has helped people find us. We also got our group listed in our local paper which has a section on what's happening in our community. We attended some local events and handed out flyers, something that isn't easy for a pair of introverts. Marc convinced our local paper to have a reporter come the first time, and she wrote a nice article about the group.

Over the next nineteen months Meetup.com attracted some more people, but only a few who actually stayed and stuck with us. Still, I think that trickle of most of the people who RSVP'ed through Meetup.com never show up, and many who do, discover that folk dancing isn't for them. But that small number who do work out make Meetup.com worth the effort. Word of mouth from our two new friends brought in some of our most loyal members. This fall, I plan to advertise in our local neighborhood news E-group and also get us listed positively on Yelp.

Cultivating this new group has taken a lot of effort. Some of our dancers help out by carrying our equipment, setting up chairs, and providing additional refreshments. We also enjoy the support of some of our friends from the Pasadena Folk Dance Co-op who attend our new group now and then. Valerie Daley has danced with us a few times and even taught once, despite the long commute, and she allows me to use her pictures in my advertising efforts. Sherry Cochran also supported us by dancing with us on our first night and bringing a friend.

Patience and Persistance Pay Off

Our class remains small, but it is slowly growing. Most weeks now we make the rent. We now have fifteen or so dancers, and a typical evening has about ten in attendance, plus Marc and me. About half of our dancers were entirely new to folk dancing when they started with us, perhaps a third were folk dancers returning after a long hiatus, and a few came to us as experienced folk dancers. I think one reason this mixed group works is that most of the expert folk dancers understand that we are trying to nurture the newbies and they try to help us by being patient. We have a couple of semi-regular dancers who may be in their forties, but most of our dancers are in their sixties, graying like ourselves. Recently two very experienced dancers have started to attend and to bring their inexperienced wives to our class so they can benefit from Marc's basic and clear instruction.

What We Do

Like most teachers, Marc and I try to be very clear and patient with new dancers. We have devoted a great deal of thought and observation to how to teach new dancers, focusing as much on what not to do as on what to do. We select material that is relatively easy but that also has beautiful, exciting, or interesting music. We never tell people a dance is easy. It isn't necessary, because they are going to try the dance anyway. Rather, we leave it to them to feel gratified with their success when they are able to do it. The introductory dances build upon one another, so that the grapevine and step-together-step learned in one dance can be used in the next dance.

Sometimes we find it difficult to select material to please everyone, and we often have to change our plans at the last minute when someone new shows up. Similarly, when a very experienced person shows up we try to have at least one dance they can enjoy (and show off with, if they are that kind of person). Sometimes a dance new to everyone will please both the experienced and new dancers. Each week we have plans and also contingency plans, because it's hard to predict what mix of dancers is going to show up. We always treat our plans as tentative. And we have quite often decided on entirely different teaching when we saw the mix of attendees.

The hardest lesson we learned was that there are some people who are just not going to do well in recreational dancing. We try to silently identify those people and to move on with the teaching, gently leaving them behind. At first we continued to repeat the instruction, working with them in every way possible. In doing so, we held everyone else back and the dance sessions were too slow. This was the big mistake we made in our first few weeks, and we still struggle with this issue when uncoordinated people show up. I recall vividly one very nice couple possessing four left feet. They attended for many weeks and tried to learn, but they were never able to do basic steps or move in time with music. Finally, we had to move on and accept that they were not going to get even the fundamentals. Eventually they stopped coming. Marc especially finds it hard to leave people behind, but he is working to accept it and not always aim all of his teaching at the people who have the most difficulty. Nevertheless, we still focus some of our teaching on them. Even if someone clearly will never do well at dancing, we want them to feel both that they had some level of success and that we appreciate their having tried.

These days we aim to strike a better balance. Moving to music is the reward people get from making an effort to learn. With a remote control, we play bits of music quickly and repeatedly, to keep people moving while they are also getting practice. Sometimes we slow the music down, or record and play just parts of it, so dancers can focus on the more challenging portions of a dance.

I think the most important lesson we learned is to try to make people feel good about themselves. We try to acknowledge the efforts of new dancers to learn. It is satisfying for all of us when they do a good job. I also enjoy pointing out the expertise of our experienced dancers when we have them. It's wonderful when they show up and show off a little. Because the expert dancers are clearly a minority and something special, it's less intimidating to the new dancers.

Dancing is a social activity. We try to learn a little bit about each person to make them feel special and not simply generic participants–this is easy when the group is small.

More About Our Group

I mentioned in advertising for the Pasadena Co-op that our group has people who have known each other for decades. Eventually, I realized that this isn't necessarily a good thing from the perspective of new dancers who feel like outsiders. Our current group hasn't known one another that long, but it is a joy to see that friendships are forming. Most of our newbies are still intimidated about dancing in other groups with other dancers. There is something cozy about being in a small group where you know most of the people.

We have tried to provide a broad repertoire for our group, and we always encourage people to tell us which dances they like and which they don't. Some dances that have become particularly popular are "Zemer Atik," "L'Homme Qui Marche," "Senin Canina," and "Eastbourne Rover." "I Walk the Line" was such a big hit that we do it every night. This was the first non-trivial dance that core members mastered and they take pride in knowing it. We had a fun series for a while of doing "Damat Halayi" to different music every week for six weeks. The activities page of our website, Foothill.dance, lists all the dances we have taught and danced (along with amateur videos). (Note that we used a website address that ends with .dance instead of the more familiar .com, .org, or .net.) One of our dancers is a professional musician and teacher who (like some other people with musical backgrounds) initially hated the overly sweet music of the Japanese dance "Believe." Then the music grew on her and she ended up loving it so much she taught it to her third graders. Another of our new dancers who is knowledgeable about music requested that we repeat the dance we taught earlier, "the dance that has music in a minor key." It was some time before Marc and I, with our musical ignorance, discovered she wanted "Hora Veche." We dance more challenging dances in our second hour after our snack break. Some of the new dancers saw the more advanced dancers doing Vlaško, and they became determined to learn it. They were persistent and enthusiastic, and after working on it for quite a few weeks, they now can dance it and are thrilled when they do.

Now that our group has grown to a comfortable size, summer is almost here. Last year we took the summer off to accommodate everyone's conflicting plans. This summer we hope to meet at least occasionally so we don't lose all our momentum. Unfortunately, our class is on the same day as a very popular summer music series at nearby Descanso Gardens, so we might meet on the dance deck of our home on a night other than Thursdays.

We are committed to introducing folk dancing to more people. We hope Foothill International Folk Dancers contributes to the endurance and vitality of an activity that all readers of Folk Dance Scene have long appreciated.

Used with permission of the author.