This is a three part series about how to better retain new partner dancers, not to be confused with how to attract new dancers. This series makes the assumption that the new dancer has already made some level of commitment towards becoming partner dancer, keeping in mind that the level of commitment could be as small as stopping into a studio to ask questions, as big as committing to a package of private lessons, and everything in between. This first section will be focused on creating a positive introduction to a dance community. The second and third sections will focus on (1) creating value and (2) managing the social dynamic.
The African proverb, “It take a village to raise a child,” holds significant meaning and can be viewed in the context of accepting a new dancer into a dance community. A new dancer (the newbie) can be viewed as a child that requires the attention of the entire dance community to grow and thrive, not only as a dancer, but also as a good contributing member of the entire community (i.e. the village). Providing a positive experience during the initial introduction to a dance community is among the most important elements of this process.
Every newbie will have different needs during their growth as a dancer, but what should remain consistent is the warm, friendly reception they experience upon their first visit to a dance class, event, or social dance. It is during the first 10 to 20 minutes of their initial visit where they will start the decision making process as to whether partner dancing is something they really want to pursue. Get through that first 20 minutes successfully and the community will gain more opportunities to convince a newbie to continue their journey towards becoming an active member of the village. If we do a poor job at this stage, we may never get another chance to convince the newbie to stick with this amazing, highly rewarding activity.
So how do we create a successful introduction? Well, this is where the village comes in.
Too many dance communities depend on their designated leaders to take on the bulk of creating this positive first impression. Unfortunately, with leadership comes many responsibilities that split a leader’s attention amongst all members of the community. Therefore, I challenge ALL members of the community to take on the role of ambassador to newbies. Here are some tips to help you be the best ambassador you can be:
Tip 1 – Be a prompt greeter
A good restaurant manager knows that you must greet a customer within 20 seconds in order to make them feel welcome and at ease. This does not mean the customer needs to be sat at a table immediately. They simply need to be acknowledged and welcomed. The same goes for greeting a newbie when they walk into a dance function. It doesn’t matter whether it is the instructor, the organizer, another student, or a social dancer who greets this new person who walks through the door. All that needs to happen in this step is to provide a warm, sincere welcome when they walk in. Starting something new, like partner dancing, can be extremely intimidating to even the most outgoing individuals. Reward their courage by introducing yourself and welcoming them with a smile.
Tip 2 – Introduce the newbie to leadership
It is very important that you introduce the newbie to leadership as soon as possible. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a newbie walk into a dance function, sign up for a workshop, jump into class, and have absolutely no clue where to go or what to do. Does this sound like an experience they would want to repeat? I say not likely. Quickly introduce the newbie to leadership. This way the leader can take over and execute Tip 3, one of the most important parts of welcoming a newbie into the community.
Tip 3 – Manage expectations
This is where we truly set newbies up for success. After welcoming this new person to the function, immediately start asking questions that will help you understand their expectations, then use that information to realign their expectations accordingly. Why do they want to learn to dance? Do they know anybody else in the dance community? What do they expect to achieve by being there? By asking a few simple questions in a conversational manner, you can quickly assess the situation and start setting this person up for success. The best way to do this is to ask yourself this one question: “At the end of this dance function, knowing what they know, with the skill they have at this moment, will the newbie feel successful?” If the answer in no, then it’s because the newbie’s expectations are too high and need to be realigned to reflect a more realistic outcome.
Learning to partner dance well is difficult. It takes work. There are no shortcuts, only a multitude of paths to choose, all of them requiring a consistent effort and some level of dedication. Trying to make it sound easy will only make a new dancer feel inadequate or defeated when they don’t meet their own often unrealistic expectations. They will feel defeated by the end of a lesson because they will immediately start comparing themselves to other students. Let them know that it will take time to learn. Let them know that at times they will feel awkward. Let them know that everybody in the room has gone through (and still goes through) the same process and will be super supportive. Most importantly, let them know that the journey and outcome is SO VERY WORTH IT!
Tip 4 – Leave the teaching to the instructors
This is a hard tip for a lot of people to accept. After all, the newbie is obviously struggling and discouraged, and you just want to help, right? If you are not an instructor, helping by teaching can, and often will, have the completely opposite effect as what you are intending. We know your intensions are pure, but if you do not teach a newbie in a correct way, in a proper sequence, in an appropriate time frame, you will only serve to confuse them more. Furthermore, with that confusion, you set them up for a feeling of failure. Point them towards the instructors because, regardless of how much you want to help, teaching them can cause more harm than good.
If you are qualified to teach (as determined by the instructors), be sure to help newbies with whatever material was covered in class and always ask the instructor before you do so. Don’t take it upon yourself to teach them more. Chances are, what they got in classes had already stretched their limits for the day. Not to mention, if they don’t perceive you as an instructor, you may rub them the wrong way. I recommend you set them up for success by encouraging them to continue to take lessons, always pointing them towards the instructors who are not only experts at teaching dance, but also understand how to assess what is appropriate to teach and when.
Tip 5 – Dance to the newbie’s ability
To be perfectly honest, it drives me crazy when I see an experienced dancer try to lead a newbie through patterns that far exceed his or her skill level. Few things can scare away a newbie faster than walking off the dance floor feeling defeated. If you are a leader, be responsible and MAKE your newbie followers successful by leading patterns they can likely execute. If you are a follower, maintain your connection to and attention on your newbie leader, regardless of how boring you feel their pattern selection may be or how inadequate their lead may be. Stick to basic rhythms and ALWAYS show interest in your partner. This stage is not about showing the newbie how great of a dancer you are. This stage is about THEM! Lastly, always thank your newbie partner and congratulate them on their first steps towards becoming a partner dancer.
Always remember that there were dancers who, when you were a newbie, tolerated your poor technique, bad timing, and overall lack of understanding of how to dance. They did so with kindness and encouragement. They always found time to dance with you and they always had a way to make you feel good about yourself. Without them, you may not have grown into the dancer you are today. Be THAT person to our newbies. Trust me when I say that your efforts will not go unappreciated or unrewarded.
Check back soon for the next two sections of Retaining New Dancers – It takes a village to raise a newbie.