Do "beginners' hours" really work? One did for us with great success this past weekend. David Kaynor agreed to teach a one-hour session before calling the regular dance, and we made a major effort to publicize the event with posters, newspaper listings, radio etc. The workshop started at 7:00 p.m. with about a dozen people. About 7:30 I took a count, there were 20 couples on the floor, about 80% new faces, and people were still coming through the door!
All these folks stayed for the regular dance and seemed to have a great time. It was the biggest dance we've had in ages, the first time we had three sets going (which fit easily in our hall) in a couple of years, and there was a tremendous wonderful energy on the floor, the palpable enthusiasm of people enjoying a brand-new experience. Thanks to David's masterful teaching and careful easing of the way into more complicated dances, the newcomers gave a terrific account of themselves on the floor, and there were none of the line breakdowns or confusion one would normally expect at a dance with such a high proportion of beginners - nor was that due to excessively simple dances being called all night.
One of the things I learned was what a difference it made to have the beginners' session taught with music. These new dancers learned the first and most important element of good contra dancing, walking smoothly in time to the music, something that some of our long-term dancers who've never had any formal introduction have yet to grasp. I also noticed that many of the people who tend to throw in extra and supercomplicated flourishes, without any regard for timing, toned things down quite a bit, presumably out of regard for not confusing the newcomers, but to the benefit of all.
We did a quick hands-count survey and discovered that none of the new people had come to the workshop as a result of seeing a flier (after I had personally put up more than 60 around town!), a few had seen a notice in a newspaper or received a mailing, and the overwhelming majority had heard of the event through friends.
My guess is that all those people who've been hearing from their friends for months about how much fun contra dancing is and how they really should try it, but have been saying, "But I don't know how to dance" saw this as their one big opportunity to try it out in a situation that would feel safe and comfortable.
Like many other dances, our series has been struggling lately, and we have been working to attract and keep new people in the wake of general attrition of our core attendees. Whether this event will prove to have been a longterm success in terms of holding onto a significant number of these newcomers, only time will tell, but for at least one weekend we had a terrific, high-energy happy dance.
Special thanks to Maestro Dance Caller David Kaynor for making it happen, and to Mary Kay Brass and Mary Lea for high-spirited music. Barbara Ruth <firstname.lastname@example.org>