Big Themes: Inviting All Dancers to a Life-long Conversation

Scott Higgs and Lisa Greenleaf led a daily discussion called “Big Themes” at Pinewoods in August of 2008. Campers submitted ideas before the week started, and Scott and Lisa used those suggestions to create a theme for each day’s discussion.

These sessions were very popular — sparkling with lively energy, humorous anecdotes, and fresh ideas. So, we resolved to extend the concept to other events. For several years now, Lisa and I have run an annual “Big Themes” discussion session at NEFFA. Check it out and join the Big Conversation !

It’s not possible to jot down a few thoughts and capture the ‘buzz’ and spirit of these conversations. We’re not trying to solve eternal questions or problems, just to exchange ideas on important themes that come up over and over in the context of dancing. Ideally, these discussions help participants find others with similar hot issues, and diverse experience — so the connections and conversations continue long after the session ends.

So, with that long preamble as a disclaimer, here are some notes from the first Big Themes series — based on the topics dancers identified as most important.


• Have a beginner session, orientation of some kind, official welcome.

• Nametags for beginners (optional) or for “angels” (experienced dancers willing to help).

• Identify new people at the gate, offer free admission to next dance, encourage them to talk with organizers if they have questions.

• Think about how you help new dancers: is too much help scary? Is eye contact scary or off-putting?

• What degree/range of connection is the norm: hands, eyes, physical proximity.

• What are partnering norms and the community standards and are they made explicit to the dancers via callers, organizers, written document? Mentioned: Policies written by the Toronto and the Princeton dance groups.

• What are the “rights” of dancers who push the boundaries?

• Do experienced dancers know to approach organizers with complaints? Do they feel empowered to speak up around inappropriate behavior? One community leader shared a story about an impromptu, quick and to-the-point intervention that he and 7 other men performed to correct one dancer’s chronic bad behavior. [See Dance Safety below]


• Examples were given of adult leaders in morris dance and college programs who provide guidance and structure, but give dancers ownership, control and scope.

• Younger dancers come as a result of invitations by social ringleaders in their peer group (public announcements can yield nothing; it’s the personal invitation-even via Facebook-that makes the difference).

• Special events attract everyone.

• Want to get to know the youth? Learn their names, and encourage them to learn the names of adults, especially the adults they think are judging them.

• Many young dancers are put off by inappropriate behavior, especially regarding physical boundaries.

Young dancers say that organizers have the responsibility to have a clear vision for their dance, with expectations of proper behavior, and that they should communicate and enforce these expectations. [See Dance Safety below]

• See also Tradition and Change below.

Outreach: Publicity and Recruiting

• Posting publicity: Facebook, public radio websites, email (collect addresses at dances), email survey after first visit to a dance, posters at places like the laundromat.

• At college, aim for ‘fringe’ groups (specific clubs), use posters with enticing language (“free dance!”), offer PE credit, offer to lead a free dance during freshman orientation.

• Target specific social groups: SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism), Jane Austen societies, re-enactment/historical societies, museums, home schooling groups, church groups.

• Create a demo dance group, go to places like senior centers (especially with kids’ groups)

• Ask current dancers why they like the activity. One young man said, “I’ve discovered that English is really hot; could you bill a workshop as ‘Eye Sex?’”

• Attract dancers from other forms by offering a combined evening (swing and contra, for example).

Tradition and Change

• What is habit and what is tradition?

• Is it based on what you learned or on what your parents learned? There were several examples given in both English and contra of breaking tradition in certain figures 20 years ago, and now we think that the ‘new’ way is really the traditional way!

• Value of creating historical ‘snapshots’ to record norms and styles at particular times.

• Deciding what’s worth preserving; pointing out the special moments in the chestnuts. Figuring out succinct and convincing (enticing?) language to convey such moments to the dancers.

• Personal styles differ and change, good dance technique stays fairly constant. Style is subtle, it reflects your dancing persona; technique is the mechanicals. Every community has its own style, a style which may be influenced by traveling dancers. Similarly, traveling dancers need to be respectful of the communities they visit.

• Style in contra dance is undergoing a change now, influenced by younger dancers who are exploring non-traditional dance forms.

• Change is going to happen. Dance is an art form, and art evolves. What’s important is that we keep our core values of respect, connection and kindness.


• It’s important to define community values.

• It’s informative to be exposed to other (related) communities.

• Ideas for building connections within the community: permanent name tags (artistically created or standard); membership, list serves (email groups) for communication and discussion, potlucks before dances; welcoming committee (formal or informal); modest tasks for volunteers (sense of ownership); food at the break; ice cream social at the break and introduce the organizers/ committee/ board; birthdays (especially kids’) or other ways of celebrating community members; after dance socializing at a restaurant.

• Acknowledge reality of subgroups but work to maintain larger group identity.

• Women’s potlucks; one community has “the sisterhood of the traveling skirt” with a skirt that gets passed around.

• Create special events: all day dance, dance weekends, anniversary dances, clothing swap, “men in skirts” dance.

• Be sensitive to the loaded nature of the last waltz; avoid language stressing a special partner. Some options observed at regular dances and at dance weekends: two ending waltzes (not just one); a waltz and a song; a snowball/open waltz; the amoeba waltz (2 become 5 become 9, etc); spiral waltz. Beware the marathon five minute waltz that seems endless.

Dance Safety

• Importance of awareness of everyone around you, including those seated on the sidelines.

• Maintain positive energy when warning/guiding, either as caller, organizer or fellow dancer.

• How to talk about “sensitive” issues: Use “I” statements to reflect your personal experience as opposed to blaming the other person.

• Notify the dance organizer and caller if there is a problem or you would like other dancers to broaden their awareness (especially at crowded dnaces).

• Think about strategies that will avoid defensiveness: have a written policy you can refer to; have a positively worded “appropriate behavior” flier at the dance; create “fortune cookies,” each containing a simple tip or reminder and pass out at the gate; have the caller or organizer announce or enact the tip of the week/month (entertainment is a good way of getting the point across: create a short, funny skit); publish a tip of the month in your newsletter.

• Sponsor an “advanced style workshop”; the “advanced” is a lure to get folks to attend.

• Use email to notify the community of injuries that occurred because of reckless dancing.

Fostering New Talent

• Organize an open band, community band with rehearsals, open mic dances.

• Encourage seasoned performers to become mentors; help match new talent to mentors.

• Create jams for musicians (before a dance, as a regular stand alone event, as a special event).

• If your stage is big enough, allow amateur musicians to sit behind the pros and play along (without mics and not as integral part of the band).

• Create performance opportunities: guest slot for callers; mixed band of new musicians with established musicians.

• Encourage callers to investigate the many email groups available to them so they can “join the conversation” and ask questions.

• Create an apprentice program for callers (some English groups do this).

Miscellaneous Topics We Didn’t Have Time To Discuss

• Can CDSS do something with the Big Themes we discussed?

• Greater diversity (racial, political, social…?).

• Strategic thinking.

• How to continue this conversation.