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Fostering Newcomer Dancers

I sat down with Kay Newhouse, affectionately referred to as “Community Mama” of the NorthEastern US, and co-director of Swing Fling, DCSX and MADJam, some of the biggest and most-successful events on the WSDC circuit. We were particularly curious about the awesome initiatives she is taking with the Newcomer demographic, and her ideas on catering to this group and retaining them to build the Westie community at the grassroots level.

CC: Tell us about yourself? Your dance background?

KN: I’ve been dancing in the Washington DC scene for about two decades, since the days of Craig Hutchinson’s Potomac Swing Dance Club, with a year in New York City while John Festa’s North River Bar was in its heyday.

I compete a little (WSDC AllStar), but I’ve always been primarily a social dancer. I occasionally teach workshops at dance events, and I am currently co-director of Swing Fling, MADJam, and DCSX.

I see events and competitions as a fun component of the way this dance allows us to interact with one another, but I also see our scene as being much wider than we realize if we focus too intensely on competitions. I love community building. I think we’re at our best when we can see one anothers’ strengths and work together to knit this community together.

CC: Just to clarify, what are Newcomers?

KN: Newcomers are usually Beginner dancers who are venturing outside the comfort zone of their dance class to go social dancing at either their local dance parties or a weekend dance event for the first time.

CC: Tell us about what got you focused on Newcomers?

KN: It actually started with a Code of Conduct. A few years ago, I was engaged to create one by Dave Moldover of DanceJam Productions. It forced me to really think about its purpose and what we need a code of conduct to do. What I came to believe is that a good code of conduct encodes and clarifies community expectations that are already in place. The people who know how to navigate our scene already know how to treat others and ask to be treated, and how to look for help when we need it.

A code of conduct is effective as a public statement of those values & procedures, but it functions best when it reinforces what a community already understands. It serves a purpose to make those understandings specific and easy to access, especially for people who are new to the community and need more powerful statements about where the values of the event management lie, or what community leaders see as appropriate ways to treat one another. The conversations that a code of conduct supports among all of us, one by one by one, are its most powerful effect. And having those conversations gives our newest people the ability to also uphold, insist on, and propagate those expectations. See the DanceJam Productions Code of Conduct

CC: What is your vision/philosophy about how the Westie community treats/should treat its newest members?

KN: We were all new once. And we’re all responsible for our new people. Every single person in our scene who throws a dance, teaches a class, asks someone to dance, or just shares conversation at the water station has the ability to affect someone else’s experience- and was once themselves new. Do you remember who was good to you when you were new? I do, and I think most of us do. We should all think about the impact we want to make on newbies.

CC: What do you think are the primary needs/concerns of Newcomers in the local scene or at an event?

KN: Social connection is what makes someone feel comfortable in our scene. People come back to dance because of the people, not because of the dance steps. Having dance friends helps you understand the way our scene works, our unspoken rules & expectations of one another. The same exact interaction — “you’re too heavy” or “what level are you?” or even just “no, thanks.”– can feel incredibly negative and isolating for someone who doesn’t have a lot of other experiences or friends to provide context.

Many Newcomers wonder, “Was it me, or was that person out of line? Is this person rude to everyone? Or is there another way to interpret that comment? Is it considered appropriate if I…? I feel uncomfortable about something my partner did – should I be? Who can I ask if I have a question?” Not everybody who shows up at a dance or an event has a buddy with them or is attached to a group. They need their questions answered and appropriate resources provided. (Check out the Ultimate Rookie FAQ Bank)

CC: Besides assigning underqualified teachers to the Beginner classes, what are some common errors events make that sabotage their service to Newcomers?

KN: Here’s my current pet peeve: Newcomers to an event and Newcomer Jack & Jillers aren’t the same thing! The Newcomer (or Novice) level of Jack and Jills includes a lot of experienced event goers. Many people choose not to compete at their first event weekends; in fact, joining contests is just one optional part of the social experience. There are many dancers at all levels who very happily attend event weekends, take workshops and social dance, without ever finding competitions to be an important part of their dance lives.

When we speak as if the only way to fully be a part of our scene is to compete, we lose people…. and the person we risk losing might be the person everyone wants to dance with for hours on end on the social floor, or the person who would really love to take workshops all weekend – or even someone who one day could be a happy competitor, in their own time.

Communities make mistakes when we think that welcoming new people in is just the job of our event organizers. Really, it’s all of us who do this together. An event organizer can set a tone and create space for those connections, but it’s up to all of us to welcome people into this amazing scene. #ourresponsibilitywcs

CC: What would you like to see more events offering to Newcomers?

KN: I’d like to see more events putting resources towards their newest customers, looking at their event through the lens of a new person. I think we all tend to look at things from our own eyes. It can be really hard to be mindful of the perspective of new folks, no matter how important we think they are. Their voices are not the ones we hear unless we seek them out. Sometimes it’s as simple as giving time for people to meet one another, creating space for conversation between new people & mentors, explicitly addressing some of the common issues, or looking at the schedule to make sure its sequencing makes sense for a new person. Atlanta Swing Classic brought me on staff as a full fledged Newcomer Welcome Program consultant this year. That’s a great way to make sure someone is fully focusing on this next-generation customer base. I love seeing that kind of cross-event collaboration and attention to this demographic specifically.

CC: Tell us more about the Newcomer programs you have run?

KN: I’ve recently been asked by several events to run a Newcomer Welcome program. This looks slightly different at each event, depending on the demographic and the schedule, but there is a common formula that I’m finding suits the orientation needs of these newbies.
Basically, the event gives me 1-2 hours in one of the workshop rooms, usually very early in the weekend, like Friday afternoon or evening. I recruit several volunteer ambassadors by hand-picking dancers I know who are friendly and welcoming regardless of their status.
We start off by some small group meet & greet activities which always includes introductions and chatting with new faces, giving people a chance to relate to others who have subscribed to the event with the same goals/intentions/fears, and meeting dance ambassadors/teachers/others who can help support them or answer questions throughout the weekend. This way the Newcomers know who they can ask when they have questions, and feel like they already have social connections to others.
After that we explain how to decipher the schedule, and impart the wisdom about how to pace yourself and manage your energy between workshops, competitions, and social dancing. Then we go on a tour of the convention space or make a scavenger hunt game of it!
Back in the large group, we discuss some social expectations about the culture of the WCS community. Many people are perfectly socially competent but just are new to our scene and need to be briefed on how to navigate its nuances, how to identify what is and is not appropriate behaviour, and how to set their boundaries in this context to avoid being prey of social offenders. We talk about how inviting someone to dance is considered friendly and welcoming, so they shouldn’t wait in a corner to be asked to dance. Sometimes this involves a role playing activity where they practice reading body language, deciding who to ask and when, and receiving “no” as an answer.
Finally, we do a Q&A, which helps everyone get their lingering questions answered and hear others’ that they didn’t think of. We leave them with the social resources of knowing who to approach with questions throughout the weekend, and identify a “Newcomer table” that they can feel free to use as a home base if they don’t already have one. We’ve found that this orientation session makes the whole experience of attending an event much less overwhelming for first-timers.

Another version of this is a Newcomer/Novice-AllStar Meet & Greet, which involves inviting any interested AllStars to the Welcome session, and turning it into half orientation (as described above) and half social dance practice. Sometimes this is more open to other Beginner dancers that are no longer Newcomers, in order to bridge the gap and facilitate a mentoring experience. We explain that asking someone to dance is *not* the same as asking someone for feedback on your dance, and that it is inappropriate for anyone to offer them feedback without being asked for it. We put on music that’s not too loud. They practice asking AllStars to dance and it’s up to them if they choose to ask for feedback. The one-on-one time goes a long way. This way when they enter the full main ballroom, they are less intimidated because they have practiced already in a closed environment. Since many AllStars are seeking opportunities to take leadership and working towards developing their teaching skills, this is a win-win session that has received tremendous support.

Ways you can welcome a Newcomer

  • Ask them to dance
  • Try to accept their invitation
  • Introduce them to more people
  • Strike up a conversation
  • Ask if they have any questions
  • Remember their name
  • Don’t coach them or offer dance feedback
  • Don’t have any expectations of their dancing
  • Don’t spread negativity
  • Be encouraging
  • Tell them you hope to see them next time

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