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How To Change a Dance

November 29th, 2019
contra  [html]
Let's say you don't like something about your local dance. Perhaps you'd like to see gender free calling, a different approach to booking bands, a new kind of special event, or something else. How can you make this happen?

The best case is that you talk to the organizers, they say "what a great idea!" and handle the rest, but it rarely works this way. [1] Maybe the organizers have a different background and don't understand why you think your ideas would be an improvement. Maybe your ideas would be more work, at least at first, and they're feeling overworked with what they're doing already. Maybe the ideas take longer to explain than you can get in during conversations at the break. When this works, it's the least difficult, but for anything tricky it seems to me like it usually doesn't.

Here are three things, however, that I have seen work well:

  • Start helping out. Come early and set up, stay late and clean up, offer to help take money at the door. By doing this work you demonstrate a commitment to the community and to the dance, you learn what's involved in running the dance, and you build trust with the current organizers. Then ask about joining the organizing committee. While trusting you to arrive early and unlock the building doesn't seem like it should translate into trusting your view on questions like whether the dance should book more newer callers, it does seem to work that way. I think some of this is that doing the work to make something happen builds ownership, which gets people to make thoughtful decisions that are better for the long-term health of the community.

  • Build consensus. Say you and your friends are all on board with gender-free bathrooms, but a lot of other dancers are uneasy about them. If you had a vote you'd probably be in the minority, and if you were able to change things by fiat you'd have a lot of unhappy dancers and maybe a revolt. How can you get to where this wouldn't be a controversial change anymore? Friendly one-on-one conversations can go a long way here, especially when people can convey a perspective someone hasn't considered much before. Listen, figure out why other people feel the way they do, share why you see it differently. This can be a lot of work, and the work of, in this example, building consensus on gender free bathrooms will mostly fall on trans and gender non-conforming dancers if you're not careful. So if you're not directly impacted by something, talk to those that are about what help is needed. As the idea moves towards the mainstream of the community, most organizers will see that and go from "maybe we should do that, but the dancers wouldn't like it" to "sounds like this is what people want."

  • Start something new. Sometimes what you're looking for is different enough from the existing event that trying to change it makes less sense than starting your own. Find other people to start it with you who have a similar perspective, put a bunch of thought into how you'd like things to be different, and don't be afraid to try approaches you don't see at other dances. When this goes well the new event expands the community by pulling in a new crowd of people and builds a more robust scene. The existing organizers will probably worry that the current community isn't big enough to support an additional event, and if you mostly just split the existing community then they may be right. Actively recruit from places the existing event doesn't, run different kinds of publicity that fit what makes your dance different, pull in new circles.

Which of these approaches makes the best sense for you in your particular situation will vary, but volunteering to help out with the dance is often a good place to start.


[1] I'm writing this as general advice, and I'm not trying to say "don't talk to me about BIDA". If you have thoughts about BIDA please let me know, and I'd be happy to talk to you about how the dance can be better.

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