Come Together: What is community?

I’ve been a member of different dance communities for over fifteen years, but since I started Mission City Swing in San Francisco four years ago, I’ve been giving a lot more thought to the idea of community – and what makes for a “good” or “successful” community.

Community is a funny thing, in that there are so many ways to define it. The dictionary definition of “community” is essentially “a group of people with a common interest or characteristic living in a particular area or living together in a broader society.” When I think about how we use the word “community” in our dance world, it can apply to the people who go to a particular venue or studio (the Mission City Swing community), the people who live in a particular area (the Bay Area community), and the people all around the world who share an interest in West Coast Swing (the general community, distinct from the zouk community or the blues community). Community transcends levels, because it is about being tied together by a common interest. 

But community is also more than just sharing a common interest. It is about sharing a common character, and along with that, shared attitudes, shared ownership, and in many ways, a shared identity. And this leads to another aspect that defines many of our dance communities: a sense of fellowship.

When we are a part of a community, we feel connected to others, we enjoy the camaraderie, we feel accepted and supported, and we get a sense of belonging. In our dance communities, we have not just a common interest but a web of relationships that tie us together. I often say that people come for the dancing, but they stay for the people. Yes, we love to dance, but for many of us, we love the community just as much.

Over the years, as I’ve met people from around the globe who share my interest in West Coast Swing, I have made some amazing friends, and I now spend probably as much (if not more) time socializing at dances and conventions as I do dancing. I love to dance, but I love getting to know people and catching up with people. Conventions are a great place to connect with friends I don’t see on a regular basis, and I will often pick dance events based on where my friends are going.

Our dance communities are often centered around places to dance – studios, venues, events and conventions – and the classes, social dancing, and competitions that take place there. The quality and quantity of opportunities for learning and dancing are important. But our communities are also the people who share a love of West Coast Swing and the relationships that bind them together. The way we feel when we go dancing with others, and the way we feel about the others there, certainly affect our sense of community.

And on that point, I would argue that a successful, healthy, thriving community is one in which: (1) there are plenty of quality opportunities to dance and to improve, such that the community attracts, retains, and develops both new and experienced dancers alike; and (2) there is an inclusive and cohesive group of people who feel welcome, accepted, safe, and connected, creating feelings of camaraderie, fellowship, and belonging. There are many communities out there that have achieved this, and others who struggle to build, sustain, or grow their communities. Yet even when they’re successful and thriving, every community has some challenges they struggle to overcome – challenges that may change over time as the community evolves.

In this series, “Come Together,” I’d like to share my thoughts, insights, and questions about community. How do we create a community? How do we grow a community? What are the factors that are important for a community? What does a successful community look like and how do we get there? How do we sustain it in the long term? And how do we measure or recognize success? I will draw upon my own experiences and observations in dance, my academic and professional experience in organization development, and my many encounters and conversations with others, some of whom are community leaders and teachers and others who are participating members of a dance community. I hope you’ll follow along and add your own ideas and observations along the way.

But what do you think? What is a “good” or “successful” community to you? How would you describe some of the communities you’ve liked? How do you feel when you are a part of a community? And what is the relative importance of the dancing itself and the sense of fellowship you feel?

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