Come Together: Answering the “why”

This is part of Come Together, a series about defining, building, growing, and sustaining our dance communities.

In order to build and sustain a community, there must be a reason for people to join that community and stay. Like any business where customers have a choice of how to spend their time and money, a dance community must offer some value to the people it aims to serve.

As discussed in our last entry in this series, community leaders are responsible for providing a vision, and part of articulating that vision is defining the value that a community offers to its members.

Now, it’s easy for every community to define its value the same way: “a place where people have fun learning and dancing West Coast Swing.” After all, we’ve defined a successful community as one where dancers both new and experienced can learn and develop their skills while also forming positive relationships that give them a sense of belonging. Sounds great, right?

While all communities may strive for a similar vision, not all communities are equally successful. I’ve lived in and visited a number of dance communities, both here in the United States and abroad in Europe and Israel, and they can vary greatly in their ability to attract and retain dancers. (NB: Later in this series I’ll share my reflections on community building from when I was traveling abroad.) Some do well and thrive, others grow quickly and then become stagnant, and others become stale or even fade. This may happen to communities at individual venues or regional communities around a metropolitan area.

So why are some communities more successful than others? There are many factors that affect a community’s success, but a big reason is value. Some communities have defined and offered a value that keeps people coming (and coming back) while others have not.

The question then becomes: how does one define a value that continually appeals to people? The answer: consider your context.

No dance community exists in a vacuum. The people who make up any dance community have lots of alternative ways they could spend their time. It may be other priorities (like work, family, or relationships), other hobbies and interests, other dance styles, or even other opportunities to dance West Coast Swing. With so many important or appealing things to do, why should someone spend their time, money, and effort to participate in your local dance community instead?

Building and sustaining a community requires that community leaders offer not only a value, but a unique value that’s worth investing in. It’s not (usually) enough to say, “Come learn and dance West Coast Swing.” Some community leaders mistakenly assume that just because they are excited and passionate about West Coast Swing that others will automatically be the same way. While passion can be contagious, most people are not stepping up to run a dance community like these leaders, and it’s important to recognize that they may have other passions and priorities. To create and maintain a community of dancers, we need to differentiate our communities from the other things competing for dancers’ time and attention. We need to have a vision that conveys the unique value our communities offer them.

Let’s look at some examples of how communities can define their value by looking at their context.

Some communities are the only West Coast Swing game in town. In these cases, when a new West Coast Swing venue arises where there were previously none, the community needs to distinguish itself from other dance forms or other hobbies that might draw people’s attention. This situation happens as the dance spreads to new countries and cities. In these cases, the question to answer is: why West Coast Swing?

Several years ago, Wee Tze Yi introduced the dance to Singapore, showcasing it’s “cool” vibe, the diversity of music, and the musical improvisation. He was able to attract a number of his salsa students to get the community going, and today it is a very active and talented community.

Most communities, however, are arising in areas where there may already be some West Coast Swing dancing. In this situation, the community needs to distinguish itself from the other West Coast Swing opportunities, offering some new or different value. In these cases, the question becomes: why your community over the others?

With Mission City Swing, I was starting a dance community in the midst of a thriving Bay Area dance community. Melissa Rutz had been running a monthly dance in San Francisco, but there was not a weekly venue in the city, and, at the time, there were few West Coast Swing dancers who lived in San Francisco. I believed weekly classes and dancing would help grow the community in the city, providing regular and frequent opportunities to learn, dance, and engage with others. While I’ve always aspired to create a space where people would come and dance from all over the Bay Area, the primary audience has been people who live and work in San Francisco. Yes, there are other ways I’ve defined and differentiated our community from others in the Bay Area (such as culture, demographics, and atmosphere), but a principal distinguishing characteristic has been geographic.

A different example is Michelle Crozier, who took over a weekly venue in San Jose (Do Your Own Swing on Thursday nights), where Richard Kear also runs a weekly venue (on Monday nights). Michelle has done a great job building a community of her own over the last two years, distinguishing her community by creating a different brand and atmosphere, and targeting a different audience from Richard’s. Similarly, Hieu Le started Swingesota in Minneapolis, which was already home to Twin Cities Rebels Swing Dance Club and Minnesota West Coast Swing Club. Over the last few years, he has created a unique community in that he offered regular, weekly classes and dancing, and, like Michelle, he created a different brand and atmosphere that attracted a different audience.

To their credit, Michelle and Hieu considered their contexts and created communities that have added to their broader regional communities, infusing their dance scenes with new faces and new energy. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. There have been instances of people starting communities that have detracted from the broader community, either unintentionally or – in some cases – intentionally. I don’t want to call out anyone, but some people did not consider (or care about) context or the negative impact that starting a new community might have on their existing dance scene. I won’t speculate on their motivations or intentions, but when people start a new venue or community that directly conflicts or competes with another venue or community, it not only makes things harder for both communities, it can also create negative feelings and energy that degrade a dance scene over time. If people want to add value to a community, they should first consider what unique value they have to offer – and they should think about ways to offer that value in a cooperative way that maintains a sense of community.

On the other hand, there are some older dance communities that need to re-evaluate their value propositions in light of a changing landscape. Long-standing clubs like The Next Generation Swing Dance Club, Twin Cities Rebels Swing Dance Club, Gotham Swing Dance Club, and the Greater Phoenix Swing Dance Club have all had to face new competition that has arisen in their respective dance scenes over the years. In these instances, it is often no longer sufficient to do business as usual, running the club the same way as it did at its inception, when there was little competition. The question these communities must answer is: why should we continue to support you? These clubs may survive in the short-term, relying on their reputations or a loyal membership, but their survival is threatened in the long-term if they cannot position themselves to stay relevant and valuable to the newer generation of dancers. These clubs must respond to a changing context by changing the value they offer.

When community leaders think about how to build and sustain their communities, they should think about the current context in which they exist, and how to offer a unique value that distinguishes them but also adds to the broader community. The unique value may be geographic, demographic, cultural, or some other angle, but it should be reflected in and communicated through the leaders’ visions for their communities.

Every dance community must perpetually answer the question, “Why you?” We are constantly making a case for people’s time, attention, and energy, and the more we can define what we offer our community members that is unique and valuable to them, the more successful we’ll be at growing and maintaining our dance communities.

In my next entry in this series, I’ll take a look at a strategic framework for how community leaders can build and advance their dance communities.

But what do you think? What do you think attracts people to different dance communities? What is the value of your own dance community and how is it different and unique? How important is context to the success of your own community? And how do community leaders convey the value of their communities?

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