For those of you who travel regularly to dance events, and also go out to 'normal' social engagements, have you ever marveled at the difference in the average IQ level? Sure, IQ is a questionable measure, blah blah blah. But really- swing dancers (especially hard-core traveling dancers) are darned smart. Much, much smarter than average. I'd love to do a study comparing various social group meetings' IQ averages. I have a feeling we rank pretty high (although I'm sure that Mensa would win that competition). Interestingly, the same is not necessarily true of all scenes nationally. Likewise, some scenes are populated by jazz aficionados, while others ask for more Cherry Poppin Daddies. Here are a few of the factors I value most highly:
Case study: I'm pretty geeky, and I enjoy describing things accurately. So when I teach a swingout class, I talk about the fake-physics of following. People who are math-science types catch it, and enjoy an atmosphere that welcomes academic discussion. So now you have an instructor who's talking about physics, and students talking about brainy things on the side- often math/science/wordgames. So people who walk in the door are subjected to nerd-culture; people who like the culture stick around, and people who would rather talk about The View will get less pleasure out of their visit. Next thing you know, the social activities are things like sci-fi movie night, boggle night, etc. Personally, I thrive in that sort of environment. Don't bother asking me about football. I can tell you that Michael Vick and Ben Rothlisberger are bad people, and that's about it. So when I like the intellectual atmosphere in a scene, be prepare for a high IQ, and mad engineering skills.
This is so difficult, and my hats of to scenes like Philly that can manage it. My favorite scenes have leaders (instructors, djs, organizers) who practice what they preach. The teachers are students, the DJs are obsessed with learning about and finding new music... everyone who teaches or DJs seeks regular, honest feedback. Whether it's in the form of private lessons, workshops (DJ or dancing), DJ battles, practice sessions, or just asking other community members for feedback, the major players in the scene are constantly learning. Believe-you-me, I've seen firsthand the hunger that this inspires in students. Not to mention, of course, that if your instructors are constantly learning, your scene is always getting better instructors.
I can't be the only dancer whose primary determinant for a good night (or not) is the music. And I just have to be brutally honest, here: I've heard the excuse that beginners will only dance to non-swing music, and I've seen proof that it simply isn't true. Yes, a DJ must choose their music wisely to cater to beginners. But that does not mean restricting yourself to pop and rock'n'roll. If you give beginners good music from the beginning, they learn the music, just like they're learning the dance. If you hold your scene DJs to high standards, I truly believe that this lets your students become more sophisticated dancers- and truly, more fun dancers. Musical dances are more fun, and venues which play good music are more fun. Combine the two, and... you get it.
Every scene has an overall personality. Some are reserved to the point of being cold; some are as friendly and overeager as a 2-yr-old golden retriever; some are just plain schizophrenic. To maintain growth, a scene must be welcoming, friendly, and positive- and this must come from the top down, with consistency. After all- being a beginner is scary, and sometimes you need to go where everybody knows your name.
Everyone has heard the complaint at least once- such and such dancer will rip out your arm. No fun. Now, no beginner starts off amazing. (If your beginners are amazing, call me- I'm coming to learn from you!) But what your instructors teach in that first hour sets the course for a dancers career- or at least, the rest of the night. If your instructors are good, your beginners will feel nice to dance with. And if your beginners feel nice, the friendliness is just a little easier. Advanced and intermediates will enjoy dancing with your newbies, and as a result, your newbies will get better faster. Additionally, your big events will be more fun if your out-of-towners aren't your only dancers who are fun to dance with. And of course, good technique extends to more than just your beginners. If your dancers go out and give your city a good name by being fun to dance with, more dancers will come to your events, when have exchanges or workshops. Not to mention, your weekly dances are just way more fun!
Ok, this one is pretty easy once you have humility and friendliness. But it's so important that I wanted it to get its own heading. How do you show your students you value the dance community as more than a source of income? 1. Welcoming new dancers explicitly- things like having a dedicated host, making it a policy to ask your beginner students to dance, having a new-dancer snowball at the end of a novice series, etc. 2. Supporting other facets of the scene- a bal event announcing a lindy workshop, a weekly dance announcing the exchange, etc. 3. Making individuals feel recognized- announcing when a community member wins at an out-of-town competition, jamming birthday people, etc. 4. 4. If your venue has announcements, make sure that they are respected, and tolerable- like parents making their kids sit down and turn off the tv at dinner, having announcements be a recognized, important ritual helps your students bond with you as an organizer.
There are more things that an organizer can do to create a good scene, but if you establish the right sort of culture, your dance scene is guaranteed to get better. Not only that, but it will have its own momentum to improve, even if you pass the reigns, or take a hiatus. This is the sort of culture that retains better potential students, produces better students, and establishes its own growth. This is the sort of culture that will draw dancers from all over the country to be teachers, DJs, or just happy participants.
Cheers to all the scenes who are actively working towards a better dance future, and especially those who directly teach their staff to embrace these ideals. You know who you are!
TL;DR: Want me to like your scene? Promote nerdiness, have awesome music, be friendly, have good technique, and put the community first. That's all.