Jan 2024 – Welcoming and Helping New Dancers


By David Macemon, ECD caller and committee member

We can all admit it, we LOVE to dance. It could be contra, English, or both—and lots of other styles. And what is more fun than sharing our love of dancing with others? This can be a challenge when our enthusiasm for dancing meets new dancers who have no idea what they’re getting into.

I think we can all agree that we need to create a welcoming environment that encourages new dancers to return and become experienced dancers. There are many factors involved in striving for that goal; one thing we can all do is be conscious of how we help new dancers. Here are my thoughts about helping new dancers, based on 50 years of dancing and nearly as many years as a caller. [David started calling very young; see his interview “From Versailles to Victoria: A Calling Career,” in this issue. -Ed.

Invite your friends to come dance, and encourage (insist?) that they show up on time for the teaching session. In fact, you should show up for the teaching session too. Stress levels will be lower for new dancers if they know someone. 

What is your role in a teaching session? The caller is teaching, so the role of teacher is taken. An experienced dancer’s role in a teaching session is to model being a good student. What does that mean? Doing what the caller asks, but only when they ask you to do it. Do not anticipate what the caller is instructing. If there is confusion, an experienced dancer should get the caller’s attention and ask for clarification. This helps the new dancer understand that instructions and direction will be coming from one person, the caller.

When the teaching session is over, chat with the new dancers and welcome them to the community. Ask how they found out about the dance. Be friendly. Once the dance starts, ask new dancers to dance. Quietly chat with them until the caller starts teaching. This is another great moment for modeling being a good student. Pay attention to the caller and move only when the caller is ready for you to move.  

What should you do if your new dance partner gets confused during the walk-through? Lots of options here, but the best is to alert the caller and let them know there is confusion so they can provide clarity. In addition, keep eye contact with your partner if they are comfortable with that. In many dances we move in parallel with our partner, so movement of the eyes or a subtle tilt of the head can indicate the direction to go. Smiling at your partner provides reassurance that things are going well. You can provide gentle leads from either role position: for example, after an allemande or hand turn, gently let them go once they are headed to the correct place. For figures where we pass through other dancers, pointing at your own shoulder to guide which way to go is often helpful. 

What should you NOT do? I don’t want to create a list of Do Nots, but here are a few moves that can be physically hurtful and not very welcoming: 

  • Do not push or pull others into place.
  • Do not physically move people to where you think they should be.
  • Do not tighten your grip on your partner’s hand, even if they are letting go at the wrong time.

After you’ve successfully learned the dance from the walk-through, what then? Continue to model good dancing. Be where you need to be at the right time. Smile, keep eye contact. Avoid embellishments, tricks, and flourishes that may leave the new dancer confused. The goal with new dancers is to provide an environment that they want to come back to. There will be plenty of time to teach your favorite trick on the third or fourth time they attend. And remember, mistakes—everyone’s mistakes—can be occasions to laugh and celebrate. We don’t want to be perceived as blaming a new dancer for not accomplishing something that is completely new to them. As a wise dancer once said, It’s only a dance!

Once a dance is over, what’s the experienced dancer to do? Thank your partner for the dance. Quickly look at the dancers near you and introduce your partner to another experienced dancer. (“Hello Alex, this is River, it’s their first time at the dance.”)  Ideally, Alex will happily ask River to dance and then introduce River to another experienced dancer at the end of their dance together.

Keep an eye out for new dancers who end up sitting on the side during a dance. New dancers often don’t know the rules about asking others to dance—and even if they have been given permission to ask others, it can be a scary thing. Make sure they get asked to dance. Dance with them again. While I don’t have scientific data, a new dancer who wants to dance but is left to sit on the side for multiple dances is not likely to become an experienced dancer: they are not likely to come back to the dance.

A resource I have found useful is this video that Don Bell made of Brooke Friendly’s workshop, “Do’s and Don’ts of Helping Other Dancers,” at the Adirondack Dance Weekend in September 2019. The comments section contains a good list of Do’s and Don’ts. Have a look and see what you might be able to incorporate as you help new dancers to learn to love the dances you love.