"There's no place like home..."

This past year I moved to a new town where there's no contra dance. The town is beautiful and historic, my job is great, I travel to dances almost every weekend, and life is good! But I miss my dance community. Of course I miss my good friends and my "favorite" dance partners and the old social group, but there is something else I miss, too. I find it growing larger and larger in my mind these past few months.

It comes out in nostalgic statements like, "well, back in _our_ group, we did _________," said with a sense of pride and satisfaction, because I was a part of us coming to do it that way. What I miss is the chance to be part of shaping the traditions and culture in a particular dance community. This was something that went on during the dance - just in the way we interacted, but it also occurred in large part through talk and social connections off the dance floor.

I miss our community-building conversations. I miss the conversations when we went out after dances. I miss the twice a month swing dances in one dancer's living room, where we also talked. I even miss a Tuesday night dinner which has gotten started since I left, since the reports I hear are rife with scintillating wit, good jokes and good times, and yes, talk about dancing.

The afterdance "thing" was always announced from the mike - to be at some local watering hole. (We moved around from place to place trying to find ones that would happily accommodate an unpredictable number from 10 to 40 at midnight with no reservation!) We would hang out, enthuse about (or rag on) the talent that night, get to know some new folks, reconnect with the familiar faces, and, inevitably, share our opinions with each other about dancing.

I'm not just talking about that old merry- go-round "which star grip is better, wrist grip or hands across?" Though that one did come up over and over. Lots of times we were talking about the _quality_ of the dance, and how we could improve it. This topic would include issues like how to help newcomers learn well. How to keep attendance up so we could pay for high quality and an interesting variety of bands and callers (or just break even, some seasons). How NOT to scare newcomers away (like, would you stay at a dance where every new neighbor kept correcting your swing?)

I have seen old hands get a jolt a couple of times when they realized they'd been discussing newcomers up and down, and a real live one was sitting within earshot! I've also been there when newcomers spoke up and reminded me and us of things that would help them feel more comfortable/stay/learn better (like getting a few hints from a partner rather than being deluged by comments from 20 neighbors). Or, they'd speak up with questions and give us an opportunity to share our local notions and history. "What if I don't want to dance with someone who asks me?" or "Why don't you find a bigger hall?"

Our informal cooperative seminar was open to all and the themes cycled round and round. You know. The ones that come up over and over on the newsgroup rec.folk-dancing. "Beginner's workshop" "No more beginner's workshops." "Better beginner's workshops." You can hear them at leader's lunches at dance weekends. Or caller's workshops. But this was not just leaders talking, and at the local dance we were not debating issues in an abstract or "one best way" sense. The talk was grounded in the history and experiences of group members. I think we felt we had to come up with our own answers, that what worked for another community might not work the same way in our community with our history and our traditions. Or what had worked in the past might need to be changed, but with awareness of "who we are" and "what our community wants."

I think it was these conversations that helped me make a transition out of a "sophomore" dancer stage (dancing wild and dangerous, a tendency to over-enthusiastically share my newfound knowledge with anyone who might be new, including any of my neighbors. Ouch. I wince at those memories!). It was so easy just to think about what I wanted at the dance. I wanted to dance hot and fast with fun people and hot bands and hot callers. I needed to hear about and think about how the community as a whole had needs and seasons.

I needed to figure out that contra dance was not my happiness vending machine, and all kinds of factors influenced how "hot" it would be any particular night. That sometimes it might not be "hot" and still be a successful dance, with new friends made and good learning accomplished for some new (and not so new) dancers. Or, it just might be a miracle there was a dance at all that night, given the obstacles overcome to make it happen.

I truly did not realize at first, that if I just looked out for my own interest, and all other dancers did too, we risked the loss of our community. Many more experienced dancers knew this. Somehow they also refrained from puncturing my enthusiasm, though I was probably scaring away some new dancers with my zeal to "help" them learn faster. One dancer in particular seemed several times to have just the right gentle suggestion for me at the time I would be ready to hear it. I continue to think of him as a mentor, though he would probably disclaim that title. How kind that community was to me! I learned to love contra dancing with them, and also to be hooked on passing it on. How many of us feel grateful to have found the contra dance communities? They are a precious resource.

When I started dancing in my old community, the dance was going through one ( or two ) of those "lean seasons" which hit many dance communities. Turnover had happened, with dancers cycling out, and there hadn't been enough new dancers to keep attendance levels up to a break-even point. Organizers were dipping into their own pockets to make up shortfalls. They were begging local bands and callers to "donate" their talent at reduced fees. (And as we all know, the regular fees are already practically a donation.) In short, I think they were desperate! So these topics were of great interest to all.

Funny what happens when you think your dance might die... What we did was grow. The dancers taught themselves through discussion and feedback to one another to welcome new dancers very, very well! We changed from a dying community of exquisitely fine-tuned dancers to a thriving community with a wide range of skill levels. We learned by asking questions how much it cost to support a variety of excellent callers and bands, and how quickly the other hidden costs added up. We started asking for and getting candid reports from the leaders of what issues were being faced and rationales behind some decisions. We learned that many of the "right" solutions (or "our favorite" ones) had already been tried....We learned there were probably not easy answers. We learned to disagree, even passionately, and still to look for a way to all be for the dance and value each other.

I can't help thinking that it made a big difference that it was the dance membership itself debating these things, not just a lonely group of beleagured die-hards. Not only were many more dancers learning how to help community grow, on the dance floor and off, but a new set of leaders was being groomed. The new leaders (who didn't know they were leaders yet) were growing invested in the group, inching closer to taking responsibility for making the actual decisions on issues they had been debating for so long.

They were (more) ready to step in when burnout hit the too few long-suffering souls who had been dealing too long with discouragement and fielding complaints and schlepping the sound system and and making flyers and maintaining a mailing list and mailing flyers and putting stacks of flyers in restaurants and making long-distance phone calls to talent and booking talent and playing host to talent and negotiating contracts for the hall and keeping books for the group and filing tax forms and writing grants to get more money to survive another year and coughing up another $100 tonight out of pocket and sending out press releases and calling papers and begging them to print the press releases and taking money at the door and repairing the sound system and doing sound and (deep breath) just doing all those things for so long that it was easy for most dancers not to realize they needed doing.

How can I tell you how exciting it was to be part of this community cycling through a rebirth, and growing strong again? I feel nourished to have been on the inside. We did it together, and I think if there were another lean season, that community would do it again. These are just words, they stare back at me blankly. I don't know if I'm communicating the strength of my feeling. But if you do this, yourself, if you help shape your community to grow and flourish, write me and tell me how it feels!

Now, when I travel to other cities to dance, or call, I am not as integral a part of the ongoing conversations. I am just a visitor, and I observe what their traditions or culture seem to be, often learning new things, getting ideas. But I probably don't completely get it, especially right at first. I don't know the history. I don't know the ongoing debates. And, as a visitor, I don't contribute a whole lot to that ongoing process. Maybe a little. And I miss contributing. I miss pouring my energy and ideas into a particular place and watching something grow. I miss it especially when I think I see a need. Like a dance going through a lean season.

It's tempting to share my ideas, and sometimes I do, but I suspect they're not likely to be useful. It is my opinion that all the "great" ideas in the world from an outsider are no replacement for inspiration and energy of the dancers themselves when they are committed to nurturing their own group.

I 'll be a gypsy for the next forseeable while. At least until I move again, or decide to dig in roots and start a dance here! But I know, for those dances I visit, that there are other people shaping the traditions of each dance community, with their decisions, conversation, and by example. I appreciate their work. I hope there are enough of them to spread the work around. And I'm jealous of their opportunity. (Well, I guess I don't really miss lugging the sound system. Not much, anyway.) I'm coming to think that as fun as it is to travel, there's no place like home. I send out a sincere hope that all our dance homes grow and flourish.

Caroline Fahrney