The Return of Social Dancing- copyright 2022- Daniel Trenner
The Return of Social Dancing- June 2021
September 2021, Florence(Northampton), Massachusetts:
The Lay of the Land:
This article has been holed up in my head for more than a year. I thought I would write it shortly after publishing The Rings of Affinity in June 2020, but whereas Rings was about philosophy and perspective, Return was always going to be about the logistics of creating dance venues for live in-person dance social events and classes. I know that for many of us who have depended on organizing dance the pandemic has been a particularly horrific experience, shutting down our livelihood along with our social spheres.
Now it’s September of 2021 and the landscape has shifted yet again. Vaccinations have profoundly shifted our short term perspectives here in the Northeastern USA, and “safely opening” seems to be the word of the day. In addition to all the other businesses that are getting the economy running again, there is a general momentum to start dancing again. It’s happening. Live, in-person, dance classes; live, in-person, social gatherings; and festivals, one’s that bring large divergent groups of us together; from different geographies and friend circles.
I must admit that the rush makes me uncomfortable. There is just no getting around the fact that for a highly contagious respiratory contagion like Corona, social dance could remain a risky activity. But dancers have extra motivation to get vaccinated, and by all accounts they are. Yet vaccinated people, who had been given permission by the CDC to gather together in groups, indoors, without masks as recently as June, are now asked again to cover up indoors. There is a mother more troubling truth, which is, I believe, left intentionally unstated. That a new variant may come along at any moment which will invade the protection of the vaccines. And the longer we take to get the whole world protected the more likely this becomes. And, subsequently, in the stressed environment of climate change and food insecurity, the opportunity for another, completely different disease to rampage is ever present.
This brings me to our Northern, Western, developed world, mostly though not only white, intellectual “privilege”. Dancing in a rich society, that has hoarded vaccines, while the rest of the world, including many of the source communities of social dance that we love, remain in desperate conditions, without vaccines, and without the rescue resources on which we have depended for our survival. The wave of infection they are experiencing now may turn out to be the worst for them. (Though at this writing Argentina seems to have turned for the better, Cuba is turning for the worse.)
And we may never reach the 80-90% vaccinated population needed for “herd” immunity. Not anywhere (NYTimes). And, that the constantly mutating virus, combined with the lack of vaccination in the developing world will mean, at best, an endless presence of the virus and its variants, in our normal lives, and that keeping it down to Flu like levels will be the likeliest best outcome. (Also NYTimes)
When, in the third week of May, the CDC decided that vaccinated people no longer needed to wear masks either outdoors or indoors, except in numerous settings where they still must. A decision so vague and misleading, that it turned all logic on its head. We do not live in a society where an “honor system” will ever work, especially regarding a deadly disease. Anti-vax people were already not going to wear masks, and now they blend in with vaccinated people, making all of us unsure of how “safe” any public social venue will be.
Well, our reality here in my area (Western Massachusetts) is, being vaccinated means being safe, at least for now. It is understandable that there is urgency around getting our lives and businesses going again.
The wave of returning dance events involving crowds, random attendees, and strangers has begun, whether we like it or not.
But dance communities can have more consciousness in the way of safe and sustainable dance practice. And it is to that end that I am writing.
Reimagining the idea of dance practice:
There is a way to have our safety, and our dancing, one that involves changing the way we perceive what dance study and practice can be.
Let’s carefully build the next generation dance communities by rediscovering the difference between Dance Practice and Dance Events.
Dance Events, involving large groups, random attendees and strangers dancing together are both desirable, and as posited, already beginning again. Hopefully all will be well and vaccinated societies will make such events safe and enduring. But what if they don’t?
Let’s also create “Safe Dance Pods”, composed of small groups of known dancers who collaborate on creating small practice environments for safe study, groups that can survive lockdowns that may come in the near future, should the status of the virus change for the worse again.
Safe Dance Pods can be sustainable during lockdown, using the tools we’ve already learned in household, family, and friend bubbles. They can maintain basic financial support for local teachers and organizers, so they can survive in a profession that we all know was chosen more out of love, than ambition for profit.
And our safe dance pods can be a foundation for fundraising to support dance “source” dance communities. (i.e. Tango in Buenos Aires, Salsa in Cuba) These are communities in crisis, and for the long haul.
We have developed a great deal of dialogue concerning what amounts to “safe” behavior. A set of social dance circles built from the inner ring out, a grass roots approach to what “study “ and “practice” of dance might mean in dedicated small groups committed to both the art and to public safety.
We, social dancers, those of us with sufficient will and integrity, could be role models for the safe return of in-person social, intimate, connected, physical behavior. Society needs it to happen, before our social skills atrophy any further. The next generation of kids, whose social development was already threatened by isolation, screen time, and social media, is now even more in need of social repatterining, of non-competitive, physically interactive, socially intimate opportunities, like the ones that healthy social dance communities provide.
We, professional teachers and organizers, can be the sane and conscious “role models” that dance communities need us to be. We can start up in-person classes and small practice events responsibly, keeping our clients and their friendship and familial circles safe!!
Our responsibility is to our greater society, beyond just those who love to dance. The expression of healthy socializing is our business. And because of the pandemic, because of the crisis of social isolation created by social media, because of the crisis in racial and sexual injustice that extends to dance communities, and because of coming generations of youth, who will need us to show them a way forward. We are at a pivotal moment in history, and in our history, the history of social dancing. My hope is that we rise to the challenge.
In my small world I will be opening my small private studio to small groups of 15, or fewer, participants. The hope will be to coalesce into committed groups of dancers who stay together for the remainder of this crisis (which, while we hope not, could be a long time), practicing regularly on their given evenings, and be able to keep dancing together in close contact, with air circulation, and air filtration, and, hopefully, without the need to mask.
In order to reach an agreement on how to protect ourselves we will have to create a set of protocols for how we behave in the “outside” world so that we can protect the freedom we enjoy within our dance pods. Each group will arrive at these protocols in a dialogue. I imagine that protocols will include simple safety measures like mask wearing in public indoor spaces (supermarkets, retail, concerts, sporting events and the like) even when the society tells us it is ok not to. And that we will set up our own Contact tracing contact list, to make sure that we can respond promptly to any possible infection that reaches our group.
As we establish our protocols I will publish them here. I hope that other small groups of dancers will collaborate and add to the dialogue.
That’s it really, but read on if you’d like more details on the thinking that has led to this article.
More background information, should you desire it:
The good news. We can dance, and most importantly the pandemic presents us with the opportunity to establish a baseline of dancers with far better skills than we had before.
Social dancing of all kinds has experienced dark times during the developments of the last century. The two world wars created large gaps in the natural social evolutions of form. Patriarchy and white supremacy helped keep dancing restricted to limited expressions of gender and race. The development of radio and television destroyed the culture of family outings to dine, dance, and see live performance. The movement of families into suburbs isolated us, further than ever from social interaction. Children have been isolated into less and less diverse communities. These are only a few of the reasons that culture has suffered, and that people have been more isolated socially in their daily lives.
In order for social skills to “revive” in a post pandemic setting, more conscious forms of social interaction, specifically created to build sophisticated social skills will be necessary. After all, the most common, unintentional, and random forms of social interaction have been severely restricted. Things like eating in restaurants, shopping, parties, political gatherings, sporting events, and the like, will not feel so easily safe anymore, and our resulting behavior in such settings will no longer provide for easy social and physical contact.
Dancing is just one example of an activity organized for the express purpose of raising social consciousness, encouraging a more meaningful and profound set of social interactions. We do it for fun among communities of consenting adults. WE should be making it a more intentional part of the lives of our youth.
And in order for such social gatherings to succeed the individuals involved need to have sufficient experience and skills. Or at the very least, a significant subset of dedicated individuals must have embraced the study and practice of such skills, so as to raise the baseline of success for newcomers and youth.
This, I will argue, is the “silver lining” we can now embrace during the “return”, the post pandemic social culture we must now create, and will now inhabit. Dedicated groups of dancers (and in other disciplines) can embrace the learning of the necessary skills in small safe committed groups. In doing so they will raise the level of dance skills needed for when bigger groups become possible again, and they can support the industry of local teachers and organizers, the advanced group that is essential to health of our communities both now and later, a group which was never that wealthy, and is now in serious economic pain. These small safe groups represent the return to the real “practice” of social dance, where we work to prepare for the social ritual with dedicated friend groups to sustain and evolve our dance skills, leaving the exciting but random and unpredictable big events for later.
All of this we CAN do, if we can realize a community oriented mindset. And if there is any community that already has the awareness of the benefits of community social skills, and the need for the dedicated study and practice necessary to maintain such talents, it is our dance communities, which have already survived the threats that existed before the pandemic, and therefore can lead the way back from the pandemic.
There are the five worlds of Social Dancing in which I have immersed myself over the past 40 years. I’m sure that if you are part of some other dance scene, and there are many, you will find some of this thinking useful. In each of my worlds I have cause to believe that raising the baseline of general skills will be essential to the social scene’s recovery as we emerge from these long lockdowns. And in each of these worlds a focus on small known groups refining their skills will benefit every aspect of the return of big socials after the pandemic’s threats have passed.
1- Contact Improvisation, and more generally, Improvisational Dance Communities. These social dance communities are New Dance, developed during the period from the late 60’s to the present time. They are characterized by a wide diversity of techniques and social goals, organized by a diverse group of organizers, and attended by a public that is intergenerational, and with a wide variety of previous dance and athletic training, ranging from lots to none. It has always been a situation of pros and cons. Experienced dancers bring one set of skills and challenges, non-dancers bring completely different ones. The encounter between the trained and the untrained is fuel for the Improvisation that forms the basis for all the joy and learning in the experience.
2- Ballroom dance is primarily studio focused, with intense training for competition a focus of advanced dancers, while beginners are encouraged to spend time learning the basics of dance while moving around through a variety study groups and teachers. These inherently small groups are well positioned to survive and keep dancing.
3- Swing Dance almost disappeared until the revival in the 1980s that depended so much on the survival of one man, Frankie Manning, who became the source for the social material. He taught into his 90’s, and travelled all over the world. In the wake of his influence a new generation of teachers evolved and began to diverge in style and temperament, creating Swing dance communities and festivals in numerous cities around the globe. Yet these communities experience constant turnover, and new generations of beginners. All will benefit from small groups dedicated to preserving high level skills, or building them.
4- The Argentine Tango’s revival bloomed in the 1990s, and unlike in swing dance where the golden age was a decade or more older, there were many more surviving elders, many of whom became, along with the revival generation of youngsters, traveling teachers establishing dance communities all over the world. Yet, like the swing dancers, these communities experience constant turnover, and new generations of beginners. We will also benefit greatly from small groups dedicated to preserving high level skills, or building them.
5- “Salsa” Dancing’s history is a bit different in that there are many different dance and musical genres, and the Latin Dance Clubs where they thrive have long been a part of the late night social scene in cities all over the world. But these “street dances” or “family dances” which became “club dances” are characterized by not only a plentitude of styles, but by skill sets that also range from lots to none. Dance clubs, like bars, are potential super spreaders. Salsa dancers will benefit from small committed dance pods, focused on raising skill levels, and building more evolved social dance communities, ones that can return to clubs later with an elevated code of ethics and social codes, created by experienced dancers, that can inform social behavior within the club scene, perhaps in a transformative way.
All of these dance forms presently suffer from two great social challenges, dating to before the pandemic. First, a lack of generational continuity. This means an unpredictable, and mostly lack of, intergenerational role models of both good dance skills, and healthy rules of social etiquette. We are guiltless, and that is important. Great social disasters, caused by wars, and political upheavals have decimated certain generations of dancers, and social dance is in a state of constant and fluctuating revivals. It is a testament to the human need for social encounter, that our dance communities keep reviving even under great duress.
Secondly, dancers in any of these revival communities are mostly untrained, drawn as beginners to worlds of dance and music that drew them because of the social possibilities, and perhaps artistic and aesthetic appeal. These large groupings of new dancers enter with great enthusiasm, but few resources, and little perspective. Experienced role models and teachers and organizers are left with the task of modeling what a healthy dance world should look like. The truth is that such large influxes of new beginner energy pose a host of social, logistical and artistic challenges for aficionados, teachers and organizers.
New dancers do not know the social codes, and in the learning process can drag down the level of culture and skill in the communities, driving more experienced dancers to retire or move on. Without role models then the beginners can begin losing touch with the things that attracted them and they retire. Finally a few dedicated dancers rise, and the cycle repeats itself.
The solution to this great challenge in sustaining healthy dance community has always been to engage dancers in circles of ever expanding skill sets and style, so they remain enthusiastically engaged. So that they themselves become the role models we need them to be for each other, and the next wave of new dancers joining up. In an ideal world this would be a constant passing of the torch between generations of dancers, but in the last century the world has not cooperated. This places a much greater burden, than might otherwise be, on dance teachers and event organizers, who must add social education and social engagement, to what ideally should only have been the already great challenges of providing good learning environments, one’s that engage dancers in elevating both their physical skills and event planning.
In this age of renewed emphasis on “me too” and “racial justice”, raising consciousness and creating the opportunity for dialogue and growth is an essential next step in building dance communities.
I’m going to argue that now, as we emerge from the pandemic, and in the optimistic spirit of recognizing “silver linings”, and of making “lemonade from the lemons we have had forced upon us”, that there is a path for re-emerging dance communities that will accomplish the following goals.
1- Raise the baseline skill sets of all dancers who remain committed to the learning process.
2- Keep the knowledge of dance and dance culture alive and thriving.
3- Support the class of professional teachers and organizers as we wait for a reasonable all clear to begin having public dances again.
4- Provide a life line of financial support to “source” dance communities, in parts of the world lagging behind in vaccination and rescue resources.
5- And stay safe, when necessary, by being able to avoid the gatherings of random individuals that have traditionally populated dance classes and social gatherings; especially should another surge in the pandemic occur.
Following on from Rings of Affinity, the solution I champion is the commitment to short to medium term (probably at least for a few years) “dance pods”, for the maintenance and betterment of our dance skills, insuring that for the long run, when big public dance events can return, that there will be a significant subset of dancers who have maintained the practice of dance, and can serve as the role models for the new and returning dancers of the next generation.
These committed dancers can also serve as the financial support for the professional dance teachers and organizers, by paying to maintain a living wage. Professionals at the local community level are struggling, as are the source communities overseas. Dancers, and their families, are facing an existential crisis.
“Dance Pods” can be self-organized, choosing from a smorgasbord of local and virtual resources. “Dance Pods” can be organized by teachers and within schools. “Dance Pods” can be coordinated by local organizers, hooking together groups of friend dancers with teachers and virtual resources.
Dancers need to take stock of what they used to spend monthly on dancing in all of the forms they practiced and spend somewhat more in this next period. Teachers and organizers will be working of necessity with fewer participants, and these fewer participants will be receiving more attention. A new method of calculating what dancers should spend is necessary, and dancers should get comfortable with paying monthly or seasonal fees, ones where absence is ok but also non-refundable.
And successful small groups should be creative about fundraising for the greater, big picture, need. Ours was never a profession where we were in it for the money, and now resources are spread thin, and in most places (Buenos Aires is one example) critically needed. How can we make our small groups more efficient and targeted for helping dancers in desperate need?
If we do step up to meet the challenge we will collectively insure that there is a dance world to come back to after the pandemic. One where an experienced class of organizers, teachers and performers will have survived. Where new dancers will interact with experienced dancers who have upped their skills with practice. A dance world that will have a chance to once again rise and revive and please us all.
Read the whole Pandemic Suite
Dancing in the Corona Vortex
A Suite of Papers by Daniel Trenner authored during the Pandemic of 2020-2022