Welcome to the keynote address for the 66th National Square
Dance Convention here in Cincinnati. I want to thank you for coming.
My name is Eric Henerlau, and I live near San Francisco, CA. I’ve
been calling for nearly 40 years, and I travel extensively. I also have
an active home program where I teach multiple new dancer classes every year.
Today I was asked to talk about what’s right with square
dancing. What a great way to talk about this wonderful activity!
It’s so easy to focus on the negatives, to complain, and to
tell you all the reasons why square dancing is in decline. So many
of them we have heard time and time again. However, most people
don’t like to listen to others complain about a problem just to
complain. It drains their energy.
What people like to hear are ideas and positive responses. People
like to hear what’s good and right. It lifts their spirits and
helps them move forward in the face of challenges. So today I’m
going to talk about some of those challenges in a way that we can
meet and overcome them. I’m going to share a vision of what
square could look like in the future. And finally, I’m going
to give you some ideas of how you can attract more people in to
square dancing and build your club!
When I started calling, square dance clubs were ubiquitous. New clubs
were formed and occasionally other clubs folded, and I never paid
much attention to the overall health of the activity… until
about 15 years ago. That’s when I really started to see a
decline, not only in clubs and dances, but also in callers teaching
classes. The inevitability of square dancing continuing forever
didn’t seem so inevitable. When I talked to existing dancers,
they would start listing all the reasons why they thought square
dancing was in decline. Most people seemed to be resigned to the
state of affairs, as if nothing could change the direction. They
complained they couldn’t get younger people to try square
dancing, or that the Internet or videos or two working parents or
(fill in the blank) were turning people away from classes. However,
all of these things were really symptoms of other more fundamental
issues. Here are the issues that I see we face and some ways we can
value. Square dancing has so many positive attributes: fun,
exercise, and social connection just to name a few. The combination
of these things is unique in square dancing. We need to let people
know the great benefits of square dancing. We need to have them
feel it’s worth their while and their money to try this
activity. However, we often advertise square dancing in terms that
emphasize “cheap” or “free” in big letters.
If we made all square dancing free, do you think people would be
lining up at the door to join in? Probably not. People value what
they pay for. Psychologists and economists tell us that if we pay
money for a product, we value that product to the level of the money
we pay. The more we invest in the product financially, the more
likely we will support and promote the product. Let’s set the
value of our product (square dancing) to be commensurate with the
joy we get out of the activity. Valuing our product fairly leads us
to the next challenge we face.
realistic financial expectations. Halls cost money and callers
need to earn money. Dues and dance fees that haven’t changed
in the past 20 years are not keeping up with the real cost of
living. Compare costs of entertainment in your area. What does a
movie cost? What does a set of ballroom dancing lessons cost? How
about a set of tennis lessons? Are your dance fees in line with
other entertainment options such as a movie or bowling? Some clubs
have done a good job with adjusting dues and dance fees to match
expenses. These clubs usually have a treasurer who is good with
numbers and can calculate what the club needs to keep afloat. Have
honest club meetings to discuss finances. Setting realistic budgets
can be empowering, and those who really enjoy this activity will
find ways to make the finances work. These people usually have
great attitudes towards the club.
the club’s attitude. If the club’s energy is low,
or members feel burned out, or if the existing dancers have little
tolerance for new dancers, the club is struggling. Dancers may be
going through the motions of club activities without the enthusiasm
they once had. When this is the case, identify your members who
have the strongest vision and call a meeting. Have these leaders
talk about the things that make the club fun. Emphasize the value
of new faces in the squares and what these new people will bring.
Talk about the future of the club in one, two, and five years out.
Inspire them to look for ideas and elicit support from the rest of
the club. Attitude is changeable, and it starts with the leaders
who “own” square dancing.
more “owners” and fewer “renters”.
Some people participate in life as a “renter”, that is,
paying for a service or good while they want it, then leaving that
provider whenever they want. The whole square dancing activity can
be looked at as a provider. However, square dancing doesn’t
happen by itself. Square dancing is a collective effort of many
people. People with a “renters” attitude give less
towards the support and maintenance of square dancing. They don’t
“own” square dancing or take responsibility for the
long-term health of the activity. They get what they want until it
doesn’t suit them anymore, and then complain to the club or
On the other hand, dancers with an “owners”
attitude see that they are responsible for the condition of the
club. They realize that without action on their part, the club will
diminish. Owners take initiative and encourage others to
participate fully. Owners understand the importance of social glue
that keeps the club strong.
The first step in making more
owners is to have people self-evaluate. Can they be counted on to
step up when needed and take on some leadership? Strong clubs
develop efficient leadership in dancers.
lean and effective board. How often have we heard that
dancers don’t want to serve on the board because they don’t
want to get involved in the politics? How about board
members who feel they are more important just because they are on
the board? These two attitudes are mutually exclusive, and it
causes some board members to serve for years, while other members
never volunteer. There is a need for administration of a club to
keep it running smoothly. The club needs to choose callers and
halls, advertise for classes, decide details of dances and run them.
Is your governing body right-sized? A good board is trim and has
only the offices it needs to run the club efficiently. A smaller
board has fewer positions to fill.
Make sure your board
positions are clearly defined with a minimum of duties. Ask members
to volunteer for the board for just a one-year commitment. Hold
board meetings only when necessary, perhaps only four or five times
a year. Have clear, purpose-driven agendas that make a productive
meeting. Keep the focus on necessary club business and avoid petty
or tangential issues. If you do this, everyone will feel the work
is worthwhile instead of wasteful. Be sure to solicit input from
the caller on the board. If your club has a regular caller, use
him or her for advice and guidance. The caller sees many things
from the stage that dancers don’t see and is a thread of
continuity in the board when club leaders change. The caller
usually has experience with other clubs and their methods. The
caller can draw from the body of knowledge that is shared with other
callers and provide counsel and expertise.
the attitude of growth. Some people believe that when their
club reaches a certain size they no longer need to grow. They
believe they are big enough, and that any more people would be a
problem (hall size, personal connections, etc.) Many years ago the
president of a club I called for dismissed the idea of a beginner
class because the club had 40 members and that, according to him,
was big enough. He didn’t want to bother with growing the
club any bigger until we lost members. In reality, we must always
focus on growing. Marketing and recruiting new dancers
should be a permanent year-round activity. There should never be a
time when we decide we have enough dancers. During any dance
season, a club is either growing or shrinking. No club is ever
static. The moment we stop efforts to grow is the moment we start
there are plenty of people interested in square dancing. There
are 300 million people living in the United States. Almost all of
them don’t square dance – yet! This is a huge pool of
untapped potential dancers. Some club members who have scarcity
thinking believe there is only a small group of people who might be
interested in learning to square dance. They find themselves in
competition with other groups in attracting new dancers. Once a new
beginner has started dancing, the club may be reluctant to encourage
the person to dance with other groups for fear of losing him or her.
To these club leaders, the new dancers are a scarce commodity that
must be protected from other groups. Scarcity thinkers have a fixed
In contrast, leaders who have abundance thinking
believe there is an endless supply of people who would like to try
square dancing. They see that for every personality type, age, sex,
and demographic in their club there are hundreds more just like them
that want to join in the fun. They never stop finding ways to reach
out to those groups of people. Abundance thinkers believe the
supply of possible new dancers is unlimited. Abundance thinkers
have a growth mindset.
These challenges can be worked through and overcome. The way we see and experience square dancing may change as a result. Here are some
examples of what the future of the activity could look like:
A new group of callers steps up. They may not have all the skills of seasoned
callers, but new and existing dancers connect with them and support
them in their efforts.
Groups get creative about where they dance. Beyond the customary church halls
and schools, groups find they can dance in vacant stores, people’s
garages or living rooms, or on patios and decks when weather
permits. In exchange for advertising, groups get local businesses
to sponsor them or provide dance venues.
More Basic and Mainstream groups are created, giving dancers more options for
dancing. Instead of pushing dancers through the programs, callers
find more ways to use the Basic and Mainstream calls creatively, and
dancers go to the dances because they are fun!
Square dance clubs partner with line dance, contra dance, and other dance groups,
or square dance evenings are shared with other non-dance activities.
People will come to square dance and do other things, so less
emphasis is placed exclusively on square dancing. Square dancing is
just part of an evening’s entertainment. People create clubs
that hold a variety of social activities, with perhaps only some
members square dancing.
Callers make more use of technology to reach remote dancers. Callers use Skype
or social media to call to groups too remote to have a caller.
Recordings of teaching modules or mini-dances are sent to remote
groups for practice.
The music and sound systems become more contemporary. The speakers and amplifiers
are on par with what is used by professional DJs. Spectators
recognize the music as current songs from the radio.
How will these changes occur? There two possible paths. The first is
that forward-thinking clubs will see the future and embrace the
coming changes. They will realize they must adapt to today’s
society to keep square dancing relevant. They will modify their club
policies about everything from dress code to lesson requirements to
callers’ participation. They will expand their idea of what a
square dance club is to include other activities.
The other possibility is that the existing clubs will continue as they
are and eventually fold. The callers and dancers will be content
with stasis, and eventually the clubs will shrink and cease
operations. In their place, new groups will be formed with new
callers and dancers who don’t have the historical context.
These groups will bring a new paradigm for square dancing without
having the institutional thinking of the legacy groups. Culture and
style will be newly created, and a new art form will arise. Either
of these paths will involve getting new dancers.
How can we get more people into square dancing? This is the question
we’ve been asking ourselves for a long time. We know there is
no silver bullet; if there were, we would have discovered it by now
and the halls would be overflowing. We do know that
marketing, promotion, recruitment, and retention take effort, and
that our results will be directly proportional to the effort applied.
However, even the best efforts can yield poor results if we are not
communicating effectively. Achieving better results starts with an
understanding of who we are and what we are willing to change in
order to adapt. Here are my suggestions to start the process:
what you are going to offer. What are you offering to people?
Fun or long-term commitment to an unknown activity? Basic,
Mainstream, or Plus destinations? Social community or academic
lessons? If what you’re offering isn’t working,
consider changing it. People who don’t square dance are not
keen on making a long-term commitment to an activity they don’t
know if they will enjoy. Connect with people on a social level.
Build relationships around fun, and then include square dancing as
part of the relationship.
your audience age group. People generally socialize with other
people who are less than five years older or younger than they are.
If you want to bring in younger dancers, target your marketing
efforts to people who are five years younger than the average age of
your club. If the club’s average age is 70, don’t try
to recruit 30 or 40 year olds – they won’t be
interested. As an activity, we’ve been aging up over several
decades. Aging down will be a gradual process for many existing
clubs. It will take effort and focus. In some cases, entirely new
clubs may need to be formed with a younger demographic.
your club’s personality and strengths. Who are you as a
club? Are you mostly working-age adults or retirees? Singles or
couples? Do you all attend the same church? Are you traditionalists
or casual in your approach to dancing? Does your club do only
square dancing or also include other social activities? The culture
of a group tends to indicate the type of people it will attract. If
you want to attract a different demographic, have the club discuss
the changes needed in its culture. Different groups will attract
different kinds of people.
to be more inclusive. Does your club welcome singles? People
of different skin colors or religions? People with different sexual
orientation? Just like other activities, many square dance clubs
have unspoken cultural attitudes that set the social norms for the
group. These attitudes can be helpful when recruiting people who
fit the same norms as your group, but they can also be a barrier to
others who would like to participate but don’t feel like they
fit in. Look for areas in your club’s culture that may make
new dancers feel less welcome and discuss what you can do to change
be everything to everyone! A respected business leader once
said, “If you’re everything to everyone, you’re
nothing to anyone.” This holds just as true for square
dancing as it does for business. We all like to say that square
dancing is for everyone regardless of age or ability. It’s a
great thing that so many people can participate in this activity,
but when we talk about square dancing and offering it to the public,
we need to narrow our focus to our target audience. Understand
whom you are trying to attract. A person who hears that square
dancing is for anyone, and anyone can square dance, is the same
person who thinks “I’m not just anyone, I have special
qualities and interests, so this is not for me”. Instead,
consider focusing on a demographic that is in sync with your group:
People who want a social activity
People who want exercise
People who are interested in trying something unusual or different
People who like puzzles and games
People who like to travel
People who are single or whose partners don’t dance
Even though you are focusing on your target audience, avoid
exclusionary practices that would turn away a potential dancer that
is not part of your target. For example, if you are primarily a
couples-oriented club and a single dancer shows up for lessons, have
a plan to accommodate that person. That person may be the next
enthusiast in the group who contributes to the activity. Find a
place for everyone who expresses an interest.
Plus or even Mainstream as a destination for new dancers. Last
year Jerry Story gave an impassioned address about the problems with
pushing people through too many calls too quickly. He advocated the
Club 50 program and other similar programs. Some areas of the
country are experimenting with the 12-week condensed teaching order
and other smaller lists. Both the Basic and Mainstream programs
have plenty of variety in their calls, and a skilled caller can use
these programs to make an entertaining dance for everyone. He or
she can make the choreography simple and easy or complex and
challenging without using extra calls. Consider a destination
program that is shorter and easier to learn, allowing new dancers to
reach a level of proficiency more quickly.
focus from calls to people. We tend to emphasize learning a
bunch of calls to get through the list or program, just so we can
learn the next set of calls on the next list, etc. Instead, your
club could make its top priority meeting, socializing, and having
fun. When the people are more important than the
calls, groups thrive. New dancers feel more welcome and are more
likely to return. Experienced dancers enjoy dancing with new people
as much as being entertained or challenged by the caller.
success. What is success in square dance lessons? What makes a
beginner class worthwhile? How long must a new dancer continue
dancing for you to consider the class a success? Some people
believe that if the new dancers don’t stay square dancing for
life then the class was not successful. What if a dancer learns to
dance and continues dancing for a year or two and then leaves? Is
that not a form of success? Are we expecting too much from people
who don’t stay involved for a long period? While some people
join the activity and do stay for a long time, others will enjoy
dancing for a while, and then move on. If you consider that
recruiting effort to be a failure because the person isn’t
still dancing, then the club’s morale will be compromised.
Alternatively, if you consider the class a success because there was
a period of time when the people were in a square, then you can
build on those efforts and tailor your program around those dancers.
We all know that many dancers who stop dancing come back again at a
later date. When this happens, be sure to keep that person on a
follow up list for future classes or dances.
what’s good about square dancing. Have a real discussion
in your club. Underscore your strengths. What is it about your
club that makes people want to return each week, each month, each
year? People come for a reason, because square dancing fulfills
something in their lives. Have your club members articulate those
reasons. It will get them excited and inspire them to share with
others who are not square dancing yet.
community service outreach. While square dancing is fun in
itself, the people involved in the club can also make a difference
in their local community. Probably some are already volunteering
time or money to local non-profits. Is there a way to connect the
club or local dancers with a non-profit or charity? Can you
organize the club to contribute time or money to a charity and get
some visibility for square dancing? Not only will your club feel
good about what they are doing, but non-dancers can bond with club
members on a different level. The more connections you can make
with the public, the easier your class marketing efforts will be.
cooperative marketing with clubs in your area. It takes a lot
of effort for one club working independently to recruit new dancers.
Instead of going it alone, talk to other local groups who want to
grow. Working together, each club can leverage the others’
skills, resources, and labor to attract people into dancing. The
visibility of square dancing will increase exponentially. These
efforts can be coordinated through your local association or
federation. If your governing organization is not interested in a
coordinated marketing effort (or other factors make doing so
ineffective), then create an informal group of clubs who want to
make a difference. Form small teams from each club who are willing
to meet periodically to share ideas and work on joint projects.
with different marketing techniques. There are many ways to
advertise for your classes: flyers, postcards, newspapers, lawn
signs, placemats, community outreach events, and Internet ads, just
to name a few. Try as many as the club has energy and money to
support. Track your return on investment, but don’t give up
on any one method if you don’t see immediate results. What
doesn’t work this time may work well next time.
think new. Do you remember the children’s book The
Little Engine That Could? The mantra that kept that engine
going up the hill was “I think I can! I think I can!”
The Little Engine took on the challenge of climbing the hill, and
instead of letting her limitations stop her, she persevered with
focus and commitment until she was successful. The Little Engine
thought BIG and NEW. How can your club think bigger or in a newer
way? What outrageous ideas can you come up with for building your
club? When you embark on a new project, believe what you’re
doing will work. Commit to your plans fully. The quickest way to
failure is not having faith in your efforts. That
subconscious message of “not believing” will undermine
your work and almost certainly guarantee disappointment. Instead,
commit and put the energy into your plans without hesitation.
strategically. Where do you see the club in the future? Not
just for your tenure in the activity, but beyond into the next
generation of dancers? Do you have a goal for the club and its
growth? Be willing to adapt to the 21st century world for
square dancing. Create a vision of your club at milestones in the
future: 2018, 2020, and 2025. Make plans; think about what’s
possible even if it seems impossible. Enroll other dancers
in looking ahead.
look ahead and avoid dwelling on the past. It doesn’t do
any good to talk about how many squares there used to be at dances,
how many dances were held, how big the beginner classes used to be,
and the like. All this is just negative thinking. NO ONE likes to
hear that yesterday was better than today. We all want to believe
that today is great and that tomorrow will be even better.
Suggesting anything different, whether or not it’s true, is a
sure-fire way to discourage someone new to square dancing. That
person will think he or she missed the glory days and start to take
a dim view the current state of affairs. His or her dancing career
may be shortened – after all, why learn an activity you
perceive as dying? Instead, keep the focus on how great you can
build on what you have: classes, activities, and fun. Inspire
people to look forward to good times in the club, regardless of how
many people are dancing.
and support the next generation of callers. The activity cannot
survive unless there are new callers coming up the ranks. Encourage
every young dancer to call a tip or singing call. Create an
environment that would foster the calling “bug” in
someone. Encourage that person to go to an accredited callers
school. Give him or her opportunities to call and teach. Enable
these new callers by fully supporting their efforts. These people
will be the leaders of tomorrow. Help cultivate them now!
motivated club leaders. These people may or may not be on the
board, but they are “movers and shakers,” people who are
inspirational, have energy, and get things done. If they have an
idea that would benefit the club, give them what they need to run
with it. Let them lead the rest of the club in something new. Even
if you’re not feeling like a leader, support the people in
your group who have the energy and let them do the job.
with your local callers and callers association. If
there are any restrictions on how your organizations can work
together, remove the restrictions. Have dancers and callers serve
together in organizations that promote square dancing. Form a tight
teamwork relationship with your club caller. If you don’t
have a club caller, enlist local callers whom you respect. Solicit
their advice. Listen to the issues they see from their side of the
microphone. Most callers have a vested interest in attracting and
retaining dancers. They can see what works and what needs
improvement, even if it’s not popular or goes against
tradition. Be open to suggestions, and then partner together to
the club caller financially. Structure the caller’s
compensation to have some correlation with dance attendance. This
makes the caller have a reason to attract as many people as possible
to classes and dances. He or she is more motivated to teach and
call in ways that retain the most dancers. Callers should take an
active role in the club’s marketing efforts.
than one class per year. Running only one class each year is
not very effective. The non-dancing public expects multiple entry
points to any recreational activity. It’s very bad PR to tell
a person interested in learning that he or she must wait 9, 10, or
11 months before another class will be offered. It’s highly
unlikely that person will return. Many groups have redesigned their
teaching program and are successfully running multiple beginner
classes each year. Experiment with multiple entry points and
overlap the classes to allow the club members and new dancers to
technology. Technology is available in multiple forms to help
you grow square dancing. If you are uncomfortable or unfamiliar
with the variety of technologies in use, find someone in your group
who can step in and do some of the work. Often the caller can help
out as he or she may be using the various tools.
If your club’s website is out of date, have someone volunteer
to keep it updated. It’s a bad sign to visit a club’s
homepage to find out about all the dances coming up in 2006…
If you don’t have a website, get one! They cost from $0 to
$1000, depending on how robust you want it. Several companies
offer free websites and website tools in exchange for advertising
on the side. The club’s homepage should be designed for the
non-dancing public. When a visitor lands on the homepage, the site
should communicate the social and fun aspects of the club, along
with when the next class will start. All other club information
and business can be on other parts of the site. The homepage is
the most critical for a new prospect.
Keep your Facebook page up to date with current and relevant club
activities. Facebook and your club’s website are the
public’s perception of who you are. Anyone considering
joining your class or club will visit the website and Facebook page
first – make sure they are attractive and inviting.
distribution lists. Use email group lists for communications
within your club. Be clear, and concise with club communications
so that everyone is fully informed. These emails strengthen social
bonding. Your web hosting service may provide email groups; if
not, Yahoo and Google both provide this service for free.
phone number. Get a unique phone number for your club that you
can give out to people. Google offers phone numbers for free, and
you can have any incoming call to that number redirected to a
person who is designated to receive it. This allows the leadership
in a club to change while still keeping the same club phone number.
It also keeps personal phone numbers private.
You can use these to send out news and pictures about the club,
club events, and recent activities.
near-free online services. Use Craigslist, local “patch”
news sites, meetup.com, etc.
Living Social and other web-based coupons. Some clubs have had
success in using promotional coupons through the Internet. Explore
this avenue to see if it may work for your club.
database. Once you get a person who is interested in learning
to square dance, capture that person’s name/email/city and
phone number and put it in a database (spreadsheet or document).
Use an email processing tool to send out email invitations to your
prospects for upcoming classes.
keywords. Both Google and Facebook have abilities to promote
your classes when people use certain keywords to search. Look for
keywords that someone might enter that would make that person a
square dance prospect. Bid on and buy those keywords, so that when
a person enters them, your ad is displayed on the sidebar.
Finally, the most important thing you can do to grow your club: have
the right attitude!
The number one key to success: Attitude. A club that truly wants to grow
will find a way to grow. The members will generate enthusiasm that
is infectious. People want to be around people who are happy and
having fun. Capture that attitude and do whatever is necessary to
bring people in the door. Some groups say they want a class but
then can’t get enough beginners to justify it. Other clubs
run successful classes and grow. What’s the difference
between these groups? ATTITUDE! Those groups who are excited and
happy about coming to a dance create an energy that attracts others.
They exude fun and friendliness that make others happy. They don’t
have to remember to smile – they are already smiling!
So, what’s right with square dancing? Every person might have
a different way that square dancing appeals to him or her:
Social activity with friends
Mental stimulation, brain exercise
Respite from the anxiety in the world today
There are so many ways square dancing is the right activity right
now. We all know that people would love this activity if they tried
it. The call for action is now. Get the whole club involved. Make
it fun. Seek out and find success stories from other clubs and
callers. There is a wealth of information on the Internet on
marketing ideas; however, resources are useless without action.
Inspire and motivate your club to take action. Keep emphasizing all
the reasons why square dancing is right for everyone. Your classes
will be more successful, your club will grow, and square dancing will
continue to be the best entertainment for people all over the world.