Karl Arnold Belser gives his views on why square dancing is on the decline in the U.S. (originally published in American Square Dance, August 2012). The gist of his argument is that square dancing is in decline because callers are progressing too quickly to too difficult steps rather than letting new square dancers enjoy learning the steps in an easier way.
While I agree with the idea that we need to keep entry-level dance easy, and I would go so far as to say that beginner dancers should be capped off at Mainstream, and not Plus, for at least their first two years, I don’t think that is the main reason why square dance is in decline.
Personally, I think the problem is that square dancing is considered lame. It’s an image problem. If you bring up the subject of square dancing with people who have never square danced (other than at school), they will invariably turn up their nose at it. The problem we have to fix is that people — and especially, but not only, young people — think square dancing is not cool.
Many of the videos that I have seen online do nothing to improve on this situation. They scream “lame” loud and clear. I have only seen one video that gets close to bucking this trend — and it’s a video that promotes traditional dancing, not modern Western square dancing. The production value of the video is high, the people are young, energetic, and even passionate, and the music is good (if traditional). (There are a few problems with the video, though, because there are some poetic interludes that — in my opinion — interrupt the flow of the rest of the video, but if you ignore those parts, the video is generally quite good.) In any case, this is ONE video out of thousands that you can find on YouTube. The rest are pretty, sorry to say, uncool. Personally, I love watching videos of square dance events, and as a new caller, I find them absolutely invaluable as a study resource, so I don’t mean to discourage anyone from posting them, but trust me, we generally do not look overly cool in our videos, my friends.
What is cool? Well, that is hard to define, and it certainly involves personal taste, so it can’t be defined in an absolute way. However, if you are trying to make square dancing appear more cool than it currently does, you probably want to look at things like the music, the clothing, and the way that it is portrayed in the media. I have collected a number of videos and images that depict square dance in popular culture. How many of these examples give a positive impression of square dancing? Very few, if any. Therein lies our problem. Our favoured activity is associated with old-fashioned clothing, unpopular music, and a negative image in popular media. Three strikes!
This explains why many people who eventually do end up becoming square dancers say things like “I wish I had’ve started earlier”. What kept them from starting earlier? Was it difficult steps being taught too soon? No, they probably had no sense of how easy or difficult the activity was before they joined. It was their preconceived (mostly negative) ideas about square dancing that kept them from trying it out.
How can we improve the image of square dancing? I’m no expert, but here are my opinions on how to reverse the trend of declining dancer numbers.
- Redesign the costumes. Why can’t we have long, flowing skirts instead of short, froofy skirts that flatter exactly no one? If you think that long, flowing skirts would be an affront to the tradition of square dancing, have a look at this video from the 1950s.
- Update the music. Use music that is popular NOW, not 40+ years ago.
- Contact your local newspaper and TV stations to do articles/spots on how cool square dancing is, now that the costumes and the music are cool.
- Post pictures and videos of your club on social media showing how cool square dancing is now that the costumes and the music are cool.
- Host themed parties that accentuate how fun AND COOL square dancing is. Post videos of these parties on social media and encourage your friends and family members to “like” and share the videos.
Maybe you don’t believe me. Maybe you don’t see things the way I do. Maybe you think modern clothing and modern music have no place in square dancing. You are very welcome to those opinions; however, even if you disagree with my suggestions of how to make square dancing more cool, I think you will have to agree with me that the “negative coolness factor” is one of the biggest reasons square dancing is in decline. I would challenge any club or caller to test out this advice for a year or two and see if they get any more beginners in the doors this way. It’s worth at least trying, in order to save square dancing, isn’t it?