Bob Stein originally wrote this for the "Heritage Newsletter" published in the Phildelphia area for the March 2, 1997 issue. He posted it to rec.folk-dancing on December 30, 1999 and kindly permitted me to publish it here. Read the original thread.

I have been a folk dancer for 25 years. I have played music for folk dancing for 23 years. In both roles I have experienced and participated in many types of folk dancing: International, Israeli, traditional squares, contra, Cajun, Swedish...and on and on and on! Dance and music are a significant part of my life and will most likely remain so.

All of the above is an effort to establish my credentials as a creditable commentator on the word "community" and how it applies to dancing. Not that I am an expert; while I have participated in the dance community for many years I remain mystified as to why and how it all fits together...

So what is this thing called 'community'? Is it some nebulous concept bandied about by callers, dancers, and musicians at workshops? Is the number of potlucks, outings, birthdays celebrated, friendships, marriages, children that are generated from one's local dance? Is it just the dance itself? Is it the "cool people", or the "nerds"? And what about the different dance types: is the contra dance community similar in structure to the international folk dance community? Is community defined by geographical location, or are we all part of one world-wide dance community? And if that is so, how does one hold a potluck for that? And what about the communities-within-communities? One can speak of the community of dancers, of musicians, of callers, of organizers. And what about the discrete groups of people who come together as social entities within each type of dancing — do they define what a community is?

Hmmm....I keep asking questions, and instead of narrowing the focus of this concept, I seem to have expanded it to the limits of infinity. It seems that I can only rely on my personal experience, and that is where I will start.

"Dance community" has meant many things to me over the quarter-century that I have been involved in dancing. When I first started out, the dance community was a refuge from an uncertain and unhappy college experience; I found joy and movement and music in international folk dance. These things helped alleviate the stress in my life and helped me become more alive and confident.

Later on, "dance community" meant a year-long party playing and dancing to old-time music and Southern squares. It was hanging out with friends until all hours, playing tunes until dawn, dancing every weekend (This was in Pittsburgh in the mid 1970s — we didn't have dances on weekday nights with the frequency that occurs now!), communal dinners, and playing in bars. Nothing had to be organized; events seemed to just be created out of thin air. A church would offer a hall for free to use for a monthly dance, a person would call up and say "Come on over and bring your instrument" for an all-night music and dance party. We formed a community of people who fed off of each other's youthful energy and love of music and dance.

In the early 1980s, "dance community" meant "woodshedding." It was sitting down and painstakingly learning the newest and most difficult clogging step, or traditional banjo or fiddle style, or big-circle dance. It was going to Augusta, or Brasstown, or Ashokan. It was hours listening to ancient recordings and trying to duplicate traditional stylings. We were drawn together by our common thirst for knowledge and mastery.

As the mid and late 1980s came around, "dance community" for me meant the company of my fellow musicians. It was playing every weekend, going to festivals, getting hired in "big-name" arenas: Boston, Washington, San Francisco, Seattle. I started traveling out of state and playing farther and farther from home. We musicians started to sound like rock stars when we talked amongst each other: this dance was unresponsive, that one they whooped and hollered all night, they really liked that hot medley we laid on them! We started competing with other bands — are we as good as ____, will the callers hire us? Will the dancers like us? Heady times... yet I felt a little isolated from the dancers. I was on stage, they were down there, and when I did interact with them it felt artificial and awkward. "You actually dance?" People would ask me when I was down on the dance floor: as if I was some exotic species only known for one thing: playing music. In some ways, while I enjoyed the attention, it was the least "community" feeling I have ever experienced.

Now, "dance community" means "stewardship". I don't mean that in any lofty sense, just in the fact that I am a member of the Thursday Night Dance Committee that organizes the Thursday contra dance at Glenside, and I feel a sense of responsibility towards the "community." I realize that dances don't just happen anymore, they take a great deal of planning, energy, coordination, and preparation. I now have a long and integrated view of the community. And that view takes in some of the common threads that make up my different community experiences throughout my life.

"Dance community" means people working and playing together to create an enjoyable, musical, and movement-filled experience that is both meaningful and joyous. It encompasses many things: the social interactions

All communities, whether they are neighborhood, or religious, or political, or dance, need to be nurtured. They need constant attention or they will grow stagnant and disperse. Communities will change over time, and they will exhibit varying amounts of cohesion and vitality as time goes on. But the basic existence of the community will remain viable if people are willing to put energy into maintaining the institutions and activities that make that community unique.

I think that (to paraphrase a very over-used saying) it takes a community to raise a community. It is the simple, individual acts that lend vitality to any community. One does not need to sacrifice huge amounts of time to do a community deed. For the dance community, I can thing of many things that would qualify as simple acts that would help give the community "oxygen":

  • Volunteer to help clean up at the end of a night of dancing
  • Have a dance party at your house once a year
  • Ask a new person to dance, or show a new dancer a basic step
  • Volunteer a service (running off flyers, researching sound equipment, carrying equipment, storing equipment, offering rides to and from the dance, etc.)
  • Learn how the sound system works at your dance and volunteer to help run it for an evening
  • Take money at the door
  • Musicans: ask dancers for input on: tempo, phrasing, etc.
  • Callers: ask dancers for input on teaching techniques, approach, etc.
  • Dancers: Listen to the music, the caller, the teacher
  • Organize a potluck dinner before a dance
  • When things go wrong, and the evening is not perfect, smile
  • When things go right, and the evening IS perfect, smile
  • Feel joyous and pass that on to the next person you dance with

Simple acts most of them, and yet, taken together they help not only to nurture community, but to define community. After all, we are all part of the community we dance in!

 — Bob Stein