Lots of (somewhat biased) thoughts.
Re teaching a separate contra "mini beginners course", my wife and I recently taught a series of 7 one hour weekly classes at an extremely large active retirement community. Overall that series was successful, in that we now have 10 or so people who come regularly and enjoy the class (we started with about 20, which whittled down). We've followed up with a second series of 6 one and a 1/2 hour classes, providing a mechanism for new comers to join in by dividing the hour and a half into roughly 3 sections. The first half hour focuses on beginner basics tailored for whoever shows up. The second half hour is a couple of simple contra dances. The last half hour pushes the envelope a little. But, and the point of this paragraph, that first class with 20 absolute beginners and one experienced dancer (my wife) was extremely hard. All of the beginner classes I have seen or participated in that take place the half hour before the real dance always have some experienced dancers joining in and helping out. Even having just 1 experienced dancer in a foursome helps immensely. I thought I was breaking our first class down to a simple level when I said "find a partner" and ... but what does "find a partner" mean? So it took much longer to teach than I had imagined. Now the second series is bopping on along the way you would expect because several dancers from the first series are coming for that first half hour lesson and helping out. Eureka! Anyway, my caution for a separate series of contra dance classes for beginners is to really be ready to spend a lot of time on core building blocks which are easy to take for granted when taught with a few experienced dancers joining in.
Now for biased opinions ... I'd argue that if you have 15 new people each dance and are not retaining 1 or 2 of them every couple of dances then you should consider revisiting what it is you are offering. I.e. what is the product you are selling and what demographic are you targeting with that product. Scattered considerations:
* There is value in a simple sense of comfortable community that's appealing to some, but which won't tend to appeal to younger dancers.
* A weekend evening is valuable social time. Are you providing demographic density that's socially appealing? I go back to the early '80s and was the prototypical hippie off the commune back in Atlanta enjoying contra dancing in a room packed with my demographic peers (vast majority +/- 5 years of my age).
* Do your callers call well? If not, can you take the marginal callers out of rotation? (Oh, NO NO NO, that might offend someone!)
* Are your bands exciting? Do you hire bands that are just good enough but not exciting? (But they've been a part of our community for the past 30 years!)
* Is your sound system good enough that the caller and music are heard clearly throughout the hall?
* Is your dance playful? Can someone dip with both feet off the floor?
* Are children allowed? (We typically have one or two children at our dances who are under 10 years of age ... they dance well.)
* Do you have a solid representation of all ages in your dance such that if a 25 year old comes to dance they don't feel out of place? A 35 year old? A 15 year old?
* Do you tell your dancers to flirt when they gypsy? (Which is an absolute NO NO for dancers in their 20s or 30s ... you do NOT tell me who to flirt with ... guaranteed to not return)
I'm not saying you need to have exciting music with good callers and good sound and a nice demographic range to have a good contra dance.
There are contra dances that market comfort and stability that have steady numbers.
But, if so, then tailor your community out reach to demographics who are looking for comfort.
(promo follows ...) All of which is on the table for discussion at the weekend retreat for contra dance organizers that my wife, Jennifer Horrocks, and I are hosting July 20-22 in Rutledge, GA, which is about an hour east of Atlanta just off I-20, for SE and central Atlantic contra dance organizations. Discussions will be directed to avoid tangents, with tangents noted on a "parking lot" board to come back to. We will all say what we know and what we believe. No one is required to adapt to someone else's beliefs, etc. Food and housing provided. Last year discussions ranged from how to prep a floor for a weekend to how to dampen fan noise to how detailed contracts need to be, besides the more glaring how to advertise in the digital age, etc.
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