How to build a thriving West Coast Swing dance community

… when you’re in the middle of nowhere, and don’t have major swing events nearby.

Over the last 10 years, we’ve built up a community of west coast swing here in Edmonton, Alberta. We have WCS dances once or twice a month, that are attracting about 60 -70 people. In this post, I’ll share what we’ve done here, in hopes that it helps you build your community, wherever you are.

Some starting principles:

  • Edmonton is a city of just under a million people, so we have an urban population to draw from.
  • We’re not trying to make money doing this (we’re also not trying to lose money either). We became a registered non-profit, which is not essential, but has had some advantages.
  • We’re providing a space to dance West Coast Swing, we’re not intending to teach all the levels and in and outs of the dance. We encourage interested people to take a full intro course with a local instructor.

Organizing dances:

  • Finding a location: A local instructor found a centrally located community hall with a wood floor that is about 40’x80′, and holds about 110 people dancing. Being a non-profit helped us get a preferential rental rate. Having events that are community focused and don’t serve alcohol have made us an ideal tenant for the hall.
  • Start the evening with a beginner-friendly lesson. This gives the crowd of beginners a specific time to show up, and it fills up the room. (We also tried not having a lesson, and attendance went way down) It also makes it easy to invite a friend who doesn’t normally dance.
  • Be welcoming: Non-dancers are incredibly nervous about learning to dance, so anything you can do as host to make them feel secure and welcome is a good idea. Try to chat (and dance) with as many people as you can. They will often show up alone (which is perfectly fine), but when you speak to them, now they know at least one other person in the room.
  • Instructors: Hire local teachers and rotate though them to keep things impartial between studios. Or if you don’t have anyone available – congratuations! You’re now the local expert. You don’t need to be a champion dancer to teach your friends, just have to be willing to do it. Worried you’re not doing it right? Well, you’re teaching to the best of your knowledge right now and that’s ok.
  • Make a great lesson: The beginners and new people are mainly there for the lesson, so make it a fun experience! Success for beginners and newbies is often to just get on the floor, get someone in their arms, move around a bit and feel successful doing so.

    Do: Keep people moving, rotating partners. Have a very ‘you can do it’ attitude for everyone.
    Don’t: Lecture for more than 60 seconds.

    We typically teach a 45 minute crash course of intro to WCS rhythm, side passes and sugar pushes to get people moving, and be able to survive dances in the wild.

    We’ve also started to add in a ‘beyond beginner’ move at the end to give some variety to the beginners who have shown up several times.
  • We prepare a fun playlist instead of a live DJ. (This way everyone can still dance, and not have to mind the DJ booth)
    • The first 10 songs or so are beginner WCS, with a clear easy to find beat less than about 95 BPM (you might be surprised how many songs this eliminates).
    • The night’s song mix includes fast / slow, and different song genres: pop / blues / club / retro, and different time periods. This way you can play a brand new song, next to an old favourite and everyone will have music they can relate to. If they don’t like it, they can wait 3 minutes and expect something different.
    • Over time, build up your own lists of songs, and song classifications (we have a Spotify account, and save playlists from each night)
    • Keep adding new music. Its easy to lean back and stay with your tried and true songs – but the music is the 3rd partner on the floor, and its important to keep it interesting and never predictable.
  • Promoting the events: Here is what we currently do:
    • We have our dates planned way in advance, for the whole year. This lets people plan to include them in their own schedules, and help related events not overlap with ours.
    • Create a Meetup group. This is a paid service, but ours currently has about 1000 people in it, and we’ve started to see 20-30 people per dance come out from it.
    • Create a Facebook group. Great way to gather people together, and then you can create events for every date that will help remind people about your events.
    • Build a website. The great thing about websites is your info is always in one place, and Google can make it findable if someone is looking for WCS in your city.
    • Send out an email newsletter: Not everyone is on social media. Mailchimp has a free plan for for up to 2000 names, so as we gather emails, we can push future dates and announcements to them.
    • Other good suggestions I’ve heard have been successful for other dance groups (but we haven’t done yet):
      – Make an Eventbrite event. People can see it when they are browsing for events.
      – Instagram account (working on it)
      – Create animated posters with Canva pro.
      – Facebook / Insta advertising is a good way to get new people as well.
  • Retention: do they come back?
    This is the real measure of success. They came, they tried your event – and will they come back?
    We hope to give people a positive experience, and a fun intro to WCS. And we have lots of people who have a good time and don’t come back, or we don’t see again for a long while. That’s ok.
    If we only have 5 people who come back each dance, that means in a year we could have (24 dances x 5 people =) 120 new WCS dancers who want to learn more and become part of the community.

    Next: Building a dance eco-system