Town Hall Meeting 18th November 2022

FED Town Hall report

On Friday, 18 November 2022, The Friends of English Dance hosted an online town hall meeting. Our goal was to provide a structured forum for discussion about the future of English social folk dancing, with a focus on how we can shape the Friends’ activities to have the best possible results for increasing participation in social folk dance. Although we used the results of our recent membership survey to establish starting points, we embarked on the conversation with the intention of following wherever it led, and we were not disappointed!

In her opening remarks, Louise mentioned that we were particularly interested in ideas about how the Friends could augment, rather than duplicate, the work done by local clubs. For example, the survey results suggested many dancers want to feel more strongly connected to one another, and they also need help recruiting new dancers. How might the Friends foster those connections? Multiple survey respondents also asked about our collaboration between the Friends and EFDSS. How might that work be extended? Finally, Louise noted that the Friends have always been a participatory, volunteer-led organisation. How, she asked those attending, might you get involved with the work of the Friends?

Friends member Bruce Hamilton picked up on the opening question of our effectiveness as an organisation. He suggested we reflect on several questions: Why are we here? Who are we? What do we bring? Although they are introspective questions, the answers also come from looking around: how are we different from other organisations in the field of social folk dance? What are our strengths? For example, because we aren’t tied to a physical location the Friends don’t struggle with inertia—how can we make use of that fact?

In some instances, connecting and recruiting people boils down to information. How and where do new people learn about dances? Although the Friends have been working with EFDSS to improve access to and usability of their Folk Dance Calendar, it is still too hard to use effectively, as both an organiser and a dancer. Several alternatives were discussed—AreYouDancing and Webfeet were both mentioned, as well as Set and Turn Single—and people noted that even though they weren’t particularly attractive or easy to use, they have (or had) value because people trust that they are comprehensive. Brenda Godrich reminded us all that universities used to be an important source of new dancers; what has happened to that pipeline?

This led to a discussion of decentralisation: how do we decentralise the social folk dance calendar? Nigel Close observed that folk by its very nature should be decentralised. Bob Morgan noted that several resources in the folk community emerged as a grassroots response to failed corporate behaviour among major organisations—indeed, that is the origin story of the Friends themselves, so how can we foster that approach going forward? Continue to host and collate crowd-sourced resources; take on the folk club directory; be responsive when we get feedback or input from dancers, whether or not they are members? Since most dancers are not in fact members of The Friends of English Dance, but are enthusiastic about the work we do, Bruce asked what might happen if we used that awareness to reframe what we do across the board.

Louise asked how we balance decentralisation and connection; in other words, how do we identify and connect with those working in ‘adjacent spaces’ online and in person? Brian Stanton pointed out that we could do more to communicate with people who go to ceilidhs about further opportunities for social folk dancing. In his experience, most of their new dancers come either through word of mouth or because they used google to find a local dance. Nigel underscored that there’s more dancing happening than people realise, which prompted Bruce to wonder how we might maintain lightweight but ongoing public engagement in order to raise awareness. The low-maintenance aspect of this engagement is critical because we don’t want volunteers for the Friends to burn out.

Louise suggested we might develop monthly ‘challenges’ that clubs could report back about; they could be anything from ‘ask two new people each to come to a dance’ to ‘let’s all try out this new dance this month.’ Several people expressed interest in this idea, but it’s not clear how we would spread the word effectively.

Ongoing engagement is particularly important for recruitment because, as Frances Richardson pointed out, people these days struggle to commit to weekly events. She’s found MeetUp to be a useful tool for attracting new dancers, but struggles with the number who don’t come consistently. She also raised the question of special events and pop-culture tie-ins—have events like Bridgerton-themed balls had any impact on regular dance attendance? Brian expressed concern that there’s increasingly a financial barrier to large-scale events like balls anyway; the venues are too expensive.

Frances also made the excellent point that as she had not heard of the Friends of English Dance before a friend of hers (also, it bears pointing out, not a member of the Friends) invited her to this town hall on Facebook. How can the Friends enhance public awareness of itself, which seems like a necessary first step?

Brenda Godrich noted that one challenge the Friends face is that after the reorganisation that, among other things, saw us change the name from Friends of Cecil Sharp House and revise our mission statement to encompass the promotion and preservation of English social folk dance, our goals are relatively amorphous. What is our concrete mission now? And how can people help us meet it? Do we need a definition of English dance?

Bruce thought we’d have the most success at outreach if we let people self-identify and define for themselves what English dance is. There was general agreement with this.

Bob suggested that if an organisation wants to be more visible, the first step is to show up and be visible. Could the Friends have a presence at festivals, etc., in order to widen its reach? Once we’ve built up an audience, we can think about how and if to make more permanent programming and resources part of our mission. The latter may be, for example, a folk sales source; without the EFDSS shop, we rely on a single outlet in the UK.

Brian suggested that online events have also been proven to have value in terms of connecting people; this town hall, for example, but he also participates in a monthly callers’ forum. Perhaps the Friends could consider re-starting online offerings of some sort.

After about an hour and a half, we closed the Town Hall meeting, with much gratitude to those in attendance.

Pursuant to the meeting, the committee discussed the points raised and has taken action inspired by some of them.