Warm and Welcoming: How to Create a Friendlier Dance Environment

A room full of strangers, none of them looking at you. Music loud enough to drown out conversation.

You try to approach someone, but they’re standing in a tight circle of friends, oblivious to outsiders. You ask someone else to dance, and they heave a sigh before going through the motions with little enthusiasm. Once the song ends, they thank you mechanically and quickly turn away.

How many of us can empathize with this scenario? I know I’ve been there more times than I like to think about.

Lindy hoppers have a reputation of being fun-loving and joyous. We’re known for rallying together to take care of each other and hosting strangers-turned-friends across the world. That said, no group of people is immune from seeming—or being—cliquish and unwelcoming to newcomers.

Sometimes that appearance is totally unintentional. People with strong social connections aren’t thinking about what it looks like to others when they excitedly chat with each other, but ignore everyone else in the room. People with social anxiety stick to who they know, feeling like they ran the gauntlet to make their existing friends and not really wanting to do it all over again.

But if you think back to the last time that lonely person was you, whether it was years ago or just the last time you traveled, I’m sure you wished that someone had extended a friendly hand. That they had made the effort to say hello, even if it took them out of their conversation or took courage on their part.

So, today we’re looking at how to make dance scenes more friendly and welcoming from all angles. What can individual dancers do? What can scene organizers do? If you’re new to dancing or to a particular location, how can you ingratiate yourself more quickly?

Let’s start with what individual dancers in their home scene can do. Most of the advice I’ve heard and read is pretty common-sense: Keep an eye out for newcomers, and ask them to dance. Offer to make introductions, or point out people they should dance with.

“Bob is a really fun lead; let me introduce the two of you after this song.”

“Have you met Crystal yet? She used to live in D.C too!”

Try to point people towards folks you know will be welcoming. If someone is a great dancer but not particularly interested in meeting new people, the introduction could fall flat.

Keep your body language open and give people your full attention. People can tell when you’re scanning the room for your next dance partner, so just be respectful and honest with them. We’re all here to dance; no one will begrudge you for saying so. “It’s been so great to meet you, Jordan. I want to get a few more dances in, but thanks for the chat.”

Finally, remember that you don’t have to say yes if you don’t want to. There are many kind ways to turn people down, and most people would prefer a genuine “no, but thank you” to a yes that isn’t heartfelt.

Being an active ambassador takes time and energy. There’s a reason many scenes make it an official position: it can be taxing to play the host role all the time, especially when you just want to have fun. But if everyone in a given scene does a little bit better at it, and remembers to reach out out at least some of the time, the overall difference will be major—and meaningful.

Scene organizers have even more ability to positively influence a local scene’s culture. While they can’t change an unfriendly scene overnight, and they can’t influence every dancer’s behavior, they do have the opportunity to use social engineering to encourage better outcomes.

Organizers can institute programs like dance cards, in which people write down the names of new people they’ve danced with to be entered into a reward lottery. Some nights might gamify it further with additional icebreakers, like bingo, or even have a designated visitor spot where people can make connections. Other venues transition from class to social dancing by combining the beginner and intermediate classes, providing opportunities for structured practice.

The most important thing for scene organizers to remember is that they’re not just in charge of teaching and logistics. They are also the face of the organization, and how they interact with people will influence how everyone else treats each other. I’ve heard innumerable people describe how warm it made them feel when teachers or organizers noticed them, spoke to them with interest, and asked them to dance.

Finally, what can you expect as a newcomer to a given scene?

If you’re a shy or anxious person, you may need to do a bit of acting. Telegraph openness, even if you feel alone and awkward. Look for people who look happy to be dancing, or who are interacting with a wide range of people, and talk to them. If no one thinks to start making introductions, ask them, “Who should I dance with next?”

It also helps to give people the benefit of doubt. What might feel like being brushed off is much more likely to be simple distractedness than anything worse. After all, we’re all just doing our best.

That wraps up my overview of how to improve friendliness and openness in dance circles. If you have further suggestions, please let us know either in person or on the Boulder Swing Dance Facebook group.

As always, thanks for reading, and happy dancing!

by Larisa Hohenboken