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THE PROBLEM WITH SQUARE DANCING TODAY
(A Dancer's Point of View)

By Karl Arnold Belser
14 June 2012

Published in American Square Dance, August 2012
Copyright 2012 The Committee to Promote Square Dancing


The salesman's Rule of 250 says that a person's experience with an activity results in the person telling on the average 250 other people, positively or negatively, about his or her experience. Why hasn't the Rule of 250 caused the square dance activity to grow?

One might argue that the problem with square dancing is that more people who start to learn to square dance have a bad experience, than those who have a good experience, and so the activity is declining. I know that most social activities are in decline. It is an easy out to say that societal trends are undermining square dancing.  However, as a dancer and the past chairman of  t
he Committee to Promote Square Dancing (CPSD), I think that part of the problem is how square dancing has evolved over the years since I started dancing more than 25 years ago and how it is taught today.
 

Professionally I am a PhD electrical engineer and was a system architect who holds over 65 patents. As a retired systems architect I have dedicated myself to the task of analyzing the decline of square dancing and trying to figure out how to save the activity from its slow death. To that end I have also gone to caller school to understand about calling and about how callers are taught. See my article How Square Dance Calling Works and my website  Pair Dancing.  I have also read extensively regarding salesmanship and psychology. Hence I consider myself qualified to comment about the problems with square dancing today.

The Committee to Promote Square dancing (CPSD)has been sponsoring and conducting plus-level  square dance classes for the last 6 years in Silicon Valley. CPSD provides a positive and enjoyable dancing experience to new dancers.  Our mission is to introduce as many people as possible into the initial stages of square dancing without driving anyone away. 
 
Our class teaches the plus-level calls in the order recommended by CallerLab. However, only the traditional positioning with all of the standard variations are taught, like dancing was taught in the 1980s. For example, If a call has the possibility for the dancers to be in several variations, as with Waves with Men or Ladies facing out and Men or Ladies facing in, each variation for that call is taught separately. We want our dancers to learn the basics without worrying about the definitions and alternate positioning possibilities.  If dancers choose to go on, eventually, to a higher level dancing, All Position, Advanced, and Challenge, that's fine but that is not what we teach.

We observe that classes that teach "All Position Dancing (APD)" and "Dance by Definition" heavily tax people's thinking ability and as a consequence many of these classes start out with a very large number of dancers and graduate only a few. Here is where the Rule of 250 enters the picture. We think that the students who leave these classes tell everyone they know that square dancing is too tough and not fun.  This bad press may be inadvertently poisoning the well of potential dancers.

The book Thinking, Fast and Slow by the Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman presented me with an insight into the problem with teaching square dancing. Kahnemen shows that a human being has two thinking systems, which he calls System 1 (Reflexive Thinking) and System 2 (Conscious Thinking). The problem is that teaching for real beginners is training a response to calls which is System 1 thinking, like training Pavlov's Dog.  Most people can be trained in this way, After all most people can learn to speak a language.

"All Position Dancing (APD)" and "Dance by Definition" dancing requires the use of System 2. The difficulty with System 2, as Kahneman points out, is that System 2 thinking in most people is "lazy" and as a result people generally don't want to or like to use it. Hence, probably only a small subset of people with be happy using System 2 thinking.  If one wanted to appeal to the largest group of potential dancers, one might want to use a System 1 approach. This, I believe, is what CPSD has been doing with great success.


I recently read in the American square Dance Magazine that CallerLab and the American Callers Association are discussing the decline and aging of the square dance community.  In the past there has been discussion of having a single, simple dance program that can be taught in a short period of time. This is clearly the correct approach for teaching, but I suspect that it will upset many of the APD, Advanced and Challenge dancers. How can all levels of dancers be happy and still have square dancing survive?
This seems to be an almost insurmountable problem.  

I make two observations here:

1)  The biggest market will probably be square dancing that appeals to System 1 thinking.
2)  Trying to teach using System 2 may damage the image of square dancing.

I think that an approach that might work without destroying some levels of square dancing would be that the leaders of the square dance caller community enumerate the easiest and essential variations for teaching each call at the entry levels of either mainstream or Plus. This might be difficult because  I observe that many callers adamantly prefer that every class be taught using either APD or Dance by Definition.

When I ask why, the answer is that, of course, the class has to be consistent with the APD and Advanced calling. I asked the rhetorical question: "We are wanting more people to do square dancing on one hand, and on the other we want to make it more difficult for most people? Does that make sense?" The answer is that the callers prefer to do it their way, and they are apparently biased toward high level dancing, not toward having more dancers. I have actually been told by a caller teacher that he "weeds out the people who can't keep up".

Let me illustrate the problem. Consider the call Pass The Ocean. The definition says: Pass Thru, Face your partner and Step To A Wave. It takes many weeks to teach Pass The Ocean  this way. However, if the dancers are taught: right dancer Left Touch 1/4 and left dancer Move Up to the end of the Wave, it takes one night. The first is a System 2 definition and the second is a System 1 pattern. The first is very slow to execute.  The second is a pattern that can be immediately walked at full speed without thinking.

I think that there is really no need to change the calls in any level. Rather, based on the latest knowledge about how peoples' minds work, the leaders in the Square Dance Community might introduce a pattern walking subset of the normal call definitions that can be easily learned using System 1. There would be a list of patterns rather than a list of call definitions.  

In conclusion I notice that most national callers don’t want to break down a lot of squares in an expensive hoedown. These callers would ruin their reputation. So they call fast and use the simple subset of calls that are essentially the Pattern Walking subset that most everyone can do. These callers are entertainers.  They are paid to entertain and that is what they do - serve their customers.

I suggest that the leaders in the caller community try to serve the general public better and in the process save square dancing by making the teaching method doable by everybody.

Note: If you are a caller who finds himself upset by my conclusion, please consider the Curse of Knowledge bias for teachers. This bias is one in which
people who are smarter or more well informed can not understand the common man. 

Last updated September 5, 2012
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