Irish Set Dancing: Keep People Coming Back to Classes

Keeping people interested in coming back to class is so important to ensure there are enough numbers to keep a class going but also to have a blend of skill and experience levels, that lifts everyone in the group.

Classes are also vital to keeping the set dancing going because there is so much to know, so much to learn and that makes for a great time dancing.

Why do people stop coming to dance classes?

A very complex set of reasons are possible but the most likely in my experience are:

  • People have moved away or moved far enough away that class location is an issue;
  • This can have a knock-on affect with others they know or are close to in the class choosing not to come back;
  • Dancers gain new caring responsibilities that clash with class time;
  • Dancers have an injury or illness that puts them out for a while, and they never get around to coming back or can’t dance any more;
  • Women who like to dance with a man find there are not enough at classes;
  • Dancers feel they don’t fit in with the group or don’t feel welcome;
  • Experienced dancers can get bored with classes.

How many do you need for a class?
Based on my experience, you probably need at least 20 people on your list of regular dancers to keep a class properly sustained. You have to expect that possibly 20%-50% may not be able to come to any given class. That may leave you with 10- 16 dancers, worst case scenario, which should be enough to keep people active and interested.

My most recent class at the Wodonga Tradathon. Credit:J.Moran

However, if the group drops below 10 or so, you may find that you start to lose others, simply because there is not enough energy in the room or critical mass to sustain interest. Teachers / organisers must be vigilant and keep a close eye on the numbers and level of interest. Don’t leave this to chance – start doing something about it immediately or you will risk losing the whole class.

Inviting people who are already part of a small group of friends – can be good if they are genuinely interested in dancing, as they will have another reason to come to class. However, my experience also tells me that if one is away, they will often all not come. So, beware having everyone in your dance class part of a friendship group.

Payment in advance- I have played about with various models of payment for classes. There is a traditional view that dancers should not have to pay much for a class, if at all, and we are all sharing our knowledge that has been passed to us from others.

I respect that view, and if teachers/ organisers can make a class work on that basis, hats off to you! However, in the days of hall hire costs, public liability insurance costs, digital marketing costs and just generally time taken to organise to teach classes, I think attaching a payment is a sign of respect, attribution of value for effort, and also helps to ensure the continuation of the class.

I have recently moved to offering an EARLYBIRD option for a pre-paid term of classes, aimed at about 75%-80% of the regular casual class fee, paid before term starts. The aim is to get at least 10-12 people signed up this way to ensure there is a quorum of people in the group before we start.

This has the effect of ensuring dancers turn up for classes more often than not, and also ensuring there is enough money in the kitty to pay for hall,insurance and other outgoings.

Needs to be flexible; able to deal with the varying numbers and skill levels of dancers. The teacher should try to gauge that and make a class that is appealing to as many people in the class as possible. This is where having an idea of how many people are coming, and who they are will help planning.

It is very important to get people active as quickly as possible. Avoid leaving people sitting out of the class & do not spend long periods of time talking at people.

Some options you might like to try:

  • Do a simple group warm-up at the start for 5 minutes or so to some lively music. A simple 4 or 5 part dance that includes lots of quick walking in a circle for 8-16 bars and interspersing it with some advancing and retiring, little kicks, knees up, steps to the side (think Nutbush), then more quick walking the other direction, with few claps and stamps thrown in for good measure. Something very easy that gets the blood going, warming up the body before starting and that gets the whole group working together with a smile.
  • Half sets – this is really the best way of getting good practice in for sets, whether you have full sets or not.
  • Couples dancing for practicing dancing at home, swinging or indeed any movements done in pairs by all the pairs in the group.
  • Solo for some basic step learning or practice – reels, jigs, hornpipes or polkas can all be done solo. Slides are probably a little trickier.
  • Teach a two-hand dance for variety – Peeler and the Goat.
  • Teach a few simple sean nós steps with a broom. This is great fun and gets people focused on what they are doing rather than feeling awkward in front of others. Get people to bring a broom to class.
  • Finish the class with a 3-5 minute head-to-toe stretch to music with everyone participating.

You can see more of my posts about teaching sets and teaching kids to dance.

We’ve all been to ceilis where we think we’re done, we’ve danced our feet off and suddenly, on comes a tune that we ABSOLUTELY have to dance to and up you jump, enlivened all over again. You need an injection of that energy for your classes as well.

I know it’s easy to rely on music that has been recorded for specific sets (Matt Cunningham and others) to ensure the right length but really there is a world of AMAZING Irish music out there that can be used and adapted for set dancing.

Add some variety to your music – music that has great lift, music that perhaps is a little slower for learning, and a little faster for some fun once everyone is able. You could even experiment with other non-Irish music for simple reels etc – anything with a strong 4/4 timing and rhythm can be great fun.

Make sure the music is loud enough to be heard clearly, but not so loud it drowns everything else out.

Every teacher faces this dilemma – trying to manage teaching a class those who know how with those who don’t. It’s always a balancing act but an important one in set dancing as every group needs experienced dancers to help guide those not yet confident with their dancing.( This is also the case at ceilis – more on that later).
It is useful if the teacher acknowledges this as well and show appreciation for those more experienced people.

Knowing what motivates them is important to ensure you keep enough interest for them to keep returning. It might be the social, it might just be the act of dancing itself, to get out of the house, it might be to help others (a possible teacher in the making) or whatever. Find out what it is and practice getting better at offering as much as you can.

I will post more about managing these kind of teaching specifics soon.

Aaah! We have all had that experience of negotiating around a person we like dancing with much less than everyone else, let’s say. Bad breath, heavy on their feet to dance with, gripping your hand/ back /other parts too tight or hands in the wrong place altogether…you get the idea.

This can be a real turn-off and can cause people to not return to class because they feel uncomfortable or dancing becomes an unpleasant experience for them. It’s embarrassing but real.

What to do?
In the first instance, every teacher should address this issue in class on a regular basis as a matter of dance etiquette. With the class leader acknowledging these issues up-front, this gives dancers permission to raise this with their partner, if they need to and feel they can.

In the case of tight grips and squeezes, teachers can be address this in the class as part of the lesson showing people where and how to hold, and to be aware that some dancers can have arthritis in their body, injuries or other sensitivities that we should all be aware of.

Bad breath? Bad body odour? You could venture talking privately with the person but this may not work. I’d love your suggestions about how to deal with this.

Heavy to dance with? Sack of spuds? Good luck with that. Very difficult to fix, I’d say…! If you have any strategies that work for this, please let me know.

It might all sound like a lot of effort; a lot of work for a class. But taking an interest in the people who want to come to class and learn to dance, being prepared and ready for them is the least you can do. And, if you want to dance with other people, what choice do you really have?

Wishing you all the best with classes,

Nora Stewart