- Winning Ways Story
- Barry Johnson (email@example.com),
Joni Micals (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Dean Dederman posted a question in the Sustainable Square Dance group in Facebook. The answers provided by Barry Johnson and Joni Micals constitute an excellent Winning Ways story on using the SSD experimental lesson program. Later in a different thread, a question was posed as to how much of the success of a reported SSD implementation was due to the involvement of an outstanding caller (Kip Garvey). Barry Johnson replies to that with his experience calling for two different groups, one using SSD and one not.
Click on the button below titled “SSD Story” to see the transcript of the Facebook threads.
- Dean Dederman Original Question:
- I have a question. I ask this with no agenda or dog in the fight, and just ask for honest answers and opinions with no one getting upset or offended. Callerlab’s teaching list of basic and mainstream has been the gold standard in teaching modern western square dancing for many years. But as numbers have gone down, different lesson teaching ideas have been tried and discarded. Among the ones that have come to prominence and have enjoyed some success are the ACA’s teaching list and the Club50/SSD. My question is a long one, but can anyone explain why SSD was not presented to Callerlab for approval before presenting it as an option to replace the standard teaching list….or if it was, what were the reasons it was rejected?! Where it has been presented in piecemeal fashion where some clubs…federations….state organizations are for and against it, do both the traditional methods and the SSD methods a disservice. I ask this so I can give an answer to questions posed to me by various club and association officials, as well as for my own personal knowledge. I appreciate any opinions, and again ask that they be given in a constructive manner. Thank you.
- Barry Johnson Comment #1
- That’s a very fair question, Dean.
As you said, as numbers have gone down, different lesson teaching ideas have been tried and discarded. Along the way, Callerlab has supported experimentation: People trying to do something different, looking for success. Some of those experiments succeeded; many showed little improvement over the norm. Yet the problems persisted.
In certain parts of the country (in the Rio Grande Valley specifically) the “season” is a short one. There simply aren’t enough weeks in the dance season to teach new dancers the full Mainstream program and give them remaining weeks in which to dance before they leave the valley. The callers in that area developed the “Club 50” program with a goal of teaching for 12 weeks, then dancing a common program across the valley.
Why not simply use Basic? Well, there are some popular Mainstream calls that aren’t very hard to teach, and there are some not-so-popular Basic calls (and others that are harder to teach). So why not, if they’re working as a group, leave a few Basic calls off the list and add in a few of the popular/easy MS calls? So they did.
The RGV callers weren’t the only ones to look at sharing the entry level programs. Callers in the San Fernando Valley area (if I remember right) established a common teaching order that was somewhat different. Representatives of Callerlab and ACA negotiated a common list of 50 calls with a recommended teaching order (and Callerlab calls that the “Condensed Teaching Order”). Again, the goal was to look at something like 12 weeks of teaching time, not 16 or 20 or 30.
Later, much later, the benefits of a shorter teach cycle began to be realized in various parts across the country. A 12-week teach can comfortably be finished in the September-December timeframe without getting into holiday stress. A second class can be done in January-April, and even a third class in the summer.
Not only that, we’re finding that a larger percentage of dancers graduate from a 50-call program than the full mainstream program (and we could spend an hour discussing *why* that happens). AND, perhaps more importantly, being able to start a new class relatively shortly after the previous class gives the newly graduated (and excited!) dancers a chance to bring in their friends and start through the classes again. Together with yet other reasons, it looks like this type of 50 call program actually does make a meaningful positive improvement in recruiting and retention of dancers.
So, given that success, what should happen next? How does one try to share and build on that success? The Callerlab Board of Governors has authorized a non-permanent committee to explore continued development of this program. The RGV Club 50 list was chosen as a starting point. Teaching orders were developed, suggested choreography and lesson plans were created, and pathways to provide continuing education to dancers (the “with variety” and “extended applications” areas).
If this program shows success in growing areas of the country, then it may be reasonable for Callerlab members to adopt this as their entry level program. And we are indeed seeing successful implementations across the country, with everyday clubs and callers (the success is not limited to exceptional callers or regions of the country with specific demographics, for example).
Why not just use the Basic list? That’s certainly a possibility: The approach (50 calls, 12 weeks, standard positions only, get ’em dancing — THEN improve) is the important thing, not the specific list of calls. But what the heck — why not leave Do Paso and Allemande Thars to a little later, and bring in Scoot Back and Recycle a little bit sooner? Some tinkering with the contents of the Basic list could very well be reasonable.
What are the downsides? In the eyes of some (perhaps many) existing dancers, this feels like a step backwards for them. “I’m a Plus dancer, and I made it from 0 to Plus in one year, so of course we should continue doing that! I don’t want to dance some measly little 50-call list.” Those dancers, of course, turn out to be exceptional people: They were one of the 10% that survive the lengthy indoctrination into the activity. Many of them have been dancing for decades, so it seems very easy to them.
But if you look at the numbers — if you look at the way people learn — if you look at the benefits of dancing a smaller program, you find that callers can put on high-energy, fun dances with a small dance program and reinvigorate an area. By letting dancers get into the activity several times each year (at least twice, if not three times!), by capturing their excitement at its peak, we’re seeing rejuvenation in areas that have been stagnant for a long time.
- Barry Johnson Comment #2
- Shoot, hit “enter” too quickly. Anyway, very few dancers are willing to step up and say “Let’s make our activity simpler”. That’s been a giant hurdle.
And this is where callers — “Square Dancing’s Professional Leadership” come into play. If CALLERS see the benefits, if CALLERS lead the way, if CALLERS make this happen — even at the risk of pissing off certain dancers — then we can see the success.
Not all callers are in favor of this, of course. Not all see a difference between, say, a 16-week class and a 12-week class. Except that he 16-week classes are generally only once per year, and the 12-week class can easily be twice a year…. and right there, just off the top, you can double the number of dancers entering.
“Our angels don’t want to dance that much”. Well, the answer is to get more angels, isn’t it? So let’s get more new dancers, and turn them into angels faster, and that problem goes away quickly.
We can talk for a long, long time about all of the benefits that come out of this. But it’s hard to talk many-decade dancers into believing that a new approach can make a difference, and some very actively oppose it.
All I can say is that it works. It works in multiple areas, it works for many reasons (some of which are quite subtle), and the results are worth the arguments. As callers, we’re leaders… and it’s time we get up and lead.
Sorry for the strong words — but you can tell I’m pretty passionate about this subject. And that’s because of my personal experiences with it, and seeing how other callers in our area are having exactly the same type of success.
I’m running three beginner classes this year, and we’ll graduate something like 20 to 30 new dancers. That’s compared to years prior to this where we were getting 4-6 new dancers per year. So we’re looking at four and five times as many new dancers coming into the club. WOW!
And those dancers are, on the average, a bit younger than we’ve been getting in the past… and those somewhat younger folks are bringing in their friends. The 12-week commitment is easier for those younger folks to make, which is one of the reasons why the average incoming age is dropping… which is another one of the benefits **grin**.
But back to some of your original questions: “Why wasn’t it presented to Callerlab”? It was presented to the Board of Governers, and they authorized the continued development of this still-experimental program. And as the program develops, the various Callerlab committees and membership will consider whether it looks like something to adopt as a permanent program, or whether some of the existing lists could/should be changed, or whether the experiment should be abandoned.
It takes time to steer a very large ship, and course should be changed only for good reasons and after serious consideration. I really believe that is what’s happening now — as an organization, Callerlab is learning whether or not it’s a good idea. I happen to think it IS a good idea, but we’ll need to present convincing evidence to the rest of the membership to make a change.
Long answer to a very good question!
- Barry Johnson Comment #3
- Oh, other questions that often come up from the dancers:
* “People won’t come to our dances if we do this.”
* “We won’t be able to take our new dancers anywhere else.”
* “We can’t take them to association dances, special weekends or conventions”
The long-term answer to all of this, if it works out this way, is to grow the support for the program across wider areas. But in the shorter term, this has been our experience:
“People won’t come”: Attendance at our 50-call dances has actually INCREASED, not decreased as our club members feared. There are several reasons for this: The new 50-call dancers from -other- clubs are attending our dances (woo hoo!); some dancers that felt like they couldn’t keep up with our higher-level programs have continued to dance instead of dropping out; our own membership is growing faster because of the change; and the experienced dancers in the area have realized that they can still have a fun night dancing without needing Spin the Top or Shoot the Star.
By focusing on standard arrangements first, we can get the new dancers dancing at “club speed” sooner and with more success, so as callers we’re able to put on a higher-energy event… which raises the attractiveness of our dances.
“We can’t take them to other clubs” That problem can be surprisingly short-lived, particularly when a leading club has success with the program. If one club starts growing much faster than others, then others may choose to copy that model… and it starts to grow. Inviting other callers to come in to the first club gives them experience in how to call at that level, and that eases the transition into other places. And honestly, the newest dancers are often the ones least interested in going to other clubs at first, giving more time for “continuing education” that improves their skills before heading out.
“Can’t take them to large events”. Yep. That’s part of the overall picture of change. In our area, we’ve been able to convince our association leadership to offer SSD tips, if not a full-time hall, and it’s been popular (in some cases, more squares on the floor in that hall than in the ‘big’ hall). For our state convention this year, the hall that would normally be Mainstream is going to be SSD full time… the convention chairman and the programming chairman both strongly support the concept. For Nationals? Yeah… most of the newest dancers are not willing to travel to Nationals in their first year anyway, and by the time they ARE invested enough in the activity, they’ve probably had time for the continuing education to bring them up to the Mainstream level.
Of course, there are always roadblocks to making change, and these are good examples of the hurdles that need to be worked through. But they ARE solvable, and generally shouldn’t be considered to be complete show-stoppers.
Now, if there are clubs that don’t care about increasing the number of incoming dancers by 2 or 3 or 4 times… well, then, the right answer may be to let that club continue exactly as they are. They’ll either flourish (good for them!), stay the same, wither away and die, or decide to change. That’s entirely their prerogative, and that’s OK. No-one HAS to change.
- Barry Johnson Comment #4
- Sigh. I just can’t stop talking about this subject…
One other very important point about the approach. IT IS NOT AN IMMEDIATE SILVER BULLET!
A giant contributor to the success of this program is small positive changes that compound year after year. There is no magic wand to wave that makes a huge difference from day one.
Instead, the success builds over time as the principles are applied season after season, year after year. It’s the old “friends bring friends” approach… if you get 5 people through the first class, then make it easy for them to bring new friends to a second class, then THOSE friends bring more friends for the third class… it grows over time.
But doing lessons just once per year isn’t enough. A shorter class makes it easier for an excited new dancer to sweep up a friend or few and start again “in just a few weeks”. And by increasing the percentage of folks that finish, this all compounds class over class over class until you’re seeing the good results.
And if you have someone that can’t finish for some reason? “Why don’t you come back and join us again in in six weeks when we start again?” instead of “Gee, I’m sorry you’re on vacation for 5 weeks. Will we see you again ten months from now?”
So, for all of my cheerleading about the process, it’s like advertising: you don’t get much result from just one application, but if you keep doing it over and over, it works better and better.
OK, I think I’m done now **big grin…**
- Joni Micals Comment
- My turn. I began dancing in 1975, with Callerlab calling the shots with program lists, experimental and quarterly selections, adding or deleting calls, and so on. If I didn’t dance regularly, soon I wouldn’t be able to because I would miss out on the latest call or concept, especially if it made it on my program. So here I am, 46 years later, at C3a. I started teaching the SSD program three years ago and love it. 2-3 classes a year, 50 calls. No, they cannot go to a mainstream dance (first criticism). No, most did not want to ever go beyond 50 calls (in fact, they all thought the first 40 was more than enough). My point is, if callers made it a fun journey, and not arduous, the dancers do not need to learn all of Burleson’s book of definitions, or even MS. Most are just interested in dancing. Although I teach all positional (and that’s my lack of experience in calling — they are half sashayed and I call R & L Thru), they don’t know that they shouldn’t know it at this point in the scheme of things. I do teach an older crowd (seniors — not the future of square dancers — second criticism), but what the heck, they enjoy it. Today I was asked by several in my new 55+ community when I will start up a square dance class. I need to get a bit more organized, and I will. (BTW, no overhead, but no pay. Purely for volunteer.)
- Barry Johnson reply to query about results being due to caller, not SSD
Barry Johnson replying to Mike Pogue: A large part of it is transferable, Mike. I can tell you that from personal experience.
The key differences: 12-14 weeks of lessons, not 16-30. Multiple starts per year. Focus on the *dance*, not in the puzzle, using generally just standard formations and arrangements. Support the new dancers by making the level a part of every club dance, preferably the only level offered at least some of the time.
I am a dead-average caller, certainly not a top tier guy, and it’s working for me. We’re only halfway through our second year after switching from a pure Plus club, and we’ve already increased our membership from about 45-50 (and trending down) members up to 70… and we’re starting two more SSD classes next month so hope to finish the year with 80+ members.
We’re also seeing it work with several other groups in the area (some of whom started calling after learning to dance with this program). There are now five area clubs that have adopted it (started with just one), being taught by eight different callers, none of whom are stars. The remaining clubs in the area are watching our success, and I know that at least a few more are considering changing as well.
Outside of this area, we’re seeing it work in Radar O’Reilly’s home town of Ottumwa, Iowa (led by Robin Ragen) as well as in the southeastern Iowa (Tom Manning). Tom is a good regional caller, but he’s seeing a dramatic difference in his results as well.
Some other observations (again, less than two years into the program):
- Our dances usually had 2 to 5 squares before, and now we’re fairly consistently at 4 to 7.
- Our class sizes are bigger: graduating 10 new dancers this week instead of the 2-4 dancers we had been doing each year for the 4 previous years. We’re also losing a smaller percentage of dancers though a lesson cycle… I think we lost just 2 or 3 dancers this fall, instead of the more typical nearly 50%.
- The dancers in this set of lessons appear to average 5-10 years younger than previous groups. Don’t know if we’re seeing a significant difference yet, but the indication is that this program is more acceptable to folks somewhat younger than in the past.
- Enthusiasm for classes is up: our lesson managers report increased numbers of phone calls expressing interest. We’re also definitely seeing the “friends bring friends” affect.
- From a budgeting perspective, the club had been losing about $1000 per year on lessons, and people were seriously talking about killing the lessons because we couldn’t afford it. Now, we’re making a small profit on the lessons and again, the trend is upwards instead of down for several years.
- This group holds 20 dances per year, and uses almost entirely guest callers. The callers have begun to embrace the program and are doing some nice, nice dances for us. The focus on flow and wind in your face for the SSD tips has been great. We’re using callers from four states, some of whom are more than two hours drive away, and they all (now) understand the program we expect. We’re hiring them, and they’re doing what we ask with virtually no complaints.
- Excitement is higher in the club than we’ve seen in the past. This is really hard to quantify, but we had lost the feeling of fun and anticipation for dances and special events. But now, our newest dancers are bringing that back: they’re happy, they come to dances, they smile a lot… and the whole club feels uplifted.
- Like many clubs, we were getting in a rut with the same volunteer leaders doing jobs for years. Now, we’re seeing new club members step into leadership roles, bringing fresh ideas.
- The other local clubs (there are about 20 clubs with a 60 minute drive, and 75% of them are Plus only) have been accepting of our new format. Initially skeptical, those clubs have returned to visiting our group… and they’re doing it in somewhat larger numbers, too. Our visiting attendance at dancer is higher than it had been two, three or four years ago.
Best of all, I think, is that our wider net for catching has brought in some truly wonderful people that will, I think, form the future leadership of the group. I’m also about to start recruiting folks interested in calling to try to grow another caller or few.
I’ve been teaching lessons for about 10 years now, and these SSD lessons (three groups last season, one so far this season, and two more starting next month) have been, I think, the most fun. I’m not grinding the dancers to death with 100 calls… I’m not teaching all positions… we celebrate victory about every three months… and then we do it again.
- Continuing education has also been popular: we’re teaching advanced to the jaded Plus dancers (who suddenly realized they weren’t as good as they thought they were), running SSD and Plus workshops where we can focus on nuances, and happily encouraging our newest graduates to go through lessons a second time (this time as angels).
Finally, you can contrast this all with the mainstream lessons I’m teaching for a club in southern Wisconsin. They have lessons just once per year, and even skipped the lessons last year because their angels were too tired and wouldn’t commit to coming. The club membership is down to less than 20. We’re about to graduate 8 new dancers for them… but I can point at four or five of them that I don’t expect to see next year.
They’ll add some of these folks to club membership… that’s good, but it’s unlikely that they’ll do much more than stay even with their membership.
I really, really have to convince them to change next year. They need all the help they can get.
Convincing our club to change was hard… I finally threatened to quit. “I’m not interested in teaching 0 to Plus any more. If you want to do that next year, you’ll have to find a different instructor.” THAT’s when they got serious talking about it. After the last 18 months of success, all of the reservations of club members are gone… they have completely bought into the program (and realized that they’re having more fun, too!)
Mike, I’m sold on this program, because I’m seeing it work for me.