Education – Growing Clubs, the Timberline Toppers' Plan
The word is that square dancing is dying all over the country. Not here. The Timberline Toppers have often had new student classes numbering 30 plus students. After a few years, nearby clubs began to try the TT Plan, and they too have had success. Now clubs in other Colorado councils have begun to try the plan.
On seeing a Timberline Toppers badge at a dance in Utah, a southern Colorado dancer exclaimed, "You saved our club!"
Preparing the Soil
Existing club members must have a positive attitude toward all other dancers, especially new students — smiling, friendly, welcoming. Reminders and practice may be necessary before any new students arrive. For example, NO:
- Pushing other dancers
- Frowning at mistakes
- Chatter (students need to concentrate)
- Death grip on thumbs, hands, or arms (Thumb twisters, finger crimpers, and arm pullers are usually unaware of these habits. They need to be told. If that doesn't work, try an entire dance with no touching allowed, which is actually kind of fun.)
Planning the "Chili Dinner"
The basic plan involves:
- Generating a list of prospects (Friends from other social groups, neighbors, civic groups, home-owner associations. Strangers reached by newspaper articles and posters. Yes, this step takes work.)
- Plan a party dance with a fun caller. Try to get everyone on the floor learning and dancing a few calls.
- An enticement helps convince reluctant prospects to show up. For several years, we conducted a chili dinner. Unfortunately, after a few years, a large bunch of repeaters came and then left immediately after eating. So we switched to ice cream, which was far less work, but also effective.
- Invite prospects on your list with a friendly phone call, email reminder, and, best, an old-fashioned invitation. (But, leave it open to walk-ins that respond to posters or ads.)
- Greet people at the door, and welcome them. Check them off on your invitation list. (Knowing which prospects came helps in future years.)
- Serve your chili or ice cream and make sure club members mix with guests. (An hour for sign-in and eating is typical, but depends on the food and the number of guests.)
- When the caller is ready, club dancers should look for reluctant prospects and encourage them. Partner up with prospects.
- As part of the evening, a demonstration tip with club dancers can highlight the fun, flow, and variety involved. (Be careful to not intimidate prospects with anything that looks "way too complicated to learn.")
- Explain the lesson schedule and cost. Invite prospects to sign up, or, at least, think about it, and perhaps sign-up at the first lesson.
- Be prepared to get names, phone numbers, email addresses, and money.
- Thank everyone for coming.
The key features are finding prospects, getting them to come, giving them a fun evening, and showing them a very friendly group.
The Student Program
Our program has (or tries to have) the following features. Other options are certainly possible.
- The program (for Mainstream) is 10 or 11 weeks, 2 nights a week, 2 hours each night. That is a big commitment. (Fewer lessons or weekly lessons might work with a young group.)
- A mix of angels in each square, and in each pair works well. Splitting up couples seems to keep individuals focused on their own dancing, not their partner's. But, don't push the issue.
- Angels should be capable dancers.
- Angels should lead by example, not talk. Maybe, an outstretched hand in the right place, or a quick point in the right direction. Never a push or pull.
- Patience! Encouragement! Smiles! Students get hit with a lot. They tend to feel overwhelmed at some point. (At many points.) They need patient, encouraging, and smiling angels to get through.
- About two-thirds into the program, we start inviting students to regular dances. They are not charged, and dance only the first two tips, in which the calls are limited to those taught to date. Invariably, students have a great time. Students are amazed at the speed of a regular dance. Regular club members are energized by the student excitement.
- All students are encouraged to review lessons using on-line sites, such as those listed at On-line student aids.
- In a 10 week stretch, some students will miss a few classes. Invite them to a member's home, with a square of angels, and work on what was missed.
- A graduation dinner dance provides a great welcome into the club.
- Do not stop at the end of the lesson program. Invite new graduates into your square. Invite them along on visits to other clubs.
- The key is to demonstrate that the club is ready and happy to provide all the support needed to help new students. Focus on progress and fun. Mistakes are normal. (Be prepared, the level of support needed is often a lot of work.)
- "I've never met such a friendly group of people." are the words you want to hear.
- Some students and graduates will drop out. (Other commitments take their toll. Some are not up to the learning challenge involved. Some move out of town.) If they leave with reluctance, you've done all you could.
- Our program offers half-price on future lesson programs to former students. Several apparent "lost-causes" came back a second year and were able to "finally get it."
- We have a hearing aid system that plugs into the caller's voice channel. Poor hearing is a significant obstacle for some people.
- We do not have a dress code. Clean and neat is enough. Costume requirements add another hurdle.
- Our dances have a Plus session and a Mainstream session (split by a session of rounds). Mainstream dancers don't have to sit out Plus or Rounds, the last hour and a half is theirs.
Note that nothing above is magic, or revolutionary. These programs are a lot of work. Stay positive, have fun, and enjoy meeting your new square dancing friends.
By the numbers
If you collect 100 good prospects, expect:
- 50 to 70 attendees at your "chili dinner" (with some walk-ins not on your list)
- 30 to 40 showing interest
- 20 to 30 sign ups
- 15 to 20 graduates
- 6 to 10 active after 6 months
- 2 to 4 that repeat the next year
These numbers are very rough and subject to a lot of variables. For example, really good prospects can produce better returns. Bigger groups seem to have better returns. Realize that attrition is part of the process and generate a big prospect list.