She’s just finished her first beginner lesson and is feeling overwhelmed. She’s standing nervously at the edge of a dance floor, watching the crowd and wondering whether she should try to slip out unnoticed, when an advanced dancer bounds up to her enthusiastically and asks for a dance. Around three minutes later, the same smile on his face, the leader thanks her for the dance and tells her how much fun it was. Years later, she is still dancing.
This story was told to me a few years ago by the follower, who I’ll leave anonymous. The leader was a Toronto stalwart named Krister Shalm, and the setting was the University of Toronto Swing Dance Club, or UT-Swing.
What the follower probably didn’t know was that Krister was an advisor to the executive of UT-Swing at the time, and UT-Swing had a rule that its executive must dance only with beginners for at least the first half hour of every dance. But Krister hadn’t asked her to dance because of the rule. His was genuinely enthusiastic about it. So were the rest of the UT-Swing executive members who danced with beginners week in and week out.
What was the point of the rule, then? Of course, UT-Swing wanted to set an expectation that the club’s leadership would be open and welcoming to new dancers. But the real point wasn’t to force advanced lindy hoppers to dance with beginners against their will. Quite the opposite. By making this rule one of the most important expectations of the executive, UT-Swing could ensure that the people it attracted to leadership roles were the same people who already enjoyed dancing with beginners. Who already understood how important it is to be an ambassador for lindy hop, and who were prepared to take on that ambassador role enthusiastically and whole-heartedly.
When your leadership is all about being ambassadors, that becomes part of the culture of the entire organization. The beginner follower who keeps dancing because she felt so warmly welcomed may never join the executive herself. But when she’s an intermediate dancer, she’ll still take everything she received and pay it forward to new beginner leaders. She won’t need a rule, because everybody around her will be doing it too. Dancing with people of all skill levels will just be “the way we do things around here.” That is the real power of an ambassador – to shape a culture.
Not long after that story took place, Krister became the president of Toronto Lindy Hop. One of TLH’s first actions under his leadership was to create a new program for the broader Toronto swing community, inspired by what he and some of his fellow Board members had seen at UT-Swing (in fact, another former UT-Swing executive member was the program’s first coordinator). The program was called Dance Ambassadors.
Today Dance Ambassadors continues to be Toronto Lindy Hop’s flagship program. Most people know them as the folks who wear red t-shirts at the Dovercourt House and dance with beginners during the first band set. But just like the UT-Swing program that inspired it, Dance Ambassadors goes beyond that. The Dance Ambassadors are meant to be role models, to inspire the rest of the community to follow their lead.
My biggest fear about the program was that other dancers would say, “Good! There are Dance Ambassadors around to dance with the beginners, so I don’t have to!” But in my experience, that’s not what’s happened. In fact, we’ve experienced the opposite – many dancers coming up to us asking whether they can become ambassadors, too.
The fact is, our current ambassadors are great, and we don’t want to fix something that’s not broken, so there aren’t a lot of spaces opening up in the official program. But the answer to whether you can become a Dance Ambassador is still a resounding yes. The fact that you are inspired to do it means that the program is working.
So you don’t need a red shirt. We want you to go out there and inspire others. Live the culture that you want to see. The Dance Ambassador program will truly have succeeded when dancing with beginners is such an integral part of the swing dance culture that the program itself becomes obsolete.
And if you already have a red shirt? All of you are awesome already, so you don’t really need to hear me say this, but remember that you’re doing more than a shift. You are in a leadership role in our community. You are helping to create a culture. Be proud, be open, and above all, enjoy the experience.
The 2013-2014 Dance Ambassador season launched and you can find them every Saturday night at the Dovercourt House