Pobail Stomp: Year One Retrospective

February 15, 2023

My opinions may not be shared with any of the people I have worked with in the past or those I work with currently. It's important for me to state this, as some of the things I say may cause offense or be interpreted unfavourably.

When I started dancing, it was solely to learn a skill. I wanted to round out the tools I could use as a performer, and felt that dancing and choreography were two sorely missing elements in my repertoire. As a result, I was highly focused on improving as quickly and as thoroughly as I could.

I took as many classes as I could, starting at one hour a week to eventually five hours a week - not including social dancing. I was friendly towards people, but I wasn't actually there to make friends: It's hilarious to state, given that partner dancing is an explicitly social activity.

Eventually I started to organise classes and social events of my own (Intermittently). I didn't desire recognition or renumeration; I wanted the events I desired to attend to exist. In this kind of situation, my options are to do something or to leave: complaining isn't an option.

Many of these events went well, and some went terribly due to intrapersonal failure. I learned from them, and made a promise to do better in the future. I stepped back, and supported others where I could: as a DJ, as a substitute teacher, as a doorkeeper, as an occasional confidant.

Having reached a comfortable baseline for my movement, I could relax a bit and fall into my natural rhythm of observation. I asked myself what it was that had kept me dancing. I realised, after a while, it was the friends I had made. But something didn't sit right with me.

I missed a lot about circus.

Circus as a Community

When you tell people you do circus performance, or are involved with the community, people usually ask you what circus you're involved with. The assumption is that you work in one of the few big-top circus shows: many are typically family affairs.

The reality is that the circus community is more than just people who perform it professionally. It's the college societies that organise training spaces, workshops and trips for its members. It's individuals informally meeting up on beaches to practice using fire props.

It's groups coming together collectively to perform shows, to run classes, and to plan events as small as 80 people in a hall to 2,000 people at a campsite. What brings all of these people together is a sense of empathy and familiarity. A somewhat laissez-faire approach to getting things done: a lack of drive, but also of animosity.

Everyone is friendly, and there's no real sense of hierarchy. An international performer doing highly technical tricks on a gala show stage will be in the same line as you at the closest burrito bar to the venue. You could end up napping in a pile alongside them the following day. That night, a stranger might regurgitate a shot of tequila into your mouth during a renegade show.

The state of affairs is relaxed, and although there is deference to the full time performers dedicated to their craft, or organisers facilitating the spaces the community congregates in, everyone is essentially treated the same: a well intentioned, infrequently employed vagrant with a heart of gold.

You will be welcomed, and welcome in return.

Dancing In The Before Times

Nothing I just described fits what the dance community looked like when I started.

For a multitude of reasons, Dublin's swing dance scene had stagnated for years. It was once big, then shrank, and maintained a holding pattern for a very long time. There were multiple weekly dances, and multiple drop-in classes, but only one rotating set of progressive classes - and a divide between people who danced early in the week and those who danced in the middle.

The early week dancers tended to be younger, and the mid week dancers tended to be older. Some people (Like me) danced on both nights, but most people never spoke to or danced with people who attended the other night outside of special events.

The people that ran events at the time either didn't have the bandwidth or the drive to run anything more nor had a specific goal to steer the community towards. However, many people who had migrated to Dublin found themselves dissatisfied by the overall state of the scene.

These were the best dancers - who were also the teachers. That were also the DJs. And all were friends with each other. It was their desire - nay, their duty, to uplift the masses and transform Dublin's scene to an international standard. The conclusion: people needed more classes.

Things Get Elitist

I mentioned earlier that I had taken my own shot at organising events for a while - I wanted more classes. I was driven in a very specific way, and it followed how I generally approach skill acquisition. I didn't and don't ever expect anyone to approach learning the way I do, especially because it can be sterile and cold sometimes.

Nobody considered that what they wanted and thought was important was not what others wanted or thought was important. In an effort to improve Dublin's scene, the crew involved with pushing it had made it colder. They DJed for themselves and danced with each other - only asking their students to dance out of obligation, and rarely talking to them as people.

This approach cascaded down. People were only familiar with others who were in their classes, and the people who didn't attend classes at all were completely overlooked. The music, the lifeblood of the dance floor - catered for the "best" dancers with no consideration that others might struggle. If they couldn't manage, it's because they weren't working hard enough.

Friendly approaches to teaching were looked down upon, and perceived as childish. There had to be a "best" way to teach, to make students internalise the foundational movements for Lindy Hop that would prove their value as individuals and thus drag the mean skill level of the scene up from the dredges. Classes were optimised to homogenise; your swingout is your net worth.

Teachers and students alike begin to realise that organisers are replaceable. Everyone is trying to fix the scene with the precision and warmth of an assassin, identifying problems in dance ability. For some, classes become an unwanted obligation. For others, an opportunity for social climbing or monetary gain. All symptoms of one, underlying root problem: there is no community.

What is Community, Anyway?

For a few years I was involved with running tech events. Monthly meetups, a few conferences here and there. We had a handful of organisers - most of who had been there for years. The same problem, annually: we don't have enough time to do things, or enough people to do more.

I gave up one evening, sitting in the corner of a pub. The person in control of everything had gotten into an argument with a keynote speaker who organised events in their home country. I was beside the speaker, backing them up. The man before us insisted that just because we ran events that people congregated in, we did not have a community. It was merely a forum for people to engage with each other through a shared (Largely professional) interest.

He was correct - There was no community. There was none by his design, scaring people off and refusing any ideas with no demonstrable "value". There was no way to change his mind. I looked forward, and didn't see a future for myself in a group with no human touch, so I walked away.

In the months before COVID-19 forced the world indoors, I had been thinking a lot about other people. I realised I had become more withdrawn after some bad experiences, and had avoided putting the kind of effort I used to put into relationships towards new people.

I explained to a close friend that I wanted to do more, but that it was probably time for me to move on. Although dancing could be a good outlet for this desire, I was tired. Few had noticed or agreed with I had seen, and more investment in the scene felt like it would benefit a business - not build the community I imagined and wanted.

My weekly busy night became free. A fortnight later, I visited a friend across the country - and days after that, everything was closed.

Lockdown Reflection

In the summers before COVID-19 bludgeoned international dance communities, once a month (roughly) we'd dance on a bandstand in a park. When restrictions eased up, people started meeting up and dancing outdoors - on an unofficial basis, of course. This was an ad-hoc effort organised by a handful of people, and through it, we slowly got a picture of who was still around.

A lot of people left Dublin during lockdown, if not the country altogether. The scene had a hard reset: there was a group of existing dancers who might not have socialised much in the past, a bunch of migrant dancers trying to make local connections, and a few people trying it for the first time through the limited classes available.

We'd dance once or twice a weekend outdoors, then go for some drinks afterwards. The organisers I originally took classes from decided it was time to throw in the towel, and asked if I was interested in taking over. After many years taking a backseat in the community, I decided I was willing to step back up - and had a vision. It was an opportunity to build something better.

I had made a lot of mistakes in the past, and tried to warn people away from doing the same. Much of the time they didn't listen. I realised my mentality for running events was similar to class planning for an inexperienced teacher. Sometimes you're inclined to focus on describing what can go wrong - in an effort to help people, you air all the greivances you have with how you felt you learned something badly.

It's negative framing, and I decided I wanted to become an optimist. I thought about the mistakes I made and kept them in mind, but I also asked myself what I wanted to do better. It's important to remember the past to avoid repeating it, but if you fixate solely on avoiding mistakes, you're not challenging yourself to do anything better - your focus is just maintaining what already exists. And often, what exists has lots of room for improvement.

A Community Effort

"Pobail" is the Gaelige (Irish) word for community. The night was nearly called Pobail Swing instead of Pobail Stomp, but I solicited a lot of feedback and took it into account. I put together a highly dramatic document asking local and international friends to sanity check my assessment and assumptions of what made a good dance scene.

This transparent approach is how I've conducted myself in my personal relationships for a long time, and I thought the same mentality might also work well to establish a collaborative process to starting a new dance night. More broadly, I wanted to think beyond just a single social dance - I wanted to set an example for a better scene.

The Sword of Damocles

Once upon a time, I had a personal manifesto. I have no clue where it is or what it contained, but I have always maintained an unspoken set of personal standards for conduct. One of these standards is a sense of responsibility that any project I start or become involved with must be able to survive without me.

Like good documentation, I can't consider something 'done' unless it is organised with some kind of succession plan in mind. The people at the top of the project, whether they are willing or not, define the culture of everyone underneath them. Over the years, many organisers have lost trust with their collaborators by refusing to work with them in good faith, or by refusing to acknowledge their roles as leaders and taking ownership of their events.

I have persisted in describing myself as a coordinator instead of an organiser - because the language we use informs how we think. Anyone who helps to run an event is an organiser - they are responsible for something, and by being responsible for it, trust is being placed with them. I figured a good start for how to run an event would be by justifying every decision I made, and making all of the documentation as public as possible.

The only information I truly consider sensitive is anything that could be personally identifiable information (PII): most other things that organisers consider "sensitive" have to do with finances. I have never cared to make money from dancing, and therefore have no reason to obscure the cost of things from people - full transparency puts us all on equitable ground.

Once you've put your intentions and heart on your sleeve, people have a sense of who you are. If they decide they identify with your cause, it's time to figure out where to put them to best use.

Give People Tools With Opportunities

In many industries, there's documents called "Standard Operating Procedures". The simplest definition I can give is that they are a set of instructions on how to approach fulfilling a single, specific task. They set a precedent, and are usually based around best practices, whose criteria ranges from time-efficiency to legal obligations.

I despise tacit information. Do not assume something is obvious: write it down.

A huge failing I have seen time and time again in how people collaborate with each others, especially in volunteering scenarios, is that they do not give people sufficient enough instruction on how to do anything specific. You get a person or group of people willing to help you do anything, and then you burn that enthusiam out by giving them no problem to solve, or a problem that is badly defined.

For Pobail Stomp, almost every single individual task someone could do on a night has a set of instructions. They explain when something is done, how to do it, and crucually, why. If someone has already agreed to work with you, they have likely seen something in your project that speaks to them. If you explain why something is important, this reinforces their decision to work with you - it isn't patronising, it is respecting their time by giving them a framework to work within.

I cannot understate how important this is, because this is also how you can effectively scale the amount of people you can work with. By having instructions with rationale attached, you can help them understand how you think, and once you are in sync, they realise where they have the freedom to make informed decisions without asking for "permission".

It also helps stave off the curse of knowledge by forcing you to ask yourself what is or isn't obvious. For example, take giving announcements at dance events. This isn't actually a set of instructions we have (Yet!), but this is close to what I will write:

Announcements are an opportunity for us to not only tell people about events that we or our friends are running, but also to give people public recognition. They are an important part of an event, because they keep people informed without expecting them to ration their limited time and attention to social media.

Recognition is important, because we want to thank people for being part of the community. This will mostly appear in the form of DJ announcements and jam circles, which also cues when announcements should be made. The time between a class and a DJ set or two DJ sets is a natural rest period after an hour of sustained attention.

By making announcements then, you give dancers and crew alike an opportunity to reset and reflect before the night continues. If you are sharing news about multiple events, strive to give them the same amount of time, out of respect for the fact that the organisers deserve equal billing for the effort that goes into organising events.

Three paragraphs. I have an idea of tone for our writing, but the person giving an announcement could be different every time, and has their own personality and rhythm to how they converse with others. If you know what you need to do and how to do it, the only thing to change is style.

Blur the Lines

If you want a community to feel like a full, coherent collective, you should create and reinforce opportunities for people to become invested in it. This can primarily be done two ways: the first is by getting them involved with running an event. If you're transparent about how you run events, are open to allowing people to be involved and give them the tools to do so, you're well on your way.

The second is simply by getting people to talk to each other. In our existing documentation, I try to emphasise that running the door is incredibly important because you're likely giving someone their first impression of the community - and learning the word most important to them in any language: their name. Even the bravest person will feel out of place coming into a new activity, and the more people they know, the more comfortable they will be.

I've read of some scenes designating 'dance ambassadors' who are on-duty during a social dance night to ask new or visiting people to dance. I find this approach absolutely stupid, because I perceive it as patronising - and it doesn't mean they'll actually get to know anybody. Chatting on a dance floor is like taking a first date to a movie: it's not intrinsically designed for you to talk in.

Go to the pub. I'm not joking. At the end of each dance night, I shout at people to go for drinks so they will 1.) Vacate the venue (And help maintain our good relationship with it) and 2.) Have them sit down in a quieter environment where their attention isn't split. The more people go, the better - especially if they're DJs, teachers and organisers.

We dance with people, not levels. As the established people in a community, it's your responsibility to make yourself approachable: by doing so inside and outside of events, you become more familiar to others. Combined with clear, proactive efforts at community building such as the use of code of conduct, you will make everyone a steward for others, and build a more resilient scene that can adapt to disruptions far better than you could ever imagine.

The Future?

Like an unfamiliar song, I'm never sure if I want to end my writing with a dramatic break or just keep moving until there's no music left to drive me. I'm proud of what I've accomplished since Pobail Stomp started, and it's a very alien feeling for me to acknowledge or accept praise for my involvement with anything. I try to find enjoyment in doing things for the sake of doing them, especially out of principle - and have clashed with others multiple times as a result.

This year so far has been a nebulous one for me, but I feel confident that I am not a singular bus factor in Dublin's scene. We're wrestling with higher order concerns for community building such as a safety committee, which makes me think it's finally maturing past its awkward pubescent stage. I think there's space to do more, but it's important to establish how we want to do so.

Maybe I'll try teaching more often.