A Fragile Hatchery: State of U.S. Campus Tango Clubs

As an informal advisor to the Caltech Tango Club for the past few years, I have gotten a peek at the complexity of running a campus tango club.

I had lots of ideas about how to help campus clubs. Then a chat with Melodie Kao from Caltech made me realize how much more there was to learn about campus tango clubs, first.

That led to a lot of informal interviewing and chats about clubs, to some online discussion, and next to the Campus Tango Club Survey. The big learnings from this survey about campus tango clubs (henceforward just "clubs") are:

  1. Clubs are a hub of powerful positive experiences for participants

  2. Clubs are perceived almost universally as making an enormous contribution to tango in the US

  3. Clubs struggle on many fronts

  4. Clubs that have a committed, long-term local organizer-teacher struggle less

  5. Dancers are open to get more involved in supporting clubs

Below, I'll share more details about each of these findings, and you can also look deeper into actual responses if you want. 

About the survey:  It was distributed via Facebook July 26th-Aug 5th 2017. There were 131 completes representing over 50 different campus Tango clubs. 


1. Clubs are a hub of powerful positive experiences for participants

Many people who had learned in tango clubs were very clear: the club had changed their life profoundly and for the better.

  • A sense of belonging: close friends, a feeling of being at home, like family

  • Personal growth and experience of meaning

  • Stress relief from academic pressures

  • An introduction to a lifelong passion

  • Connecting with people the same age, as well as with those outside the campus bubble

  • A way of exploring creativity

  • Leadership skills

  • Networking

In their words: 

Caltech Tango Club participants and their partners at their Tango Challenge graduation at the student-organized Caltech Tango Marathon

Caltech Tango Club participants and their partners at their Tango Challenge graduation at the student-organized Caltech Tango Marathon

It was the best aspect of my college career. My second family! - University of Maryland

Friends! Great teachers, taught me to connect with people more readily from all walks of life! -Brown, Princeton

Gave me a passion, a group of friends, a goal. One of the few hobbies I have stuck with. -University of Washington

Major source for stress relief. - University of Wisconsin - Madison, University of Georgia

got me to start tango! was my only extra curricular in college. changed my life! - Columbia/Barnard, Princeton

I owe all my tango career to the GMU tango club, as well as invaluable friendships... enriched my college experience; gave me some leadership skills. - GMU

Introduced me and got me addicted to tango. Gave me a lifelong hobby. Gave me a social network when I had almost none. - MIT

introduced me to one of the passions of my life! - Columbia/Barnard, Princeton

Shown the impact of tango, communities, and personally taught me what leadership is really about. - MIT

Drastically changed my life. - UC Berkeley, UT Austin, UT Dallas, Purdue's Tu Tango Club

My University of Michigan tango club is the reason for the way my life is today. I met my spouse there, many of my closest friends, and it gave me a high quality tango education that allows me to dance at a high level and inspiring me to continue to improve my dance and contribute to others' tango experiences. It also gave me event planning skills that I use both in my (unrelated) job and tango. -University of Michigan

It brought tango into my life. It built friendships and helped build an important social circle for me as an introvert. It also helped me get to my first festival. - University of Oregon

It was stress relieving and makes me relaxed after a long day at work - University of Wisconsin - Madison

Better connection to my spouse - Purdue

Kept me sane during my Ph.D. :) -Stanford

It gave a home away from home. - UC Berkeley

2. Clubs are perceived almost universally as making an enormous contribution to tango in the US

Most people see clubs as the future of tango, the seedbed of the next generation.

The top 35 words used at least 3 times in answering the question, "What do you think is the role of campus tango clubs in the tango world? (Top of mind)"

The top 35 words used at least 3 times in answering the question, "What do you think is the role of campus tango clubs in the tango world? (Top of mind)"

  • A source of new, young, intelligent dancers

  • A source of future organizers and community leaders

  • A safe, friendly, inclusive, accessible, cocoon-like place for newbies to learn and grow

  • A unifying force that can build bridges in fragmented communities

  • Access to great spaces for tango
    (although non-officers may not be aware that accessing on-campus space can be nontrivial and expensive)

In their words:

Bringing young, curious, learning-minded people to tango at a time in their lives when they have more time than when they start to work. - Caltech, UC Berkeley, UCLA

"Mainstreaming Argentine Tango.  Okay, mainstreaming may be too strong a word, but massively expanding the audience directly and indirectly." - Yale

"To introduce tango to new dancers and thereby keeping the dance alive" -Amherst, MIT, Yale

"I think they are very important in creating a community and providing a positive space for young dancers to grow both in tango and in life." - University of Florida

Expand cultural consciousness of tango, give young people a chance to contribute in a scene they might otherwise feel left out of -ASU

Introduce students to a new way of communicating, expose them to a new way of experiencing the world (thru senses, not only thru thinking).- Stanford

Spreading the tango bug to young people, awesome cross-cultural learning and connection. -University of Pittsburgh

Recruits dedicated dancers who will take tango to other communities - Yale

Train talented young students so they spread good tango through the world. - Yale

Campus tango clubs are a gateway for students into the tango world. Sharing an activity which offers many physical and mental benefits both short-term and long-term. - BSU
 

3. Clubs struggle on many fronts

There are five big reasons why campus clubs struggle so much: organizing, promoting, retention/programming, community relations, and the problem of ensuring safety.  

"They are small and not recognized on campus. They need more outside guidance in managing a dance club that requires much more maturity and appreciation than other popular campus dances." - ASU

  • Difficulty with club organizing and management

    • Lack of continuity: students graduate, club officers turn over/burn out, inconsistent succession planning

    • Lack of officer training: Club officers lack knowledge/experience on how to lead/manage a club and operate with minimal resources/training; administration may be gappy or ineffective.

    • Dealing with university bureaucracy: Lots of red tape, complexity, time-consuming

    • Funding the club: Most students can't pay the true cost of immersing in tango, so clubs need to find funding either from university or create their own fundraisers/events. 

  • Difficulty promoting tango on campus

    • Promoting tango: Tango's hard to promote anyway, and especially in this setting - it has a lot of associations that don't resonate with young people — on a campus there are so many options and alternatives for student activities
       
    • Competing with swing/salsa/ballroom: In comparison with more well-understood dancers and popular vibrant clubs, learning tango basics can feel low energy and hard/demotivating - not fun.
  • Difficulty getting the "perfect storm" of the teachers + programming + committed members that creates a critical, self-sustaining mass

    • Finding the right teachers: Cheap, local, high quality, "low-drama," will stay around, trusted

    • Retention: Retaining club members long enough for them to start having fun with tango

    • Other priorities: Tango competes with heavy-duty academic obligations that often take priority

  • Difficulty with local tango community connection

    • Getting out to milongas: Effort/resources required to get off campus to milongas

    • Competition: Club events may be perceived as competing with local community events, can be stressful/isolating

  • Problematic individuals and incidents

    • Lack of safety for young people: Problems with predators, "creeps," or sexual harassment issues

Worth noting that these same problems are also shared by most small, community-based tango organizations - many do struggle with organizing, promotion, retention, competition, and bad seeds too. In the campus setting, these seem to be exacerbated by a context with many distractions and a continuously changing officership that has less experience managing people. 

4. Clubs who have a committed, long-term local organizer-teacher struggle less

On-campus tango exists and thrives thanks to individuals like the following, who survey participants highlighted as having contributed to the campus club movement. 

Abraham Taicher | Acacia Crouch | Adam Cornett | Alex Bain | Alex Krebs | Alper Ungor | Amelia Stahl | Amy Zhou | Angela | Ashlee Murphy | Ayano Yoneda | Bruna Z | Cameron Voloshin | Carlos Moreno | Caroline Peattie | Catherine Valentine | Christian Wheelihan | Christopher Nassopoulos | Cristina Ladas | D'Artagnan Horner | Daniel Trenner | Daniela Borgialli | Darcy Hackley | Dennis Magoya | Derek Somo | Eizabeth Morin | Elizabeth Lee | Elizabeth Sanger | Elizabeth Wartluft | Ellen Gwozdek | Eray Yuksek | Eric Lindgren | Eunha (Hannah) Kim | Felipe Martinez | Gabi | Henry Finklestein | Homer Ladas | Inja Vojnovic | Irene Zolotukhin | Isaac Oboka | Ivan Lopez | Jacqueline Eibey | Jaimes Friedgen | Jake Spatz | James Kang | Jason DeSalvo | Jennifer Bratt | Joe Grohens | Joe Leonardo | Joe Yang | Jonas Aquino | Juliet McMains | Jun Yi | Kasia Roig | Kat Gorsuch | Kaussik | Ken-Hou Lin | Kirill Shklovsky | Lauren Kendrick | Liz Williams | Logan | Lori Coyle | Mack Kerker | Marco Antonio Licon | Marco Licon | Marco Mambelli | Melodie Kao | Michelle Badion | Miesha White | Mitra Martin | Nathan Sears | Ney Melo | Nick Tapia | Nicolas K | Nieka White | Pamela Slavsky | Peace Sangtawesin | Rachel Lidskog | Ramu Pyreddy | Rebecca Rorick Smith | Richard Powers | Robin Thomas | Rommel Oramas | Ryan Mack | Scott Boddye | Sharna Fabiano | Shu Li | Stella Hao | Stephanie Berg | Steve Slavsky | Tilly Kim | Tine Herrenan | Tomas Howlin | Tommy Smith | Trista Brophy | Viktoria | Yimeng | Yomei Shaw | Ziyan Zhu

There are probably many, many many more people who have contributed enormous amounts of energy and dedication to fostering tango clubs. To all those mentioned and unmentioned -- thank you!!!


 

Something special: ASU Tango Club

As I read the responses, it became clear to me that some clubs have been incredibly lucky to have deeply, deeply committed local facilitators who devote intensive energies to the club over the long term.

While this happens in many communities, I was struck by the passion and emotion shared by members who had been part of ASU Tango Club and the gratitude they had for what ASU faculty member and dance teacher Daniela Borgialli created. 

It brought more meaning into my life - ASU

It has helped me find balance - ASU

It was my family during undergrad. I met my closest friends there, and I fell in love with tango there because the social aspect was so fun and welcoming.  - ASU

Tango club changed my life. My entire social life and extracurricular experiences were centered around it. I chose to study abroad in BA because of tango club - ASU

It was a huge place of belonging and family when I was in college. - ASU

Friends, a community, a creative outlet, a place to decompress, travel opportunities, networking - ASU

It's made me more social and find a way to enjoy my free time out of my house. - ASU

Tango club gave me family and friends that proceeded to hold onto for years even after I wasn't dancing as much - ASU, Caltech

Immensely, key to personal growth - ASU

You can read more about how it was set up and gets some clues on what made the ASU Tango Club so powerful on Daniela's blog here. It would be lovely to hear stories from other dedicated club organizers like this and pool/share insights, knowledge, and best practices! 


5. And, dancers are open to get more involved in supporting clubs!

It was exciting for me to see how much untapped energy and potential there is in the community in the form of dancers who are willing to get more involved in supporting tango clubs. Check it out! 

Are you open to getting more involved in supporting campus tango clubs?

Are you open to getting more involved in supporting campus tango clubs?

Soo...that's the state as I see it, based on a small, nonscientific online survey combined with personal experiences and conversations with people I know. I would welcome anyone who has time to do a more rigorous or detailed follow up to this. 

By the way! Those who completed the survey were mostly pretty dedicated and committed tango dancers. 57% of the people who filled out the survey have been dancing for more than 5 years. 69% of them dance at least once a week. 47 DJs, 62 organizers, and 50 teachers were represented.

How long have you been dancing? 

How long have you been dancing? 

How often do you dance? 

How often do you dance? 

Which have you done in tango? 

Which have you done in tango? 

What could we do as a community to help campus tango clubs? 

In the process of doing this research, I've definitely realized how much I owe to campus tango clubs and the people who power them. So many of my favorite dancing friends started in that environment! And so many events I've cherished never would have happened without the force of campus tango clubs.  

I've also learned about initiatives to help clubs. One is Stella Hao's University Tango Clubs Facebook group, dedicated to connecting university clubs across the US. If you're a tango club organizer, you could join and share your needs/questions or solutions/resources with fellow organizers. Please do share in comments below any other other resources you know of that could help campus clubs!  

What could we do as a community to help campus tango clubs? How can the dancers who are willing to get involved help?

Share your thoughts below, or on Facebook, or start a conversation with someone in your community who might be up for exchanging about this. 

Campus Tango Club Survey

I believe that a healthy, vibrant network of campus tango clubs are essential to the future of Argentine Tango in the US. Please complete the survey below so we can understand how to serve them.  

Campus clubs were a huge part of my undergraduate experience. Tango wasn't at Princeton yet when I was there, but I was involved in several theater clubs. Part of the strength and resiliency of these theater clubs came from networks of alumni that supported them with guidance and resources. 

So many of the friends I love to dance with started at campus tango clubs. So many teachers I deeply respect have contributed so much to starting and cultivating these clubs. Lately I am feeling concerned as I hear more and more about the struggles many tango clubs are facing in attracting membership, developing leadership, and creating continuity. 

At the same time, I have a huge amount of faith that if we work together as a community, our resourcefulness and collaboration skills can change the game and we can co-create resources to support the next generation of tango through well-supported campus clubs.  Please complete this survey and be part of that change! 

Six deep, pervasive problems that I see in the tango world and how we could change the game

Dancer-organizers playing chess at Weller House Inn at the Tango Slumber Party in 2013. Photo by SubbusClicks. 

Dancer-organizers playing chess at Weller House Inn at the Tango Slumber Party in 2013. Photo by SubbusClicks

I believe we who love tango are at a difficult place facing some difficult decisions and I would like to share my views of the situation in case this can catalyze something helpful.

Based on my experiences cultivating local community for 12 years, I see six deep, pervasive problems in the world of tango right now:

  1. Unmotivating beginner experience. The experience many beginners have is mixed, confusing, often unmotivating and sometimes even negative.  

  2. Health, safety, gender, inclusion, consent. There is a lack of consistent education around gender equality, inclusion, consent, health and safety.

  3. Over-reliance on group classes. There is an over-reliance on the group class format which is limited in many ways: high administrative cost, low conversion, the problem of leveling, the conflicts of the teacher's role.

  4. Organizer overextension and burnout. An organizer's work doesn't create enough money to justify the energy it takes and must be subsidized by other sources of income (teaching, travel, other jobs) which leads to exhaustion and burnout.

  5. College clubs closing. College tango clubs, the seedbed of the next generation, don't have support and are closing.

  6. Hostility toward innovation. There is a climate of hostility toward creativity and innovation in general which demonstrates a lack of understanding of the deeply innovative roots of tango. There are no events (that I am aware of) that showcase creativity and innovation.

These problems are not unsolvable but they would require lots of really open conversation, development, research, brainstorming, prototyping, funding, and probably in the process a lot of exploring and healing of old wounds that may be limiting what's possible for our community.

I believe we are at a point where we really need to think carefully about changing the game. Anyone can do this with intention and persistence. I have shared a lot of free resources for those who are interested here on my site (see dropdown above) in case they are helpful and I will continue to develop them to the extent I am able.

Personally I think real gamechanging is best done via partnership, one community at a time. I am inviting organizers who are motivated to create change to join me in creating a new world of tango through what I am calling the Tango Gamechanger Challenge. If this speaks to you please contact me. And for everyone, game on! 

The work of a community experience designer

mitra celine.jpeg

Here are eight kinds of work that must be done to kindle meaningful community, with some examples below:

  • Nano-research - Continuously watching, listening, asking, feeling
  • Inventing - Conceiving settings for learning and connection
  • Inviting - Warmly and non-coercively encouraging participation
  • Nudging - Reinforcing opportunities - gently, persistingly, personally
  • Celebrating - Identifying milestones and acknowledging accomplishments
  • Visualizing - Generating lovingkindness through imagination
  • Weaving - Networking, good introductions, creative convening
  • Living the example - Taking risks so others feel safe to

Disentangling deep confusions about community

Here is a series of pieces I've written as I've explored and created community. My aim is to ease the path for those who do the very important work of building community. 

  1. Pseudocommunities
  2. Why we are confused about what community is
  3. What is community? 
  4. What are the challenges to building community? 
  5. Why is it hard for the people who anchor communities? 

Pseudocommunities

How many communities are or have you been a part of? When I was in college I was part of the "campus community;" now I am part of the "alumni community." Then I got a job and was encouraged to partake in the company's "community-building activities." I took yoga classes in Santa Monica, making me part of their "yoga community." Over the years I have been a member of the MySpace, Friendster, Facebook "communities." When I decided to start working for myself, I was excited about the concept of joining a "coworking community." And so on.

What is the purpose of these communities ?

And why is it that when I need help, the only people I can turn to are my family members and tiny knot of closest friends ? Why do I eat all my meals alone, or with my husband if he's not teaching - except once a month when I drive up to see my dad and mom ? How can I be running a "community" of a hundred dancers and still feel lonely every single day ?

The reason is because the purpose of these communities is gathering the attention and resources of people toward a specific activity. These communities, including mine, are not actually there to create community - it's not their intent. It is striking that if a community has a clear intent, it is only a very narrow kind of community - an intentional community.

There are new well paid jobs out there - "community manager" or even "chief community officer" - most of these have something to do with sales, marketing or fundraising, or in some cases moderation and rules-enforcement. None of them (including me, because I have seen myself as a community organizer) cares if we all eat, or bowl, alone, every day, or if we have no money, or if we need help navigating a rapidly changing world that the best education that society was able to provide did not prepare us for.

I have personally been caught in the crux of a very deep misunderstanding that is embedded in our culture that has caused me a lot of confusion and we need to sort it out.

I started dancing Argentine Tango and was stunned by how amazing it was to feel so connected with people in the "tango community" through dancing events. And then, when I started teaching and dancing Argentine Tango, it was natural to try to create a "community" around our little tango school. It has been humbling to experience firsthand the many deep disconnects the word "community" can engender (including within myself), the deep division and confusion this has potential to cause, and the healing that continues to happen through the power of the relationships and love that has been kindled through tango. 

We don’t understand what community is

  • The word community has been appropriated by people endeavoring to promote specific things, and these people do not have a reference point for what community is

  • Collectively we have a pitiably low standard for community, most people have no reference point for how community should feel or what it should do

  • In our culture we often use skill development activities as a kind of proxy for community. This creates a model whereby financial resources for “community” are directed only toward those who teach these activities, or who exemplify some standard of excellence in a particular skill

  • The other proxy we have for community is a group of people focused on income-earning activities together

  • Skill development activities, and companies, while important, are not the same as community. Community is not the same as a bunch of people gathered together to do something or learn a specific activity.

  • Some people try to fix this by adding and adding more different kinds of activities into the mix, so more kinds of needs can be met, like in a studio. But even the grandest variety of activities does not amount to community.

  • Those who teach or lead activities well (like teachers and gurus) or who can organize others to lead activities (like studio managers) do not necessarily know how to create community nor are they inclined to do that

  • Those to exemplify excellence in particular skills (like stars) also do not necessarily know how to create community nor are they inclined to do that

  • Because teachers, gurus, studio managers and stars need a following, they initiate many misdirected, half-formed attempts to create a community around them, which often backfire and give community itself a bad name

What is community?

  • Community requires that the same people gather over and over again and participate in rituals together that have shared meaning.

  • Communities require that the stories and hardships of those on the fringes are centered and understood by all. Community is fragile until this is so.

  • Communities must provide resources for the development of each participant’s connection with themselves, with others, with the collective and with spirit or something bigger. (Most skill-building activities focus only on one or two of these areas.)

  • Communities must enable participants to know when a member needs help and for there to be enough that can be found to provide for that member’s needs

What are the challenges to building community?

  • For there to be a community there has to be some articulation of shared values. It is very hard to articulate values, and risky to speak through the lens of values today, especially for people in financially fragile situations, because it is a time when speaking in values often has the effect of polarizing people.

  • Communities that are well-functioning welcome new members with detail and care, and members leave-take with detail and care. However today most people have the expectation of being able to come and go from social constructs anonymously whenever they feel like it through simply not showing up, sorting away emails or unsubscribing from newsletters which are a community’s lifeline.

  • A community is stronger the more interconnected each member is, i.e., the more different real relationships he or she has. However most people don’t really know exactly how to build authentic relationships, or how to facilitate others to have real relationships, so as a result communities are weak or superficial.

  • Because our culture prizes the married couple as the principal unit of culture, there is a tendency for couples who find each other in community to then withdraw from community instead of continuing to participate in it.

  • Relatedly, community fosters a context for accessing human contact that most people need. Often, once friendships, relationships and new projects are established between people who meet in a community they withdraw since they no longer “need” the community. Nobody thinks of paying money to support the existence community of the that has facilitated major transformations into their lives in the form of major relationships that enrich them every single day.

  • When cash is scarce, financial resources are directed toward one’s own self, household and family first and foremost. There isn’t cash available for something that seems a little fuzzy like “community.” At best you could justify paying for educational classes, but not directly toward the settings and network of relationships that makes those classes possible.

  • There are no culturally sanctioned procedures for sharing information publicly about who needs help when.

  • For there to be a community there has to be shared spaces that operate outside of economy, and there is practically no funding for such spaces. Spaces are funded when they are tied to specific activities that yield money per time unit predictably.

Why is it so hard for the people who anchor communities?

  • As a society we do not understand the work that is done by those who anchor communities - its complexity, its subtlety, its longtermism

  • Those who are drawn to doing the actual activities that support the emergence of community do not do those activities within any well understood economic model. Which is to say, there is no secure livelihood for those who spend all their time anchoring a community.

  • Most people have no frame of reference for a life-long community or for the extreme longtermist thinking of a community organizer; since the interpersonal paradigm that most people functioning within is that of business, their expectation is that the community organizer’s commitment is on a par with the commitment of any entrepreneur to their business, and that their primary motive is personal/financial

  • Because of the emphasis on activities or skill-building, and the business paradigm, peoples’ relationship with their community tends to be that of a “consumer.” However, communities only work when everyone is a co-creator, because the work is too complex to be differentiated into roles

  • Building community requires a very specific kind of relationship building. The people who anchor a community must be able to build and maintain real relationships with a very wide range of people. Building real relationships means developing points of shared reality around each person’s tensions and potentials as they navigate their paths of self-development, spiritual development, partnership and leadership with care and sensitivity around individual boundaries. This is very challenging to do on any kind of scale.

  • Furthermore these real relationships must be continuously tuned toward awareness of the community's own health and well-functioning. In a context where resources are scarce, this tuning can engender suspicion about the community anchor’s motives for building relationships. This can emotionally exhaust and alienate the people on whom the community relies for its functioning.

  • Real relationships are built through sharing experiences and developing shared realities across a wide range of contexts and situations including informal settings. Building relationships is emotionally intensive, and requires emotional and time resources that our current accounting systems have no way to measure or budget for, and other creative or personal resources that tend to be outside of the purview of what are normally considered “business” expenses.

  • Community requires that the community anchor perform a continuous density of tiny tasks and touches that are too subtle to be meaningfully measured and tracked by traditional time management and productivity approaches

  • Because of the information environment, and how many different choices there are for personal communications today, and because each individual has unique personal preferences, the burden is on the already overburdened community organizer to send out important information across many different platforms and multiple times  - email, text message, social media - to ensure the critical mass of the community receives it. This is too hard for one person handle. Those at the nexus of a community's information need to have a reliable, relatively straightforward way to reach everyone in the community, or else more people need to be accountable for this activity.

  • There are pitiably few mentorship or education programs that provide guidance for those who wish to dedicate themselves specifically to community emergence, those that seem to work are actually overwhelmed and resource strapped themselves

  • As we mentioned before, communities only work when the needs and hardships of those on the fringes are centered and understood by all. Community organizers themselves are the ones who are very likely to be on the fringes living in a completely different socioeconomic world than others in their community and have difficulty putting their own experience into words that can be shared.

  • People who are putting everything on the line for community do not have a voice or a lobby or an association or even a legitimizing job description that protects them and gives them the confidence to speak out. These are humble people and they really don’t care about money. They might feel in this environment that if things aren’t working well it is their fault, and that to talk about their struggles would be shameful or a drag or would turn people away.

I am heartsick as I think about people whose lives have been squandered and broken, or whose souls have been severely tested, by the paradox we are trapped in. I am thinking of people who cared about nothing except bringing people together to create beauty together. A lot of them are now poor, discouraged, sick, drunk, cynical, sad, worried, angry. Some of them have quit, maybe they think they have “sold out.” A lot of them are persevering thanks entirely to angels who help them, friends who give them supportive words, kind hearts who write checks when things are really desperate. It is for them that I am continuing to do this work until we emerge with something that will help.

Reflections on community

I have spent a decade voraciously learning everything I possibly could to discover how communities are created and all the vast number of complex skills that are needed to nurture them. 

I think learning how to build great communities is a hugely important skill for our species. And I think it’s a sorry shame that there are so many people who know an amazing, beautiful, life-transformative skill inside and out - like dancing, singing, music, theater, painting, art, crafts, coding, contemplative practices - but don't know how to build a community. We need to build great practice communities in order for these beautiful activities to take root, thrive, have meaning, take flight.

My laboratory for community-building has been Los Angeles and the shared activity has been Tango. Tango is an incredibly dense, complex, and poorly understood/poorly articulated dance form and I did not find any really clear training methods that helped. To succeed in building a Tango community I had to learn many skills: to follow, to lead, to DJ, to teach group classes and private lessons, to work with a partner, to do public demonstrations/performances, and to organize milongas and practicas. Each of these took hundreds and hundreds of hours to gain competence at. I estimate I have taught 1800 hours of Tango locally here in LA, and I am still learning all the time about how to teach. Also, to do all of these well I had to develop much better body awareness which took a lot of time and a lot of discipline. 

But building a real community requires a bunch more skills than just the skills related to Tango. It also requires: mentoring, hospitality, introductions and breaking the ice between people, public speaking, writing and blogging, networking, casting, recruiting, training, asking questions and listening, negotiating, boundary-setting, budgeting and resource-allocating, convening meetings, throwing parties, celebrating transitions, self-care, self-discipline, affirmations and visualization, expressing gratitude, asking for what you need, being yourself in public, giving and receiving feedback, continuous learning.

All that sounds so huge, but really now that I understand it, it all boils down to one thing: presence. Are you present or not? Are you here? In this moment - are you connected? Are you willing to let go of what you are telling yourself, or what seems like it should come next and let the spirit of improvisation take us to the place where giving and receiving are the same thing? How much more honest can you be?

It's tempting to be cynical and say that talking about community is a sophisticated manipulative form of marketing. A lot of times it is. People give a huge amount of lip service to the concept of community without really understanding it. Community is not the same thing as a bunch of people gathered together in a space. Even the same group meeting at the same time regularly every single week does not equal community. Your yoga class isn’t a community. All the people who have subscribed to your newsletter is not a community. A loose bunch of people who do the same activity who randomly sometimes see each other at events are also not a community - not yet.

But that doesn’t mean everything called “community” should be discounted. It means we need to hone our ability to make fine distinctions and discover what is the difference between authentic, and community that's not there yet. Because no matter how cynical you are you need real community. Every human being does.

Community means forgiveness and understanding when you mess up. It means imagining a future together. It means confronting awkward situations and talking through misunderstandings, not avoiding them. It means committing to making our relationships non-disposable. When you are part of a community there are a few people you can call when you need help and they will answer and help you. It means eating good meals together. It means conversations with the same people in different settings as you discover an emergent quality of who you are together. It means there is something that exists and endures beyond the specifics of the moment, and this thing helps you understand who you are over time, lots of time.

I am eager to share what I have learned about community - slow-growth, long-range, organically built local community - and spread the joy that it has brought to my life to others who are called to do this work.