But the plethora of new dances comes at a cost. It increases our fragmentation. It creates a barrier to entry for both veterans (who come and go at various points in their lives) and for newbies who have to “drink from a firehydrant” in order to become regulars. For veteran non-regulars it becomes daunting to come back and see so many dances they haven’t learned. Unless one attends regularly, one becomes a stranger in a strange land instead of feeling comfortable when “coming home.”
The article is about Israeli folk dancing, which I know interests me a lot more than my readers, so I won’t say “read the whole thing.” Instead, I want to talk about the general trends I see in the way people engage with their interests. You can become engaged with any number of interests, including your religion, a sport, a hobby, your profession, a charitable cause, etc.
I want to offer some observations that apply to the entire class of interests, and I will suggest that “matching technology” (Tyler Cowen’s term) plays a role in these trends. Then I will come back to Israeli Dancing.
My central claim here is that the nature of engagement has changed over the past fifty years, in these three ways:
1. Narrower. There are fewer people casually engaged.
2. Deeper. Those who are engaged are more committed and have deeper knowledge.
3. Older. For any interest that has been around for a long time, the demographics of those interested now skews older.
For example, consider the game of bridge. A social bridge game is four friends getting together in someone’s house to play. A bridge tournament is many strangers competing against one another in a large room. In high school and college, I played a lot of social bridge. In college, I also played some tournament bridge. I then stopped playing for decades.
Fifty years ago, I believe that there were more social bridge players than tournament players. Today, it is closer to the reverse.
When I tried to get back into tournament bridge a few years ago, I found that the “barrier to entry” had gotten much higher. Players expect you to know a plethora of new tactics, which in bridge are known as “conventions.”
The other point to notice was that the median age of players at the tournament seemed to be about 70. Not many young people are willing to get past the barrier to entry.
As another example, consider people with an interest in baseball. Fifty years ago, many casual fans knew the batting averages and home run totals of well-known players. Today, there are fewer fans with that knowledge. Instead, there is a relatively small group of fans whose knowledge includes arcane statistics that did not exist when I was growing up.
Also, I think that interest in baseball skews older, in spite of marketing efforts aimed at the young. My sense is that in the ballpark it is mostly people over age 50 who are paying close attention to the action on the field. The younger people are on their cell phones and/or watching the JumboTron.
I believe that religion is becoming narrower, deeper, and older. A smaller fraction of the population is affiliated with a place of worship, but there may be an uptick among those deeply committed, such as Orthodox Jews. Otherwise, many congregations are thinning out as their populations age and die off.
I suspect that what Tyler Cowen calls “matching technology” (the Internet) plays a big role. Instead of settling for a lowest-common-denominator activity, like a game of social bridge, you can find something that really excites you and connect with people who share your excitement. With better matching technology, the total number of viable interests goes up, and the share of people who settle for activities in which they are only moderately interested goes down.
“Matching” means that any given interest draws a narrower set of people. Those people are more committed, so that the interest becomes deeper, with a higher barrier to entry in terms of study and practice. Finally, as new interests emerge, the population engaged in traditional interests gets older.
Back to Israeli Dancing (ID). I started dancing almost exactly 40 years ago, at MIT in Boston. It was a weekly session, and the only session in the area devoted exclusively to ID.
In the late 1970s, the MIT session “held out” against some of the then-newer dances. The repertoire was stable and predictable. There was a lot of repetition, in that each dance lasted several minutes until it had been repeated many times, and many of the same dances were done from week to week. You could progress from the beginner stage to having a familiarity with the majority of the dances in just a few months. If you went away for three months and came back, it would feel as if you had never left.
ID then was almost entirely young and mostly social. You went dancing to meet people, and when you met people that you liked, you got together with them outside of dancing. My wife and I met at MIT ID, and in fact there are quite a few couples who met there.
Now, we live in the Washington, DC area. We regularly attend three sessions a week, on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday evenings. There also are sessions that meet less often than once a week on Saturday night (“classics”), Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening. We occasionally go to one of these other sessions.
For veteran dancers who are not heavily committed to keeping up with the latest dances, only the “classics” session feels comfortable. For people who are new to ID, only the Tuesday session makes any effort to make them feel comfortable. Even with that effort, few of them develop into intermediate or advanced dancers. Instead, many people attend the hour of beginning dancing every week for many months, without ever progressing beyond that.
Compared with 40 years ago, ID feels much less social. It struck me that there is someone who for the past five years has attended the same three sessions that we have, for a total of nearly 2500 hours on the dance floor together, and yet we have spent less than one hour together off the dance floor. That is now typical.
As recently as a few years ago, there was a lot of overlap in the dances taught at each session. Now, there are many more dances that are unique to a given session. This greatly increases the difficulty for me. Instead of having one new dance repeated two or three times a week, I am dealing with learning three dances a week, each done no more than once a week.
As every session’s repertoire gets larger, there is much less reinforcement of dances after they are taught. It used to be that a new “hit” would be done week after week for months. Now, it might be done every other week for a while and then fall off the hit parade, with only a few dancers remembering it.
Attending a session in another city creates a whole new challenge, particularly for partner dances. Recently, in Los Angeles we went to a session where the first hour was couple dances. Of all the dances that were played, my wife and I had only seen two of them before!
I am not a markid (session leader). If I were, I would be doing two things that have not traditionally been part of a markid’s job.
First, I would create and execute a formal plan for the frequency of various dances. I would choose which dances at a weekly session should be done 20-30 times a year, which should be done 10-20 times a year, which should be done 1-10 times a year, and which are not going to get done at all. Ten years ago, you probably did not have to think so carefully about that. Forty years ago, the groupings would have been more like 40-50 times a year vs. 20-40 times a year, with no conscious thought required at all. Now, I think that a plan is in order.
The other thing I would do is informally survey the people who attend a session. Try to see if they can articulate what excites them and what bothers them. I do not believe in paper surveys or computer polls. Real conversations are what I have in mind. Perhaps focus groups. It is particularly important to have these conversations with younger dancers and with moderately-committed dancers.
In summary, I believe that the changes in ID over the last 40 years reflect broader changes in how people approach interests. It is part of a general trend toward narrower, deeper, and older. For a markid, this poses a challenge. You do not want to make your session boring to the super-committed dancer. But you do not want to make it inaccessible to the moderately-committed dancer. I especially fear the loss of the moderately-committed dancers.