EDIT: I released an old version of this post before because I was on loopy medication. This is the updated and most current version.
Before I moved to Colorado, I had never heard the term “community” as if it were a topic to be discussed. The only “community” I knew I was a part of was the black community, and with its vast differences and overwhelming nature, I struggled to understand what community had to do with dance. It’s a dance. You go, dance, and leave. What’s there to think about, I wondered. Then I went dancing here. And found it was… different. The little things I had come to expect weren’t happening. Some events simply lacked what I was used to and replaced it with other traditions. Some actively tried to create community through themes, activities, and values. I yearned for my home scene and the way it always felt warm and inviting in a way I’d never noticed with traditions and values I accepted and never thought about. Suddenly I understood and began thinking hard about what it means to run an event.
The more I thought about this new idea of “community” I realized that when I asked if the black community was “community,” I was thinking much too large. Each black church has a different feel and yet some things always remain the same. Black barbershops and beauty salons have a culture all their own, one so distinctive movies have been created about them. So when it came to creating Toska I found it REALLY important for it to be culturally relevant and aligned with the values of the event. I hoped to create a venue where the culture itself was so tight that you had to adjust to it when you came in, but it also didn’t feel forced. We didn’t just want another dance where it felt bland and disconnected from the culture behind the dance. We wanted our event to pull you into the culture and context through the dance and the classes. It’s been a slow shift, but we are starting to see progress. I want to talk about what our goals and values are, how we are implementing them into the community, and the effect we are seeing in our dance and scene.
What are our goals and values, and why?
When we were envisioning the dance we often got in arguments about community. Was it needed? How to enforce it? And most important how is it meaningful? We even toyed around with the idea of not messing with community at all. In time we decided to focus on our values and what we wanted attendees to not only get out of the event but take away in a natural way. We started with arg-discussions about what was important to us for dancers to take away from our event and feel while they are attending. We settled on Blues music, blues values, existentialism, context in dancing, context teaching,inspiration, solo dancing, lead and follow dynamics, and inclusivity. We detailed these out and what they meant to us based on historical knowledge and current experience/what we thought the community could gain.These are what guide our decision making process. How will this new idea help build these goals? How can we get closer to what we envision? It brings us back to what really matters.
After setting out values we quickly realized there was no good, fast way to achieve what we wanted. So we set up mini projects to try to help with this part of the culture. We added a solo jam to announcements. It’s based on the circles found in most Black vernacular dances with an emphasis on inclusion and showcasing progress over talent. We focused on solo because it is the foundation of the dance. We encourage everyone to join the jam. We also have a community member showcase. We believe that every person has a style and skill that can be looked up to. We pick members of the community, typically not instructors, to come out and show their skills in personality in a short showcase. Being inspired by those around you and trying to emulate them and make it your own is an important cultural value we wanted to pass on. We wanted our event be be inclusive to those members of the community who may be struggling financially in addition to the idea of be yourself as you are. We have various ways for those struggling with money to attend our event; we simply ask that you talk to me or Vartan to see what we can do to help you attend. Our motto is “ you might as well be here and not pay than stay home and not pay, just because of circumstances.” We also want people to show up as they are in their own development as people. We encourage growth but don’t expect anyone to be a particular way. Both Vartan and I do emotional maintenance and encourage our volunteers to do so, if they wish. There are areas set up for decompression and areas that are meant to be purely social along with the dance area. We encourage connection with other members by inviting people to be authentically themselves.
We also value education and have set up various opportunities for people to be excited about learning or gain an understanding for new ideas. The classes are full of culture and empowerment beyond just movement. We host discussion groups for people to have a place to meet others and ask questions. We have brought in live music we feel showcases different aspects about blues and black culture. This is more than just playing, but shaping an experience different than the Dancer-centric live band nights common in the community. We bring in instructors that
not only can teach the mechanics but the whys of the dance. We have very strict guidelines for djs and the music they play. We encourage exploring and boundary-pushing, but with the focus always being on the various styles of blues. We hope in the future to add practicas, travel scholarships, and so much more.
Effect on the event and scene?
It’s hard to say if we have had an effect yet and particularly in our greater community. We have noticed some shifts in the way the people who attend act in our venue and outside of it. We are told of our nights being magical and people have written poetry after being moved while attending. People have brought snacks because they were excited to contribute to our event. I’ve noticed some hesitant solo dancing, more than I’ve seen at other dances. I’ve noticed that beginners stay longer and dance more often. Our volunteering requests have upped and yet so have the amount of people saying they have to attend our events. The community is starting to organize carpools to Toska and different scenes in Colorado are meeting. We’ve also had people come out to live music more and more as we’ve encouraged people to attend. I’ve noticed people trying songs that aren’t in the style they are comfortable with and exploring different roles and what it means to “lead” or “follow.”
We noticed that our already supportive dance community is even more emotionally supportive at Toska. I personally have had a night at toska where I relied on some implied but obvious emotional supports. Even running the event I was allowed and even encouraged to have a break down and the community helped me through the night. There is an increase around personal pride in learning, and the pursuit of education. I’ve seen people take risks and try new things almost as often as they try to do things that those they admire are doing until they make it their own. Then we highlight those people in our showcases and acknowledge people for their skill and hard work. We’ve had people excited to be going out to live music and our group gets bigger with each outing. Our biggest turnout was for our live music and we are proud to be supporting lesser known local bands. The most exciting part, for me at least, is the shift in the learning about blues culture. Slowly but surely this event challenges people to try a new approach towards their dancing and their lives. Everything we host comes back to blues values and I’ve seen people beginning to adjust to it.
Community is an odd thing which you have to shape or it will create itself. We chose our values carefully and decided if it didn’t occur naturally, we didn’t want to force it. WE decided that we would uphold our values and the event would state them and have many opportunities for people to be involved in those values if they wanted to. So far this has been working out well, although it is challenging. The constant energy and the way that we as organizers must reflect our values all the time can be difficult but the results are worth it. I’m so very proud of the community we have cultivated and to watch it grow and deepen as a culture in time.