Building a Community with Music and Dance

Music and dance can form the central heartbeat of a community, providing ongoing contact, shared interests, and the opportunity for social interaction, and one heck of a lot of fun.

Originally published 2001

My experience with Irish music and dance has taught me that music and dance can be, or possibly should be, the lifeblood of any community. This article explores how and why that is so, and takes a look at how to help that process along.

What is “Community”?

It seems to me that you can measure the sense of “community” by counting the number of contacts that individuals have, and their duration. The accumulation of those over time would provide a relative sense of community.

For example if you see your grocer once a week for a year or two, you begin to feel a sense of closeness. There must be some number of contacts like this that causes us to feel that closeness. It’s probably wired into our genes.

Now, if you see your neighbors in that grocery store every week, and if you talk to them while you watch your kids play ball, and you spend time with them at other social events, now that collection of individual ties merges into a sense of “community”.

I had that sensation at the Gaelic Roots music and dance camp, where the thought occurred to me “You are known here.” Now that was an interesting thought. But a day or so later, another thought appeared: “If they know you, and still like you, now those are your friends…”

Building a Community

There is a whole school of city planning / architectural design these days that is centered around regaining a sense of community. Modern industrial civilization has left us so isolated, so alone, that many of us feel a deep sense of longing for communal roots — for someplace we can truly call “home”.

In the pursuit of community-ness, it occurs to me that rather than centering houses around a golf course, it may make more sense to center it around a dance hall. For one thing, a dance hall takes up a lot less space. For another, a large dance hall makes it possible to bring together the whole community at one time, greatly increasing the number of individual interactions and the rate at which people become familiar to one another.

A dance hall with a large open space inside has many uses. It can be used for square dances, Irish dances, Scottish dances, and Eastern European folk dances. It can also be used for music instruction, music sessions, and town hall meetings, among other things.

Many apartment complexes already have an entertainment complex, and they are always looking for ways to bring the residents together and create a sense of community. I’ve often thought that they bring in musicians to play at a Ceili (such musicians are typically paid for their efforts — although usually not much more than travel expenses). A few extra dollars would cover the services of a dance instructor. The return on their modest investment would be happier, friendlier tenants inclined towards longer residency. And it would create a huge demand for dance teachers! Between dances, the complex could be used for call and response music sessions, as described in Play by Ear. That would let local musicians come up to speed on the dance tunes!

One of the big advantages of Irish music, in this regard, is the fact that is built on melodies. Because each tune is a melody, a hundred people can join in, all playing the same melody. In fact, the more people you add, the better it sounds. There are no parts to work out, no musical arrangements to be decided. People can just sit down and play! As a result, the music is a fine community builder by itself.

But much Irish music is meant for dancing! And when you add dancing, you give people something fun to do that brings them together — something that makes them laugh when they’re learning, and that succeeds best when everyone works together.

And between dances, when people need a chance to rest up, they appreciate hearing someone sing a song, or tell a story, or perform some exciting new dance steps they’ve learned. It’s a great venue for showing off and developing the talents of the young and the old.

This sort of thing goes on at the ceili that Valerie Deam used to run in Palo Alto, CA — an Irish ceili in the finest Irish tradition. (She is now in the East Bay, up around Danville and Livermore.)

Community Sports Competitions!

If each community’s dance hall were surrounded by a field, with room for soccer, softball, and flag football games, then inter-community sporting events could be organized, with teams for kids, teens, and adults. There is nothing quite like a little friendly competition to build a sense of us, who are obviously way better and more talented than them!

Eliminate the Cars!

Well, don’t exactly eliminate them. But to the degree possible, make them unnecessary. Getting people out of their cars is a great step towards building a sense of community. There are several reasons for that fact:

  1. When you’re in your car, you don’t even see anyone else, much less talk to them. When you’re walking, you can easily stop and chat. (I’ve noticed that my recumbent bicycle makes that easy, as well, possibly because I am at eye level with those who are walking, and because it is quite comfortable to sit and chat!)
  2. The average number of people you pass in the street (when you get out of the car) is reduced by the amount of time you spend traveling.
  3. Since the people you pass are spread out over a wider geographical area, and since they too have traveled in from all over (say, at shopping center), the chances of passing by anyone often enough to recognize them are remote.
    On the other hand, if you are going to a place within walking distance, and your neighbors are, too, there is a good chance you’ll run into one another.
  4. When you talk to shop keepers and the like, there is little likelihood that they will know anyone you know, or that you will have seen each other at some social event. As a result, you’ll have nothing in common — and little to talk about — beyond the present transaction.
    A couple of cities in the world are so friendly as to overcome this last limitation. Dublin and San Francisco both spring to mind in that regard. Oddly enough, I found downtown Manhattan (during the day!) to be similarly friendly. Such places appear to be the rare exception, though.

So one of the tricks to designing a community is to put the shops we visit most within walking distance. (Ideally, one’s work location would be within walking distance, too!) It’s not at all clear to me how you do that. But if we did, I suspect we’d feel a lot more “at home” in this world.

Copyright © 2001-2017, TreeLight PenWorks

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    1. How I Got Started in Irish Music | June 3, 2017 (4:18 pm)

      […] Note: For more on that subject of community building, see Building a Community with Music and Dance. […]

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