Six PRACTICAL Words of Advice for College Students [Interview with Paul Núñez]

One thing I’ve noticed from traveling to local West Coast Swing dance scenes across the country, is that college students can be some of the most crazy (in a good way), driven, and passionate members of a community: often sacrificing sleep, money, and comfort, in order to have more opportunities to learn and experience the dance. However, in some places college students are isolated from the West Coast Swing community at large, never making progress in their dancing no matter how long they do it, and always lacking confidence to get more involved.

Each college dance community has it’s own challenges, but there are many similarities amongst college communities everywhere. By looking for things that are working at a variety of college campuses in various situations and settings, we can spark new ideas and gain wisdom from the experiences of others who are working towards similar goals.

For this first College Dance Communities article, I interviewed Paul Núñez [pictured left], a graduate student studying Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and President of the Caltech Ballroom Dance Club. His club has successfully grown a thriving West Coast Swing community where its members have a sense of belonging, feel passionate about the dance, and are empowered to be active members of the Los Angeles local and convention dance scenes.

The Caltech West Coast Swing Club has changed drastically over the past couple years. I’ve watched them transform from one of those isolated groups of not-so-skilled dancers to a passionate, essential part of the local dance and convention scene. I was excited to hear what Paul has done to bring about this dramatic change, and what he told me did not disappoint. To be sure, Los Angeles is an ideal location for West Coast Swing, with many world class professionals and fantastic local dancing, but many of the lessons learned by Paul’s campus club are relevant to colleges everywhere.

Keep reading to see what the Caltech West Coast Swing club tried, what worked, what didn’t work, and what advice Paul has for you now.

[Interview questions are in large, bold, italicized font. Paul’s responses follow each question.]

Name of College/s you’re involved with?

The college I’m primarily involved with is Caltech, but I do have an advisory role with the Claremont Colleges as well as more recently California Lutheran University.

In what capacity are you involved?

At Caltech, I’m the President of the Caltech Ballroom Dance Club (CBDC). CBDC is actually two clubs in one. Under the umbrella of CBDC, we have Caltech International Ballroom and Caltech West Coast Swing. Most of my focus is on Caltech West Coast Swing. With my board, I help organize, plan and execute large events (like the Beaver Boogie), plan out our class offerings for the term, teach, advertise, coordinate with professional instructors in the area and plan outings to local conventions and dances.

The space where Caltech West Coast Swing regularly meets to dance.

What is your college dance scene like now?

Caltech’s West Coast Swing scene has been in an upswing compared to the last 3 years. Attendance is significantly up and pretty even in terms of the number of leads and follows. We regularly attend local dances and local conventions, as well as conventions in NorCal and Phoenix. Previously, we never went to a weekly local dance or any conventions.

What changes have you seen in your college scene over the years?

The quality of our dancers has gone up significantly. Previously, we used to just dance solely on campus on Wednesday night as an isolated community. Like most isolated communities, we developed weird habits and connection even though we brought in local champions every term. In addition, we used to learn other partner dances (Lindy Hop, Blues, Balboa, Hustle, etc) in addition to West Coast Swing. We definitely experienced “Jack of all trades, master of none”. After a certain point, I made the decision to cut out all other dances and solely focus on one dance (West Coast Swing).

Since the start of Blackout Friday in nearby North Hollywood, we coordinate a carpool and have attended every Blackout Friday (BOF). Initially, we left early but eventually we got into the habit of closing out the dance. This carpool and closing habit has eventually expanded to the other local dances. There have been certain weeks where we’ve closed out a dance every night of the week except for Sunday.

What do you see as the strengths of your college dance scene?

Since we’re an institute of technology we have more guys than girls (around 60/40). Most of the time we take the traditional role of guys leading and girls following, but every once in a while we have unbalanced nights. Whenever that happens, our newer leads learn to follow out of necessity. This encourages our beginners to learn both roles.

What are the challenges of your college dance scene?

We’re an extremely small college so getting critical mass is very difficult for us. I know when most people complain that they have a small school it’s usually ~5000 students. We have 900 undergraduate and 1200 graduate students in total. It’s a small pool and many students aren’t as interested in dancing as they are in math and science. In addition, we rarely have students that stick around in the area after graduation. After graduation, most students move out of Pasadena so we are constantly losing dancers and having to recruit to maintain our numbers.

How have you tried to address these and were the attempts successful?

We advertise heavily every quarter for our beginner series and get our beginners out to a local dance as soon as possible via organized carpools. For the most part, if the dance itself isn’t the reason for someone to stick around then it’s the community. By making participation as easy as possible by taking care of the logistics, we eliminate barriers to entry that might’ve otherwise turned off a newer dancer. From a beginner class of 20-30 people, we shoot to recruit one or two dedicated dancers every quarter.

If you could give advice to someone who’s trying to nurture a thriving college dance scene in their own area, what would that be?

  1. Be consistent. There’s a switching cost in terms of retention of people. The more that things change (location, time and day) then the more you will lose people. If you pick the most consistent time, day and location, then your dance will grow. People will form a habit and that habit will keep them coming back. Think of your favorite Youtuber. They don’t develop a large following from one viral video. Instead, they post consistent content regularly which keeps you coming back for more.
  2. Lead by example. It’s not the most interesting thing to do, but make sure your experienced dancers attend your beginner classes as well. For the beginners, dancing with other beginners is not beneficial for them to learn what the dance feels like. So seeding beginner classes with experienced dancers helps beginners learn much faster and introduces them to the senior members of your club in a less intimidating manner.
  3. Dance one dance. Personally we’ve seen the division teaching different dances can have on a club. By giving people options of different dances, you subdivide your community as well as the quality of each dance. You/your dancers might think they’re special and can be good at every dance but that’s never the case (Jack of all trades, master of none). It’s very beneficial and more enjoyable in the long run to teach everyone a common dance that they can fluently speak with one another.
  4. Less is more. I’ve seen this at Caltech but also other schools. Sometimes someone will be over enthusiastic and decide to throw a bunch of weekly events which is tiring and taxing on you and your board. If you’re only throwing an event because your club did it before, then that’s a bad reason to do so. Your board and you will be burned out. It’s much better to do one thing well than to do two/three things mediocrely. For instance, we used to have beginner classes on Monday and our social dance on Wednesday. We would never have our experienced dancers dance with the beginners on Monday and the beginners never showed up to Wednesday. By moving class to Wednesday before our dance, we have significantly improved retention of our beginners and made it easy for them to join the social dance.
  5. Dance with beginners. If you have a core group of dancers that is on your board, immediately after beginner lessons make sure that your experienced dancers dance with the beginner dancers. It’s so easy for beginners to just take a beginner class and bounce since they lose the formal structure of a class and get scared. Having someone come up to them (lead or follow) and asking them to dance will help them to feel more comfortable and welcomed.
  6. Be connected. Isolated clubs are never a good thing. The club will develop weird dance habits, not keep up with current trends in the dance and overall miss out on the broader community. I’ve seen this with various clubs in the area so make sure to have outings to a connected local dance in which some of the dancers go to conventions. That way your club’s dancers stay up-to-date and enjoy the broader community that is brought together by the dance.

Do you feel like your own skill level/knowledge of the dance or dance culture has affected your ability to nurture a thriving college dance scene? If so, in what ways? Have they changed over time?

By being knowledgeable of the dance and it’s culture, I’m able to help newer dancers navigate the scene more comfortably. I like to let newer dancers know that it’s ok to ask someone better than you to dance, who would be a good person for them to dance with and general dance etiquette. By getting our newer dancers up to speed faster, they can fully enjoy the dance more. We recently picked up a new follow who never danced in her life. Within five weeks of mentorship, she decided that she wanted to come to Swingtacular. At five weeks in, I wouldn’t have gone to a large convention, and definitely not one six hours away. She felt comfortable enough to come for the entire weekend and loved it.

Do you think you’ll still be involved in your college dance scene after you graduate? (or if you have graduated are you still involved now?) Why or why not?

After I graduate I would like to continue to be involved but as an advisor rather than an organizer. I anticipate that likely I will not be able to stay close to Pasadena so organizing and running events will be too difficult for me. Even though I’m currently president of the club, I’m currently offloading previous responsibilities to my younger officers so that we can continue to maintain and run the club as effectively as we are now even after I’m gone.

Any other interesting or useful thoughts or experiences you’d like to share about yourself or your college dance scene?

Don’t light yourself on fire to keep others warm. You’d be surprised how willing your regular dancers would to step up and help if you simply ask them to. In the end, make sure you’re having fun too. 🙂

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