Slamming Millennials: 3 Dance Companies That Won’t Do It

Dance companies need younger bodies in the audience, too.

Millennial slamming is everywhere, including in the dance studio. Back in 2013, a Mic article asserted that Millennials had no interest in modern dance, not even as its centennial was celebrated. Instead of looking at why Millennials aren’t interested in something, however, dance companies should look at what drives us. If they did, maybe they’d have an easier time getting us to the theater. Millennials are often tagged with buzzwords like flighty, entitled, impatient and job-hopping, yet we are a generation looking for more than isolated events or objects. To truly engage with us, dance organizations will need to expand beyond the stage. They will need to build conversation, community and lasting impressions.

A 2016 Harris poll showed that 72 percent of Millennials would prefer spending money on creating memories rather than buying things. While dance and theater do aim to be experiences, there is more to what Millennials seek to gain from them. The Harris study also found that 69 percent of Millennials feel connected to others through shared experiences. The traditional quiet, stuffy air of dance concerts may not always lend itself very well to that ideal.

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Then there are those who don’t wish to slam Millennials. They, in fact, highlight this preference for the experience over the thing. They note that Millennials are more socially conscious than many of their predecessors and peers. Millennials, of course, are digital; we know they communicate heavily through social media and texting and want everything mobile accessible, from food to clothes shopping. This would appear to leave little room for immersion in the arts, but, when used responsibly, digital helps dance organizations step forward — without compromising the integrity of their work.

The San Francisco Ballet was able to draw in Millennials by the droves (and trend on Twitter) in 2015 with their event Sensorium at the Ballet. The evening-long affair, which featured a post-show dance party and use of the hashtag #HopeCadenza, made the event relevant to Millennials and others who are digitally engaged. SF Ballet has continued to play to this demographic with an email newsletter called The List, which sends subscribers between the ages of 21 and 39 access to exclusive events and discount tickets. The core of SF Ballet remained unchanged: technical, bold, classical.

It sounded like great fun to me; I started to sign up for the blast until I remembered that I don’t actually live in San Francisco. And, in any event, even DJs, colorful lights and clever hashtags will not draw Millennials to their concerts: community will. Experience and community: Millennials want to feel a sense of belonging to something larger than themselves. Feelings of solitude can accompany traditional nights of theater, even as part of a group. Feeling of community, even when alone, block loneliness.

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There have been many times when I’ve watched a dance performance, not understood it and felt like I was the only person who didn’t get it, simply because there wasn’t an opportunity to hear from other people around me after the show. Whether it’s a simple reception or discussion forum or a social media hub or an all-night dance party, community lets you decompress as you acquire other viewpoints. It can provide solidarity, knowing you weren’t the only person to not get something.

Another dance organization ahead of the audience-engagement curve is Diablo Ballet, also based in San Francisco. In addition to having an up-to-date blog with a comments section, Diablo Ballet and several other organizations, including the Providence Center for the Arts and The Guthrie Theater, offer “tweet seats” — complimentary tickets for those atwitter for Twitter. Diablo Ballet has offered these seats since 2012; Jennifer Stahl, now of Dance Magazine, predicted it would “encourage ‘citizen critics,’ and encourage artistic conversation between audience members.”

Moving to the Midwest, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago has successfully merged dance with Chicago’s up-and-coming startup scene with an initiative funded by ArtPlace America called “Dance as a Learning Platform.” It involved working with startup incubator 1871 to craft site-specific performances, lectures and workshops centered around “dance as a metaphor for business.” By crafting work to reflect entrepreneurship and collaboration, Hubbard Street created art and inserted itself into highly relevant, in-the-moment conversations.

This is what the company has said about the collaboration:

One of the many goals of the project was to increase Hubbard Street’s relevance in the business community. We hoped that by partnering with Chicago’s start-up community, we could build greater engagement with dance as an art form and also use Hubbard Street’s 36-year history and reputation to shine a spotlight on the work of emerging tech companies.

Their willingness not only to mesh seemingly incongruous ideas, but to go out into the world and then share the results with people, speaks volumes about what should be an elevated understanding of dance’s function as an art form. Dance is a physical manifestation of abstract thought, and I can’t think of a better way to demonstrate this than by making work inspired by independent thought, by self-starting businesses. Using dance as a device for work advancement and learning also taps into something that Millennials increasingly desire in their work experience, something not only fun outside of work, but something applicable to professional growth.

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Extended community spaces means plugging in often, and in any way possible. Talkbacks shouldn’t be on opening night only. Sponsor an ongoing forum, formal or informal. Start a blog: give viewers a glimpse into the characters, the movement, the mind of the choreographer, the chance to share their perspectives. Reach out to other organizations — not only arts ones — looking for novel ways to fulfill their missions. Social media is where people should talk to each other and to the company, and should be hearing back.

Make them safe spaces. Make them areas that nurture and meet people wherever they are — both the uninitiated and the seasoned concertgoer. I’ve often heard the complaint that dance isn’t “accessible.” Leaning in to an increasingly, and fully, digitized world will tear down the wall that keeps so many of those would-be Millennial audiences and patrons away. One assertion that the Mic article makes is that Millennials have checked out of dance because they haven’t given themselves permission to not “get it.” I say that permission should first come from the dance organizations themselves. They need a way to say “Come into my space, and take from it what you can and will.”