Romancing College Students: Building the Next Generation of Dance Audiences – Part 1

Audience development experts see the university student generation as the next potential arts patron base. These soon-to-be-graduated, well-educated young adults will go forth in the world, eager to begin employment and make adult decisions. With the possibility of earning discretionary cash, they will choose what forms of entertainment on which to spend their time, energy and money. To best capture this cohort of potential ticket buyers and audience members, the field must understand who this generation is and what their specific needs are in relation to their current environmental, social, and entertainment interactions.

In many ways, this is a brilliant generation, raised on technological innovations. Born in the era of the computer, video, remote, smart phone, navigational GPS, DVD, and iPod, they have grown up with the marvels of advanced technology. These millennials are versed in technology in ways that still baffle many of my generation. I’ve watched kids (most annoyingly) know the quickest routes and shortcuts to navigate tech devices efficiently. This generation emails, texts, tweets, downloads music, and can unearth an obscure artist as easily as finding milk in the refrigerator. They watch YouTube and Hulu, and socialize on Facebook and assorted instant messaging servers. In short, they’ve gained easy admittance to the gentry of the technological elite.

Access to this gifted world, however, does carry budding consequences: impatience, the need for instant gratification, and impersonal communication methods.

The wonders of technology have brought speed and informational agility to life, yet they have also bred an almost unacceptable intolerance for events not occurring immediately. Microwaves cook food in minutes at best, allowing the act of eating to transpire with very little preparation or wait time. Computers provide us with information, resources, and help via a few keystrokes. Gone are the days when one had to actually go to the library to look up information; Google, Jeeves, Bing, and assorted search engines rummage around the universe of the web exploring endless options for us. Within this context, a slow Internet connection often warrants a dismissal of the endeavor. Cell phones permit an almost unheard of plethora of tasks, providing not merely voice communication options, but information and entertainment at beck and call. This generation has no need to find a phone, computer, book, map, or other resource; it’s all available on their handheld devices. As such, these millennials are characterized, through no fault of their own, as lacking patience. Anyone born in the mid-1980s or later does not know life in the slow lane.

Indeed, receiving one’s wants and needs promptly mandates instant satisfaction as well. Conversely, if anything takes time, a sense of restlessness, even agitation, ensues, for many students are unfamiliar with events unfolding at slower tempos. Movies and television programs have long understood this quickening of expectations, and have created instant gratification through immediate show-stopping effects that bombard this generation with saturated media images.

This presents a challenge to live dance, which has not traditionally relied on “special effects” or quick-time results, other than stellar technique and artistry to entertain. How can dance, then, appeal to a generation accustomed to receiving astonishing images and experiences from other mediums with the click of a button or tap of a keystroke?  How can dance, then, appeal to a generation accustomed to receiving astonishing images and experiences from other mediums with the click of a button or tap of a keystroke?

Another technological consequence for the dance field is the impersonal communication now in vogue. The simplicity of email and texting has become a routine aspect of our personal interactions, yet just how personal are they? In essence, the keyboard has replaced the human voice, face-to-face contact, and hearing. To many, email and texting are efficient but impersonal means of communicating, often accomplishing what’s necessary, but providing no personal gratification beyond passing along information.

Aware of these issues, a general education class in the humanities at the University of Akron in Ohio focused on dance and provided many insights on what strategies might work for millennials. The course, “Viewing Dance,” was developed solely for non-dance majors. Comprised of students from diverse disciplines, many with no prior experience in dance, it provides an introduction to the art form. As the course instructor for nine years, I turned to technology as a means to engage students. Dance viewing assignments of every genre and duration on YouTube provide rich material for both written work and class discussions. As a result of this medium, I am able to exhibit a broad spectrum of dance offerings, which students would not have had access to by other means. Through abundant class discussions, a common list of responses emerged year to year indicating strategies that might turn these millennials into potential dance audiences, as well as what won’t work. Simply getting students out of the house and away from their computers is a test. For presenters to succeed, they must provide entertainment that can interest these youthful, technologically savvy, independent-thinking ticket buyers. Learning what millennials expect can assist with this process.

From this common list of responses a few ideas surface: the need to see productions that are in some way classified as “out of the box”; the need for diversity on stage; the need for more personal engagement and involvement before, during, and following the event; and the need for events to be faster paced.

“Out of the box” refers to events that are unique and nontraditional, implying experiencing an event with diverse elements as part of its construct. This generation has adapted to multi-tasking on a recurrent basis. Many students research assignments on Google or another search engine while listening to downloaded music in another window, and instant messaging in yet another window, while checking in periodically on Facebook. The sensory repository for this generation has become an outsized void to fill. Creators of television programs, movies, advertisements, and music videos along with other media understand this; they have created multi-image landscapes and sensory stimulations to fill this abyss to which students are now accustomed.

Please return to this site on Thursday for part 2.

Andrew Carroll has an extensive background in the performing arts, which includes performing nationally and internationally for nine years as a soloist with the Pennsylvania Ballet Company in Philadelphia, and a principal with the Ohio Ballet prior to that. His career spanned performing throughout the United States as well as appearing throughout South America, China, and Europe. In 1994, he was named one of six cultural ambassadors to the City of Philadelphia. In 1996, Carroll joined the College of Creative and Professional Arts at The University of Akron, teaching advanced levels of ballet, ballet history and choreography. He was director of The University of Akron Dance Company for 13 years, and helped to organize and plan numerous campus residencies and outreach programs, including with The David Parsons Dance Company, Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet, Doug Varone and Dancers, among others. He has been a master teacher, choreographer, and guest artist at Towson University, Grande Valley University, Verbs Ballets, The Rock School, The Ohio Ballet and The Canton Ballet. In 2010, Carroll accepted the position of assistant professor of ballet at the University of South Florida, Tampa, teaching ballet, history, partnering and choreographing. He has since presented internationally for IUGTE in Austria, and is currently researching popular culture and its impact on dance. Carroll holds a BFA in dance and an MA in arts administration.


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