It’s been a great weekend, the first sunny one for a month, putting everyone in a good mood. I got out walking, saw some friends, caught some music and even had a dance. A dance? Yes, i’m afraid it was one of those occasions when i hit the dance floor and strutted my stuff.
I’m not really one of life’s dancers. I have rhythm and style, but they may not be aligned with everyone else’s or, for that matter, the music. I tend to prefer the ‘dad shuffle’ style, with the occasional surreptitious extra move thrown in. But, i am nothing if not enthusiastic, so can be persuaded to launch myself into the mix at the right time. There is a definite point where the embarrassment of taking part is outweighed by the embarrassment of being left out.
And that’s the tipping point i’m interested in today: at what point does conforming become preferable to being left out?
It’s important for the inveterate dance coward like me to judge things right. You absolutely do not want to be the first person to hit the floor. There are very few options if you are first up: you either have to be astoundingly good, in which case everyone hates you for having taken five years of dance classes and showing off, or you have to be inoffensively incompetent, meaning you can dance ok, but nobody is jealous. What you can’t be is what i am: awkward and perpetually semi embarrassed.
So i sit it out for the time being.
But then there comes a point when the seated start to thin out. There is a certain density being achieved on the dance floor. No longer can you just mock the first couple or the half dozen who are whirling in the void, now there is more of a mass of dancers, some of whom are casting looks of disdain as us, the seated. I try to assuage the guilt by ‘chair dancing’ for a while, but the pressure is definitely on.
My majority starts to feel outnumbered and i can no longer be assuredly invisible in my chair. As more people migrate to the dance floor, i run the risk that, instead of standing out for standing up, i may stand out for sitting down. My strategy of remaining cool by being seated is at risk of being exposed. I prepare to dance.
And then there it is: the moment when i launch myself into the fray. The blessed relief as i become one of the crowd again, keeping myself near the edge, gauging my levels of movement to remain within acceptable vigour catching people’s eyes in a ‘yes, i know, why won’t those people dance’? way. I have returned to the fold.
Engagement with the crowd is important with dance but also with a lot of participative activities, certainly with engagement in learning communities and sessions. You don’t tend to want to be the first, but you don’t want to be the last either. You want to hold back to determine the parameters of engagement, but you don’t want to be too late to the game, because everyone else may have mastered the dance and you’ll be left out.
There are skills to being a good participant, just as there are to dancing (so i’m told). Some people are confident enough to start first: the first people to speak in a forum, to take part in role-plays, to ask questions. Others prefer to hang back, to see how the interaction is run, to get a feel for what is expected and what response to expect. There may well be a desire to participate, but they want to know what the ground looks like first.
It’s important to understand the choreography of engagement in these social dances. When we look at social learning spaces, collaborative workshops and seminars or and form of learning over time, we will see these different roles being expressed. The majority sitting quietly whilst a few engage. The gradual migration to the dance floor of a sizeable population, but there will always be a few people who remain seated. Who can’t or won’t dance, and these are the people at risk of being excluded. Whilst we need to allow a certain amount of time for this natural process of engagement to take place, we also need strategies for engaging the rest.
Engagement in learning is like dancing in that you have to learn how to do it.