About Audience Engagement: A Working Definition
The term "audience engagement" is recognized by dance professionals to indicate emerging practices and new attitudes about the inter-relationships among artists, presenters, and audiences, going well beyond accustomed practices of marketing, outreach, and audience development. Audience engagement:
Audience Engagement: Two Prevalent Themes from Round One
As Interpreted by Suzanne Callahan, EDA Program Manager
A great deal of information was gathered during Round One, through both the grantee projects, and their reporting, as well as the related research and a National Survey of Dance Audiences (National Survey), conducted by research consultants WolfBrown. Two of the most prevalent themes that enhance the engagement experience and that ran through both the Round One projects and research are highlighted here.
1. Social Bonding, or the interactions that take place and relationships that are built among people which can be based on common experience, interests, or beliefs, among other areas. Audience members desire experiences where meaningful connections can be made with:
Peers. People may come to dance events with those they know. Or when they get to know each other better though activities, they may participate at a higher comfort level.
Staff of organizations themselves, who they see regularly and who might provide them formally or informally with greater understanding of dance (see below).
Key informants, such as experts in the art form, or those with a bit more knowledge, such as visual arts docents (note caveats below).
Whether episodic or sequential, the design of the event and nature of any facilitation or guidance seem key to fostering positive connections among attendees. Within the National Survey, social bonding or bridging was implied in a number of the motivations that audience members have for attending dance events (p. 28). When people have or develop a social bond with their fellow participants, it appears to increase their comfort level with dance.
2. Meaning Making, whereby audience members ground their understanding of dance in a deeply personal and unique fashion. When applied to Round 1 results, the range of ways in which audiences made meaning out of dance as an art form can include:
Building understanding or knowledge of artists and art forms through live sessions and/or online content. Several of the Round One projects encouraged sharing of knowledge among peers over a series of events that occurred over weeks or months or in unique formats after the show.
Gaining Insight into the artistic decisions and elements, such as the creative process or curation of a season. Several Round 1 projects, within their related research revealed what research consultants WolfBrown called the “transmission of curatorial insight.” Audiences wished to understand the “how” and the “why” of both how dance works are choreographed, and even how seasons are put together—why certain artists are selected over others. The consultants refer to “the moment of curatorial insight… when an audience member absorbs this information and gains clarity and context on a piece they are about to see.”
Kinesthetic Learning: Some audiences readily embrace the chance to learn dance steps themselves. Several of the projects incorporated activities that allowed participants to move, or learn movement and the Field Study found that a proportion of audience members desire such activities.
The National Survey found that the dominant motivation for attendance at performances was to spiritual, be inspired or uplifted, followed by motivation to see great works and learn about new choreographers and companies that they’ve never seen before.
Most of the grantee projects and related research suggests that interactive activities are valued by at least some audiences as a way to connect with others and derive meaning from dance. However, the term “interactive” is interpreted quite broadly to include learning and commenting about dance; socializing at events; and in some instances dancing itself—in essence, activities other than passive observation. At the same time, there will always be audience members who are most comfortable with playing a quieter role and staying in the background by attending the performance itself. WolfBrown speaks in the National Survey about how most people fall within the “’big middle’ of the engagement curve–they want to engage a little more, but not a lot.” (p. 4)
Often, it seems that combining these areas bolsters the level of engagement, as with several of the in-person events and series. WolfBrown’s final report on the EDA project research spoke of the power of “peer to peer meaning making, stating that “audiences place value on hearing, and being heard by, peers (i.e., other audience members) to make meaning of dance performances.” (page 5) Just as interesting, the two themes cannot always be combined effectively; two of the Round One grantees found that not having artists present at post performance talks was key in ensuring audiences’ comfort level in expressing their views and ultimately making meaning.
In short, a workable way to think about and plan for engagement may be to frame and strengthen the connections that can be made among the people who experience the dance, or the connections between the audience members and the art itself.
 See in particular the Key Findings on pages 3-4.
 Adapted from Constructivism in Practice: The use for Meaning Making in the Virtual World. Human Interface Technology Laboratory, Washington University.
 See pages 3 and 51.