David's Blog

Three recent dances

It's been a busy few days! Three very different dance events, back to back:

English country dance weekend

altI called at Sharpes Assembly, an English country dance event held two hours south of Orlando in a historic hotel in Sebring, Florida. Does that name sound familiar? It's the same town where where the annual 12-hour car race is held. This event was a bit mellower. ;-)  The venue was advertised as "old Florida," and it was a lovely change from the Florida of neon and strip malls.

In addition to dance parties on Friday and Saturday nights and the farewell dance on Sunday, I led one workshop on dances set to tunes by Turlough O'Carolan, the great Irish harper of the 1700s, and another featuring contemporary choreography, a nod to the many fine dances being composed these days.

It was a mixed group of dancers, including some with decades of experience and some who were quite new. (I'm always amazed that someone new to an activity would sign up for a full weekend of it... can't tell whether this is a case of "fools rush in" or a brave heart.) Fortunately, the experienced dancers were helpful and the workshop programs included a few more difficult dances that turned out well.

Music was provided by Full Circle, a talented duo from Jacksonville. Ted Lane plays guitar and Veronica Lane plays flute, whistles, and EWI—that's electronic wind instrument, essentially a large recorder / synthesizer combination. Combined with looping, this enabled the duo to create some lush arrangements, sometimes with string bass, percussion, and even trumpet sounds. As with the contra duo Perpetual e-Motion, Full Circle creates tracks as they play, and then continues adding harmonies and different sounds. It's a lot of work and they do it smoothly.

Most of the dancers at the weekend were older folks, and it was a treat to meet a trio of younger dancers, the Mauney siblings—Jason, Jessica, and Jennifer. They've been leading an English country dance in Charlotte, NC, that attracts mostly dancers age 25 and younger. In addition to exploring both traditional and modern compositions, they've been having fun setting existing compositions and their own dances to music from movie soundtracks. As an example, on Saturday night, I had programmed A Trip to Town'O, a simple Sicilian circle by Chris Sackett and Brooke Friendly, which is set to a slip jig. After I taught the pattern and prompted the dance to the usual tune, I handed the caller's mic to Jason. He walked us through the dance with the alternative music they use for that same dance—"Extreme Ways," the theme from The Bourne Identity. Techno-English? Not quite, but it certainly was a different sound! I took Jason's place on the dance floor for that version; I enjoyed the brief taste and was grateful that there are young dancers who love English country dance and are able to have fun with it.

Homeschoolers' Barn Dance

Monday night, back home in New Hampshire, was a delightful dance of a completely sort, a barn dance for some sixty homeschoolers. Most live in the Northeast but a few came from as far as Pennsylvania and North Carolina for a week of activities at the Hulbert Outdoor Center in Fairlee, VT. Talk about an enthusiastic group of dancers! We had quite an age range (9–17) and an equally wide range of experience, from some who had never done this sort of dancing before to a few who instantly stood out as contra aficionados.... turns out they are regular dancers at the Scout House in Concord, MA.

Calling for such a diverse group can be a challenge, but these kids made it easy. They were quick to find partners, quick to line up, attentive, friendly, and helpful. The experienced contra dancers didn't sneer at the simple dances; instead, they assisted their neighbors and managed to squeeze in an extra swing whenever possible. Late in the program, I decided, "Go for it!" and prompted Waves of Tory, which includes a dip and dive figure. I asked them to make sets of five couples all approximately the same height; you can imagine the chaos that could have ensued with 17-year-old guys trying to go under arches of 9-year-olds! They got through the dance in superb fashion.

Many dancers get pulled into ever-increasing complexity. We certainly saw that happen with modern Western square dance, and the contra dance community is not immune to the lure—witness the popularity of contra medleys, where dancers don't know what's coming next and need to respond instantly. I sometimes worry that we're losing our grounding in the basics, that the ever-more-cerebral dances take us away from our roots of dancing as a powerful way for people to enjoy each other's company. Dance programs such as this one Monday night with the kids—simple, high energy, full of laughter and fun—are a terrific reminder of the joy that traditional dances bring to a community.

American and French high school students

A local high school has a regular exchange with a school in France; last spring the locals went to France, and this year the French kids came here. I was invited to call again for the group, this time on what was the final night of the exchange. The music, as the night before, was the superb duo of Jane Orzechowski on fiddle and her son Russell on piano. I've worked with them (and the other musicians in the family—Francis, Sophie, and Neil) on numerous occasions and they know what music I want for a particular dance well before I've had a chance to tell them.

I've called for this event before. With the language challenge for the French students, it's important to pick dances that are simple to teach so they are not confused by too many words. It's also important to pick dances that don't seem too babyish; these are high school students, not six-year-olds. Kids drifted in slowly, and we finally decided to start when we had enough for a longways dance with just seven couples—Dudley Laufman's Low-Backed Car. That was a good decision, because as others arrived they found the music going and the lines dancing rapidly around each other. Instead of Dudley's usual tune, a jig, I asked for a lively reel, which turned the dance into even higher energy.

The hard part was getting kids onto the dance floor. Some of the French students were oh-so-cool, and the situation wasn't helped by American hosts being reluctant themselves. After twenty minutes or so, in came a large group of girls, all wearing checked shirts, some with cowboy hats. That increased the numbers and we started getting better numbers. After five or six dances, I needed a break, so turned on the iPod and out came the familiar strains of Cotton Eyed Joe. That got 'em up and moving! (For a very different and lovely take on that song, listen to Nina Simone sing it.)

There was a time, as recently as a few years ago, when I wouldn't dream of putting on a tune like that. I've come to appreciate that giving kids something that's familiar isn't a sin, that I don't have to be such a purist. The idea is to help people have fun and yes, country line dancing isn't my main reason for being there. But if that dance—or the Macarena, for that matter—helps loosen social inhibitions and gets more people out on the dance floor, great! I can use that energy, and once they're on the floor for one number they're more likely to stay for another.

And so it was. We did a square, including one set with all French kids in it. No complicated break figures—again, I needed to be careful of language difficulties—but they got it and had fun with it. We did the fan dance, of course, a long line of girls and a long line of boys, a great way to have fun picking a partner under the oh-so-careful gaze of peers. My fiddler noted that a few of the very cute French boys inevitably got picked.

I turned back to the iPod and put on Cupid Shuffle. Now, this is even more removed from traditional dance than Cotton Eyed Joe, and it brought out nearly everybody, including some of the adults chaperones at the event, parents and teachers. The kids had been dancing in lines across from each other, but they noticed that the adults were doing it the more common way, changing our orientation 90° each time through the dance, and they quickly joined us. The whole floor was moving in unison, and those who weren't dancing were busy taking photos and videos.

Last dance of the evening? Le Brandy, with its "un, deux, trois, poussez!" refrain, a dance from Quebec that I could call in French, a perfect way to draw the cultural exchange to a close.

Oh, and we finished with a waltz, which had a large number of kids on the floor, some of whom actually knew how to do the dance.

All in all, a lot of work but well worth it.

David Millstone, Dance Caller

Lebanon, NH


Email David