Tag Archives: dance

Singing and Dancing in Macedonia

by David Millstone

Rehearsal in Monastery of Virgin Mary 6

Rehearsing songs in a historic church near Struga, southern Macedonia; photo by fellow camper Sophia Emigh

I’ve been a contra dancer for some 40 years and an English country dance enthusiast since 1987. For decades, the only singing I did was with my fifth grade students, who didn’t understand that I couldn’t really sing. With that background, what took me on a overseas trip with Village Harmony for two weeks of singing and dancing, Macedonian style?

It started when I told my wife, Sheila, who has spent years coming along with me to dance weekends and camps, that it was time that I accompanied her instead of vice versa. (“He makes it sound like that was a punishment I endured,” she quickly adds. “I love to dance.”) This was the trip she picked. “It’s okay,” I said. “I can just spend my time documenting the trip with photos and videos.” This was met by a steely gaze that quickly translated into “You Will Sing.”

So, there I am in southern Macedonia, a self-identified non-singer with little experience in folk dance, and after the first few days I’m ready to hide under the covers. It’s a Slavic language, many songs are based on an oriental scale with elaborate vocal ornamentation, and then there are those odd meters: 7/8, 9/8, and more. My hands can clap the rhythms, but not always connected to the tunes.

This is just the singing; let’s not discuss in detail my feet. Unlike country dancing, stepping one beat at a time and learning a series of different figures, these dances all come in the same simple formation but with unfamiliar demands on my body—slow steps and quick steps, weight shifts, hops and pivots, downbeats with an uplifted foot. “The music tells you what to do,” right? If so, this music was telling me, “Get out of the way of people who know what they’re doing.”

For there were many around me having no trouble. There were strong singers, accustomed to learning by ear and holding down a part. Some had come to Balkan camps before, some sing and dance Balkan in their home communities, some even speak Serbo-Croatian or Macedonian. Although I’m a totally competent country dancer, I was definitely Out of My League on this dance floor.

This tale of woe has a happy ending—I had a great time. A lot of that was thanks to my fellow campers. “I don’t sing,” I mentioned to a tenor near me early on. “What do you mean?” he said. “Everyone sings.” He wasn’t making a political statement, just presenting this as a fact. Lesson learned: stop making excuses, listen, and open your mouth. I discovered, too, that I wasn’t alone. Their solution? Give it a try, and so I did. Can’t sing this particular tenor line? Okay, I’ll stick with the bass part here… it’s simpler. Not sure how this section goes? Turned out I wasn’t the only one, as one of our leaders drilled the group on the same four bars of music until we all had it.

Same thing with the dancing. I practiced by myself behind the line, got coaching on the side from those who knew what to do, and gradually felt more comfortable. (Yes, dancing in 12/8 is still awkward.) Some of it was letting go of the notion that I had to be able to do everything well. Sometimes I stumbled around in line, doing fragments of a dance and gradually adding other pieces. No one pulled me out for remedial lessons, no one frowned; folks on either side trusted that I’d ask for help if needed. When we gave our final concerts, singing and dancing in small villages, the locals offered no critical judgments—they joined our chorus on many well-known songs, grinned at our pronunciation, reached out a hand and made space in line with a smile.

In a few days, it’ll be time to join the community chorus at Harmony of Song & Dance, CDSS’s next program at Pinewoods. I can’t wait. I get to sing again!

In addition to being a contra and English country dancer, caller, dance historian, videographer, co-author (Cracking Chestnuts), coordinator of the Square Dance History Project), and new international dancer and singer, David Millstone currently serves as CDSS’s President.

Square Dance History Project Launches New Website

by David Millstone

A group of square dance enthusiasts has launched a digital library and website that takes a broad look at square dancing now as well as the historical antecedents of today’s squares. Please share this news and the link with others who might be interested!

The project’s primary focus is to collect good examples of moving images—more than 400 videos so far—that document square dancing in its many forms. This includes New England dosido and western docey-do, barn dances and hoedowns, stately quadrilles and rip-roarin’ squares of the 1950s, as well as modern square dance programs from Mainstream to Challenge. The site also includes interviews, text, photographs, audio files, and much more.

Among the many treats awaiting you:

• Rare footage of the Lloyd Shaw’s Cheyenne Mountain Dancers, plus a black and white silent film (1955) showing square dances in Central City, Colorado
• A set of 100 high-definition videos filmed in 2011 at the Dare To Be Square weekend at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, NC, with six nationally-known square dance callers, and a set of 25 additional videotaped interviews.
• More than 150 items related to MWSD, including an article by Jim Mayo looking at the early years, illustrated with live recordings from the 1940s and 1950s
• Elizabeth Burchenal’s silent footage of southern Appalachian mountain squares from the early 1930s
• A curated assortment of more than 400 videos showing dancing from Newfoundland and Quebec to the American Southwest
• Exhibits showcasing items in the collection, on such diverse topics as the pioneering work of Lloyd Shaw in Colorado to an in-depth look at dances from Maryland Line, Maryland

The site is a work in progress, and additional material will be added regularly to the collection. The home page offers a way to contribute additional items; the organizers are especially interested in locating home movie footage from decades past.

As part of its financial contribution, CDSS co-sponsored the Dare To Be Square weekend and provided funding for the weekend’s documentation. This includes the videotaped dances plus the CD-ROM disk (syllabus and complete audio files) that is in the CDSS store. CDSS also administers the fund that supports the project; the other fiscal supporters include the Lloyd Shaw Foundation, CALLERLAB, and The ARTS (Alliance of Round, Traditional, and Square-Dance).

A Week of Dancing on “Kentucky’s Backroads”

The Christmas Country Dance School at Berea College has been a place to celebrate and practice traditional dance, music, song and crafts since 1938. Lexington, Kentucky’s ABC news station did a nice piece on this year’s CCDS for a series called “Kentucky’s Backroads”. Read the story and see the video. (Or watch it fullscreen.)

The Berea Christmas Country Dance School on TV

As in my post on morris dancing, here’s an example of wider media (local news in this case), taking a look from the outside in. It makes me consider the role of extended events (like the week-long School). The piece looks at how the Christmas Country Dance School fosters and sustain broad geographic connection, something many of us experience. It also highlights something that isn’t discussed quite as much: that events like the Christmas School also offer a place for support and personal healing.

Caller (and CDSS board member) Wendy Graham of Colorado is featured in the story, along with her friend Julie Fishman from California. Relating how the Christmas School helped them heal from their experiences in New York City during 9/11, Wendy and Julie share a kind of story that I suspect takes place quite often. What is it that’s “therapeutic” about a week of traditional dancing? It’s an escape, but it is not isolated escapism, unlike so much of our “recreation”; it is communal. There is something quite special about the plunge into personal, physical connections and traditions — the giving and getting weight of community dancing. At times when we feel isolated and lost, a hand to literally hold on to offers special reassurance.

Three hours of dancing can deliver an intense feeling of community. Weekends and weeks can generate even more profound experiences, offering many more opportunities to connect both on and off the dance floor. This experience is continually renewed as coming together for a week a year becomes a tradition in itself, lasting “for decades to come”.

It’s a valuable thing and I’m glad we have it.

— Max

p.s. I can’t help but return to briefly marveling at the breadth of geographic connections. As the news piece observes, it’s remarkable how these traditions are strong enough to bring people together for events like the Christmas Country Dance School. A Coloradan and Californian reunite in Kentucky. And in the video they are dancing to Cis Hinkle of Georgia with music by Brad Battey and Debbie Jackson (also a CDSS board member) from Michigan. Quite amazing.