Tag Archives: english country 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.

Rima & Robin’s DC Adventures, continued

by Robin Hayden, CDSS Director of Development, Friday, August 10, 2012

(see Rima’s blog about Thursday’s trip)

Stephanie Smith, CDSS member and archivist at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

Our day began with a metro ride into DC with our hostess, Stephanie Smith, an archivist at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Stephanie gave us a tour of the Center for Folklife offices, including a peek into the archives themselves!

In the midst of a very busy day at the Center, Curators James Deutch and Sojin Kim generously met with Rima, Stephanie, and me to brainstorm possibilities for collaborations between CDSS and the Center at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2015, CDSS’s centennial year.

We were also privileged to view the latest cut of the eagerly-anticipated English country dance documentary—a wonderful collaboration between Stephanie, NYU historian Danny Walkowitz, and award-winning videographer Charlie Weber of the Center for Folklife.

Later, we met up for dinner with longtime CDSS friend Charlie Pilzer, on the patio of the Irish Inn at Glen Echo Park. We had a lively conversation in which Charlie shared his thoughts about celebrating the Centennial in DC and across the continent. As always, his infectious enthusiasm and seemingly boundless well of ideas invigorated and inspired us!

We proceeded in high spirits to the Friday night contra dance in the Spanish Ballroom at Glen Echo Park, arriving in time to see the end of the Folklore Society of Greater Washington’s excellent 45-minute beginner lesson.

Basic skills class with Greg Frock

In the center of the photo you can see FSGW leader Greg Frock taking great care to ensure that some 50 newer dancers have the basic skills and social expectations to be successful and well integrated as the hall—one of the largest you’ll ever see!—soon fills up with 200-300 regular contra dancers.

It also happened to be Open Band night, with than 40 musicians from the greater DC area playing on stage, for a wonderful evening of contras and squares led by caller Dave Colestock of Harrisburg, PA. A full day indeed!

 

Rima at Camp—part 6: English & American Week at Pinewoods, and more!

A series of summer blogs by CDSS Executive Director Rima Dael:

At the CDSS office (l-r): Robin Hayden, CDSS Development; Deborah Thompson, Appalachian Center at Berea College; Rima Dael, CDSS Executive Director; Pat MacPherson, CDSS Publications

Berea College, Texas Tech, and the Castaways?

My continued travels to each week of CDSS camps had me stopping at English and American Week this past Sunday and Monday (more below), but the Friday before we had another visitor to our office in Easthampton—Deborah Thompson, Director of Programming for the Appalachian Center at Berea College, stopped by our office on her way to Pinewoods. We wore her out from chatting about our programs, education, her newly completed PhD program, shared opportunities, and partnering on projects that would be mutually beneficial. (I realize that sounds all very official, but as you see from our picture, we had a great time connecting!) We are very excited about the possibilities that can come out of future collaborations.

At Pinewoods this time I stayed in Twin Sisters. It was a homecoming of sorts, since I stayed in Quite Carried Away, a cabin nearby, with my daughter during Family Week. My daughter asked me to check on how the fairy houses were doing near her cabin, which I did. In case you were wondering, happy to report, they are doing okay.

Texas Tech students demonstrate their dancing

One of the joys of camp is meeting, dancing, singing and playing music with folks from all over. At English and American Week, it was great to connect with the Texas Tech students from the Vernacular Music Scholars Program (http://www.vernacularmusiccenter.org/outreach-scholars.html), pictured here dancing, with Jim Morrison on fiddle.

Our partnership with Texas Tech and Vernacular Music Center Director, Dr. Chris Smith, is a great partnership and friendship. There were six students (four returnees and two new) this year, with scholarship support from CDSS. We are happy to continue our work fostering emerging talent and practitioners in our genre.

Broken bones don't stop the Castaways

I have to include here a lovely picture of Barbara Moloney and Anna Matheson. If you have to be in an arm cast, being at Pinewoods helps take the yuckiness out of it. As Barbara and Anna shared on the Camphouse porch, there is a community around you to help with meals, literally prop up an elbow, and good company. Not to mention, the dancing and music! (And, I heard from CDSS Program Director Steve Howe that this duo performed hambone at morning gathering as The Castaways!)

The most amazing part of my summer travels has been meeting many CDSS friends and family—new and first time campers, multiple generations of campers, musicians, dancers, teachers, dance gypsies, historians, scholars…well, you get this picture. My time at English and American Week was along those lines. It is fun for me to put faces to the names of the book authors, songwriters, dance leaders, dance historians, composers, choreographers and artists who are part of our community.

It is fun, important fun, for me to listen and learn from those who have come before me and to engage in discussion of what lies ahead for CDSS.  I feel that I have been given a very special gift. I accept the responsibility to steward this organization in a manner that respects the history and traditions from where we came but to be forward looking to ensure a sustainable and viable CDSS. I look forward to partnering with everyone I’ve met to celebrate our Centennial in 2015 and beyond.

 

Dancing into the New York Times

“The sound of fiddles and foot stomping may be the last thing you expect to hear at the Chinatown Y.M.C.A. Nevertheless, every weekend Country Dance New York turns the basketball courts into a country dance hall, filled with jigs, reels and plenty of swinging your partner.”

That’s how an article in the New York Times last December began. Entitled “Country Dancing in the Big City”, it was a piece for the local edition that described the English and contra dancing going on around the city, highlighting CDNY’s series, the gender-role free series, and the new Brooklyn contra dance.

I thought it was quite cool to get a mention in the Times and asked David Chandler, president of CDNY (and CDSS board member), for some of his observations of how the piece came together and what (if any) results they had seen. These were his thoughts:

David Chandler

“Getting an item into the NY Times was a combination of having volunteer professional help – and luck. One of our dancers is a professional publicist who is very aware of different ways to get one’s story out, and she contacted an editor at the Times who seemed a likely bet about a story focusing on young people in contra. Oddly enough, that seemed to fall through because of the last media success for contra dancing, the NPR story a few months ago – the editor didn’t want to just repeat that story.

However, that contact may have laid the foundation for a reporter independently finding out about contra dancing from a swing dancing friend, and presenting this to the editor as a possible story.

The reporter was great, coming and dancing all night and trying to write an accurate, positive story, at which she generally succeeded despite vigorous editing. We were reminded of the fact that one does not control the story, since the Times chose to publicize one of our events which was for experienced dancers only, and didn’t provide clear address information about our two locations (though the online edition mentioned our website).

The photo from the Times. By Michael L. Brown.

The upshot is, as always, unclear. The new contra dance in Brooklyn which was also mentioned got 90 dancers for their first dance, although we don’t know how many responded to the story. Our next two regular dances and the experienced dance got perhaps fewer new dancers than at a typical dance. But the dance last night [Dec. 11] got a lot of new people, some of whom mentioned the story or came to us after initiation at the Brooklyn dance, an offshoot of our story. So, generally positive for sure. And we are hopeful of finding other media outlets through our highly motivated professional volunteer.”

That was in December. I saw David more recently and he confirmed that it’s difficult to know how the Times article has affected attendance, a question that’s always hard to examine. (He did note that the Brooklyn dance has continued to do very well, though they’ve also been doing a great job of promotion in all kinds of ways. That’s the stuff of another post.)

Perseverance and luck paid off for getting a mention in the Times, though it’s a useful reminder that newspapers have the final cut of a story, as much as you can try to guide a story. (Fortunately, I don’t see a lot of hit pieces directed towards traditional music and song.) Once again, too, it’s interesting to see how mainstream media portrays traditional dance and music.

Have any thoughts on getting traditional music and dance into the media spotlight? Or wish merely to pontificate on the impending death of print journalism? All comments welcome.

– Max

Meetup.com: A Resource to Consider?

Is this a useful resource for dance and song organizers?

Over the last few months, I’ve heard from a few groups about their experiences using the online social network Meetup to attract new participants. I’ve even seen its effect at a local dance. This got me wanting to find out a little more about Meetup and how dance and song organizers have been using it. I don’t have enough anecdotal information to really know how useful Meetup can be for dance and song groups, but let me share what I do know.

What It Is

Meetup, whose slogan is “Use the Internet to get off the Internet”, has been around for a decade now. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s a social networking tool meant to facilitate face-to-face meetings. The organization’s mission statement speaks to a lot of the values I hear traditional dancers and singers express: “Meetup’s mission is to revitalize local community and help people around the world self-organize. Meetup believes that people can change their personal world, or the whole world, by organizing themselves into groups that are powerful enough to make a difference.”

How this sentiment works in practice on their site is that organizers create groups (and pay dues of between $12-$19/mo) and those groups have members and events.

Meetup isn’t the only site out there doing this sort of thing, of course. BigTent seems to be another resource, although this doesn’t seem to have a lot of folky representation at the moment. And there’s plenty of overlap with what you might already be doing with Facebook. Indeed, Meetup also connects with Facebook with an app. (I should note that it’s a time of transition for Meetup, which just underwent a major facelift a few days ago that not everyone likes.)

Who Is Using It and How

Meetup contra dance groups and interested members across the globe.

There are a number of Meetup groups out there done by the organizers themselves. Contra dance and square dance both generate some hits across the country. English Country Dance doesn’t seem to have a lot of representation, with the notable exception of the Las Vegas Country Dance group. There is a little morris out there as well. “Folk song” and “folk music” generate lots of hits of various stripes.

Meetup sites can contain a lot of information, as with this Chicago Sacred Harp page. Reading the quotes from participants is also quite fun. (It’s the sort of thing that would be nice on any website, really.)

Looking through these can give you a sense of how organizers might use Meetup.  There’s another way Meetup can impact communities, too: a broader Meetup group can decide to go to a dance as one of their activities.

This can happen when one of the organizers of a group that finds fun, unusual things to do decides contra dancing sounds interesting. I experienced this type of Meetup effect at a dance recently, when this contra dance was sponsored by the Nerd Fun – Boston, a group with almost 3,000 participants. Lo and behold, a group of a dozen or so descended on the dance.

Is It Worth It?

A little effort and money can give you a Meetup site, but is it worth it? I don’t know.

While $12/month isn’t a huge investment, it’s not a drop in the bucket either; it’s only going to be worth it if you see results. If you have several groups with close missions (e.g. contra and English or pub sings and a morris team), I could see combining forces to share the burden.

So, have you used Meetup or something like it to promote a song or dance event and/or find new participants? How? Did it work? Please leave a comment. I’d love to hear about it and I am sure others would as well.

– Max

Our newest publication: 21 Easy English Country Dances

Our newest booklet is 21 Easy English Country Dances: Dances Selected from The Playford Ball with Music Selected from CDSS Archival Recordings.

There are two people who were especially important to the production of this booklet: Gary and Rowena Roodman.

Rowena is the CDSS Sales Assistant; as part of her job, she helps people find the right CD or book for their needs. Until now all she has had to offer people who are either beginning teachers, dancers or both, has been the cassette Juice of Barley: Simple English Country Dances (CDS9)–outmoded technology–and The Playford Ball (CDSS, 1994)–wonderful resource but daunting to the beginner.  Rowena remembers meeting an enthusiastic elementary school teacher at a CDSS week at Pinewoods Camp, who really wanted to teach English dance to her students — she needed music and she needed an introductory book of accessible dances. Rowena has also taken many calls at the office from folks who have seen the beautiful dancing in one of the recent “Jane Austen” films and want to be either Gwyneth Paltrow or Colin Firth (useful as it is, I really can’t say this booklet is going to help with that…).

Gary and Rowena at Pinewoods

Gary Roodman, Rowena’s husband and a well-known choreographer of English country dances, is a good friend to CDSS. Gary’s first encounter with English dance was at Pinewoods Camp. He and his family were vacationing on Cape Cod and had the opportunity to take part in CDSS Family Week. Gary told me about his first evening at camp: he was walking towards the main dance pavilion, C Sharp, and heard this sound! Gary remembers  standing on a bench and looking down on the dancers, moving gracefully on the floor. He felt he was seeing a vision of his future. Gary said, “Every time I hear the music on the CDSS recordings, I am reliving that experience; and all my early dancing is connected to this music.” When the CDSS recordings  started to come out in the late 1970s, it was the first opportunity to take that sound home.

Gary’s mission in helping with this booklet has been to preserve the music on the CDSS recordings (CDS 1-9). Gary took all the cuts from CDS 6-9 plus selected cuts from CDS 1 and Country Capers (Arabesque Records; Marshall Barron, guest artist) and created WAV files, for archival and re-publication purposes. Selections from this new archive are on the CD which accompanies the new booklet.

I’m happy to say that the new booklet has Rowena’s and Gary’s stamp of approval: it is easy to use, it is beautifully executed, and Rowena says it is all you need for your first two years of teaching and dancing. If you are able to do the 21 dances in the booklet, then you can move on to our next planned publication: Classic English Country Dances, with music on CD culled from CDSS recordings.

— Pat

Read the full description of 21 Easy English Country Dances and get one for yourself at the CDSS store.

Jane Austen’s 235th Birthday

Happy Birthday Jane!

Jane Austen was born 235 years ago today. Given the emphasis of “the felicities of rapid motion” in her work, it’s an opportunity to introduce folks to English country dance, as they are doing in Frankfort, Kentucky, among other places. Or maybe just indulge in a little Colin Firth:

… and then learn it. Or analyze it.

Though you might be concerned about your health if there’s no dancing tonight, rest assured. It was Jane Austen, herself, who observed in Emma:

Instances have been known of young people passing many, many months successively without being at any ball of any description, and no material injury accrue either to body or mind….

Perhaps you could spend the day making arrangements for the Jane Austen Festival, which should have some nice dancing. Or reading a Jane Austen blog or two, where the dancing gets more than the passing mention.

Am I missing something? Share it in the comments.

-Max

Thanks to Allison Thompson for some fun and informational links. Read her enjoyable new paper, “The Rules of the Assembly: Dancing at Bath and Other Spas in the Eighteenth Century” which was just posted online. She also shared the very funny Jane Austen’s Fight Club youtube video.