Brad Foster: A Calling Career — Interview by Tom Kruskal
Brad Foster, CDSS’s Executive and Artistic Director Emeritus, is a 2015 recipient of the CDSS Lifetime Contribution Award. He was interviewed by musician, dance teacher and longtime friend Tom Kruskal who himself was a recipient in 2010. Their conversation was held on June 27, 2015, at Brad’s home in Shutesbury, Massachusetts.
- Getting Started In Dancing—The Mary Judson Years
- College Years in Santa Cruz and Berkeley
- Founding the Mendocino Country Dance Camps and the Bay Area Country Dance Society
- Moving East—Joining the Country Dance and Song Society
TK: Why don’t we go through your dance career chronologically. I know remarkably little about your time in Southern California with Mary Judson1, before Berkeley, so I would just love to hear how you got connected with her, and with your peers who were around, like Lydee Scudder2, and Mary’s kids Molly and Ellen. How did that happen?
BF: When I was in middle school, just before I went into high school, I was in a high school play, and at the end of the play some of the cast invited me to go to “The Museum.” I thought they were crazy because I thought they were talking about going to an art museum, and it was already after 9:00 PM when a museum would have been closed. The Museum turned out to be a folk dance café, and I fell in love with that.
The Museum also was where Mary Judson taught. Through folk dancing I met Lydee and then her sister Alice, and Mary’s daughter Ellen, all of whom were in my high school. Through Ellen and The Museum, I then met Mary, who taught English country dancing there and around town. I started dancing regularly, rode my bike to all the events that I could go to. And I did a little bit of dancing in school too. I remember Ellen teaching me some morris dance figures out in the courtyard of our high school. I even got assigned the role of calling a dance for a school performance. It wasn’t really calling because everybody knew the dance; calling was just part of the performance. But I think that assignment set the stage for my calling later on. So through the four years of high school I did English country and international folk dance, and a group of us always went to the Southern California Renaissance Faire and performed. Sometime during those years I met you, Tom, but I can’t remember where or when. I know I was up in Berkeley once or twice, but you also came down to do a workshop at one time. Then in 1971, just before my senior year in high school, I wandered across the country and ended up at Pinewoods3 on visiting day! I came as a visitor, but somebody (I assume it was Mary Judson) had made arrangements for me to stay, and so I stayed the rest of the week.
TK: But you’d heard about Pinewoods. Mary had been coming with her kids.
BF: Yeah, Mary had been coming with her kids. Ellen had told me all sorts of stories about Pinewoods, about May Gadd 4, and the bush patrol. [Here Brad puts on a high pitched “May Gadd” voice:] “Rumpety tump!” 5 I’d been visiting Alice and Lydee Scudder at their grandparents’ house in Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire, where I first ran across Duke Miller6 and that style of contra dancing. Alice was heading down to the Cape to visit relatives so she drove me to Pinewoods and dropped me off. That was an unusual summer—there I was from this private high school in Pasadena, with three of my school friends—Ellen, Patty [Haymond], and Pam [McGrill]—also there.
TK: So then, what about college?
BF: Like most of my friends in Pasadena, when I finished high school I wanted to escape and go somewhere else. I looked at Prescott College in Arizona and some other places but ended up choosing U. C. Santa Cruz. I wanted to study natural history, but they also had an international dance program. I saw you in that period, too, because Santa Cruz was close enough for me to occasionally get to your dance in San Francisco.
In Santa Cruz I took dance classes and I also, rather quickly, got a job teaching folk dancing. The regular folk dance teacher, Marcel Vinokur7, who came over the hill from Palo Alto to teach, took a sabbatical soon after I arrived—so in his absence I stepped in and taught. My first class was in international folk dance, but it quickly got turned into an English country dance class. I would come up to San Francisco to go to your dances and record the music and bring it back. There was also a square dance caller who I knew as “John the bass player.” I never learned his last name. He had learned his square dances from the pastor of a church in Oakland, who had learned them somewhere in the Midwest. John called squares with a bluegrass band, but then he graduated and left, and so I filled his gap too. That was the beginning of my square dance calling.
TK: So did you have any contact at all with CDSS National during that time?
BF: Well, I certainly knew about CDSS. I’d been to Pinewoods already, and they were the source of dance books and records. I also remember getting big scholarships—this was later on, when I was coming as a camper in 1975—to come to camp, and I ended up spending about as much as I would have on the camp fees buying books because I had no dance library. I may have first met Jim Morrison8 at Pinewoods; I know that I saw him there in 1971, because that was the summer he and Marney got together. Jim was from Oakland; I can’t remember if I met him in California before I went to Pinewoods, but by the time I knew him, he was working in the CDSS office. In 1974, I wrote to him at the office, hoping to come to camp. That was the year Pat Shaw9 came, but my letter to Jim got lost, and by the time I figured out what had happened, camp was full and there was no way for me to get in, so I went to Stockton Folk Dance Camp 10 instead. You had been to Stockton.
TK: Yes. I left California in 1974; I’d taught at Stockton maybe in 1972, and Nibs Matthews11 had been there the year before me.
BF: And Nibs was supposed to come back in 1974, but he cancelled, and Bob Parker12 came and basically took all of Nibs’s notes and tried to figure out what Nibs meant so he could teach from Nibs’s material. (Laughs)
TK: Yeah, I came the year after Nibs, sort of as a follow up to Nibs. Not a particularly successful gig for me.
BF: That’s when you were using Chuck Ward’s13 double-tracked harpsichord recordings, the 45s?
TK: Yes, right. Chuck set all that up for me.
BF: He said he’d been supposed to record the tunes with Lea Brilmayer14, but right when the recording was supposed to happen she went off to Mexico. So the recording was double tracked with harpsichord and harpsichord.
TK: At Stockton we had to provide a set curriculum with recorded music and printed sheet music, and we had to have discs to sell. When I left California in 1974, Chuck and I decided you should teach, and we asked you. Where were you at that point?
BF: Well, I started at U. C. Santa Cruz in 1972, and I lasted about a year and a half, and then started a long process of transferring to U. C. Berkeley. I stayed in Santa Cruz and taught dance and did carpentry and gardening, and then in 1975 I transferred up to Berkeley, just after you left. I finished Santa Cruz, moved to Berkeley, and took over your dance. A couple of years later Nick Harris, who had been running the Stanford contra, graduated and left, so I took over his contra dance too.
TK: Tell me something about the Bay Area Country Dance Society. It’s gotten all built up now, but what was it like then? How much of that growth were you there for?
BF: When I came on the scene, you had your dance. The story I tell is—this is one of those stories that I’m not sure is true—but what I remember hearing is that you met every week on Sunday, with a very tiny crowd, and the dance stayed like that until the crowd finally got big enough, and then you switched to once a month.
TK: Is that right? I don’t remember that.
BF: And then you moved it from San Francisco across the Bay to Berkeley because Chuck found a different hall. Then I came in and switched the dance to twice a month, and it has stayed pretty much like that ever since. Your dance, which later became my dance, was the only English dance for a while. At some point before 1975 Nick Harris started the contra dance at Stanford, and a few people did traditional style squares as well. At some point I met a fellow whose grandmother was connected to the dance department at Stanford University. He told me that May Gadd used to come out once in a while to teach at Stanford . But as far as I can tell, her visits had no lasting impact; nothing grew out of them.
So, in 1975 I took over your English dance, and I started a short-lived contra in Berkeley; I later started another contra in Berkeley and an English dance at Ashkenaz15 that didn’t last very long. I started something in an art center on a pier in San Francisco. Meanwhile, Bruce Hamilton16 moved to Palo Alto and started an English dance in San Jose. Bob Fraley moved to the Bay Area and started the first English dance in Palo Alto. So, things started cropping up. Kirston Koths moved in and started a Berkeley contra that kept going, unlike mine. When my contra in San Francisco failed to keep going, Charlie Fenton started another one in California Hall—that dance moved out to St. Paul’s on the West End and has been going for a long time. It just felt as if a couple years after you left everything exploded, and suddenly there were all sorts of new people. The same thing happened when I left—as soon as the vacuum was there, all these people filled it, and lots more stuff happened.
TK: I assume the Bay Area group now has a board of directors and an organizational structure that wasn’t there when you left, or had that started?
BF: I feel like I created that. You had a single English country dance in San Francisco, run by you, Chuck Ward, and Nora Hughes, and that was the English Folk Dance Society of San Francisco (or some similar title).
TK: Yeah, we had some official structure. We might have even been a CDSS Center.
BF: Yes, you were a Center17, and you were very early in getting onto the nonprofit group exemption. I learned all that later when I became CDSS Director. But I think you had no appreciable organization, no bank account then.
Then, in 1979, I was hired to teach English country dancing at the Mendocino Folklore Camp, an international folk dance camp held at the Woodlands in Mendocino. I loved it so much that, with my first wife Jenny, in 1980 we created the English dance camp at Mendocino. In 1981 we added the American week. After the first year began, we started thinking that there should be an organization. That’s when we created BACDS, and we merged the earlier organization, the English Folkdance Society of San Francisco, into it, and also brought in any of the contra and English dances that wanted to join us.
Some people thought I was crazy to create BACDS. They said, “You created this camp. Why are you giving it to BACDS?” Even though at that time I had no intention of leaving California, I thought the camps and dances should have permanence, should be more than me, and so I created the board and all that.
I remember very early on talking the board into hiring me as the part-time paid administrator of BACDS. It was about a one-tenth time job. My first task was to learn how to do accounting, then to create an accounting system, and finally to figure out how we stood financially. A couple of months later, I came to a board meeting and said, “Well, I have two things to report. The first one is that I finished that task of putting a financial system in place, and I can tell you your financial standing. The second one is, ‘I quit,’ because I can show you that you can’t afford to hire me.” And it went back to being a volunteer organization. Even that little bit of time was more than BACDS could afford back in those days.
TK: Before we move on and launch into CDSS, is there anything else about your early career that you wanted to get in?
BF: I had learned morris dancing in high school before getting to Pinewoods, and learned more at Pinewoods. I think you taught some morris or sword at the dance weekends, too. When I moved to Berkeley, I started a morris team, the Berkeley Morris. We first met in what was then the Ho Chi Minh Park. I wanted to be the Ho Chi Morris Men but no one else would agree to that.
Then, starting around 1977, I began doing some small calling tours, and by 1980 I was doing bigger tours. In those days it was primarily contras and squares—English groups couldn’t afford to pay enough to cover travel costs. My first tours were on the East Coast, in New England, and then I started touring in northern California, plus a little bit of Oregon and Washington.
TK: So tell me about moving east, and how that happened. Jim Morrison had stopped working for CDSS and moved [to Virginia]. CDSS was struggling with a series of short-term Executive Directors.
BF: Gay [May Gadd] had been National Director for decades; I don’t remember exactly when she stopped. 1974-ish? Then Genny Shimer18 came in; she wanted to do it for only a year, but stayed maybe a year and a half. Next Jim Morrison stepped in for a couple of years, at which point he moved from New York City to Virginia but stayed on as Artistic Director, and Nancy White-Kurzman served as Executive Director for a couple of years. After Nancy, Bertha Hatvary came in as Interim Director and then was hired as Executive Director for a while. Bertha’s biggest strength was the newsletter and publicity. At some point they started looking for somebody new, and approached me. By then I had already been organizing lots of weekends, and had started and run Mendocino for a few years.
Then someone asked me if I’d like to work for CDSS. At first, I didn’t take it seriously. Meanwhile Jenny received a job offer from a school in Greenwich, Connecticut. I had graduated a few years earlier with a BA in Architecture from U. C. Berkeley, and was working as a draftsman in an architect’s office. In late 1982 a recession hit, and my architecture boss kept telling me he was going to lay me off. With the job at CDSS as a possibility, and Jenny’s solid job offer, we moved east. After we moved, I interviewed with CDSS, was offered the job, and began as the National Director on February 1, 1983. The job title was later changed to Executive and Artistic Director.
TK: Tell me about the scene at CDSS when you came into it, what your reaction was, who the mentors were there. I know Sue Salmons and Genny Shimer were there. John Hodgkin was Treasurer, right?
BF: Yes, John was Treasurer, Sue was Chair of the Executive Committee 19.
Sue worked so hard. In later years I realized she quietly had served as interim Executive Director in the many months between when Bertha Hatvary left and I came in. Sue never had the title, she never asked for recognition, but she came in every week and just made the office run. She was always there, working the phone all the time. I had a lot of respect for her energy and for what she wanted to do, even if I didn’t agree with all of her decisions or the methods.
So Sue was there, and Kit Campbell was office manager. Genny Shimer was also around; she was the quiet person on the artistic side. I had such reverence for Genny, for her teaching, and for her sense of where CDSS ought to go artistically. If I had a question on artistic matters I would go to Genny or possibly to Jim. I knew Jim better, but he lived a lot farther away.
[And] John was Treasurer. I learned an awful lot of nonprofit accounting from John. He also had a philosophy. When he was a young man getting into accounting, one of his bosses gave him a financial leg up and said don’t pay me back, just pass it on—give a similar gift to someone else when you can. That became a model for us at CDSS, one we couldn’t always follow. The idea was that we would support you now in the hopes that you would support someone else later, and we would just keep lifting people up.
TK: So by the time you’d been there three years or so, you were developing your own opinions about what things were working and weren’t, what the vision was or wasn’t, and what your vision might be. Tell more about that.
BF: I remember very early on, I told somebody that I was the director of CDSS, and he said, “Oh, you’re the New York Society.” That was this CDSS member’s image of what CDSS National did—it focused on New York City. And there was some truth to that. There was also Pinewoods, and some others might have said, “You’re the Pinewoods organization.” So there was Pinewoods, and then there were NYDAC (New York Dance Activities Committee20) and the Folk Music Club21, and also weekends at Hudson Guild in New Jersey, but the main focus was on New York City activities as a showcase for the nation. In my interview before I got the job, someone asked me what I thought of NYDAC and the Folk Music Club. I had already heard some mutterings and disagreements about what was going on with them, and I said, “Well, we’re a national organization. The local organizations should make their own decisions.” And I heard back “You can’t say that.” And I took that literally—I stopped saying it, but I didn’t stop thinking it.
When I came into the job, some people expected me to revitalize the English dance in New York City because I was a teacher as well as an administrator. But my focus for CDSS was national, and in my first ten years I used my contra touring, which I was doing quite extensively then, to get myself all over the country and to build up CDSS’s visibility and membership. The membership of CDSS grew rapidly, and perhaps doubled, in those years. CDSS went from an organization that had been largely English dance based, with some folk music and some contra dance, to one that grew particularly on the contra dance side, partly because I was all over the country calling contras but also because we were riding the wave of contra dancing that was sweeping the country.
Then our rent in New York doubled—our rent in this grungy top floor space in the garment district. So we looked all over New York City and found that, even at double the old cost, it was still the most reasonable place we could rent in NYC. Bertha Hatvary, who was still involved, said, “You should move Sales to New Jersey to save money because it’s cheaper.” She didn’t mean move the whole office out of New York City, just the sales department. Then, someone at our Leadership Conference in the South said, “This is crazy. Your rent is so high, come to where we are.” That started the whole brouhaha about whether we should move or not, which lasted a while. Eventually we did move [to Massachusetts]. I looked at it as a question of where we could find something we could afford that was close enough to serve Pinewoods, our major program. It was a big political hassle, moving.
TK: So it was an economic decision at its core. I remember you were interested in living somewhere else, and I know that Jim Morrison wanted to live somewhere else when he worked for CDSS. Back when he wanted to move, he had suggested moving the Society, but there was no question then that a move was going to happen. How much of the Society’s move from New York do you think was prompted by your wanting to move it out?
BF: I’m not sure what would have happened if Jim had not already tried to get CDSS to move [in the 1970s]. Jim tried and failed, but his attempt set the stage for another try. I wanted to move because my salary was so low compared to New York City costs. I had gone looking for a place around New York where I could afford to buy a house, and the closest was an hour and a half drive from the city. Everything was very expensive. So I wanted the move in a personal sense. I remember saying to Sue Salmons and Mary Judson that I couldn’t afford to keep being Executive and Artistic Director in New York and would happily help them find a new ED if CDSS preferred to stay in the city. So I was looking both for a cheaper place for CDSS and a cheaper place for me and for the staff, a place where the current salaries wouldn’t be so far out of line. They would be low instead of abysmal.
TK: The other aspect, of course, was that to make CDSS more of a national organization—a move from New York City to almost anywhere would potentially help.
BF: That’s true. Even though that wasn’t the main thing on my mind, I thought it wasn’t a bad idea either. CDSS had become ingrown and it needed to grow and change. Moving was one of the biggest ways to grow and change. We lost a number of members in New York City, but we gained many more new members elsewhere after the move.
1 Mary Judson brought English country dancing to Los Angeles in 1967. Her group, The Carol Dancers, became the center for English country dance in Southern California, and fostered the growth of future dance leaders Brad Foster, Bruce Hamilton, Gene Murrow, and Lydee Scudder, among others.
2 Lydee Scudder began dancing at age five at Duke Miller’s Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire, square dance. In her Pasadena high school, she persuaded the administration to let her teach folk dance as an alternative to PE, and introduced folk dancing to her fellow student Brad Foster. Lydee, her sister Alice, and Brad danced with teacher Mary Judson and performed at Southern California’s Renaissance Faire.
3 Home to CDSS summer programs since 1933; near Plymouth, Massachusetts.
4 Longtime director of CDSS and before that of the NYC chapter of the English Folk Dance Society which became CDSS; May Gadd died in 1979.
5 See explanation later in the interview.
6 Duke Miller was a high school football coach from upstate New York who called summer dances in southern New Hampshire from the 1950s until the late 1970s. Well known for his singing calls, Miller influenced many callers, including Brad.
7 Marcel Vinokur (1929-2014) was an international folk dancing teacher for over sixty years. A pioneering aeronautical engineer, he contributed to the manned space program, working at NASA Ames Research Center.
8 National Director of CDSS from 1975-1977 and Artistic Director for three years after that, Jim Morrison is a musician, caller, and display dancer. In 2014 he received CDSS’s Lifetime Contribution Award; he lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.
9 Choreographer, composer, musician, singer, and caller, Patrick Shuldham-Shaw (1917-1977) started English folk dancing in London at the age of six. In 1971 he was awarded the English Folk Dance and Song Society’s highest honor, its Gold Badge.
10 Founded in 1948, Stockton Folk Dance Camp is located at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, and specializes in international folk music and dance.
13 Charles “Chuck” Ward, organist and pianist; in the 1970s, he, Tom Kruskal, and Brad Foster laid the foundations for the Bay Area Country Dance Society. Chuck is a 2009 CDSS Lifetime Contribution Award recipient.
17 In the 1970s and ‘80s, there were two levels of group membership in CDSS: Centers, for the larger and more formally organized groups, and Affiliates for the smaller groups. It caused some confusion and the designation was later simplified to the single “Group Affiliate.”
19 Jeff Warner was President, Genny Shimer was Vice President, and David Chandler was Secretary; the four officers had comprised the Search Committee for the position of Director. Brad was officially hired after the January 1983 Exec meeting; he was in his second CDSS National Council term, and had programed CDSS’s Family Week the previous summer. His goals for CDSS, stated in his application for the job, were: “increased outreach to and communication with center/associates and members, as well as greater exposure among non-CDSS groups; increasing the membership of the Society by developing new ways to show its value and effectiveness for members; and quality programs at reasonable costs to participants as well as to the Society.” (Source: minutes of the CDSS Executive Committee meeting, January 17, 1983)