Philippe CallensPhoto by Paul Friedman.

Remembering Philippe Callens

By Graham Christian

Editor's note: The second and final paragraphs mention and briefly describe Philippe's death, which was self-inflicted.

Philippe Callens was one of the most remarkable social dance leaders of the later 20th and early 21st centuries; certainly he made an indelible impact on the world of English country dance in particular. Dance, specifically folk and social dancing, was a great part of his life from adolescence onward, and it might be said that dance found and saved and even created him. It was a frame for his intellectual interests and his precise scholarly aptitudes; it was active, encouraging, and filled with potential for the beauty he craved.

On January 8 of this year, Philippe disappeared from the streets of Belgium. After six weeks, during which his friends waited with increasing and helpless fear and apprehension, his body was found in Esneux in Wallonia, at the foot of the Roche aux Faucons. There can be very little doubt what happened. He was 58 years old.

Philippe experienced early success as a dancer and leader of dance, and that success was deserved. He was a beautiful dancer, light and agile, but filled with tensile strength and lively energy. He had a deep understanding of the structures and shapes of our pattern-driven dances; he loved the formal demands of the artful and complex dances to be found in 17th and 18th century collections, but he felt the most affectionate respect for the riches of the folk style, too. He was a careful student of the works and pedagogy of other leaders, closely attentive to their strengths and shortcomings, so as to improve his own approach.

He was a creator, writing at least 72 original English country dances and at least 40 contra or square dances, as well as creating at least 50 interpretations of historical dances, and even the occasional round dance (some in each genre, unfortunately, are lost). Some of these dances have risen to the status of modern treasure. All of them have merit, and all of them evince his respectful knowledge of the figures and dances that had come before. He belonged to a small and indeed vanishing class of dance leaders for whom social dance was far more than a hobby or a recreation: dancing well, for him, and for all of us when with him, was serious business, albeit conducted with the potential for great joy.

He was, while in some ways a gladly solitary person much of his life, a dedicated friend. His delight in the arts and in history extended well beyond the places to which his researches in dance led him; his pleasure in the crafts, fine arts, music, and architecture he enjoyed extended almost to a state of wonder. Much though he loved the dance, he was never happier than when inside a fine museum or library.

Philippe has now closed a book—his own—in such a way that we can never open it again. We cannot read those last pages to learn what took him to a rocky outcropping in the Ardennes; he has kept the final part of his story for himself. It is hard to miss the stress and loss of perspective that isolation during the pandemic has brought to all of us, but his journey, and his motives, must remain mysteries. We remain with what he gave us—his creations, his lessons, his example. For those of us who admired and loved him, they are not enough, not nearly enough—but they are all we can have, and they must make up the loss somehow. 

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