Dancing in New England

After the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association (PCA/ACA) conference in Boston (April 11-14, 2012), Nick and I stayed in New England another four days to check out the dance scene. We went to the Jamaica Plain (JP) gender-free contra dance on April 14th. We rented a car and drove to New Hampshire to see the Square Dance Foundation of New England and the Nelson Monday Night contra dance on April 16th. The last dance event we attended was MIT Tech Squares on April 17th. In between the dances, we had time to see friends and do sight-seeing. We flew back to Phoenix on the 18th.

Jamaica Plain Gender-Free Contra Dance

Before the gender-free contra dance, we met Clark and Miriam Baker at a Chinese restaurant in Cambridge. I first met Clark when I was doing surveys as part of my fieldwork. He emailed me information for my book, and later I contacted him about being an editor for my content about Modern Western Square Dance. Clark and Miriam square danced at MIT in the ’70s, Clark’s been active in CALLERLAB for a long time, and he calls for Modern Western Square Dance at the Challenge level. When Clark and Miriam were in Phoenix for the Desert Valley Squares’ fly-in (a weekend-long mini square dance convention), I had the privilege of hanging out with them at the event and the after-party. I was really happy that we’d be able to hang out with them again in Boston.

Clark and Miriam also contra dance, so we carpooled with them to the JP gender-free contra dance, with caller Tony Parkes and band Gypsy Minor. Gender-free contra dance (sometimes called “gender role-free”) means that anyone can dance in any position regardless of their own gender. Sometimes people in the traditional male dance position (to the left of the partner when standing side-by-side) wear an elastic armband, in which case the caller refers to the dancers as “bands” or “bare arms.” Even at regular contra dances that are not specified to be gender-free, the number of women usually outnumber the men and some women choose to dance the traditional male position. These women may wear neckties or another object to signify to other dancers their position in the set. This way, if a woman approaches another woman for a swing (turning together in a closed dance position), there is less confusion. It is less common for men to dance in the traditional female dance position, but it happens in contras. Some men also wear skirts or kilts, which keep them cool and are fun when spinning.

We stayed at the dance for about 1.5 hours (through the break), and I danced both the traditional male and female positions. We mostly did contras (sets of long parallel lines for any number of couples), but we also did a traditional square dance (sets of four couples) and a waltz. Usually, square dances are done in a “tip” consisting of two or three full dances where the dancers stay on the floor the entire time, with short breaks between the dances. Some contra dance communities strongly oppose traditional square-set dances and request that callers not do them. When Nick and I had lunch with Parkes the previous afternoon, he mentioned that the JP group did not put limitations on what he could call and he was happy to throw in traditional squares for variety. But at the dance, Parkes also paid close attention to the dancers; fewer people got up to do the square than the contras, and he resumed contras after one traditional square. Thus, people who wanted to do contras did not sit out for too long.

At the break, Parkes made an announcement about my book, Folk Dancing, and also mentioned the recently released second edition of his book, Contra Dance Calling: A Basic Text. In addition to being a highly respected caller, Parkes is an professional proofreader. His book is excellent quality; I strongly recommend it for anyone interested in learning more about contra dance calling and choreography.

Nick and I had brunch with our friend Elif in Somerville on Sunday and then went sightseeing near the ocean. We had dinner at the No Name seafood restaurant, per the Bakers’ recommendation. It was one of the best dining experiences we’ve had. We ate fantastic seafood chowder with a fried seafood platter and fresh steamed green beans. My chardonnay was local and perfectly complemented the food. Furthermore, it happened to be Orthodox Easter, and our waiter happened to be Greek, so he was in a very jovial mood. He came out with an extra glass of wine and said, “Who’s driving?” I said, “Neither of us.” He handed me the wine glass, “On the house. Happy Easter!” Nick was wearing a military shirt with a Latin logo, and the waiter inquired whether Nick knew Latin. Nick didn’t, but he mentioned that his dad was a professor of ancient Roman civilization. The waiter was thrilled, because he had an advanced degree in classic literature. He told Nick, “Tell your father he has a secret admirer.”

Square Dance Foundation of New England

Monday was the Boston Marathon. The temperature was over 90 degrees. We rented a car from Enterprise and drove to the University of New Hampshire in Manchester, about an hour away. We went to the Square Dance Foundation of New England, housed at the university in a brick building (formerly a mill) along a river. Dick Severance welcomed us at the door and gave a tour of the archives. There was a Hall of Fame with photos of notable callers; display cases filled with awards, pins, badges, and rare first-edition books; an assortment of Modern Western Square Dance attire arranged by decade; shelves with square dance books, magazines, and club newsletters; and even more shelves with club scrapbooks and photo albums, personal collections of newspaper articles about square dancing, and caller note services (notes that the nation’s leading callers circulated nationwide to spread information when recreational Western Square Dance was beginning to take off). One of the most unique items was an enormous square dance photograph that use to hang in a local post office and was wrinkled during a fire. A smaller room in the back had drawers of records and tapes. A side room had file cabinets for miscellaneous materials, organized by donors’ names, and a large box filled with poster displays shown at the National Square Dance Convention.

I wanted to know more about the development of recreational square dancing in the 1940s and 1950s, so I spent some of the afternoon browsing early copies of the magazine “Sets in Order.” I was happy to learn that these magazines soon would be digitized and accessible online. A couple hours later, Jim Mayo stopped by to meet us. Mayo is the author of Step by Step Through Modern Square Dance History (2003), a Square Dance Foundation of New England board member, and the first chairperson of CALLERLAB. Mayo’s book is the most comprehensive history of the Modern Western Square Dance movement, covering all facets of the dance form: how the choreography changed over time, the square dance club structure, the growth and decline in membership, etc. Many people mentioned his book when I was doing my fieldwork.

I thought Severance and Mayo had a realistic notion about what was happening in the square dance world. They noted that the tangible archive system was becoming obsolete and that the way to preserve materials would have to be digital. I also appreciated their perspective that square dance history includes a wide variety of square dance forms, not just Modern Western Square Dance. We talked about David Millstone’s Square Dance History project, which launched in November 2011 with a special square dance weekend in Brasstown, North Carolina that brought together different types of square dance callers. Millstone is collaborating with the Square Dance Foundation of New England and other organizations to create a comprehensive Web site to document square dance history, and part of his project is digitizing old dance films from personal collections. We said goodbye to Mayo around 3:00, and a little while later Severance, Nick, and I grabbed some food at Blake’s, a local diner. Then Severance dropped us off at our rental car and Nick and I continued onto Nelson, New Hampshire for the contra dance.

The Monday Night Dance in Nelson, NH

The Nelson contra dance on Monday night is said to be the oldest continuous contra dance in the country. All experienced contra dancers have heard about it. The dance gained its reputation in the contra dance community for its traditional, small-town feel and for having hosted some of the nation’s best musicians and callers, including the legendary Ralph Page and Dudley Laufman.

The Nelson dance takes place in a small white town hall that is easy to miss. For us, the street address wasn’t on the GPS. We drove through the entire town without ever stopping for a stop sign or stop light. The street names were painted on wooden pillars. Houses were set back from the road, drowned in trees and the sounds of singing frogs from nearby marshes. After we drove past the only parking lot in town, I suggested that we probably missed the town hall and that we should turn around. We went back and pulled into the small lot. Indeed, there was the town hall, next to a church. No one had arrived yet, so we consulted the GPS for nearby food. We went to a small grocery store in Hancock, NH where an orange cat with a kinked neck let himself inside, marked his scent along the freezer doors, followed a man to the check-out and then perched contently on a wooden stool. Nick bought a case of local beer, and then we went next door to Fiddleheads in search of food. The ham and cheese croissants were two or three days old, so I opted for a quiche. Nick got a burrito. They were edible, but nothing special. We grabbed two brownies for the two-hour drive back to Boston. The teenage boy cashier noticed my purse: “Is that Vera Bradley? My mom collects those.” Thanks for making me feel old, kid.

We arrived at the dance just before 8 p.m. Gnats swarmed our car. Teenagers played Frisbee on a grass lawn and waiting for the dance to start. The town hall had a stage for the band and caller, a wooden floor, benches, windows, good lighting, and no air conditioning. There were about 50 people, including a baby and a young girl (a neighbor of one of the dancers). Don Primrose was the organizer and caller for the first half of the dance. We left our $3/person donation in an open fiddle case, next to a stack of cookies that one of the dancer had brought.

When we arrived, Bob McQuillen was playing the piano as three young boys looked on. I had interviewed McQuillen in 2009 in Jerome, Arizona. McQuillen started playing accordion for dances after attending the New England Folk Festival in the late 1940s, where he saw Ralph Page calling with some fiddlers. He’s written thousands of dance tunes and notates them in a unique way (A, B, C) versus musical notation. McQuillen explains his tune-writing process and involvement in contra dancing in general in the documentary Paid to Eat Ice Cream, by David Millstone.

The dances at Nelson were easy to learn. I don’t recall a lot of instruction beforehand, and I’m fairly certain that we jumped into at least one of the dances without any run-through. The dances structurally felt more old-timey than most other contras I’ve experienced. Primrose called dances for active and inactive couples, where the active couples swung in the middle of the set as the inactives looked on until they reached the end of the set, turned around, and then became active couples. I sensed strong rapport among the dancers. They seemed to understand most people’s abilities and approached me respectfully as a newcomer, carefully gauging through body language whether to walk or fly in a swing, whether to gently turn an allemande or add an extra push and spin. The dances picked up momentum as the evening progressed. For one dance, the musicians used a tune for which the dancers, without any prompting, cheerfully chimed in, “La, la, la,” etc. during the refrain. Primrose reported that the practice originated from a fiddling mishap that entailed some broken strings, if I remember correctly. During the break, everyone sat on the floor or the benches and Primrose led the announcements. There also was a game where the first person who moved was in charge of bringing snacks to the next dance.

MIT Tech Squares

On April 17th, Nick and I met Clark Baker and his daughter Laura at MIT for the weekly Tech Squares dance. We ate in the Student Center, and then Clark gave us a tour of the campus. He showed us the Stata Center and recalled what it was like in the 1970s, when he was a graduate student and created the first square dance choreography program. We returned to the Student Center around 7 p.m. for Early Rounds, an hour of round dancing before squares. The dancing took place on a large floor in the center of the long rectangular room. We arranged ourselves on a small plateau with table and chairs, about five steps higher than the dance floor, behind the caller. A regular-size staircase led to a second level with a balcony that wrapped around the entire room, providing an aerial view of the dance floor. A few students studied on either level, and a young woman wearing headphones practiced a belly dance routine on a far corner of the dance floor. At 8:00, the round dance cuer, Phil Gatchell, gave the stage to the caller, Ted Lizotte. The square dance portion was well-attended, a mixture of adults and MIT students who take square dancing for university credit. The session began with about 6 squares (48 dancers), and at least another 6 squares joined within the hour. After several dances (to pop and country music, from what I recall), Lizotte spent a few minutes breaking down the call Acey-Deucey. Whenever he said the term, the dancers responded with a “quack.” Clark made an announcement about my book during the break, and several dancers sat down to chat with us. The conversation felt very academic, appropriate for MIT. I learned that one woman was a co-founder of the MIT round dance club in the 1960s, and another woman was the dance chairperson for NEFFA in 2012. I thanked them for supporting the dance world, and they returned the compliment. Shortly before 10 pm, Clark and Laura took us back to our hosts in Somerville. The New England Book Tour was full of rich experiences, interesting people, and ended on a very good note.


May 29, 2012. Book Tour. Leave a comment.

West Coast/Southwest Book Tour

Kolo Festival, Thanksgiving Weekend, 2011

I began planning for the West Coast book tour immediately after returning from the 15-day East Coast book tour. In California, the only even that we (my husband Nick and I) attended was the Kolo Festival at City College in San Francisco, organized by John (Ivan) Filcich every year on Thanksgiving weekend since 1952. “Kolo” is the name of a dance form that was popular in some parts of the former Yugoslavia, and it is a group dance for many people in a circlular or serpentine formation where people hold hands.

At the festival, we were welcomed by John Filcich and Jerry Duke, whom I met at the 2009 Balkan Music and Dance Workshop in Mendocino, California. There were other familiar faces from Mendocino, as well, including the Cope family from San Jose, whose home appears in a photo in my book. It also was nice to see Ivan Velev, a musician who recently relocated to California from Washington D.C., where I initially met him through a couple of mutual friends. Ivan and several other people in their 20s played instruments and danced with vigor, illustrating that the Balkan dance movement has something to offer to youngsters who will adapt it to suit their own needs going into the future.

I was also delighted to see Sunni Bloland and Hank make a special appearance. Sunni taught folk dancing at UC Berkeley for many years and specialized in Romanian dancing. She is well-loved in the dance community.

I’m always happy to discuss my book with people, and I’m always surprised to meet someone who has already read the book because it’s still so hot off the press. I think the person I talked to the most at this festival was Marcel Vinokur, who started dancing with Michael Herman in the 1950s before moving to California. I’m not sure how Marcel found out about the book, but he seemed happy with the book overall. However, he informed me that in the International Folk Dance history, I missed one place that the legendary Michael Herman taught briefly, a New York high school for needle trades. This is the place where Marcel began to dance, so he remembered it fondly and told me all about his early years dancing with Michael Herman. I’m glad he spoke up, and I will correct this accidental oversight if I ever get an opportunity to revise the book.

Tucson Area Square Dance Festival: January 20-21, 2012

The other event we did was the Tucson Area Square Dance Festival, sponsored by the Square and Round Dance Association of Southern Arizona. I have to thank Rick Gittelman, chairperson, and the first square dance caller I interviewed for the book, for inviting us to the festival to do a book signing. The callers and cuers were suberb at this event, and we had the honor of reconnecting with the legendary caller Marshall Flippo, who was not calling at this event but decided to make an appearance.

Nick and I set up in the hallway outside the main dance room, and we often found ourselves remarking on the callers’ tremendous musical talent and ability to harmonize when they called together. On Friday afternoon, several grade schoolers came to the festival on a fieldtrip. Rick called to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and the “Mickey Mouse” song, and everyone on the dance floor was singing along. A lot of parents were videotaping the session. At one point, the experienced dancers got up to do a demo, and a father who was probably from another country, based on his accent, leaned over to me and said, “So this is real square dancing, huh?” A simple question with a complex answer, so I just dodged it. Later on, someone asked me why square dancing was done in a four-person formation or set – another simple question with a complex answer. I’m happy that people are asking these questions, because it means that some people might look to my book to answer these questions. After all, part of the reason why I wrote it was to answer such questions.

I’m also glad that Tucson was our last official dance event on our book tour, because I began my fieldwork in Tucson in January 2009. There’s a sense of completion, bringing things full circle. The last major book event that Nick and I have planned is the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association conference in Boston from April 11-14, 2012. Ironically, it was through this conference in 2008 that I learned about the “American Dance Floor Series” — an idea by the very talented writer/architect/dance enthusiast Ralph Giordano, then an editor for Greenwood Press (now part of ABC-CLIO) – and this series now consists of 6 published books by different authors, including myself and Giordano. Going to PCA/ACA will truly bring the project full-circle and I’m very much looking forward to presenting about the history of square dance at this event. Actually, at the Tucson Area Square Dance Festival, Rick generously invited us to the annual callers’ meeting so that I could introduce the book and ask callers what dance educators should do/should avoid to introduce square dancing to college-age students today. Their ideas will be very helpful as I put together my presentation, so thanks to everyone who contributed insight!

January 23, 2012. Book Tour. Leave a comment.

East Coast Book Tour, Oct. 19-Nov. 3rd, 2011

On October 19th, 2011, Nick and I flew from Phoenix to Baltimore with “Folk Dancing” books comprising nearly half of our luggage. It was difficult to predict how many books we needed for our 2-week East Coast Book Tour. A week prior, I had shipped four dozen books to Vita Hollander, our host in Washington D.C., and Ella and Mark Magruder, our hosts in Amherst, VA. I told Nick, “No matter how many books we sell, we’re going to have an amazing adventure. As long as we have fun, this trip will be a success.” As it turned out, we sold many books, we had a blast, and we made several contacts to help promote the book even more. I’d say it was a success!

We went sight-seeing in the daytime and danced most evenings. We covered 2,430 miles total, from Asbury Park, New Jersey to Charleston, South Carolina. We did the most events in the first five days: two International Folk Dance evenings, a GLBT Modern Western Square Dance fly-in, a Playford Ball, a Modern Western Square Dance ball, and a contra dance. The following week included 4 contra dance events and a lecture at the John C. Campbell Folk School, all in North Carolina. Then we drove to Charleston, where Nick had his first assignment with the Air Force about a decade ago. This portion of the trip didn’t include any dance events, but we did sell a book and I left some promotional postcards at a bookstore. On our way back, I lectured for the dance program at Sweet Briar College and decided that more academic lectures were in order for subsequent book tours.

Here’s a summary of what we did on the East Coast and some of my reflections on folk dance-related issues. Click on the titles for a collection of photos from the event.

Oct. 19th: Columbia International Folk Dancers

After Nick and I landed in Baltimore, we picked up the rental car and drove to the Columbia International Folk Dancers, who meet on Wednesday evenings at the Kahler Hall in Columbia, Maryland. International Folk Dance or IFD is a recreational club-based activity. Participants usually get together on a weekly basis and do dances from many nations to recorded music. At certain times in the year, many clubs get together for regional festivals or dance camps. All the club members usually know the same dances, which enables people from different clubs to dance together. Many of the participants first encountered IFD in college in the ’60s and ’70s.

The Columbia International Folk Dancers club is run by the participants themselves. The night that Nick and I went, individuals stepped up to lead dances or run the music as needed. There was a strong sense of camaraderie. We thought they were a really fun group.  The dancers did a broad range of dances — different national origins, formations, and skill levels. The group even did some male-female couple dances (in Phoenix, it’s predominantly non-partner dancers due to a shortage of men at the IFD events). I didn’t notice any of the recordings sounding “scratchy,” which is sometimes a complaint at IFD events (although some people actually enjoy the scratchy recordings). The group also has a really wonderful dance space with a great floor, lighting, and acoustics. Most of the participants were my parents’ or grandparents’ age, which is typical for an IFD gathering. There was one woman who seemed to be around our age who had recently joined the group.

Judy Weintraub, a member of the Columbia IFD group, helped promote the book tour by organizing a meet-up 30 minutes before the dance and also announcing the tour at the break during the IFD session. Judy also connected us with our host, Vita Hollander. Vita was very generous to let us stay with her for three nights, and I enjoyed listening to her IFD stories over brunch before we left Washington D.C. I was delighted to see that Vita had built a dance room as an addition to the house. I’ve seen this elsewhere during my fieldwork, so I wonder how common it is in the IFD community. It’s certainly something I would like to have in a future home!

Oct. 20th: Glen Echo Folkdancers

Nick and I did sight-seeing in Washington D.C. in the morning and afternoon. Then we went to Jamie Platt’s IFD group, the Glen Echo Folkdancers (formerly the Foggy Bottom Folkdancers). I met Jamie a couple of times when I was conducting fieldwork in the Washington D.C. area in 2009. He taught some Balkan dances at a polka dance event, ironically enough — I think the band must have been playing a Balkan rhythm — and he got quite a large following on the dance floor. He’s a great teacher and dancer, and when he dances people naturally want to join him. I definitely wanted to visit his IFD group when I returned to the East Coast.

Nick and I carpooled with Vita to the event, and it was still during the instructional period when we got there. Most IFD events begin with an hour or so of instruction for beginners, and then more long-time dancers filter in for the second portion of the evening (sometimes known as the “request” portion where dancers can request their favorite dances). I enjoyed Jamie’s approach to teaching, using singing us through the steps, breaking the dances down phrase by phrase, before we tried them with music. The majority of dances were line dances, or non-partner dances, that involved hand-holding and dancing in circular patterns. The choice of music inspired the dancers to get up and move. Sometimes other people in the group led the dances; it just depended if someone knew a particular dance and wanted to lead it. We thought that the dancers were very friendly, and we enjoyed discussing the book and other IFD-related things with them in between dances.

Interestingly enough, Tessa, one of the attendees sitting out of the dance because of an injury, took my Personal Dance History survey at a contra dance in 2009. I’d gotten over 500 surveys, but I remembered hers when she reminded me about a note that she put on the survey. It felt good, because she had taken the time to contribute information about her personal experiences to my project, trusting that something might come of it, and I was able to show her the final product.

The Next Generation of Leaders

The absence of young people in IFD is a common concern. I’m 30. When I attend an IFD event, people usually comment on my age and ask me why I’m there. As someone who didn’t grow up with IFD, I can say that it’s very confusing to young people who somehow wind up attending an IFD event without knowing much about the history of the recreational movement. The first time I went to the Phoenix International Folk Dancers (trying to learn some Bulgarian dances before going to Bulgaria for my graduate fieldwork), I wondered why “international” primarily meant the Balkans, how all the participants knew the same dances (dozens of them!), why some dances were “favorites” that repeated every week, and why it was so important for some participants to “authentically” depict how dances were done in their native settings when clearly a group of Americans gathering once a week in a community center for a very formal teaching session was not the native setting for those dances. Maybe I’m atypical. I love dancing of all varieties so much that I seek the answers to these kinds of questions. I think the easier route for young people is to look around, feel overwhelmed by the stimuli and lack of cultural understanding, and walk out with glazed-over eyes.

IFD continues to be a lens to learn about other cultures. It is also a means of physical fitness and social interaction. But these benefits easily get clouded over by a lack of contextual understanding. I believe that IFD can continue as a recreational activity, bringing people together to learn about diverse cultures, and that young people — perhaps people currently enrolled in college dance programs — can step up and be a new generation of leaders. Choreographic changes will probably happen, but the essence of IFD can continue if the new leaders understand the history and meaning of IFD as a recreational movement and the structure of the community. I know of at least one book that can help young, aspiring dance teachers gain a contextual understanding of the IFD movement.

Oct. 21: Times Squares “Peel the Pumpkin” Fly-In

In 2008, I discovered a unique sub-culture of the Modern Western Square Dance movement — GLBT or Gay Square Dance. The first club I encountered was the Desert Valley Squares in Phoenix, AZ. I found out about the club by doing an Internet search for local square dance groups. Thus began my journey into an incredibly fun dance community that would eventually take me to an international gay square dance convention and several fly-ins (smaller regional conventions). One important thing to know about GLBT square dance: It exists because gay people were not always welcome in the preexisting Modern Western Square Dance clubs. GLBT people formed their own clubs, adapted Modern Western Square Dance culture based on their values and preferences, and now many straight people (especially single people) are joining the gay clubs.

In early October, I contacted the DC Lambda Squares in Washington D.C. to see if I could arrange a book signing at their regular weekly club event. The group leaders pointed out that the Times Squares (a GLBT group in NY) was hosting a fly-in the first weekend of the book tour, just three hours away from Baltimore in Asbury Park, NJ. I contacted the organizers and arranged to have a book signing table near the registration area. When we arrived, Alberto recognized us immediately. We were thrilled when Emad gave us a personal tour of the dance rooms. The Halloween decorations were clever and helped set the party mood — Freddy Krueger and Elvira cardboard cutouts, bloody tablecloths for the refreshment tables, etc. Emad also brought out a table and tablecloth, so our book signing table looked very professional. We enjoyed meeting dozens dancers (and Henry the puppy) throughout the evening, as people continually flowed in and out of the dance rooms. Someone made an announcement about my book at the beginning of the fly-in, when most of the dancers were assembled together. It’s always helpful to have endorsement from the community leaders.

The last session on Friday night was led by a trio of excellent callers: Deborah Carroll-Jones, Bill Eyler, and Nick Martellacci (in a hunchback costume). Nick and I watched a couple of tips (a “tip” is usually two square dances back-to-back, to two different songs, separated by a pause). Toward the end of the session, I jumped into the dance when a set of seven needed an eighth dancer to complete the square. Thanks to Rick Gittelman, who taught me some basic square dance calls on a “crash course” to prepare me for the National Square Dance Convention, I was able to make it through the tip with relative ease. I got a little confused on some “ocean wave” calls, but it was also nearing 11 p.m. Afterwards, a couple of the dancers in my square came over to chat with me and Nick. Everyone wanted to know what club we danced with!

The party continued with two-stepping in the lobby bar and a viewing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show on the mezzanine level. We stayed in the bar and chatted with dancers until 2 a.m. I knew Nick had a great time, because when we retired for the evening, he asked, “Why didn’t you arrange more book signings at gay square dance events?” The next morning, we went to the boardwalk area of Asbury Park (where people were getting made-up for a Zombie Walk), and several dancers recognized us from the day before. “Hey, Nick and Erica!” They even remembered our names! We really felt part of the group.

Oct. 22: Baltimore Playford Ball

Gay Square Dance and English Country Dance — what a contrast! The fact that we did these events back-to-back emphasized how different these communities are from one another. English Country Dance was first recorded by John Playford in the 17th century, thus the “Playford Ball.” Americans became interested in learning English Country Dance in the early 20th century, and the American branch of the English Folk Dance Society was founded in 1915. This organization eventually developed into the Country Dance and Song Society (CDSS), which sponsors many English and English-American dance and music events.

Dancers at the Baltimore Playford Ball, sponsored by the Baltimore Folk Music Society, seemed to have a general understanding about the history of their activity and folk organizations including CDSS. From talking with people at the potluck before the dance, I inferred that many of the participants played musical instruments as well. The dancers reviewed the dances in the program, step by step, during an afternoon session. In the evening, before each dance, a facilitator stated the name of the dance and gave a verbal walkthrough as the dancers stood in place and listened. Musicians Alexander Mitchell, Steve Hickman, Marty Taylor, and Ralph Gordon accompanied the dances at the ball.

The dance event had an air of sophistication and elegance, accentuated by the period costumes that many of the participants wore. It was difficult to create hype about my book at this event. Some people took the title of my book, “Folk Dancing,” to mean International Folk Dancing, so I think it wasn’t clear how the book was relevant to their interests. The book provides an overview of the history of English Country Dance and CDSS, so more people might have been interested in the book if they had known more about it ahead of time. After the dance, we stayed with Roger Broseus and his wife Betty, who were kind to offer us their guest bedroom.

Oct. 23: WASCA President’s Appreciation Ball

 Nick and I drove to downtown Alexandria, Virginia the morning of Oct. 23rd and stopped at the Torpedo Factory Art Center, an inspiring space where artists rent small rooms lining the walls of the former torpedo manufacturing facility and sell their works of art. We ate chicken teriyaki with rice for lunch and proceeded to the Washington Area Square Dancers Cooperative Association’s (WASCA) President’s Appreciation Ball at the Lincolnia Senior Center. Victoria Lonergan, President of WASCA, welcomed us at the door with open arms and a smile. The organizers had set up a table for my books, and Victoria made two enthusiastic announcements about the book during the event. I was extremely grateful for this, because I believe her endorsement encouraged several people to visit our table and purchase books.

Over 100 dancers in colorful square dance attire filled the room wall to wall, alternating between square dances for four-couple sets and round dances for sets of two people. Nick and I enjoyed the kaleidoscopic effect as the dancers moved through the calls and cues. Caller Hal Barnes visited us briefly and gave us unique insight about his next dance. He stated that he would call to a jig, in 3/4 time, and he told us to watch how the music influenced the dancers’ movement quality. Indeed, the movement appeared to be smoother, more graceful, as the dancers adapted to the bouncing quality of the rhythm. Jigs are common in Contra Dance, but this was the first time I recall observing a jig in Modern Western Square Dance.

Toward the end of the dance event, one of the organizers handed me a video camera so that he could dance. I was honored to have this fun responsibility, and I experimented with different viewing angles: on top of chairs, behind the caller, and weaving in between sets of dancers. I was delighted to see how well these videos turned out. Here’s the first one, Hal Barnes doing a patter call.  And here’s the second one, Hal Barnes doing a singing call to “Tonight The Heart Ache Is On Me.”

The only thing left to do was dance! I got into a set (formation) for the very last tip (two square dances, back to back). I knew most of the calls, but when I began to get lost, the dancers quickly and gently pulled me into the correct position. Dancing with them was a very enjoyable experience, and I think they were somewhat surprised that I was able to keep up with the calls. After the event, the group’s kindness continued as people came up to us to chat about dancing, and the organizers even offered us gift bags filled with Snickers and other candy. We did not know it at that time, but the chocolates would come in handy on the long drive down the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Dick Otis (Vice President), Erica Nielsen, and Victoria Lonergan (President)

Oct. 23 (evening): Contra Dance at Glen Echo Park

After the WASCA President’s Appreciation Ball, we ate seafood in downtown Alexandria by the waterfront and then drove back to Bethesda, Maryland for the Contra Dance at Glen Echo Park. Glen Echo Park began in 1891 as a National Chautauqua Assembly and later became an amusement park. Today, the National Park Service manages the property, and the park includes many dance activities in its programming. The Contra Dances take place on Friday and Sunday nights, either in the Spanish Ballroom or a refurbished Bumper Car Pavilion. Stan Fowler, a.k.a. the Dance Ranger, served the park for many years and is largely responsible for the preservation of these beautiful dancing spaces.

I had danced at Glen Echo three times during my fieldwork in 2009, and I thought it was a magical experience and wanted to share it with Nick. I recognized several faces from previous trips, and my friends Joyce and Steve who live in the D.C. area even brought a copy of Folk Dancing for me to sign. We also encountered Jamie Platt from Glen Echo Folkdancers, as well as Roger and Betty from the Playford Ball. I preferred dancing with people in my parents’ generation, because seemed to understand the pleasure of comfortable, relaxed dancing better than the college-age dancers.

During a traditional square dance (for four couples), included in the program for variety, one of the younger male dancers forcibly turned me under his arm once, then twice. I learned to let go of his hand early, anticipating when he would attempt a turn, because his gesture actually hurt my shoulder and arm. Clearly, he did not learn from my physical cues and facial expressions, because he continued his turn attempts whenever we were together in the dance line. The young lady who often partnered with him did these sharp turns, so I think he expected that I would do them as well. A different young male partner tried dipping me during a “lines forward and back,” but I knew that a dip would throw off the surrounding dancers and the timing, so I resisted. Nick and I would soon learn that dipping, grinding, and swing dance moves were beginning to permeate Contra Dance events in North Carolina, and that these new moves were very controversial because they compromised good timing.

Oct. 24: Skyline Drive

Our first host, Vita Hollander, recommended the Skyline Drive for our drive from Bethesda, MD to Amherst, CA. The Skyline Drive runs through the National Park Service’s Shenandoah National Park. The trees were bright oranges, greens, and reds. We stopped at a few scenic views and saw farm fields and tiny houses with smoking chimneys far below us. In a rosy field below a visitor’s center, five does grazed and allowed humans to take photos at nearly an arm’s length. We saw a lone buck farther down the road, proudly standing on a ridge looking over the roadway. The clouds began to drizzle, but as we continued to drive south, the skies opened up and revealed the largest, crispest rainbow I have ever seen. We arrived at Mark and Ella Magruder’s home in the evening, welcomed by a herd of deer crossing their rural driveway. We ate dinner with them, did laundry, and headed off to bed.

Oct. 25: Winston-Salem Contra Dance

Nick and I had lunch at the Market at Main in Lynchburg, VA (and we highly recommend the chicken salad sandwich and fried green tomatoes). Then, we headed to Winston-Salem, NC. The contra dance was at the Vintage Theatre, across from University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Carol Thompson welcomed us at the door and allowed us to set up a book signing station in the lobby. While setting up, a musician from the School of the Arts came over to get a book for the school’s dance program. I was hoping for an opportunity to give a guest lecture to the school’s dance students, but the timing did not work out because their morning was filled with technique classes.

Inside the Vintage Theatre, the lobby and dance room are separated by a wall with cut out windows, so that people in the lobby can see the dancers. This created some great photographic opportunities. We were impressed by the strong youth presence at this dance, something I had heard about during my fieldwork but had never encountered firsthand. Some people improvised with the choreography, adding swing dance moves and dips, but their sense of timing was keen enough that their modifications rarely interrupted the flow of the dance. The overall tone was playful. Nick took some video and captured a young man with a beret and chest tattoo kick his friend on the butt during “lines forward and back” without missing a beat. A woman in her 20s in a tie-dye dress danced flirtatiously with a man probably in his 60s. They seemed to be comfortable and to know each other well. When this man asked to be my partner, I accepted, but I hoped he would not expect the same bodily proximity and sultry movement style. I like to have fun and flirt in contra dance, but I don’t like when my partners try to get fresh with me. He was very respectful and we had an enjoyable dance. During the announcement period, we learned about a techno contra dance that would take place on that Saturday. We wish we could have attended, but we were already committed to the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, NC.

After the dance, we followed dancer Brad Chadwell home, who was kind to offer us a room in his home for the evening. In the morning, we went together to a hip café where independent artists showcased their work. The food was fabulous, and Nick bought me cool metallic blue earrings from an art vending machine.

Oct. 26-28: Contra Dancing in Asheville

We drove to Asheville, NC on Oct. 26th. We spent the afternoon downtown and ate the best Jamaican jerk chicken wings I have ever tasted. In the evening, we drove to dance organizer Owen Shaffer’s home. Owen understands the importance of contra dance as a means to bring people together for friendship and community. He is very committed to promoting and insuring the future of contra dancing in his area. We were delighted to be able to spend three evenings with him and his daughter, discussing many contra dance related topics including recruitment and retention. We also enjoyed listening to him play hammer dulcimer for us. At this point in our tour, I was also missing cooking in my kitchen. Owen didn’t seem to mind when I made maple-glazed salmon and chicken stir-fry for dinner.

The first contra dance in Asheville we attended was at Warren Wilson College on Thursday evening. The dance was in the Bryson Gym on the college campus. The dance seemed to attract a near-50/50 mixture of college-age people and people over 50. People in their 30s and 40s were the least-represented demographic. The dancing was hot – tank tops, sports bras, mini-skirts, Latin dance hip movements, couples intertwining legs and gyrating toward the floor and back up to standing in lieu of the traditional swing, dipping in lieu of “lines forward and back.” No one seemed shocked by the improvisation; clearly it was embedded into the culture.

A young man stood against the wall, scanning the room, and I asked him to dance. It was his second contra dance. A friend had brought him the previous time. He had prior dance experience and used a style that I’ve witnessed in other people who had trained in Scottish Country Dance. He seemed baffled by the swing, because he wanted to use a skip step and did not “give weight,” a term which refers to leaning slightly back into a partners arms while spinning with a walk or buzz step in order to create momentum. After the dance, I asked whether he would like me to show him how most people on the dance floor were doing the step. The young man agreed, I showed him the swing, and then we danced together again so that he could practice the movement. He caught on almost right away! Later, he told me that he danced with a young woman who was at her first contra dance, and he was able to help her with the swing, as well.

On Oct. 28th, we went to an Advanced Contra Dance in downtown Asheville at a Masonic Lodge. The building had beautiful architecture and the walls were adorned with drawings of the lodge’s leaders for over a century. This dance had a smaller turnout than usual, a lot of people remarked, probably because Moogfest was occurring simultaneously. Some of the people were dressed for Halloween. The dances were only slightly more challenging than a regular weekly or monthly contra dance, so long as one stays mentally acute. I have a feeling that the advanced dancers would not have been as forgiving to newcomers making mistakes at this dance.

At one point, my partner surprised me with a dip, which threw off my rhythm and I became spatially confused. My “neighbor” at that time glared at my partner with heavy tension. After the dance, my partner apologized to the man, and the man simply huffed, “Yeah,” in response. At that point, I understood firsthand why dipping was a controversial issue, and I felt guilty even though I was just going along with the flow. Another weird thing happened at this dance during a different set. When I reached the end of the line, I approached a man my grandfather’s age for a swing, and he got into my personal space and was trying to grind with me, timidly, like a teenager at a school dance who’s pretty sure that adults aren’t watching. I was taken aback and pulled away. I gave him the benefit of the doubt, thinking that because he was older, perhaps he just didn’t have good control of his movements and he accidentally got too close to me. Later that evening, Owen asked whether that person had tried to “get fresh” with me, and I realized it was a recurring issue with that person. Owen assured me that the board would address it, because contra dance is a group dance — this means you dance with everyone — and this is the kind of problem that could make people not want to return to the dances.

Nick and I both thought the dancing in Asheville was superb overall. Its improvisational nature enables people to take ownership of the movement; the trick is for people to stay in time with the main calls of the dance and to be where they need to be for walking patterns and transitions. Most people do this. The dancing also carries a sex appeal that attracts people of all ages, notably college-age people — and a lot of attractive people at that! We’re fairly certain our single friends in Phoenix would be all over contra dancing if the Phoenix dances had a crowd more like the North Carolina dances. When we bring our friends in their 20s and 30s to contra dances, they like it because it’s new and interesting; the problem is convincing them to go in the first place, and then trying to get them to go back again.

Oct. 29: John C. Campbell Folk School

The John C. Campbell Folk School, named after the folk song collector who traveled the Appalachian Mountains and collected songs in the early 20th century, plays an important role in folk dance history. I always wanted to see this place, but I was not able to do so during my fieldwork in 2009-2010. Fortunately, Bob Dalsemer was leading a special contra dance weekend for beginners on the weekend of Oct. 29th, and he gave me the opportunity to give my first official lecture about the history of folk dancing. Other workshops were happening the same weekend — painting, wood throwing, blacksmithing, etc. All the workshop participants met in the same building for lunch, and we arrived just in time to join them. We were so hungry when we arrived, and the food was amazing. I believe it was pulled pork or pulled beef with potatoes. Before lunch ended, Bob held up a copy of “Folk Dancing” and made an announcement about my lecture. Afterwards, several people we met while walking around the premises recognized me as “the visiting author” and asked about my project. They were also very happy to share their own artistic projects with us. I think the folk school fosters an atmosphere of creation, as well as respect an appreciation for people’s creative works.

Around 3 p.m., I gave my lecture on the history of folk dancing in the library area of the folk school. I thought Bob was going to make the lecture optional for his students and that we might have three or four people attend. To my surprise, he brought his entire class from the dance space into the library, so about 25 people came. I spoke for about 15 minutes, and then we did Q&A/discussion for another 10 minutes or so. A lot of discussion focused on the difference between Modern Western Square Dance and Contra Dance, and then recent concerns in the Contra Dance community (i.e. adding swing moves to the traditional dance choreography, the place of recorded music or techno music in contra dancing, etc). We ate dinner with the workshop participants, walked around the premises more, fed Goldfish crackers to a lost dog who followed us everywhere, and returned to the library about an hour before the evening contra dance.

The evening dance was open to anyone at the folk school and community in general. Several people relaxed on the couches, flipping through books and newspapers. I asked whether people wanted to watch videos taken from previous dance events on the book tour. People initially requested to look at the English Country Dance and Contra Dance videos, because they wanted to understand the stylistic differences between these dance forms. We watched videos for about 30 minutes and people shared information about their personal dance histories. Then, it was time for the dance, and what a dance it was! Some people came in costume for Halloween. There was a wide range of experience and abilities, but everyone was welcome. I even had the pleasure of dancing with Bob when he took a break from calling. During a break, the dancers paired off for the Salty Dog Rag. Bob said it was a tradition at their dances.

That night, Nick and I stayed at the Huntington Hall Bed & Breakfast. We highly recommend this place. The king-size bed was clean and it was like floating on a cloud. The shower was hot. Breakfast was made fresh when we woke up, and there was a special patio dining area. The innkeeper, Teresa, was very hospitable and made us feel at home.

Oct. 30-Nov. 2: South Carolina

We spent the next four days in South Carolina, no dance event scheduled. This was more of a time to relax and reflect. We visited the Air Force base, the very first place where Nick was stationed. He got to see a mural he painted in a warehouse about a decade ago. We ate lots of seafood, and I shelled oysters for the first time. We collected seashells on the beach, and we saw a dead jelly fish. I took “Folk Dancing” postcards to bookstores and left them on tables for advertisement. Our hosts, Joe and Rachael, whom we found through AirB&B bought a copy of the book. As it turned out, Joe was raised in Kentucky, did buck dancing, and listened to traditional American music.

Nov. 3: Sweet Briar College
Nick and I stayed with Mark and Ella Magruder, dance professors at Sweet Briar College, our last night of the East Coast book tour. They scheduled a guest lecture for me with the dance students at Sweet Briar several hours before our flight back to Phoenix. I had given Mark and Ella a copy of the book the week prior, when we stayed with them on our way from Bethesda to North Carolina. This gave them a week to look over the book. When we saw them again, they were pretty excited about the book. We talked about how “Folk Dancing” could be incorporated into college dance programs; both for teacher certification (for states that require a folk dancing unit), as well as a supplement to dance history classrooms. Indeed, in 2012, one of my goals is to reach out to more college dance educators, because I believe that “Folk Dancing” will give dance students a glimpse into a part of American dance history that dance programs rarely cover nowadays.

November 5, 2011. Book Tour. Leave a comment.