I want to write a book.

December 5, 2011 at 11:37 am | Posted in Very Long Blogs | 2 Comments
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I want to write a book.  This is nothing new, actually.  One of the reasons I started this blog was to practice writing – not only the process of writing regularly, which I have been doing for decades in a journal, but to practice writing to a real (as opposed to imagined) “audience”.  And let me take this opportunity to extend my thanks to all of you faithful readers out there for serving as listeners!  Another way this blog has been helpful is in teaching me that I can write about almost anything.  As you know, I have often begun with what is immediately in front of my face, and then out comes an essay of sorts.  I am fairly certain that the general fellowship of English teachers in my junior high, high school, and college years could have told me that – in fact, some probably did try to communicate it to us in patience-lacquered exasperation – but, like Dorothy, it turns out I had to discover it myself.  (Chloe used to say “All BY self!” with all of the monumental, exuberant emphasis that only a two-year-old can muster, placed heartily on the middle syllable.)  Unlike lucky youthful Dorothy, I had to wait until the sixth decade of my life, but as we all know, it takes what it takes!

So now I come face to face with the inevitable and obvious quandary.  If I can write about anything, which you have to admit opens the gates stunningly, even alarmingly wiiiiiiiiiide open, how on earth do I go about the process of narrowing down the focus?  I am pretty sure that the book of collected essays about any random thing comes later in an author’s career, probably not first.  So, even though I have now trudged this little line of hopes, desires, requirements, and questions several times in the past weeks, I will walk it again below, for you, but also potentially for my own benefit.  If it goes as it has lately, I might end up even a few inches beyond the boundaries of my last attempt by doing so.  (Not to set myself by having lofty expectations.  I am only going with my own observations.  Just saying.)

One of the big questions that continues to come up whenever I run into any friend I have not seen in awhile, is whether I am still “doing music.”  Yesterday I was at an annual school event that always brings people out of the woodwork.  (Haha – funny phrase to use at a Waldorf school, where everything is organic and all the students from grades 5 and up take woodworking class.)  So Dan and I stopped to chat with this couple and that, all parents of students who have graduated from our school, catching up on how everyone – first the now-college students or graduates, and then parents (don’t we always talk about our kids first?) – is doing.  Inevitably I was asked the key question by almost everyone.  Being the somewhat literal interpreter that I am, my head spins every time I hear it.  “Are you still doing music?”

First of all, I will ask you, how could I NOT do music?  Even during the two times in my life when I have completely quit, never to play again, I would often sit down at the piano or pull out my guitar and play for my own pleasure.  Does that count as “doing” music?  There’s the time I stumbled into a Romanian fiddle class which led to a Scandinavian fiddle week which led to an entire new repertoire on my “retired” violin.  And then there’s the time I was just going to focus on raising my kids and nobody in my new neighborhood knew me or my previous vocation.  One day a woman came to my door and said, “I hear you teach piano lessons.  My twin daughters would like to study with you.”  No matter how I tried to argue that, no, actually I definitely do not teach piano lessons, eventually I found myself setting up a lesson schedule for her twins and then their neighbor, and then some more kids down the street, until I was teaching three or four afternoons each week, a steady stream of neighborhood children letting themselves in the door up our driveway, an instant gang of playmates for Chloe and Rachel, as they would come early or stay after their lessons to hang out.  And then there’s the time I took Chloe to the Aspen Music Festival to fill her ears and her heart, and I ended up sitting in a piano master class, stifling my own gut-wrenching sobs as I realized I had left this world decades ago and now needed to return to it.

Yes, I am still doing music.  I list my present inventory:  playing baroque violin in my chamber orchestra, teaching private lessons on violin, piano and recorder, directing two early music ensembles at school, taking private lessons myself on baroque and modern violin, playing music for services at my synagogue, singing for the healing services at a local hospital, and whatever pick-up performance or recording jobs I get along the way.  Is that “doing” music?

Okay, yes, I’m “doing” music.  But what some – not all, but some – people mean by their question is whether I am still performing as a folk musician.  And herein lies my true stuck and quandarous (I know it’s not in the dictionary, but it is truly perfect in this instance so I am using it) circumstance.  I left the folk circuit behind and do not intend to return to it.  I can honestly say that it was a right and healthy decision, and though I do not regret it, I have to admit that I now feel called to somehow share my music again.  I have felt this pull for two years or longer.

In previous decades I wrote songs about miscarriage, depression, insomnia, war, love, sexual abuse, loss, motherhood, the catch-22 of the women’s movement, and more.  I have performed traditional ballads on the subjects of traitors, love triangles, murder, loss to individuals during the Civil War, the time of Napoleon Bonaparte, World War I, and other historical times; on the challenges of love – between people of two classes, forbidden love, the desperation of unwedded mothers, unrequited love, and becoming widowed.  I have performed songs by other contemporary songwriters on poverty, hope, transgender love, love lost and won, ancestors…Obviously the list could go on forever.  There are so many stories to tell, so many new ones to add to my repertoire, so many messages to offer, so many questions to pose and explore with my audiences.

But where is my audience?  If I do not care to return to the folk world, for whom do I sing, and where?

To find an answer to this question, I have had little brainstorming sessions with friends and colleagues.  I have pondered the salon setting, which I find appealing for many reasons, but have, at least up until now, come up short in the area of energy.  So far I have not mustered the vitality necessary to start my own salon series, nor have I had the wherewithal, not to mention the patience, to go through all the steps to make it happen.  Writing that helps me see that the synchronicity of details falling into place has not availed itself to me yet.  For three years or so I worked in a trio with two musician friends, hoping that together we could rally the forces necessary to brave those elements, but we found that it provided too little income, too seldom, to justify the amount of work required at the time.  I deeply miss the beauty of the music that we made together, as well as the camaraderie, and hope that someday we will be called to perform together again.  And I have kept my antennae up for other possibilities to present themselves.  Perhaps said antennae missed some signals, but I don’t think the universe has been streaming anything approaching an abundance of solo folk-music but non-folk-venue opportunities in my direction.  So far.

So now a new thought is beginning to form.  I talked it through with Dan a few days ago, and it made some sense, so I’ll try it on for size here.  Thirty years ago I knew that I wanted to go out into the folk circuit, and understood that to do so I would need to make a recording – in the form of a record album, which in that era was no small venture.  I was already performing locally and was developing a nice following.  I had enough savvy to realize that the only way to extend it to a national level was to be heard on the radio.  So I bought the wonderful book, How to Make and Sell Your Own Recording, by Diane Sward Rapaport.  (Incidentally, back then it was …Your Own Record.)  I studied it in minute detail for several months, and then went into action, following her protocol.  In the fall of 1982, my first LP, To Meet You, was released on my own label, Propinquity Records.  My first California tour was in 1983, followed by a second and third on the west coast, and then I branched out to the Midwest, New England, and the Middle Atlantic states in 1985.  My second LP came out that same year, followed by a children’s tape, and a third record, and then finally I accepted a contract with an “established” label and simultaneously moved into the world of CDs.  My solo career was moderately successful on a national level until I stopped touring in 1995.  Perhaps someday I will write about reaching that difficult decision, but that is not part of today’s entry.

The more important piece is this:  if releasing my first album enabled me to jump-start and support a thirteen-year career on the road, it makes sense that releasing a written publication could help me do the same thing in the next arena (whatever that is).  The difference is that this time I feel the need to allow the journey to evolve, instead of starting, as I did thirty years ago, with a clear picture of what I want and trying to make it happen.  I know that may sound backwards to some of you.  So why would I say it?  The picture I had back then was too narrow and I ended up never really reaching it.  The biggest mistake I made in that era of my career was that I kept aiming for my original image.  I now know that in any venture you have to occasionally make the time to take stock, doing an inventory of what’s working and what isn’t, asking questions like How has my life changed since I began this journey?  What is the present status of the industry I chose?  What changes might I consider – in my vision, my goals, my definition(s) of success, my boundaries, etc.?  I now know that back then I remained too stubborn and short-sighted about what I wanted, until the only thing that could crack was myself.  Which is basically what happened.

So this time I am starting from what feels to me to be a very different place:  I feel called to share the gifts I have been given in my life, which include more than a guitar, lyrics, melodies, and chords.  I want my music and my life experiences, together with the higher-self wisdom that has always guided my writing process, to serve a purpose, to help people.  Thirty years ago I knew I wanted to establish enough of a reputation that I could more easily book gigs and expect a decent-sized audience, so I could make a living and put aside enough to pay for my next recording.  In addition, whether I could have admitted it at the time or not, I had another agenda.  One or two layers below the aforementioned goals, I wanted to prove my own self worth, scrambling to compensate for a great lack on the inside.  I thrived for many years on the so-called “waves of love” that wafted up from the audience at my feet, and the bigger the crowd, the more I craved it the next time.  By the time I left that career behind, I only knew that it wasn’t working, but I didn’t understand exactly what was wrong with it.  Lessons learned through a long mid-life reassessment taught me that self worth has nothing to do with ego.

In my younger years, I thought you had to become an expert before you could do your thing in front of people, and I considered myself an expert.  Again, I have no regrets.  I am grateful for all the years that I worked in the music industry, and for all that I learned about music and the biz, not to mention all the friendships – and the music!! – that came from that part of my life.  Certainly, I know that I am a good performer and that the songs I perform, some of my own and some from a broader repertoire, reach people.  I am not saying that it’s a bad thing to aim toward expertise and excellence.  What I am saying is that the term “expert” is never an absolute thing, being difficult to qualify and to measure, and it may not always be the most important attribute.  I want to give myself permission to be an unabashed explorer, fraught with uncertainty and far from an authority, on another front – the amorphous part that I have yet to bring into focus.  Can I stand before an audience of wanderers as a searcher myself?  I believe I can.  Sixteen years after leaving my folk career behind, I long to connect all the disjointed and compartmentalized pieces of my life.  It is so typical of our American culture.  In college you can study biology, chemistry, math, creative writing, music, etc.  But where can you study – and experience – the coming together of all these?  Music provides much-needed nourishment for our very cells, for our minds, for our hearts and souls.  It goes beyond the words that come from our mouths, beyond the notes on the page, beyond even the notes in the air.

When I wrote about my struggles with depression, I was afraid to say the word “depression” on stage because it might seem too heavy for someone who came to the show for a night of entertainment.  Now I know better.  There might be someone sitting out there who needs to know that writing that song was the beginning of my turnaround.  How?  Because to write the song I had to put a claim on depression.  I spoke from exactly where I stood, which ironically enabled me to begin to move.  In an earlier blog, I wrote about being so touched by the writings of Jon Katz, who minced no words in Izzie and Lenore, his account of his own plummet into the depths (see “A question about depression, and a song,” my post of May 2, 2011.)

When I wrote about my miscarriage, I vowed to wait until I had given birth to my first child before I would perform it.  Miscarriage is an experience that puts us face to face with our complete and utter lack of control, and to make up for that terrible and frightening realization, we often paint over and around it with superstition in an effort to regain some semblance of a foothold.  I was afraid of another miscarriage, of my inadequacy as a woman and as a mother.  Out of that fear, I refused to buy anything to prepare for Chloe’s arrival until a month before she was born, just in case I might jinx it.  I finally performed the song when she was almost eight months old, in a concert with Rosalie Sorrels and Claudia Schmidt.  And once I began to bring it to audiences, women began to come up after the show to share their own miscarriage stories with me.  I was so moved by their accounts, and equally moved by their desire to tell someone.  But once I left my career behind, I had two additional thoughts about this.

One thing that came to me was that now there were some women out there who were not sharing their stories, since I was no longer out there performing the song.  The other was even more sobering.  The women that came up to the stage to talk with me were only talking with me, even though they had all sat in the audience together.  I began to imagine what could happen if the song served as only a jumping off place – what if I could have sung the song and then we could have had an evening of sharing our stories?  We could have all served as witnesses for each other.  We could have cried together and laughed together – such a greater good!  We could have had a one-night fellowship of women who suffered a loss and then moved forward in our lives, experiencing the richness of the joys and sorrows that followed.

Okay, so earlier I told you that I would want to enter this new chapter of my journey without a specific picture in mind.  Clearly, I lied!  I do have some specific pictures.  And I openly admit that I have no idea how to make them come into being!  There you go – two true confessions for today’s writing.  Perhaps I am being idealistic, but I do believe there is a way that I can bring my music to people in a way that brings them together, in that evening, in that very room.  That is my hope.  And since I cannot reach everyone in person, I am hoping that writing a book can reach out into other circles and communities, and perhaps I can later go out to them too.  I would like to not only write the book but also record the songs and have the recording and the book come as a package.  And the part I cannot yet envision?  I am hoping that it will simply come to me as the next step, evolving naturally from the actions I take up to that point.

This feels to me like a lot of hope.  The work feels daunting, but doable.  I love writing.  I love singing.  I love performing for people, sharing the stories that go with the songs.  Above all, I love feeling that connection that happens between me and my audience, through and beyond the music, and I want to find a way to extend that sense of connectedness, to weave it like a thread from each member of the audience to the others.  People crave it, but they also fear it.  I believe it to be a healing force, and that the world needs that kind of healing.

There was a speech given in September of 2004 by Karl Paulnack, pianist and music division director at Boston Conservatory, the welcome address given to the incoming freshman class and their parents.  It has been posted in countless blogs ever since, published in several languages, and I would strongly encourage you to read it.  Here are two links:

http://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/centers/boisi/pdf/s091/Welcome_address_to_freshman_at_Boston_Conservatory.pdf

http://www.bostonconservatory.edu/music/karl-paulnack-welcome-address

Music is not just a form of entertainment.  As Professor Paulnack suggested to his audience of eager and terrified pioneers and their parents who were no doubt (based on my own experience) swirling with mixed emotions, “If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness…If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do.”  I want to join that fellowship and serve that higher good.  I hope with all my heart that I find a way to do it.

And the subject for the book?  The starting place?  The direction?  I know I just need to start writing some each day to see what comes.  I know I will be guided, as I always have been, through the process.  I’ll let you know how it’s going.  Thank you again for “listening.”

On cool calendar dates, reunions, and synchronicity

October 11, 2010 at 9:27 am | Posted in Very Long Blogs | 1 Comment
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I have always loved dates like today’s:  10/10/10.  My first memory of such a date was June 6, 1966, only days before I graduated from the 6th grade, which made the day feel personally special.  And in that morning’s paper was an article about twin girls who were celebrating their sixth birthday that day.  I think they lived on 6th Street in their town, with a zip or area code with numerous sixes in it.  I was so excited by that.

I’m not the only one who finds things like that attractive and intriguing.  Tonight Dan and Rachel and I will be attending a party.  The host couple has commemorated the appropriate date for the past few years:  5/5/05, 6/6/06, etc.  (As I am writing this, I just want to say that in five minutes it will be 10:10 on 10/10/10.  Yes, my heartbeat accelerated just a wee bit as I typed that.)  And remember when we could actually watch the numbers turning on our car speedometers turn over from 99.999 to 100,000? (Assuming your car made it that far.  And let me just note here that one of our two cars still does have that old-fashioned mechanism.)  And who of you knows what I mean by our golden birthday?  That’s when you turn the age that is the same number as your birthday date.  For me it was turning 22.  Poor Rachel had to celebrate it on her 5th birthday, before she was old enough to understand it.  At least the rest of us enjoyed it!

I don’t know if it was the stars and planets lining up because of this date approaching, or just coincidence (though I have to say I hardly believe in coincidence anymore), but I have intersected with three different threads from my past in the last two days.  I feel a little stirred up by having so many memories and connections sparked by all three.

One was an email from someone I have not seen since Chloe was very young, I think even before Rachel was born.  She was one in a circle of friends.  Though the two of us were never super-close, as a group we were bonded.  For me, one of the most significant ways in which she affected my path was after I had written a particular song, back in my active folk performing days.  It was such a personal song that I could not imagine anyone understanding it, let alone identifying with it, which made me very reluctant to sing it in concert.

I’ll back up a little here to try to describe what it used to feel like for me to perform a new original song for the first time.  Somewhere pretty early in my solo career I was practiced enough that I was never very nervous in concert.  I really enjoyed the interaction I had with my audiences, and felt like I could ride that energy and have a very relaxed, fun, and also meaningful exchange with them from the stage.  But performing a brand new song was nerve-wracking by nature.  There was always the strong possibility of forgetting words or messing up a guitar part, as it just wasn’t completely a part of me yet.  If it was a song I had recently written then there was even more heaped on top of that normal anxiety.  One aspect was that it felt like I was exposing something about myself.  (Usually this was justified, because I was!)  This always made me feel like I was taking off all my clothes and performing naked, it was such a fragile thing to share from my heart this way.  Another piece was that I was always, at that point in the life cycle of a song, totally in love with this newest piece of work, and desperately wanted everyone to share in that love.  It was not unlike whipping up a self-invented delicacy and wanting everyone to feel deep rapture while eating it.  And finally, there was the precedence set by my previous songs, and the fear that perhaps this one would fail to live up to a higher expectation.  Rather lofty, and clearly daunting on all counts, though also clearly self-created and perpetuated.

So back to my friend and my newest song.  This particular work had been forcefully ejected from me by a powerful muse, and though I kept running away from it mid-stream (literally leaving the room right in the middle of composing it, hoping to escape the painful birthing process of those verses), I was consistently marched back to the drawing table by something far stronger than my own urges, until it was finally completed.  I had never experienced such a wrenching creation process.  I truly felt I had written a song against my will.  It took over a month before I had the courage to play it for one other person.  I was attending a music conference and found a willing audience in a fellow songwriter.  She sat on my hotel bed as I sang it.  When I finished and looked up at her, she asked me if I would sing it again, which I did.  I think she had me sing it a third time before we talked about it.  Agony.  But she liked it.  Very much.

So finally a month later I decided to debut it at a small concert in an intimate setting.  My friend, along with a few others from our circle, sat in the audience.  It was her face that gave me the courage to start, execute, and finish it.  And again the response was good.  So it became part of my repertoire and eventually the title song of the next album, though I never would have foreseen that!  And two days ago, after years of silence between us, she emailed that she had been thinking of me and listening to my music and felt like reaching out to me.  It was like a little electrical jolt to see her name there on my screen after all that time.  What do you say to a friend, fifteen years later?  So I answered her, with a brief update, and will see what is to follow.

Earlier that same day, I had had a cup of tea with an old high school friend.  Similarly, we had never been close when we were in school together, but we had gotten to know each other and had a few classes together.  Though on a different schedule, as I graduated a year ahead of my class and then took time off to record and travel with my band, we graduated from our hometown university at the same time.

Three months ago I was part of a concert that deliberately featured music from three differing styles of music, held in a small art gallery.  I was wearing my singer-songwriter cap for the first time in a long while.  Since this performance was being given in a new location for this series, I sent out an email announcement to try to generate a little more interest, as ticket sales were slow.  As a result I knew several people in the small audience.  Greeting people before the show, I was very surprised and pleased to find myself saying hello to this high school friend.  After living on the east coast for a few decades, she and her husband had recently moved back here, where most of her family had remained.  We agreed to get together.

Circumstances being as they are, it took until late last week for that to work out.  We had such a lovely quiet time together, exploring where our paths had led us through all these years, and sharing what we are navigating in the present.  I am sure we will see more of each other.  And she may even become my neighbor, as she and her husband are house-hunting in my neck of the woods.  I came home with a little excited flutter.  All these years that I have been a mother raising two kids, I have shared much with many friends, felt nurtured in several communities, and Dan and I have grown many new friendships.  Somehow this single hour over a cup of red berry tea felt new, like the beginning of a fresh chapter that put me in the center instead of my children or my relationship with them.  I pictured inviting this friend and her husband over for dinner, Dan cooking up a gourmet meal, and the four of us enjoying each other’s company as grown-up friends.  It’s not that this hasn’t happened at all in the past 18 years (though I have to admit it hasn’t happened with great frequency!)  It’s just that the image conjured itself up and it excited me with its sense of promise.  That is definitely new.

The third brush with my past came yesterday afternoon in the form of a get-together to remember a recently passed co-worker and friend.  I spent my college years working in a local restaurant.  My fellow waiters, bartenders and managers were some of the most intelligent, creative and fun people I have ever known, and many after-hours were spent in each others’ company during those years.  The restaurant business often attracts people who are on their way to something, and this group was no exception.  In our midst were future doctors, lawyers, artists, scientists, mountain climbers, dancers, actors, writers, poets, teachers, and many more.  Our beloved manager died last month of cancer.  His mother and his brothers celebrated his life – and what would have been his 64th birthday – at his mother’s house, serving the same food we dished up when we all worked together.

It is always such a bittersweet thing, these gatherings.  I cannot help but find myself thinking, “Why couldn’t we have had this party while he was still here?”  And yet I do not want to diminish the gift of having had that time yesterday with these people who all cared deeply for this sweet man we all called a friend.  It was a treat to find out what everyone has been doing all these years, to see how well everyone is aging, who remembers what, and who is still connected to whom.  There were, of course many people missing from our circle, some due to other commitments and some because we have lost touch.

Okay.  So now it’s time for true confessions.  I came home with my mind swirling.  Even today I am calming down from the dizzying effects of over-stimulation.  As fondly as I remember those years, they were also some of the most despondent in my life, fraught with uncertainty about myself in the world, desperately lonely even when I was surrounded by people, trying hard to be someone I wasn’t, and being hit over the head repeatedly with the lesson that I could only be myself, yet refusing to learn it until decades later.  All of the unhelpful and hopeless tapes that were helplessly recorded in my subconscious back then have been trying to pull themselves back into the forefront (wherever the forefront of my sub-conscious could be) since last night, and my very grey matter is tired, all the way to the tips of my just-as-grey hairs.

Sitting here writing this, I also find myself pulling something else together.  A few days ago, after a hard day of teaching beginning violinists, I asked the universe to offer the guidance of a few clearer signposts.  (Interesting.  I had to correct my mistyped word “soundposts.”)  Everyone at the party, my out-of-the-blue email, and my tea date, everyone asked me if I’m still doing music.  Yes.  But what music did they mean?  The last each of these people knew me, I was a folksinger, not a violinist in a baroque orchestra, taking and teaching private lessons.

Just this week I picked up the guitar, for the first time in quite awhile, and a new thought began to come forth.  There is no extra energy or time in my life these days to set up a solo folk concert and do all that is necessary to publicize it.  Could I put a show together and show up and do it?  Absolutely, with pleasure.  But performing is not just giving a concert to an audience.  In fact, that part, which is the most rewarding and fun, is in many ways the easiest part.  So now it suddenly came to me:  what if I were to pick one song and work on it, at my own pace, up to performance/recording level?  And then I could employ our little digital camcorder and post it on Facebook or YouTube, or both, and let my friends know about it, just to be able to connect to people with my music in some way.  It’s not that I have no desire to play the very music around which my entire life revolved for all those years, now in my present tense.  It’s that while I was resting from it, and raising my children, the world – and in particular the folk industry – continued to evolve, and I cannot step back into it without a major commitment on a lot of levels.  It would be hard to do it in a micro or fractional way.  This is the first inspiration I have had to move back out into the public as a soloist, just a little bit.

Just last week I read an article about a singer who goes into corporate settings and rallies these business people in meetings to sing together!  Not surprisingly, it has helped co-workers deal with conflicts, stuck energy, and many other challenges in the workplace.  Just before I left the stage and the touring circuit, this was an idea I had had, but I didn’t have the wherewithal to pull it together and market it.  Reading about this woman rekindled that question – could I work with local companies?  I would love to provide some inspiration to grown-ups who do not have enough music in their lives.

So here I sit, my mind reeling with questions.  For my own sake (and to contribute to your possible boredom or at least overwhelm) I will try to articulate them.  The big one:  what am I being called to do? (This might be an appropriate place to mention that last week I went to the library and checked out a book about finding and following your calling.  What attracted me to this book six days ago?)  A smaller and more immediate one:  can I quiet the noise in my head and find some stillness?  It is out of that stillness that I am usually able to identify something to do just right now, in the short run.

So with that I will close for today.  First, I will do the mundane and necessary thing that string players must do often, which is to clip my nails so I can practice.  And then I will practice.  And after lunch I will lie down and breathe, and do my best to let everything fall away for a short time.  I have a lecture and a concert to attend – as an audience member and friend of the performer – and then a 10/10/10 party to attend.  With dear friends I have known for decades and care very much about.  Hmmm.  Recurring theme a la mode.

Dance: a family history

October 3, 2010 at 9:52 am | Posted in Long Blogs | 2 Comments
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I have not sat in this room for years.  Rachel is in her Irish stepdancing class and has to leave early today, so rather than just dropping her off I am sitting in the waiting area for an hour until we have to go.  It brings back such memories.  Chloe started taking classes here ten years ago, and for the next several years I spent every Tuesday afternoon from around 4:30 to 6:00 in this room.  Eventually Chloe and Rachel became such advanced dancers that they were in class for three hours at a time so I could go home during class.  In recent years I began using that time to teach lessons.  And for the last two years Chloe drove the two of them there and back.  So I have not had occasion to sit on this couch (yes, it actually is the same couch) until today’s exception to the norm.

Dancing goes way back in my family.  As a teenager, my mother was a contra dancer in New York City in the 1940s.  As a matter of fact, she can be seen in a segment of the movie “To Hear Your Banjo Play” with Pete Seeger, filmed in 1947.  (See the YouTube video posted below.  The dancers come on around 12:30, and my mother can be seen close up at 14:16-17 on the right side of the frame.)  A few years later, as a classroom teacher my mother taught her students “play party games” – songs with dances to go with them – and years later, once I had joined the family fold and we had moved out west, my mother occasionally taught those dance-songs to my girl scout troop and at birthday parties.  And, once we settled in our new home, my parents signed up for a square dance class (contra dance was hard to find in our community at that time), and met many people who became lifelong family friends.

In my teens I spent two summers in Oaxaca, Mexico.  My grandparents on my father’s side had run a summer camp called High Peak in the Catskill Mountains of New York.  When my grandfather’s health was beginning to decline, around the time I was coming into the world, they decided to retire to a warmer clime and chose Oaxaca because it reminded my grandfather of his birthplace in Salonica, Turkey (now Thessaloniki, Greece.)  Finding almost immediately that they missed running a summer program, they started a smaller version, a kind of culture camp, the year I was born, with a group of fifteen girls in their early teens.  There they lived for eight weeks at my grandparents’ place, which held several small buildings inside their gates, amid gardens and courtyards.  It was a success and they continued every summer.  My grandfather died just before my fifth birthday, and then my great-aunt (my grandfather’s sister) joined my grandmother as she continued to steward a small group of American teenage girls.  I am so blessed to have shared those two summers with my grandmother, my great-aunt and fifteen other girls from all over the United States.

One of the very first days I was there, someone put on some music one afternoon and everyone began to dance.  It was an Israeli dance, Mayim.  I had never heard it before, but I was charmed by both the dancing and the fact that everyone seemed to know how it went!  (It being decades before I “came out” as a Jew, it had not yet dawned on me that almost all of the girls who attended my grandmother’s camp were Jewish.)  I followed along until I learned it.  It was fun!  And not so unfamiliar, having learned my mother’s play party games.  Over the next several weeks, we learned several regional Oaxacan dances and attended a centuries old annual dance festival where we watched those dances, and many more, performed by native dancers in their traditional costumes.  We rounded out our repertoire with some more Israeli dances, and a couple of evening parties where we danced to rock and roll hits.

It was also in Oaxaca that I first learned to play the guitar.  My grandmother bought me a classical guitar in Mexico City, made in a local factory.  It cost $24 and I fell in love with it almost instantly.  Several of my campmates in Oaxaca already played, and they taught me what they knew.  I figured out more songs on my own and in turn taught those to my friends.  Throughout the summer we performed together at schools in the city of Oaxaca and in neighboring villages, both Oaxacan and American songs.  That $24 guitar planted a seed for a very tall and strong tree, as it eventually led to my decades-long career in folk music, beginning with my homeboys band in the early 1970s.

One pivotal Sunday night in July, 1972, my band was playing, as usual, at our regular home gig.  We had built over the year prior a huge local following, and I often saw familiar faces in the crowd.  During a break that night I recognized an old high school friend and went to greet him.  He had never been able to come to our show, he told me, because he usually spent Sunday evenings doing Israeli folk dancing.  And on Friday nights (when we had a regular gig in another town) he always went to international folk dancing.  But two nights earlier, at a party after folk dancing, he had accidentally walked into a plate glass door and sliced open his chin.  Because of the stitches he had to take a few days off from dancing, so he came to see me sing.  As annoying as I had found this friend during our high school years together, he now seemed, mysteriously, infinitely more interesting.  Coincidentally, so did the idea of folk dancing.  And it turned out there were Monday night sessions in town.

You might not be too surprised to hear that I went the very next week.  A little bit into the evening my old friend Mayim was played on the record player, and that pretty much clinched my desire to become a regular at the Monday night dance.  My high school friend and I did do the dance of romance for awhile, and then he went off to college.  I stayed in town and became an avid (Dan and I now use the word “rabid”) folk dancer.  I spent the next twelve years participating in many different recreational and performance groups, even including a five-month gig as a musician for a folk dance ensemble performing at the Epcot Center at Disneyworld.

In the meantime, a glimpse into Dan’s childhood.  He was lucky enough to take a social dance class when he was in 6th and 7th grade, and it stuck.  As a young adult he developed a love for Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly movies, bought himself a set of tails at a thrift store, and dreamed of sweeping some girl off her feet, just like Fred did with Ginger Rogers and Gene did with Leslie Caron.  After grad school, when he moved east (close to my neck of the woods) for his first grown-up job, an acquaintance mentioned a local folk dancing group to him.  After another invitation or two, he tried it out.  Within a year he was attending workshops, teaching dances to recreational groups, and even co-directing a new performance ensemble.  His name began to be mentioned among my friends, a few towns south.  It took about two more years before we met at the Friday night international folk dancing that I now attended regularly, since my band had long since split up.

We still don’t agree on which dance we first did together.  It was either a waltz or a Swedish hambo.  But we do remember our first conversation, which went as follows:

Me:  “I heard you moved away.”

Dan:  “I did.  But I came back.”

Me:  “Oh.”

Romantic, huh?

Okay, it took a few months, but we did eventually get together (obviously).  He took me to many Fred Astaire movies, where he half-thrilled, half-(well more than half) embarrassed me by waltzing me up the aisle after the movie on more than one occasion.  I bought him a collapsible antique top hat for his birthday, the kind that opens by itself with a snap of the wrist.  We developed lifelong (so far!) friendships with many fellow dance fiends, including some of the people my parents met at their square dance class in the 1960s.  Small world, good people.

So it isn’t hard to make the leap to when Chloe was three and we took her to a festival where she first beheld an Irish stepdance performance.  She turned to Dan and proclaimed, “I want to do that!!”  Being on the shy side, she was seven before she had the courage to sign up for a class (which meant attending without a mom or dad to hold her hand).  She took to it easily.  After her first year we moved her to a different dance school led by a teacher who has since become a life mentor for her.  Which is what first brought us into this very room.  Sometime in the following months Rachel began to imitate Chloe’s practiced steps and we enrolled her in class at age five.  The two of them have performed and competed for all these years.

Until now.  The way the Irish stepdance world works, you join a school and learn their own choreographed steps.  If you move away, to college, for example, you would have to leave your own school to join another, and begin the arduous process of learning all new steps, and then you would “belong” to that school instead.  Chloe saw it coming, even two or three years ago.  During her senior year she enjoyed participating in class and at a few competitions, but felt violin moving into first place, especially in terms of focus and time commitment.  Her last hurrah was dancing the lead part in a dance drama, which competed at the western regional and the national competition, where they placed, respectively, first and third, much to everyone’s delight.  Over the summer she helped teach classes and worked part-time in the office at her dance school, cherishing the time she got to spend with her beloved teacher.  She is friends on Facebook with her dance chums, wants to hear the results of each competition, and hopes to perform in some St. Patrick’s Day shows when she comes home for spring break in March.  But that chapter in her life is coming to a close, at least in the foreseeable future.

And for Rachel?  I know things have to feel different for her with Chloe gone.  This Saturday morning she is scheduled to go to her first local competition after taking a year off from solo events.  She enjoys performing more than competing but feels some peer pressure to remain in the swing of things.  It evolved over time for Chloe, and I’m sure it will unfold for Rachel as she moves forward.  I feel confident that they both will stay connected with their dance friends just as their parents and grandparents have before them.  The world of folk dance is full of very good people.  And who knows?  Maybe Dan and I will start contra dancing some day.

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