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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