Star of the North: Minnesota English Country Dance Weekend

Star of the North is an English country dance weekend held in Minnesota. (What is English country dancing? It’s the kind of social dancing you see in Jane Austen films. That said, the tradition now includes tunes and dances written by contemporary composers and choreographers, and dancing can vary in style and energy, so if you think the dancing in the movies looks slow and staid, well, it’s not necessarily like that.) I may have attended a Star of the North dance or ball back when I was in the Lutheran Volunteer Corps; I can’t quite remember. But certainly I hadn’t gone in recent years. Over the summer, I accidentally discovered that the caller for Star of the North this fall was going to be Joanna Reiner, my very first dance teacher at Swarthmore. Essentially, Joanna taught me to do English country dancing (and Scottish country dancing, but that’s different!). I got very excited, and I think I noted that Star of the North fell on one of the weekends of my fall break so I could actually go if I wanted. Then I promptly forgot about it for months.

When fall break rolled around, it occurred to me to check out who the callers and bands were for the Saturday contra dances at Tapestry Folkdance Center when I’d be in town, and that was when Star of the North burst back onto my radar. It wasn’t too late to register! So I did, just for the Friday evening dance and the Saturday evening ball (no workshops for me). The musicians were Karen Axelrod on piano and Daron Douglas on violin, both eminent in the relevant circles; together they form the duo Foxfire, of which I was already a fan.

Both dances were lovely. All the individual dances were taught rather than just talked through. This was mildly surprising to me, especially at the ball, but it was nice since I hardly ever go English dancing these days and don’t know any dances by heart. Of course, the dances are also called, so with an experienced crowd there are rarely any problems or “very local variations,” as Joanna calls them. It was wonderful to experience Joanna’s teaching and calling again. One of the local dancers told me that he and his wife (both of whom I know through shape note singing, contra, Georgian singing, etc.) think that, in the English country dancing world, Joanna is the best there is. She chose some excellent dances with tunes I like very much (Easter Thursday, Saint Margaret’s Hill, Candles in the Dark), and the musicians were great.

The dance weekend participants were mostly locals, but others had traveled to be there, including one couple I was expecting to see. They’re from Ames, IA, and I met them the first and only time I went to dance camp at Pinewoods, the summer after I graduated from Swarthmore. They’re also Scottish dancers (and the camp we all attended was Harmony of Dance and Song). I didn’t really get a chance to talk to them or explain this at Star of the North, but when the husband and I were partners, I said something to the effect that I thought we’d met once a long time ago, and he was like, Probably! And I said I lived in Iowa too now. There was another, younger, dancer from Iowa who asked me to dance at the ball and said he’d heard from the wife of that couple that I lived in Iowa. He asked where, and I said Grinnell. He asked if there was much dancing there; I said no. At the end of the ball on Saturday, I got to chat with Joanna a bit, and then the young man from Iowa came over, and they both told me about an English dance weekend in Fairfield, IA (where apparently they’ve had shape note singing too?) that was in just a few weeks, right over my birthday. Bare Necessities, the doyen of English country dance bands, was playing (and in fact always plays the Fairfield dance weekend). Joanna and the Iowan said I should go, so when I got back to Iowa I looked it up, but it was, unsurprisingly, sold out. (The Twin Cities couple who think Joanna is the best did go this year, and apparently they’ve already reserved their spots for next year! I think this is a popular weekend.)¬†

Joanna always had the band play a bit of the tune before teaching each new dance, and at the Saturday ball, when it was time for the last dance, she told us we might recognize the music. Foxfire started to play, and the tune meant nothing to me, but a few other dancers made noises of realization. I still don’t know why Joanna thought we might know this tune in particular. I thought maybe they’d done the dance at the workshop, but it seems not, so maybe it’s just popular? In any case, the dance was Sapphire Sea, and it was a very fine dance–dolphin heys! I also loved the tune, so when I got back to Grinnell, I looked it up: it’s Tom Kruskal’s, by Emily Troll and Amelia Mason. Now I’m…kind of obsessed? I’ve played it on violin and cello already. I looked for recordings of Sapphire Sea online to listen to the music, and I found a good one from a ball that took place not far from Boston. At first, I just listened to the band, but at some point I looked at the video and was like, hey, I know those dancers! That’s par for the course when you have niche hobbies.

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