Tag Archive | folk dance

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.

Obon

Two weekends ago was the Sawtelle/West LA Obon Festival, hosted by the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple. I went last year for the first time and returned this year because I’d liked it so much. Obon is a Japanese Buddhist festival for remembering the dead and celebrating with joy and gratitude because of the life they have given us. At the West LA Buddhist Temple, there are countless food stalls and carnival games. The temple itself is also open, and there are displays with many photos documenting the history of the temple in the neighborhood. I don’t know very much about the history of Japanese-American Buddhism, but last year I was struck by how much the structure and activities of temple life resembled those of American churches. (Although I’m pretty sure there was a youth accordion band, and I’m not sure how many churches have those!) I interpreted these similarities as an assimilation strategy, but I should emphasize I know very little about this.

This year, my friends and I arrived in time to snag good seats (on the asphalt) for the taiko performance. I always like watching the drummers’ movements and feeling the drumbeats in my eardrums and my chest. After the taiko, we bought bowls of udon with sliced pork and fish cake and plunked ourselves down on the end of a driveway to wait for the dancing to start. The dancing is my favorite part of the festival. The street is blocked off, and the dancers move in one big circuit following chalk lines drawn on the asphalt. In the middle of the block is a platform/tower called a yagura, where a taiko drummer plays along with the recorded songs.

The minister of the temple delivered a meditation from the yagura, and then the procession of dancers entered in from one end of the street as the first dance began. During each dance, they’re moving forward, but it takes longer than one dance to complete the circuit of the block. The dancers wear beautiful yukata (summer kimono), often with floral patterns, or happi coats representing the different area temples, or just their regular clothes. There are dancers of all ages, from toddlers to the elderly, of all genders, of all races, and it doesn’t matter how well you can do the dances. The announcer encourages anyone to join in. The reason I love the dancing at Obon is because it’s so joyful, everyone is welcome, and it looks like a diverse community and neighborhood coming together to share something on a pretty summer evening. It’s rooted in a specific religious and cultural tradition, but it embraces everyone who comes.

Next year, I’m plotting to rope my friends into going to the dance practices in the weeks leading up to the festival so we can dance too.

The Mockingjay Part 2 Contra Dance

Last Saturday at my local contra dance, the caller told us there was a real contra dance in Mockingjay Part 2, the last Hunger Games movie, which came out recently. The dance was choreographed by Seth Tepfer of Atlanta and is called Mockingjay Petronella (petronella being a dance figure). We danced it, though most times through we did a modified version which includes a partner swing, since the original dance doesn’t. I can’t remember any dancing in Mockingjay the book, but it’s been a long time since I read it. Now I almost want to see the last movie just for the contra dancing!

Here’s a video from Saturday’s dance. See if you can spot me.

Dancing with Zedashe

I talk a lot about my Georgian chorus at UCLA, but the first time I ever sang Georgian music was in 2013, when Zedashe, a vocal and dance ensemble from Georgia, came to Minneapolis. Their many events on their tour stop were organized by a couple I knew through folk dancing and shape note singing in the Twin Cities. I attended the choral workshop. On that occasion, we learned the song Shavlego and the chant Saidumlo Utskho Da Didebuli Vikhilet. I still have the sheet music for both tucked into my Sacred Harp.

Anyway, Zedashe is back in the U.S. for the release of their latest album, Our Earth and Water, and they kicked off their tour with a slew of events in Minneapolis. On Saturday morning, I went to the choral workshop in the gymnasium of the parish house of St. Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral. This time, I was armed with a year and a half of Georgian singing experience.

The first song we learned was Amiranis Perkhuli, or Amiran’s Round Dance. Amiran was a great hunter, apparently. Unlike most Georgian folk songs, which are in three-part harmony, Amiranis Perkhuli only has two parts, which shows how ancient it is. It also has two choirs, which trade off singing the top part over the bass. One choir sings the same (I think nonsense) words over and over while the other choir sings the verses telling of Amiran’s exploits. And on top of that it has a circle dance which you do as you sing. We learned the steps and everything. You can hear the whole song and see some of the dance in this (at times weirdly staged) video:

After that, we learned the chant Ghirs Ars, which talks about Mary and cherubim and seraphim.

That same evening, I went to one of Zedashe’s three concerts. I’d never seen them perform before, just participated in their workshops, and it was impressive. There was more dancing of a very different kind, flashier, often flirtatious, with almost no touching. The nine members of the ensemble wore traditional clothing (minus the bandoliers of bullets for the men, which was kind of reassuring). And there were instruments! Drum and accordion, but also panduri, a Georgian three-stringed lute, and chiboni, a Georgian bagpipe with a huge bag that’s actually as big as a headless, legless goat.

Zedashe performed a version of Gaul Gaukhe, a war song I’ve sung with Datvebis Gundi, and a song called Parine. The funny thing about Parine is that I could hear it was essentially the same song as one Datvebis Gundi learned, except we called it Parina. And while we were told Parina was about some festival when one gives alms to the poor, Zedashe’s English title for Parine was A Handsome Boy’s Name! Somewhere, something got lost in translation…