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NGI Recipient: Alex Deis-Lauby

Session Attended: Country Dance and Song Society - English Dance Week (2019)

Two weeks immersed in music, dance, nature and friends is idyllic: waking up to the sounds of all camp chorale wafting through the trees; encouraging and helping dancers of all ages learn or re-learn to dance; learning to sing by ear; exploring ritual dances with both new and veteran dancers; and lounging in the lake with dozens of noodles and a 3-year-old. What a perfect way to spend two weeks.

I was thrilled to be on staff calling contras and teaching intro to American and English dance at CDSS’s Harmony of Song and Dance at Pinewoods Dance Camp.  Working with our class of new and returning dancers was the most moving experience I’ve had as a teacher.  We were a small group of mixed experience in years, dance experience, and physical abilities.  We worked through individual dances addressing transitions, recovery, and choreographic alternatives. We made all the mistakes and had all the laughter to show for them! One day, we spent 40 minutes on Barbarini’s Tambourine and it was magnificent! Our four changes were with the music and we acknowledged each person we passed, our opening casting tracks were spacious and serpentine, and our first corners were prepared to “end close” with their offering hand to their neighbor. It might have been the most beautiful and precisely danced rendition I’ve ever seen, and I think we happened upon it because we were never striving for perfection. We had been striving for teamwork, learning together and encouragement. Near the end of the week, we went on two short “field trips” to the larger English-for-all and contra-for-all classes where we were enthusiastically absorbed by the other dancers.  Seeing our newest dancers confidently join in and experience success in our evening dances was rewarding for all.

The overall atmosphere at Harmony was one of encouragement, support, and experimentation.  That is inherent to the structure of having both song and dance.  Some campers are both singers and dancers, but many more come to camp being stronger in one area than the other. (I also found this to be the case last year at Boston’s English, Scottish, Contra week.) Because of that, camp is filled with people (even staff members) who are all learning. Seeing both campers and staff members learn new talents, try new things and make mistakes sets a motivational tone for the camp. We had wild applause for the camper who learned her first chord on the ukulele; Bruce Rosen, one of our wonderful staff pianists, learned diminished chords on the uke; Matt Norman a veteran Dartmoor step dancer learned some Appalachian clogging from Aaron Marcus; Jonathan Werk, on staff at English week, noodled around with the accordion for the first time at late night jams. I (a classically trained musician who rarely learns music by ear) went to a lot of harmony classes where I had to do just that. It’s challenging! But everyone–campers and teachers alike–were patient and supportive.

At English week, this feeling continued for me.  I can’t tell if it carried over for me personally from Harmony, or if it was also present for everyone else at English week as well. I hope the latter! At English week I took my first substantial foray into ritual dance, taking both Morris and Rapper dance and continuing clogging with Dartmoor step. I even ventured into Plymouth for the Morris tour! It felt very odd to be leaving camp in the middle of the week, but doing the dances for onlookers in town was awesome. Next time we need to remember to bring Pinewoods literature to hand out. At various late night jams and parties during the two weeks, I learned basic foot percussion from a very patient Jonathan Werk, how to do a proper shuffle step from the amazing Pinewoods cook Jillian, and I benefitted from repeated slow-motion reminders of the syncopated chug from Laurel.

English dance, like contra dance is in a period of transition.  Who do we want to be as a community? What are our values? How do we communicate those values? Some of the highlights of English Week for me were the discussions we had around these topics. We had a large inspiring discussion facilitated by Aaron Marcus and Scott Higgs about gender-free calling in both the English and Contra communities. About half the camp attended, and it was continued throughout the week in smaller groups.  It gave me hope for the future of our dance form to see so many folks of all ages and genders and from so many areas of the country express interest in these issues and compassion for each other’s views and feelings. As the week progressed, we continued to talk about the issues, and the couplings on the dance floor became less heteronormative. Early in the week I would often count 18-22 couples on the floor and all but 1 or 2 would be heteronormative. Later in the week, that difference decreased a little. I believe that most of our heteronormative partner pairings occur because we don’t think about it. It doesn’t occur to some people to ask every single partner what role they want to dance, and the average cis-het dancer doesn’t think about what the floor looks like to someone walking into the space for the first time–until it is brought to their attention. Once it was brought to their attention, more often than not, they were receptive to playing a more active role in changing the status quo.

Other questions that came up for me both as I was calling at Harmony and dancing at English: How much do we rely on the caller verses trusting our neighboring dancers to help us? What kind of collective dance experience are we aiming for? Is it silly? Carefree? Precise? Graceful? Allowing of individuality? Inclusive of varying skill levels and abilities? How much are we individually responsible for the experience of the whole? Is it historically accurate? What does “historical” mean if we are only working from reconstructions? Can all those things co-exist? How do we have all those aspects of community in the same place, at the same time? As we grapple with these questions and navigate into our future we are buoyed by the fantastic musicians, leaders, teachers, and organizers, we are encouraged by the new ideas and methods that are being explored, cultivated, and honed all over the country, and we are motivated by the kind deeds and generous embrace of our fellow dancers, singers and community members.