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NGI Recipient: Ari Sussman

Session Attended: Country Dance and Song Society - Harmony of Song & Dance (2018)

I went to the CDSS Harmony of Song and Dance week at Pinewoods Camp from the recommendation of Eden Macadam-Somer and I honestly had no idea what to expect. Was it going to be a week where people sat by a lake singing Pete Seeger songs? Was it going to be a week where people would be square-dancing all night? Perhaps I would find a group of banjoists in the woods sitting together and giving each other tricks of the trade of clawhammer banjo playing. It turns out that all of these things indeed happened and I could not have been happier.

I was trained as a classical pianist and composer, so a lot of the music that was played at Harmony of Song and Dance was not music I was ever trained to play. However, I had a strong love and affinity for Old-time, Bluegrass, and contra dance band music since I was a kid, but I never knew where to look for it, seek it out, listen to it, or play it. As my conservatory training continued, I began to find opportunities to hear live musicians play the music. While I was really never one to dance growing up, it wasn’t until Harmony of Song and Dance that I realized how beautiful the dancing was; a true art where humans synchronously move to the beautiful melodies and rhythms of these hundreds-of-years-old tunes from Appalachia and the English countryside. While I discovered that my body was not particularly nimble enough for contra dancing, I quickly developed a strong interest in English country dancing, both in the actual dancing and the playing of the music.

While at Pinewoods, there was one particular idea that continued to plague and haunt my mind: am I appropriating these beautiful arts? The reason I felt this way was that I was raised in an observant Jewish household with Russian-Ukrainian ancestry where many of these musics and dances simply never existed; they were considered ‘goyishe’ (not Jewish) traditions. Even though I am a fifth generation American, I felt as if I did not have a place to play and dance these musics. However, my fears were laid to rest by many. Melissa Running, in particular, helped ease the tension I felt by posing a question to me such as (and I paraphrase), “as a classical pianist, you play Beethoven, right? You aren’t German, but you find beauty and connection in that art, and you continue to play it, so why can you not find the beauty in this art?” I will be eternally grateful to Melissa for helping me realize that my love for the music and my new-found love for the dance can stay with me forever without fear.

 Since Harmony of Song and Dance week, I bought the Barnes and Portland books for playing in contra dance bands and English country dance bands. I have since moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan to begin my doctorate in music composition at the University of Michigan. I immediately got in touch with AACTMAD (Ann Arbor Community for Traditional Music and Dance) and I will be playing in their bands for their dances for the remainder of my tenure here. This would have never happened if it weren’t for Eden’s recommendation, and most certainly would not have happened without the help of the NGI Scholarship I received from Pinewoods Camp and the Country Dance and Song Society. I hope to attend another CDSS week at Pinewoods in the near future. Thank you for welcoming me into the beautiful traditions and communities of these arts with open arms.