«Back to all NGI Letters

NGI Recipient: Pam Madsen

Session Attended: Folk Arts Center of New England - Folk Days (2008)

The Joy of Dance

A jumble of words and directions were swimming around in my head: emphasize beat one, spot on my partner, alternate the inside foot back and forward, take a big step with the outside foot on beat – which beat again? It’s too late. The music’s started and we’re off. One, two, three, one two, three, one, two, three, forward, two, three, back, two, three. I’m getting it! I’m walt — Oops! I step on my partner’s foot, temporarily throwing us off the beat but we soon find it again and this time, it’s magic. With each turn my partner begins to feel more like an extension of myself and less like a separate being; the room and other dancers swirl together like an impressionistic painting as my mind grows still and I am able to just dance. When the music ends we gradually come to a stop, not quite believing the dance is over, and my partner turns to me and says, “Hey! That was good!” It was good.

My introduction to international folk dancing happened quite by chance while attending Arlington Town Day with a friend. As we were browsing the works of local artisans and trying to resist, unsuccessfully, the aroma of fried dough, our ears perked up at the sound of fiddling and as we both have an interest in traditional music we decided to investigate. The music led us to the booth for the Folk Arts Center of New England where Marcie Van Cleave told us all about the organization and invited us to the weekly Friday night dance at a church in Arlington. A couple weeks later it was there that I had my first taste of international folk dancing. While I don’t remember what dances we did that night I do remember feeling happier than I had felt in a long time. However, life got in the way and I was not able to make it to another dance until, once again, a chance encounter brought folk dancing back into my life. Late that winter I was browsing through the classes offered by the Arlington Community Education Program and noticed there was one for beginning folk dance taught by Folk Arts Center before their Friday night dances. Seeing the ad brought back memories from my experience months before so, not hesitating one moment, I signed up.

My first class was a bizarre mix of excitement and apprehension. I had never taken a dance class before nor was I one to just start dancing on a whim. While I had always admired dancing from afar, I never dreamed I would actually try it myself. Dancers are graceful and I can barely walk down the street without tripping. Yet there was something about this type of dance that called out to me. As the weeks passed, my apprehension waned while my excitement grew. I remember staring in awe at the more advanced dancers that came later at night and hoping one day I would be able to dance like them, just as effortlessly and with just as much joy. On my last day of class Marcie approached me with an opportunity to attend Pinewoods on scholarship. With my finances as tight as they were and not having enough time to budget for such trip, I had accepted that Pinewoods would have to wait; but now, through the generosity of both Pinewoods and Folk Arts Center, I would be able to explore this newfound interest.

Similar to my first day of class, my first day of camp was filled with a mix of emotions. Being a beginner, I knew I was going to learn a lot over the next couple of days and I just hoped I wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the experience. And while my mental exhaustion from the large number of new steps learned each day forced me to take a break now and then, the energy from the dancers and musicians propelled me to get up and try. Learning to accept my missteps and keep on dancing was the most important lesson I took away from my time at Pinewoods. Seeing the joy on the other dancers’ faces gave me the push I needed to get over this hurdle and looking back, I believe it was also what originally drew me to the art form. By the end of my time at camp there were even moments, like during the waltz described above, when I was able to get outside of my head and just enjoy the dance. Now that I’ve experienced that overwhelming feeling firsthand I can’t imagine my life without dance.