Smooth and soothing, the waltz lies at one end of the dance spectrum. Its invariable three-beat rhythm and mild modifications of footwork announce decorum and reliability. The accompanying music tends toward elegance and refinement. A partner is required.
But at the other end of the spectrum is International Folk Dance, a gamut of earthy ethnic dances originating primarily in villages eastward from the Balkans. Rhythms are often five, seven, or 11 beats to a measure; they may appear to limp. Instruments that have never seen the inside of a conservatory accompany the dances. No partners are needed; this universe of rural dances tends to call for line or circle configurations, where dancers hold hands, link arms, or grasp the belts of adjoining dancers. Those susceptible to International Folk Dance often talk of getting “hooked” after exposure.
I am one of the “hooked” ones. I find the movement hypnotic. I consider the interplay of movement and music intriguing; even with the squarest accompaniment, movement and music do not necessarily coincide completely; three units of music may require four repeats of footwork before movement and music return to a common starting point. The camaraderie is intense, in my experience. The insidious off-kilter tunes pop up in my head at odd moments of the day or night.
In the Princeton area three main entities provide outlets for International Folk Dance: Princeton Tuesday Night Folk Dancing; Princeton Friday Night Folk Dancing; and the Highland Park Folkdance Circle. To gather an insider’s look at what goes on, I talked to Boel Denne-Hinnov, president of the Princeton Friday night group, the largest of the three.
“International folk dance really covers everything,” Denne-Hinnov says. “Mostly eastern European dances from the Balkans. But it includes Greece, Israel, France, French Canada, Scandinavia, Turkey, Armenia, and the Near East.”
In the villages, where many of the dances originated, they were done to live music, Denne-Hinnov says. A typical village dance lasted 10 to 15 minutes. Transplanted to the United States, music comes most of the time on recordings typically three minutes long, and choreography fits the length of the recording.
Sessions of local International Folk Dance follow a common pattern designed to serve both beginners and experienced folk dancers. The early part of the evening is devoted to teaching new material and to reviewing less well-established dances. The rest of the evening consists of dances familiar to returning dancers.
Denne-Hinnov, a meticulous instructor, identifies three layers when teaching a new dance. “First, comes the footwork,” she says. “Then I teach what the hands do.” They may raise or lower, move sideways, or join adjacent dancers’ pinkies. “Then, I talk about style.” Hand-clapping might involve a large motion or a small one; a foot might stamp daintily or vigorously.
After an instructor teaches a line dance, an experienced dancer at the head of the line leads the dance, using precise body language. Beginners often watch the leaders closely for guidance, mimicking their movement. Doing what comes naturally, kinesthetically, newcomers can be carried along by the irresistible motion of the line. They may have the sensation that what they do never reaches the higher centers of the brain.
“Rhythms are important,” Denne-Hinnov says. “They might be five beats, seven, nine, or 11.” She fails to mention that a nine-beat pattern is not likely to be organized simply into three units of three beats, but is more often organized into three groups of two beats, followed by one group of three beats. “It’s good to develop verbal hooks,” Denne-Hinnov says. “Pa-doo- pa-doo, kerplunk-kerplunk-kerplunk, or bloop-bloop. Master teachers, invited to local groups, devise these formulas.”
The most intricate dance rhythm that Denne-Hinnov knows has 25 beats to a measure. The dance is “Sedi Donka” from Bulgaria. She monitors its beats by counting out seven twice, followed by counting out 11 once. Try it yourself by saying the following count with even spacing: 1-2-3 1-2 1-2; (that’s the first seven) 1-2-3 1-2 1-2; (that’s the second seven) 1-2 1-2 1-2-3 1-2 1-2 (that’s the 11).
Denne-Hinnov started folk dancing in 1998. “A friend who went to the Tuesday group kept telling me how great dancing was, and how nice the music was. She kept inviting me to go. I said, ‘No, I’ll just make mistakes.’ Finally, near Easter in 1998, I went and got hooked at once. Mostly I used the wrong foot. But I liked the music and started going back. I began attending the Friday night dancing in late 2001.” Intent on mastering the dances, Denne-Hinnov worked on dance at home.
Today she still works out, penetrating deeper into the field. Willingly, she reveals her recipe. “I watch videos; some are on our website. I play the music and practice. I slow down the speed.”
She expands beyond the specified pattern. “You can learn a lot about a dance by improvising and moving to the music. It’s not necessary to do the prescribed footwork. You can get a feel for the dance without doing the official moves. Once you’ve done International Folk Dancing for a while, you can anticipate what will happen next. Sometimes I listen while I’m on my exercise bike.”
President of Princeton’s Friday group since January, 2011, Denne-Hinnov’s path to the position illustrates both the casualness of Princeton’s International Folk Dance community, and the style of her leadership. “At a Friday night session one evening, I was informally asked by two members of the Executive Committee if I might take on the presidency,” she says. They knew that I was passionate about folk dancing. I asked what the presidency entailed. It didn’t sound like a burdensome task.”
“But I wondered if someone else in the group wanted the job, and I wanted to be sure that I had support. I said ‘Yes, if I’m elected.’ An open vote was taken during dancing a week or two later.”
Born in southern Sweden in 1954, Denne-Hinnov was not hooked by her early dance experiences. “My father was very musical and grew up with social dance lessons,” she says, “but he was not keen about dancing. Still, he would dance with my mother, keeping the rhythm with his teeth. When I danced with him, he also kept the metre with his teeth. I would occasionally dance socially with other people.”
When Denne-Hinnov was four, her mother enrolled her in ballet. Firmly, she declares “I didn’t like it.”
After earning a doctorate in physics from Sweden’s University of Lund, Denne-Hinnov came to the United States and worked as a post-doctoral fellow in Princeton’s Plasma Physics Laboratory from 1982 to 1984. She met her future husband, Einar Hinnov, also a Princeton physicist, in the United States. They married in 1990. Einar died in 1995.
Denne-Hinnov’s professional career includes a decade working on fusion energy research in England and editing textbooks in science and mathematics in the United States. Since 2013 she has devoted herself to pursuing her favorite pastimes. “Folkdance takes most of my time,” she says. Other interests include painting and poetry. The two Princeton groups were at one time a single entity, meeting on Tuesdays. Today they share a website and have an overlapping clientele.
Meeting from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m., Princeton’s Tuesday group attracts roughly 25 to 30 participants. Coordinator Beryl McMillan began International Folk Dancing in 1984. The range of dances runs from easy to intermediate. The age range of participants is roughly 50 to 70. The oldest person attending regularly is 98. A repeat participant is blind and comes with her guide dog, who dozes on a blanket during the session. Music is recorded.
Princeton’s Friday group meets from 8 to 11 p.m. About 40 people attend normally. The range of dances runs from easy to advanced. Participants’ ages range roughly from 50 to 75; some bring their children or grand children. Music is normally recorded. Special events offer live music.
Meanwhile the Highland Park Folk Dance Circle — meeting Thursdays from 7 to 8:30 p.m. — is unique in using live music. Co-leaders are John Semmlow, who has been dancing since 1961 and Bill Selden, who started dancing in 1974. Selden is the instrumentalist for the group.
Trained as a pianist, Selden plays three folk instruments: accordion; gaida, a Balkan bagpipe; and kaval, a Balkan flute. His Bulgarian gaida produces its drone sound with a goatskin bag and produces the melody on a wooden pipe. The word “gaida” means goat in Bulgarian. The kaval is a Bulgarian end-blown shepherd’s flute, traditionally made of wood. Selden, an Ohio native, has taken pains to create an authentic sound on the traditional instruments. “It was clear at first that I was not a native speaker on the instruments,” he says. “I will never be Bulgarian, but I have reduced the ‘accent’ with which I play the music.”
The age range at the Highland Park group runs from 20-somethings to octogenarians. The difficulty of dances ranges from easy to advanced.
No matter which group one chooses, the benefits of folk dance are many, Denne-Hinnov says. “It improves balance and flexibility. Learning new patterns and new footwork are good for the body and the brain. Folk dancing is good for sociability and for relaxation. Coming from a job feeling tired and grumpy, I felt better after dancing.”
That sounds like an invitation.
Princeton International Folk Dancing, Suzanne Patterson Center, 1 Monument Drive, Princeton. Fridays, 8 to 11 p.m. $5, free for newcomers. email@example.com.
Princeton International Folk Dancing, Kristina Johnson Pop-up Studio, Princeton Shopping Center. Tuesdays, 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. $5, free for newcomers. firstname.lastname@example.org. www.princetonfolkdance.org or 609-921-9340.
Highland Park Folk Dancing Circle, Highland Park Senior and Youth Center, 220 South Sixth Avenue, Highland Park. Thursdays, 7 to 8:30 p.m. $3. email@example.com. www.highlandparkfolkdancecircle.org or 732-245-6999.