Not everyone spends their winter weeknights huddled by the fire, licking work wounds. Both here and around the country, a growing number of people choose to spend those evenings dancing. And not just dancing — but strenuously dancing, for up to three hours straight, smiling and socializing all the while. Sounds like work, you say? Not to hear them tell it.
It’s Tuesday night. Look for the Princeton Country Dancers at the Suzanne Patterson Center, behind Princeton Borough Hall. Between 7:30 and 8 p.m., some 60 people arrive here, many carrying clean, non-marking shoes to dance in, possibly extra clothes, and maybe food. This is a smiling, welcoming group of people on both sides of 40, with more eyeglasses than average, and probably more beards too. Men typically wear casual pants or shorts, while for women, full-skirted dresses in denim or colorful prints are the norm. As the evening progresses — read, as the dancing gets ever more vigorous — women may shed their layered sweaters and men change into dry tee shirts.
"I have a friend who judges the dance by how many tee shirts he goes through," says one avid dancer.
Think of the social dancing in those Jane Austen classics you’ve read or seen on film lately. In couples and lines, that’s English country dancing, first historically referenced in Elizabethan times, popular through the late 19th century, and revived early this century. Based on patterns of movement rather than specific steps, the dance might be appreciated best in aerial view (a cinematic natural), as twosomes and foursomes move in prescribed patterns within a wider double line. It’s graceful and gracious and rather romantic looking. And, at least to this observer, it’s not as easy as many dancers make it look.
There’s good news, though: the patience and helpfulness that caller and veteran dancers (that is, anyone who was also here last week) practice toward newcomers. This starts with PCD president Carol McAdam, who warmly urges participation and whose face while dancing is practically alight with pleasure. In the half-hour instruction session that precedes the "regular" dancing, Beth Bolaro, the caller, talks 10 neophytes through some basic patterns: arch in the middle, allemande, cross over, courtesy turn, promenade. In endless combinations, such patterns make up thousands of separate dances. "Remember to breathe," she cautions her beginners. "When we learn new things, we sometimes forget about that!"
As the whole group joins in, Beth tells a little about what each dance will involve, reminding veterans to help newcomers, and reminding everyone, "Don’t worry about it too much — it’s just a dance." The patterns she calls at first are repeated throughout the tune. Once most couples gain facility and comfort, she stops giving cues, and the dancers are on their own. That’s where the "social" part of this social dancing really becomes apparent. These people smile, smile, smile, as they move down the line, switching partners and adapting to each new one. With no show of discomfort or displeasure, they’re just plain nice to one another! Come to think of it, maybe their smiles serve these dancers in much the same way as the "whistling a happy tune" served Anna in "The King and I" — so no one would suspect her real angst.
A major convention of such dancing is regularly switching partners. Even couples, who are in the minority here, don’t often dance together.
This kind of dance can appear flirtatious — the smiling, the hand-holding,
the looking into each other’s eyes — but that’s all another convention,
and reportedly doesn’t go beyond the dance. Although some permanent alliances have been accomplished, I’m told."It’s not a singles scene in the traditional way, yet it’s a very comfortable scene for people who are single," says Sue Dupre. A founder of both Princeton Country Dancers (PCD) and one of the
area’s four groups practicing traditional ritual dances, she’s a popular caller here and around the country, as well as master of ceremonies for PCD’s upcoming winter cotillion. She points out that if people joined the dance sessions only to meet others, they’d do so, then disappear. But that’s not what’s really happening.
Dupre believes there’s another kind of chemistry involved. "It’s a biochemical thing," she says. "When you’re moving and dancing, endorphins get released and you feel good. It’s a kind of high."
Jan Drechsler concurs. Another PCD founder, also a musician and dance caller, she recalls her own early dancing experiences as "very heady and intoxicating." The evenings feature partners dances with graciousness, smiling, and flirting, yet women can feel safe, she says. More than one enthusiast has described dancing as a comfortable place for area newcomers, and the recently divorced, to meet others, while getting physical and mental exercise. "It’s easier to forget the world and problems at work when you’re moving around dancing."
Both country and contra dancing are catching on. It’s estimated that some 600 groups in the U.S. sponsor English country dancing sessions or "contra dancing," its more free-form and often more vigorous American cousin. That’s what the Princeton Country Dancers are up to this Tuesday evening. Tonight, as is usually the case, their number includes Aidan, a poised eight-year-old, who attends with his mother. He knows the movements as well as the adults, doing "courtesy-turns"
with women much taller than he, with total aplomb. During a break, he snaps his fingers to the music and talks about the traditional morris dancing he practices on another week night.
English country dancing and contra dancing both historically involve live music and a caller, with the bands and callers scheduled for an evening often serving as drawing cards — as is the case with this evening’s teaming of Lava Lamps, three Washington D.C.-based musicians playing fiddle, bass, and keyboard, with caller Beth Bolaro, of North Carolina. Petite, dressed in layers, with hand-held mike and great crowd control skills, Beth keeps moving to the music’s rhythm,
either on a low wooden platform next to the band or standing on a chair, the better to get a kaleidoscopic view.
"The dance is the Black Mountain Reel, written by Tom Hines . . . Then romenade, go round the ring, show the world that pretty little thing."
As the evening progresses, the dances get faster and more complicated, yet the dancers keep up, even adding foot-stamping and calling out. People work up a glow, then growing glowingness, and the punch bowlattracts more visitors. Throughout it all are the smiles — virtually part of the uniform — some seeming fixed, some clearly reflecting enjoyment. Quiet smiles and extra twirls identify accomplished dancers, perhaps accountants-turned-danseurs for the night. Most of the men treat women in protective, courtly ways; many women, in turn, behave in traditional, eager-to-please ways.
Friday night at the same hall, it’s the "LCD" group (formerly known as the Lambertville Country Dancers), with Bare Necessities, a four-piece band of piano, violin, viola, and flute, a caller, and a partly different crowd that includes some familiar faces from Tuesday night. These participants look even more free-spirited than their Tuesday counterparts — one beret, more headbands, and more long dresses, some worn with leg warmers. Overall, there’s more hugging-as-greeting practiced here. Computer programmers, mathematicians, and scientistsare among the dancers, with one theory holding that such types are
attracted by the "figures" — the patterns inherent in the English country dancing they’ll be doing.
LCD dancers also include a high school teacher, a minister, a nurse, and church organist, a university language department chairperson. And because of tonight’s band and caller, and Philadelphia’s annual Playford Ball scheduled for the following night, the crowd is swelled by a number of out-of-state visitors, and one dancer who flew in from his Munich-based job for this weekend.
English country dancing — the form that was already more than a century old in Jane Austen’s time — each pattern is "married" to a particular tune, whereas in contra dancing, the caller might leave the melody up to the band. In either case, when a caller names a dance, he or she is identifying movement
patterns, not necessarily the music. Around 1650, a bookseller named John
Playford(namesake of the Philadelphia ball) published the first collection of English country dances, further popularizing the genre and starting a rush to publish still more dances.
Debbi Kanter, the power behind LCD’s "Dance Times" quarterly newsletter and a major country dance enthusiast, makes sure her ball gown will be ready for the Playford affair, and after that she’ll look forward to "February Fling," a joint PCD-LCD dance event.
Among the dances would-be hoofers might choose from, there’s social dancing, as in the two forms sketched above, and there’s ritual dancing, as in the morris dance, which marks a season (spring, for instance) or an event (such as the solstice). And then there’s international folk dancing. You can find this at the Riverside School or the Princeton Y, on Tuesday and Friday nights, respectively.
Folk dancing is much more a foot or step thing than a movement from here to there thing. It seems to require more concentration (and less smiling); it’s performed in smaller groups to taped music, rather than live music; it encompasses mostly Eastern European dances, although Brittany, French Canada, Israel, Russia, China, and Japan are also part of the canon. And because the Friday night group’s current president has catholic tastes, even country-western dances are occasionally programmed.
Seemingly older than country and contra dancers, certainly more decorous, and possibly — as one folk dancer suggested — "more artistic and intellectual" as well, area folk dancers include scientists, Ph.Ds and at least one M.D. One group member started folk dancing with the Tuesday night Princeton Folk Dance Group — in existence since 1938 — while a university graduate student. Retired now, he teaches folk dancing in Philadelphia, and arrived at a recent dance session with three hard-sided suitcases full of folk dance music cassettes. Group president DeDe Johnson teased, "Jerry’s afraid we don’t have enough music here already," while drawing from a multitude of cassettes to play members’ music requests.
Like all the other dance enthusiasts encountered during these after-work hours, Johnson is not a lukewarm participant. When she says she "loves to dance," she means it — and does so four or five times a week.
For each new dance, one participant instructs from the center of a semi-circle with up to 25 dancers. He or she talks through the dance while demonstrating its steps. The others try one part at a time, until they feel they can put it together. Invariably, they join hands to perform in an open circle what looks like an international folk dance of some kind. The music, Greek to Chinese, heightens the effect.
One couple, each an effective folk dancer and demonstrator, spoke of the carryover value of folk dancing for those who travel. Thanks to their "International Folk Dancing Directory," they recently joined New Zealanders who shared their interest.
And speaking of "interest," all these dance people are exceedingly hospitable. (They would much rather I had been a prospective dancer than a writer.) In all cases, they invited me to dance, seemed puzzled by my reluctance — good excuse notwithstanding — and kept urging me to try, to come back and dance, to get out the word about the pleasure of it all.
If a person’s passion for a pursuit were measured by how quickly they return phone calls on the subject and how long (and animatedly) they’ll talk about it to a complete stranger, then country, contra, and folk dance enthusiasts have reached the peak of passion.