Letter: A Commentary on Dance Schools

[ This article appeared in volume 2 of the Letter of Dance. ]

from Andrew Bruegge Vorder (Isaac de Hugo)

In 1989 my lady and I had the pleasure of attending the Berea Christmas Dance School. Located at Berea College in Berea, KY, this school is a long-established tradition. The school drew an attendance of approximately 200 from all across the United States and a few from the United Kingdom. We attended five days of classes plus several special activities. A typical day for a participant began at 8:30 AM with a series of seven class sessions; at least five classes in dance, perhaps one in music, and one in dance organization/styles/issues. These last two kinds of classes gave everyone a chance to get off their feet and socialize. Also, the school offered three sumptuous meals each day at the college cafeteria. In the evening, everyone gathered for dancing for two hours, followed by one hour of "parlour", similar to a bardic circle in the SCA. By 10:30 PM, all official activities ended but many remained for "open" dancing until they collapsed (post-reveling).

The school offered a wide range of dance instruction: Danish, Appalachian Square, English Clogging, Morris, English Country, Scottish Country, and Contra, with instrumentalists accompanying every session. Instruction in recorders, fiddles, dulcimers, shape-note singing, weaving, and whittling also were available. Some very helpful classes in general dancing technique -- how to call, how to organize a ball, how to organize a dance group, dance research, etc. -- rounded out the curriculum.

Any dance enthusiast in the SCA would enjoy and profit from a school such as this. There is much to learn and appreciate, even though very little of the subject matter falls strictly within period -- Morris dancing and musical instrument instruction, for example. The "skull sessions" in research and organization offer a wealth of very applicable ideas and information for SCA dance ministers and event autocrats. Also, since SCAdians have adopted a canon of non-Period seventeenth- and eighteenth-century dance out of tradition ("Hole in the Wall", "Fandango", and "Scotland the Brave", for example), they might find it illuminating to perform these dances correctly and authentically under the tutelage of an expert instructor. We rejoiced to learn, for example, that the jumble of steps we in the SCA have been doing at the beginning of "Scotland the Brave" actually is a very simple Strath Spey setting step. Also, we were pleased to learn the names or origins of the various kinds of siding steps used in country dancing: the Cecil Sharpe siding step (the exchange of places) and the historical siding step (the shoulder-to-shoulder advance).

The tensions between authenticity mavens and fun mavens in the SCA has its parallel in the country dance and song world, and one particular battleground is morris dancing (and similar ritual performances). Purists insist that morris dances and mummers' plays are to be performed by men only, as historical tradition dictates. Also, they perform only authentically choreographed steps and scripts that are traced back to particular villages in Britain. No new morris dances or mummers' plays are allowed. American revisionists, however, are (and have been) admitting women into the plays and dances, and they are creating new morris dances and mummers' plays. Another source of tension lies in the delineation between "traditional" and "historical" dancing. English country dance scholars define historical dances as those that were danced in an earlier epoch, that disappeared from the popular repertoire and (usually) from print, and that now require modern scholars to research them, reconstruct them, and perform them authentically. Traditional dances are those that were created in an earlier epoch, that have been danced more or less continuously through the generations, and, most importantly, that have evolved, changed, or altered through a tradition of use. Obviously, these traditional dances no longer contain the "authentic" steps. In short, traditional dances are "living" phenomena while historical dances are carefully preserved "museum pieces".

This clear differentiation between the genres of country dances might assist SCAdians in appreciating their dance activities. Certainly, the SCA has a powerful interest in (and commitment to) reviving period historical dances. We promote their research, reconstruction, and performance. Also, the SCA has developed traditions in dance as it has in so many other areas. We encounter this fact whenever we travel to another Kkngdom and discover variant steps for "The Earl of Salisbury Pavan" or "Horses Bransle". These variations occur because the dances are alive in our organization. The SCA can easily accommodate both historical and traditional dancing within its purveyance, and the SCA should promote the advancement of both as well. The SCA does not need to encourage tensions or frictions among gentles interested in these two divergent impulses in SCA dance.

Neither traditional nor historical dancing, furthermore, needs to be viewed as "better". Country dance enthusiasts do seem to dance more traditional and contemporary dances, but perhaps only because they are more accessible. Indeed, we discovered that gentles who enjoy dancing seem to have a voracious and eclectic appetite. This catholicity raises several important possibilities for SCAdians to consider.

First, those of us who are dance scholars probably would find a very warm reception to our work of making historical dances accessible. If the music was printed and the steps reconstructed, then country dancers would enjoy these new-old dances for their repertoires.

Second, those of us who are dance scholars probably would find a very warm reception to our work of making non-Anglo dances accessible. Our experience at the Christmas Dance School seemed to validate this claim. Scores of students enrolled in Danish dance classes and purchased music and instruction manuals for the dances. A rich tradition of continental and folk dance awaits our discovery, and an eager audience of dances awaits our publication of this canon of dance literature.

These two phenomena have parallel developments in the SCA. Dancers are eager for new dances, and they rely on scholars to translate, reconstruct, and disseminate period dances. SCAdians stand in a perfect position to advance period dance scholarship. The SCA has gentles who are motivated to do the research, and the organization has many musicians and dancers who are eager to put the research to the ultimate test in performance.

A final important consideration about mundane country dancing lies in its potential as a recruiting tool for membership in the SCA. As stated above, country dance enthusiasts seem willing to try anything. Many of the people we met at the Christmas Dance School listened with great interest when we spoke of our experience and interest in renaissance dance. We shared bibliographies, dance manuals, tapes, gossip, etc. with them. They are definitely open to trying renaissance dance and learning about it. Indeed, we have taught a few simple balli to the local English country dance group here in Louisville, KY. SCA dancers need to network in the country dance community, present renaissance dance to them in the social and fun-maven ways that appeal to mundane country dancers, and then bring them to the entire range of activities that the SCA can offer them. Country dance enthusiasts seem to have the perfect lifestyle and personality profile for SCA involvement. They are usually well-educated, they like to travel ridiculous distances to "events" (balls in various towns), they spend a great amount of disposable income on their avocation (music, tapes, shows, costumes, instruments, T-shirts, etc.), they know how to have fun, and they share a special vision of the world through their avocation.

Mundane country dancers are not accustomed to the display of formal courtesies that Renaissance dance naturally inculcates in its practitioners. SCA dancers execute reverences, congés, continenzas, acknowledgements, courtly holding of hands, etc., as a matter of course. Country dance aesthetics do not explicitly require so much courtesy. When SCA dancers bring their habits of courtesy to country dancing, the mundanes are impressed exceedingly. SCA dancers could enrich their local country dance community significantly by introducing and practicing the simplest techniques of courtesy. Particularly effective courtesies include: luxurious, formal reverences at the end of each dance; acknowledgement to corners and new couples in a contra line (performance of dances such as "Hole in the Wall" provides many fine opportunities to do this); holding hands by letting the gentleman's hand support the lady's hand on top of his; and reverences or acknowledgements to active couples as they move up and down sets (as in dances such as "Fandango").

The Christmas School gave us a very structured week. The evening dancing sessions succeeded immensely as social events, however, because the nightly social dancing incorporated ample opportunity for informal conversation and greeting. SCA event planners can learn from this practice. So often feasts become overbooked with entertainers, that gentles never get to eat their meals and enjoy the company of their fellow revelers at the table. Likewise, SCA balls often call for four or five hours of preprogrammed dancing, making it difficult to socialize or dance "requests". Perhaps some SCA events could benefit from a healthy dose of unplanned socializing, such as goes on in the unstructured evenings at Christmas Dance School.

Mundane dance enthusiasts take a very sensible approach to logistics. They come together for a week or weekend of dance, and they want to dance as much as possible. So, they rely on someone else to feed and house them. The SCA might learn from this practice. If fighters want to gather to fight or heralds want to gather to blazon, then maybe they could rethink their events. They could arrange their events so that they could do what they wanted to do instead of spending valuable time, energy and money on planning meals, housing and other mundane matters. Feasts, for example, are by no means required at SCA events. Let everyone eat out or cater it in. An SCA group might consider holding SCA gatherings through convention centers and/or university extension offices. They can handle all the planning, mailing, paperwork, reserving, and operations. In this competitive era, gentles would be amazed at the aggresively helpful attitudes of the people at their local Chambers of Commerce and/or convention bureaus. Note the friendly reception that TFYC received in Burnett, TX. Many places would love to host a Crown or Coronation event, just to earn our motel and restaurant business.

The SCA is growing up. We should expose ourselves to new and better ways of doing things by rubbing shoulders with mundanes involved in the country dance and song circuit. They are living their version of The Dream, and theirs is not a bad example to follow. In any event, country dance schools are great fun, whether you are a dancer or not. Next time one comes your way, know that it would be money well spent on a unique experience.

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir (Greg Lindahl) (lindahl@pbm.com)