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Archive for the ‘Dance’ Category

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Zydeco: Philly’s Mardi Gras Party 2016

12657450_10207781476689215_1548317181980620869_oUntil a few months ago, I never even heard of Zydeco. A friend suggested that since I’ve been exploring the dance scene, that I might try Zydeco.  First, I had to find out–what is Zydeco? Zydeco originated in southwest Louisiana in the Creole culture. Creole folks descend from various nationalities including Haitian, Native American, French and Spanish immigrants. The music usually has a fast tempo, and the main instrument is the accordion accompanied by a washboard, guitars, violins and drums. Elements of R&B, rock, soul and other music genres have worked their way into Zydeco performances.  According to Wikipedia, Zydeco is similar to Cajun music but has has a harder, faster sound that features a rhythm that shifts accents to weak beats.

I’m certainly no expert on the music, but seems that the music has a recognizable sound, and the beat is so strong that it is hard to resist moving to the music.

At the Friday night Mardi Gras Party, the evening started with a dance lesson, which is typical for the Allons Dansor venues. I usually show up early for the dance lesson, as it is a great way to get moving, to review the steps and to meet the newcomers. The steps are easy, and by dancing as a group, no need to feel self-conscious. Eventually, the gender lines form partnerships to practice the closed position.  Partners switch out when the instructor introduces a new step.

A short video shows the introductory steps and then the dancing with live music from Curley Taylor and Zydeco Trouble.

Spirited Nights

Halloween and Mardi Gras have elements in common: religious origins, costumes, masks, revelry. Halloween has its origins in the festival of Samhain when the Celts would light bonfires to mark the beginning of the winter after the harvest time. On All Hallows Eve, as it is during Mardi Gras, the boundaries between worlds of reality and fantasy blur, and supposedly otherworldly spirits roam the earth.

This joyful music from the swamps of Louisiana can be played for a sultry slow dance. The word Zydeco derived from mispronouncing the French phrase: “Les haricots ne sont pas sales,” translated as, “the snap beans aren’t salty” and means, “I don’t have any spicy news for you.”  The video, however, does offer spicy news of such a slow dance on a Halloween night. Music by The Bayou Brothers!



Forty-Sixth Annual Swarthmore College English-Scottish Ball

The Swarthmore College Folk Dance Club held their annual ball on February 6, 2016, in Tarble-in-Clothier on the College Campus. Participants included alums from around the country, community members, staff, faculty and students. Susie Petrov and Calum Pasqua provided the music.

Swat alum and students

Swarthmore Alums & Students

A bagpiper performed for the grand march as dancers promenaded around the hall. The musicians played twenty-one dances, including Scottish set dances, contra and waltz. Tables of goodies and teas provided refreshments half way through the evening.

In case you might think that Scottish dancing might be a series of simple steps, here is a partial list of the directions for one of the reels:

1-8  1M casts to 2nd place, crosses & turns 2L RH to end in the send place pop side, 1L casts, crosses & turns 2M LH to end in the 2nd place pop side. 
9-16 1s lead down & cast up round 3s, 2s+1s dance 1/2 R &L (E2s end 2nd place opposite sides) to 1, 2x, 3.
17-24  1s+2s set & petronella turn moving anti-clockwise to next position to right, 1s+22s prat to 2,1X, 3.

Despite the intricacy of the steps, I enjoyed the dancing. Previously, I had only taken two Scottish dance lessons, but those with experience very kindly led novices, like me, through the steps.  Laughing at mistakes is part of the fun, and of course, dancers can “improvise” to cover any missteps.

Highlights from the ball in the video:







First West Philly Square Dance

Advertised as “West Philly Old-Time Square Dancing,” the organizers can be congratulated on the success of their very first dance. Folks poured into the room ready to embark on a dance experience that was new to many of the participants.  A bit of chaos to start, but everyone was in great spirits as the caller selected fun dances. The band played energetic music, folks laughing and smiling through their steps.

In the video, “heal an’ toe, heal an’ toe and slide . . . clap, swing  . . . on to the next.”  Great way to dance everyone in the room!

Next dance, February 26.
St. Mary’s Church, Hamilton Village
3916 Locust Walk





Mt Airy Contra, Dancing with your Neighbor

Henry Avenue Bridge

Returning to Mr. Airy, Philadelphia


Commodore Barry Club

Driving from the Western suburbs of Philadelphia, I negotiate through the treacherous, if not beautiful, Lincoln Drive to get to the dance hall. The impressive Henry Avenue Bridge, constructed in 1932, extends over the road and the Wissahickon Creek. The heavily wooded gorge form part of the Fairmount Park system, but I can’t take my eyes off the twisting road for a minute.

This was the route I took several years ago when I found myself at the corner of  Green Street and Carpenter Lane, looking for Big Blue Marble Bookstore where I signed up for a writing course. Little shops lined the streets inviting me to stop in to visit. I’m back on Carpenters Lane once again where the sprawling Commodore Barry Club, or Irish Center, occupies a corner. A spacious ballroom, one of the largest in the area, is the venue for the dancing.

The Music: Borrowed from the Celts and English with Appalachian Influences

On my first visit, what amazed was to see a live band setting up on the stage. Each week a different group performs, filling the hall with traditional fiddle tunes. Reels and jigs are the most common tunes played, but musicians also play the hornpipe, waltz and polka for variety. To learn more about these music forms, check out this page for details, as the differences require lengthy explanations. Accordions, harmonicas, flutes, bass fiddles, violas may accompany the traditional instruments, such as the fiddle, piano, and guitar.

Free Raisins

Free Raisins

For this evening, The Free Raisins, a band from Boston and self-described as “fusing New England roots with a modern groove,” performed with Audrey Knuth on fiddle, Jeff Kaufman on mandolin and trumpet, Amy Englesberg, on piano and accordion. I enjoyed their contra music interpretation with a rock beat, and I noticed that some of the dancers improvised swing-like twirls to their moves.

Rick MohrRick Mohr called the dance. According to CDSS Country Song and Dance Society, calling for contra dances “is a fine art and a science, with subtle skills that can take a lifetime to master.” The caller instructs the dancers, usually with a run-through first without the music. The caller continues to announce the moves until the dancers have learned the steps, which may include from six to twelve figures, and then repeats. Dancers use smooth walking steps for movement between figures. The “swing” requires some practice, holding the right hip at the center while pushing around with the left foot. At break time, volunteers instruct dancers on the nuances of the swing.

The Dance

One website described contra dancing this way,

Contra dancing is social interaction, meeting people, and making new friends, set to music.
The rest is just details.

On my first visit, I joined the beginner’s lesson, which started half-an-hour before the dance. I could explain all the contra dance terms, but for the most part it is possible to learn as you take part. One of the moves is called a “gypsy,” where you circle around your partner without touching but keeping eye contact. Maintaining steady eye contact, as least for me, was a bit unnerving because it felt like staring, but this is common practice and underlies the importance as a social dance and connecting with folks. I found I couldn’t keep the gypsy without smiling.

The gypsy stare also helps reduce dizziness. Yes, while dancing the swing, you can become quite dizzy, which happened to me the first couple times. Partners turn at different rates and if you are paired with a spirited dancer, by the time you land back at your place, the room can still be going round and round–and there’s not a lot of time to recover as you’ve got to be ready for the next move. What I noticed was that if I fixed my gaze, I experienced less dizziness. If I glanced outward at the room, it was whizzing by in a blur.

I came without a partner, and because policy underscores the social nature of the dance, I could still dance every number, if I wanted. Dancers are encouraged to find different partners, and dancing with same-sex partners is perfectly acceptable and may have no relevance to orientation.  In reality, you dance with everyone in the room as you cross over or change partners. Couples form long, parallel lines, starting from the stage and stand across from or “contra to” their partner. Traditionally, couples move up and down the line as the dance progresses. When arriving at the end, you pause with your partner, which gives you a welcome but brief rest before joining the dance again.

Three Hours of Dancing! 

contra dance lineSnacks and water provide rejuvenation during a twenty-minute break, which gives me some time to reflect on the experience. I noted diversity of age among the dancers, from children to college students to seniors. People come to the dance from all over the city and neighboring states of Delaware and New Jersey.

After drinking three or four glasses of water, I’m back on the floor scouting out someone for my next partner. I especially enjoy the flourishes that some of the experienced dancers add to the steps, usually involving the woman twirling around once before settling into her spot. With new dancers, it’s great to help them out and encourage them if there’s a misstep or two, which adds a bit of humor to the experience in a shared fumbling moment. The dancing is so energetic, I think to myself, “Oh, I’ll never be able to dance the next one, and yet, I am back on the floor looking for that next partner.

Video: September 10, 2015 . . .a friend remarked to me after watching the video, “Dancing looks complicated, I could never remember all those moves!” Experienced participants prompt the newcomers, and they’re ready to dance!

If you like exercise tied with meeting new people and enjoying live music, find a contra dance venue in your area. If you live in Philadelphia, check out the Mt. Airy Contra Dance schedule. See you there!

Many thanks to the Mt. Airy Contra Board for their support for this blog post.


Zumba Hour in the Workplace

What’s the cure for becoming stiff sitting in a chair all day?  How about a Zumba class during the lunch hour! Where else can you shake the shoulders, rotate the wrists, twist the torso, bend the back and  lunge the legs during the work day? For about eight weeks now I’ve participated in a Zumba class at work. I’ve joined 10 million around the world who are now taking classes every week!

Our instructor, Nicole, whose enthusiasm and encouragement drives the energy for the class, leads us through all the moves. Despite my slight dyslexic tendencies, I still can follow Nicole fairly well and don’t have to worry about the right or left foot. I had a hip replacement several years ago, but that didn’t interfere either with following the moves despite the hip rotations. In fact, the entire class keeps up in a unison which is amazing given that  most of us are doing Zumba for the first time and with no common background in dancing. We keep moving during the entire class except for a quick water break. It’s fun to dance in unison, with different ages and backgrounds represented, following routines together.

Zumba, a Latin dance with a fitness component, incorporates many dance elements including salsa, mambo and hip hop.  Some of the moves have a martial arts influence. Zumba, which is not a delicate dance, includes punching, squatting and jumping. I like those elements as they convey power and strength. The high energy level of the music encourages active participation, both mentally and physically. Keeping up with the moves, ques, and anticipating what’s next makes the exercise time go fast.

Here’s a short video with some clips from the class. An hour of dance breaks up the routine . . . . like a party in the middle of the day.  We could use a class every day.


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