Give Folk Dancing a Whirl

  • By:  Mary Ellen Miles

About nine of us gathered on a recent Friday night at a meeting of the Virginia Beach International Folk Dance Club. It was my first visit, but the group was so welcoming, I ended up lingering after the music had stopped and only a few members were left. I didn’t want the experience to end.

During an Israeli dance called Zemer Atik, we put our right hands on the person to our right’s shoulder. Left hands were held up, like a tray, so the person to our left could put his hand on top of it. We stepped, swayed, clapped, sang, snapped our fingers, and felt joyful. I also felt thankful for the dance instructor on my left, softly and calmly reassuring me, telling me to relax, slow down, and listen for the beat of the music.

International folk dancing allows participants to celebrate dances from around the world, many of which were created centuries ago. Folk dances range from slow and relaxing to fast and energetic, from easy to expert levels of difficulty. The dances are usually done in a line or in a circle with everyone holding hands. Some are couple dances—also done in a circle or in sets.

One of the club members wore a t-shirt that said “International Understanding Through Dance.” Like a smile, the joy in dancing is contagious and universal. It also exposes us to other cultures, their languages, and music. Let’s meet a few local dancers who are keeping folk dancing traditions alive here in Tidewater.

PRESERVING CULTURE

“My mom kick-started my love of dance,” said Portsmouth resident Christiana Vastardis, 21. She dances during Norfolk’s annual Greek Festival every May, the largest and oldest ethnic festival in the region held at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral. Christiana grew up attending church at Annunciation. She began as a child dancer in their troupes and now enjoys giving back to the Greek community as an adult instructor. She also dances with the church’s alumni group and in a private Newport News troupe. “It’s addictive,” she said. “And you do get a workout!”

Christiana began teaching at Annunciation as a college freshman. Her students just participated in their fourth festival there. “It’s my very favorite time of year,” Christiana said. “It’s better than Christmas! I get to walk around in my Greek costume, and it’s socially acceptable. You have American friends who come and see you in your element.”

“It’s easy to get lost in American culture,” Christiana continued. “Kids can lose their identity. It’s wonderful to see how the Greek culture is being preserved. And sharing it with others is the joy, I find.”

Sometimes Christiana’s younger students don’t have a dance foundation, so part of her job is making the kids feel comfortable. “We go over a lot of fundamentals, like keeping the shape of the circle,” she explained. “I try to keep the dances simple, so they can focus on the techniques. You see their spark of interest start.”

She said her middle schoolers are a little more experienced, and they catch on quickly. “Their ability amazes me. They just pick it up right away,” Christiana said. “They appreciate variety and I give them more difficult dances. I’m so impressed with them.”

“I have so many people who help me with this wonderful ministry,” Christiana explained. “Anna Manning, who oversees the dance ministry at our church, is my right arm. We also have wonderful moms who volunteer to help us take care of the costumes and keep everything organized during the craziness that is festival weekend.”

Chesapeake resident Anna Manning, 49, is the director for the festival dance troupes. “We expect a lot out of our kids, and they are wonderful,” said Anna. “They are all good students, participate in sports and other activities, and attend Greek school.” Anna, like Christiana, was raised at Annunciation. Her three children dance there. “They love it,” she said. “They can’t wait for the practices and the festival.”   

“Being an Orthodox Christian is not a faith that’s very easy,” Christiana said. “But that’s also why it’s so wonderful. In everything that you do, you praise the Lord. The ministries here give the opportunity for the youth to give back to the church. It’s a really beautiful thing to do.”

Consistent attendance at dance practices is very important, Christiana said. “But I don’t put practices above church and school, which are their top priorities,” she said. “I give all of the glory of this to Christ, who is the center of our lives and all that we do.”

You can find Greek dancing at other occasions besides Annunciation’s Greek Festival. My Big Fat Greek Party held July 10-12 at the Va. Beach Oceanfront will feature dancers from Annunciation. They also perform at NATO and other international festivals, as well as select private events.

SENSE OF COMMUNITY

Newport News resident Ben Allbrandt, 57, agrees that folk dancing is addictive. He’s been dancing and calling dance moves for about 25 years. “It’s just an extraordinary group of fellowship, a lifetime of enjoyment, and a really rewarding thing,” he said. “If you asked me when I was 25 if I would have been participating in and organizing recreational folk dance clubs, I would have said, ‘No way. Never.’”

The Virginia Beach International Folk Dance Club started in the 1970s and waxed and waned in popularity in the 1980s, Ben said. He joined in 2001 and is one of the organizers for the group. Ben reflected on why the group has had a difficult time attracting new members, especially young adults. In this age of instant gratification, many of us want fast results, he said. However, dancing takes practice, just like learning a musical instrument or an aerobic exercise routine.

The folk dance club meets at Aikido Martial Arts Studio on Baker Rd. in Va. Beach, but is hoping to find a new, inexpensive home with a wood sprung floor offering “give” for dancing. Weekly dance get-togethers provide a sense of community for members, many of whom don’t have family in the area, Ben said. And even though they don’t dance during the summer months, they get together for holidays and other events.

Ben helped start the Norfolk contra dance group (TRADIN: Traditional Dance in Norfolk) in 1993. They hold a monthly Saturday night dance with live music and a caller. There’s also been one in Norge for about 30 years, he said. “They have one in almost every state, in most metropolitan areas. Youth flock to contra dancing,” Ben said. The kids modernize the music and steps all the time.

Contra is a dance form with roots in more formal British and Irish dancing, Ben explained. The dance name comes from the French word “contraire,” meaning opposite/contrary. “Dancers stand in contradictory lines of opposition, as opposed to a square,” said Ben.

“Anyone who can walk and count to eight can contra dance,” Ben said. The steps are easy and, like with a lot of folk dancing, you don’t have to bring a partner—you dance with everyone there. In Norfolk, an introductory session is held for newcomers prior to the dance. And don’t feel like you have to be in shape to participate in any of the dance groups. You dance whatever dances you want to and sit out when you feel like it.

CHALLENGE YOUR MIND

Norfolk resident, Birgit Huskey, 49, dances with a Polish performance group, as well as the folk dance club. “It’s good exercise,” she said, “especially the real energetic dances that we do.” Born and raised in Germany, Birgit had no real dance experience other than the ballroom dance lessons she took as a teenager.  

But everything changed when she moved to Texas in 1990 and got involved in international folk dancing. “It was exactly what I needed and didn’t know I did,” she explained. “I love the versatile dances that challenge your mind and your feet. It’s really a lot of fun. And it broadens your horizons to other cultures.”

“We have a good old time,” Birgit said of the Virginia Beach group she’s belonged to since 2001. “We’re basically a bunch of friends. It’s like a village square…just simple dances, chatting, and fun.” She doesn’t mind that they don’t dance many German dances, many of which are “couple dances,” she said, and they don’t always have enough couples to dance together.

“We do a lot of Eastern European dances,” she said: Turkish, Albanian, Armenian, Balkin, Kurdish, Israeli—all with lovely recorded music. The group doesn’t discuss a lot of history or current affairs. “We’re informal—friends getting together, dancing and teaching,” Birgit said.

They take turns sharing new dances that they learn from attending workshops or even from You-Tube, as Janis Doss, 29, did recently. A Norfolk resident, Janis joined the group about a year ago to have some fun and stay busy while her military spouse was deployed. She’d taken belly-dancing classes for about six years and was interested in dances from other cultures. She felt welcome on her initial visit and liked that there was “no pressure” involved. She researched Bollywood-style dances of India, watched You-Tube, scripted some of her own moves, and taught the group a new dance. 

“It’s a very friendly, safe environment,” Birgit said. “A lot of single women come.”           

NO BETTER EXERCISE

York County resident, Judy McDowell, 69, was exposed to dance as a child, and she loved it. Her parents were international folk dancers in a club and in a German performing group in Washington, D.C. “I had the same babysitter every Thursday night,” she said. Her parents would go out dancing and leave Judy home, much to her dismay. “I couldn’t go because it was their thing as a couple,” she said. 

She got into contra dancing and international folk dance as an adult. “I’ve driven to Virginia Beach almost every Friday night for about 35 years,” Judy said. To dance! Though not currently active in the Friday group, she attends the Norfolk and Norge contra dances. “I dance as much as I can,” she said. 

She said contra appeals to all ages, and participants grin all night. “They just can’t NOT smile…there’s so much energy and fun,” she said. “There’s no better way to exercise than to music. You can be as energetic, or not, as you want to be.”

The dancing groups seem to be great matchmakers. “People find people of like mind and start dating,” Judy said. “It’s one way to meet people who enjoy doing healthy activities. And there’s so much fun dancing at their weddings!”

Judy has danced around the world. “Making connections with people through dance is a wonderful way to get to know folks,” she said. “You are speaking a similar language through dance.” She’s danced with school children and adults in the Czech Republic and more recently with a bagpiper in Scotland. “He was surprised that I knew the dance,” she said. “I used to dance it with my father.” 

To Judy’s delight, her teenaged grandkids have recently gotten into contra. They live in the D.C. area, where folk dance groups are numerous. “I’d be in trouble if I lived up there,” Judy said. “I wouldn’t do anything else.”

During my Friday night foray into folk dancing, club members were forgiving of my missteps and awkwardness. I loved the music—mystical and charming—that made me think of far-away lands. Everyone danced the last number, a Macedonian line dance called “Lesnoto” that requires simple and slow steps. Holding hands raised halfway, we wove to the right, to the left, forward and backward to a medley of Macedonian tunes. Our relaxed moves sped up towards the end, a crescendo to the evening. We all smiled throughout and left the circle feeling the warmth of kinship.

For more information:

• Virginia Beach International Folk Dance Club

www.meetup.com/Virginia-Beach-International-Folk-Dancing

• Norfolk Contra Dancers

www.meetup.com/Norfolk-Contra-Dance

• Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral

www.annunciation.va.goarch.org

Mary Ellen Miles is a freelance writer who lives in Virginia Beach.

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