Folk dancing in the Capital area
by Pat McNees
See links to specific dances and dance groups below
Folk dancing is so big in the Capital area that you can go out and hit the boards every night of the month — and still miss a lot of the action.
Many folks looking for an alternative to jogging or exercise class are turning to the more than 90 local folk dance groups, classes, and regularly scheduled dances. But why dancing?
"Folk dancing keeps things on a human plane," says Julie O'Reagan, who works in TV production and favors Scottish country dancing and American contras. [Many of the people quoted have probably moved on to new jobs.] "Part of the etiquette of contra dancing is the eye contact, so it's in the nature of the dancing that you get involved quickly. But ... you don't come to pair off, you come to dance."
More testimony: "I like it for the sheer joy of the movement," says a legal researcher who keeps her after-hours folk dancing a secret from her daytime colleagues because she doesn't want the two worlds to mingle.
"It's great for business travel," says statistician Dan Siegel. "You get to a new town, call someone from the folk dance network, and spend the evening dancing. There's no other social activity in which you touch someone the same evening you meet them." Rob Theodore, a general contractor, agrees: "Where else can you spend $4 and put your hands on a hundred women?" [Rob got in a lot of trouble with this comment.]
While there is some flirting, attorney Suzanne Caldwell sees folk dancing a little more innocently: "It's like the way I knew people when I was in fifth grade, not knowing anything else about them except how they expressed themselves in the dancing. You don't even know what most of them do for a living."
Most folk dance halls are filled with people whose dance-phobic partners are home watching television, and even at "couples dances" the general practice is to keep changing partners, which means you don't have to bring one along to have a good time. And at an average door price around $5 an evening, (sometimes more, with live music), most devotees think folk dancing is a bargain — and an exceptional health value. Stan Fowler, the Park Service ranger at Glen Echo Park, gave up marathon running for the dance floor. "On a good night folk dancing is just as aerobic," he says.
Why, then, do so many people who hear of the opportunities for folk dancing nearby respond with surprise or indifference? Probably a lot of them avoid dancing because of traumatic box-step experiences in junior high, rainy-day classes in the multipurpose room or gymnasium that left them feeling klutzy and socially incompetent, if not downright hostile.
On the other hand, if you've imagined yourself leading a line of Greek dancers or clogging away to a feverish fiddle, here are some steps you can take.
If you yearn to dance like the peasants in "Fiddler on the Roof," international folk dancing — which is mainly European — may be where to start. Line dances (popularized by Anthony Quinn as "Zorba the Greek" and Melina Mercouri in "Never on Sunday") and circle dances (the most famous of which is the hora) offer lots of fun and distinct advantages. They require no partners, and people with different skill levels can dance together, the weaker dancers copying the stronger dancers.
On the difficult numbers, including the wonderfully assertive Romanian and Bulgarian dances (which make you feel like advance troops in a joyful revolution), beginners watch first and then simply dance "behind the line," imitating the movements of the veteran dancers.
Balkan music and rhythms may sound strange initially, and as Stephen Sklarow, a former biochemist with a degree in Macedonian dance who teaches folk dancing at George Washington University, puts it, "Your feet may not do what your ears hear at first." But it's easy to get hooked on this music, and there's a nice kind of group energy to the dancing. It's what the noted Israeli dancer Moshiko described as "nation-building" music.
Couples dancing is another option that comes in many ethnic flavors. As you move west in European footwork, you see an evolution of cooperation between male and female dancers, explains Sklarow. "Men and women never dance together in traditional Turkey, for example. As you travel farther west, you'll find men and women dancing together, but doing different steps, often with the women standing around while the men do show-off steps. The Scandinavian dances are the most evolved of the couples dances, requiring great rapport; you not only have to learn your own step, but have to cooperate as a couple."
Scandinavian couples' turning dances are difficult to learn but are far more interesting than their cousins, the ballroom dances taught in commercial studios.
Some dancers work toward the highly coordinated couples dancing by starting with the social dancing of the British Isles, either the elegant relatives of American folk dancing (English and Scottish country dancing) or the more robust Irish ceili (pronounced KAY-lee) and set dances. And others start with something closer to home: plain old American folk dancing, which can prove to be anything but plain. The main American dances are the familiar four-couples-in-a-set square dances and the locally more popular contra dances, in which rows of couples swing and twirl their way up and down long sets like something out of "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers."
By far the most popular dance ticket in the Capital area, and one of the biggest dances in the country, is the Friday night dance held in the Spanish Ballroom at Glen Echo Park. These dances are faster, more vigorous and less cornpone than those you may remember from elementary school. Yet they're relatively easy to master, and most of the square and contra dances offer instruction for beginners before the regular dance begins.
Incidentally, there's a huge difference between Eastern (or New England) "folk" squares and contras, and "Western" squares. "Western" square dancing started 50 years ago, when a gent named Pappy Shaw in Denver (hence, "Western") decided square dancing wasn't challenging enough and created an intricate, fast-moving style in which all four couples were doing something simultaneously. To get into a Western dance club, you have to take about 30 lessons to master a basic structure of 72 commands ("right and left through," "grand right and left," etc.). Then, as you move on to more advanced calls like "rotary spin," you graduate from basic to mainstream, advanced and challenge clubs. Emphasis is on precision dancing, mostly to recorded music.
"We kind of look down our nose at the square dancing over at Glen Echo," says Norm Jackson, historian of the Washington Area Square Dancers Cooperative Association (WASCA boasts 172 member clubs). "It's totally open to the public, and they don't meet the criteria for being a member of WASCA."
Not only is everyone welcome at Glen Echo, but you used to occasionally find one or two stray dogs on the dance floor (not in the ballroom’s elegant new state).
Callers introduce most dances with a walk-through explanation, so that even beginners can participate without hours of lessons. Many people arrive singly instead of as couples, you never see men and women in matching outfits, and you're lucky if the fans work in the summer. Yet the parking lot and dance floor are jampacked on a Friday night.
But American folk dancers do seem to be snobbish about their music: It must be live, not canned. And the nation's capital is one of the best areas in the country for string band music.
One common characteristic of all folk dances: Because they're handed down from generation to generation, they tend to be structured-and, therefore, learnable. Many beginners probably agree with what WASCA's Norm Jackson says about square dancing: It appeals to people who are uncomfortable with what he calls free-form dancing (you know, "Waltz a little faster, it's a rhumba") and want a formula to follow.
"While you're dancing, your mind is totally focused on what the caller is telling you to do, and you're blocking out everything else," says Jackson. "But it's a joyful atmosphere, and everyone is having fun. It just removes all your trouble and woes."
Originally published fifteen years ago in the Washington Post as “Folk Dancing's Leaps & Bounds — Every Night, There's Action.” Pat wrote several such articles for the Post, gradually gathering them in Dancing: A Guide to the Capital Area. Copyright (c) by Pat McNees. For permission to reprint, contact the author (click here).
LINKS TO FOLK DANCES IN THE CAPITAL AREA
As of March 2023, most group dancing in the Capital area is still suspended because of Covid.
• The Folklore Society of Greater Washington (FSCW) (click on the dance calendar to see current dance events, including a few balls!)
• Annapolis Traditional Dance Society
• Baltimore Folk Music Society (BFMS--sign up for their weekly e-mail listing events)
• Contra Dance/ Contradance in the United States, Canada, and the World
• International Folk Dancing (line, circle, and couple dancing from the Balkans, Europe, Scandinavia & Other Places, Friday Nights, Greenbelt Community Center: Larry Weiner, Ben Hole, John Robinson, Michael Gelman).
• The Dance Gypsy (info about contra dance, folk dance & other traditional dance forms and guide to dances and and festivals in the U.S.A. and Canada, particularly New England)
• Dances at Glen Echo Park
• Maryland Contra Dance, Square Dance, and Waltz Schedule
• Folklore Society of Greater Washington (FSGW) maintains best calendar for all folk music and dance activity in the area
• Contra Dance/ Contradance in the United States, Canada, and the World
• Friday Night Dance at Glen Echo (this is where to come when you've never done contra dancing before -- beginners are welcome--held in The Spanish Ballroom, restored to all its 1933 splendor, or in the adjacent wonderful, covered, radiant-heated Bumper Car Pavilion, converted to new uses!)
• FSGW's Sunday Night Contra and Square Dance (Sunday night dances at Glen Echo attract more experienced contra dancers, and beginners may feel a little in the way; most dancers try to be gracious but they also line up dances 2 or 3 in a row, to be sure to have a good partner). Great contra dancing, also held either in the Spanish Ballroom or the Bumper Car Pavilion
• Family Dance (welcomes all ages, including children; usually held the second Sunday of the month. Held in the Glen Echo Park Bumper Car Pavilion from May through October. It moves to Glen Echo Town Hall from November through April. The dance is not held in August and December.)
• Contra dancing, Wikipedia entry about
• Annapolis Traditional Dance Society (contra dances third Saturday of month, English country dances normally first Saturdays of March, June, September, and November)
• Bluemont Country Dances (Hillsboro, VA, third Saturday of the month)
• Frederick Maryland Contra Dance) (fourth Saturdays of each month)
• Rockville Maryland Square Dancing
• Shepherdstown contra (Shepherdstown Music and Dance, West Virginia)
• Village Swingers Square Dance Club (Facebook page, Rockville, Maryland)
• Country Dance (Wikipedia)
• Contra and English Country Dancing Links . Many links and details here and this advice: To find out about these events go to a dance at Glen Echo and pick up flyers.
• English Country Dance (FSGW, every Wednesday evening at the Glen Echo Town Hall)
• English Country Dance at Glen Echo
• Germantown Country Dancers (English country dancing). YouTube, Dancing "The Black Nag"
• Links to YouTube videos of Country English dancing
• 10 Years Waltz (YouTube video)
• Scottish Country Dancing in the Washington DC area lovely, peppy, graceful dancing to lively music ((sample here)
• Nearby Scottish Country Dancing . This site has links to lessons, dance groups, dance events.
• Irish Dancing and Music in the Baltimore-Washington DC Area
• Greater Washington Ceili Club
• Tuesday night Ceili dance (meets at Green Acres Center, 4401 Sideburn Road, Fairfax Virginia, 22030)
• Ring of Kerry Irish Dancers (Gaithersburg, Maryland -- teach Irish social, or folk, dances.
Irish social dancing involves two, four, or more couples dancing together in a programmed set of movements)
And for those with lots of energy:
• The Rock Creek Women's Morris Team , which is also on Facebook
• Foggy Bottom Morris Men
• Morris Dancing wiki
• Cutting Edge Sword (Facebook page of Washington, DC based Sword Dance performance group, performing both new and re-interpreted traditional dances, primarily in the styles of English Rapper and Longsword)
• Video of men Morris Dancing in Oxford. This is a way to stay in shape!
• Thrir Venstri Fœtr ( a DC-area-based dance group and band organized to recreate and explore medieval music and renaissance music and dance)
International folk dancing includes International, Scottish, English, Scandinavian and Israeli folk dancing. International includes Bulgarian, Albanian, Macedonian, Serbian, Roma, and more--including the ethnic dances listed in first sentence.
• Diamond Dance Circle (The International Folk Dancers of Bethesda -- a very welcoming group for beginners, with a beginner lesson followed by intermediate, and then general social dancing--meets almost every Monday at the Lawton (formally named Leland) Community Center, 4301 Willow Lane, Bethesda, Md. 20815). Listen to the great music on this website. I love it!
• Friday Night International Folk Dancing (Greenbelt Community Center dance studio, Line, Circle, and Couple Dancing from the Balkans, Europe, Scandinavia & Other Places--usually led by Larry Weiner)
• Columbia International Folkdancers (meet Wednesday nights from 8:00PM to 10:30PM at Kahler Hall in Columbia, Maryland)
• Charlottesville International Folk Dance (meet Wednesday evenings in Senior Center, 1180 Pepsi Place, Charlottesville, VA)
Here's their dance list (PDF)
Scandinavian couples turning dances
• Scandia DC Norwegian and Swedish couple turning dances, taught by Linda Brooks and Ross Schipper. The group meets every 3rd Saturday of the month from September through May (with a break for the summer). These aren't easy dances to learn but when you learn them they are great fun--if you can find other people who can dance them! We are lucky to have this group here.)
• Scandinavian dance classes with Lisa (Beginners learn Hambo, Schottis, Waltz, Polka, and other couples turning dances, with a focus on Hambo. Hambo is hard to learn but great once you learn it. Intermediate dancers learn Rørospols, Snoa, and Zwiefacher. Lisa also teaches a series of Zwiefacher dances now and then--a dance that is often done once at each Sunday waltz at Glen Echo. Lisa has links to Scandinavian dances on her website.
• Mid-Atlantic Norwegian Dancers
• Nordic Dancers of Washington, DC
• Waltz and Scandinavian dance links for the U.S. and Canada
• ("Get Up and Contradance," YouTube video, Contra Carnivale weekend) filmed January 2009 at the Veterans' Memorial Building in San Luis Obispo, California by Dale Komai.
• Contra dancing , a mixed media presentation of Doug Plummer's contra dance photo project.
• Crowfoot in Tacoma (Doug Plummer does great video, doesn't he? -- this one shows aerial views, which helps you see the big picture)
• Greek folk dances (in costume)
• Contra dance at Glen Echo (Folklore Society of Greater Washington)
• Greater Washington Ceili Set Dancers in concert at the Musical Arts and Dance Week (MAD, at Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church, Bethesda, MD)
• Final dance, Great American Square Dance Revival (DC Square Dance Collective celebrates one year of hosting traditional square dances in the nation's capital, 3/3/2012)
• Emerald City Cloggers (performing in Seattle)
• New England folk dancing (filmed in New Hampshire)
• Ceili Irish Dance (The Walls of Limerick, for beginners)
• Carpathia Folk Dancers of DC (which performs dances from Ukraine, Romania, Poland, and of the Roma)
• The Kilkennys do Irish dancing at the Watergate (a performance group--you don't have to be that good at a social ceili)
• The Sunday night contra dance at Glen Echo "Elixir playing, Nils Fredland calling
• Contra dance at Glen Echo (Ann Fallon calls while "AP and the Banty Roosters" play, 1-4-13)
• "Gypsy Meltdown" contra dance at Glen Echo (12-5-12).
• Contra dances at Glen Echo's Spanish Ballroom (KLMABON channel, YouTube)
Other dance pages on Pat's website
• Dancing: A guide to the Capital area (Dancing in DC, Maryland, and Northern Virginia)
• Ballroom Dance
• Country Western Dancing
• Folk dancing in the Capital area (Contra, English country, international, Irish, Israeli, Scandinavian, Scottish)
• Love at First Waltz (by Cheryl Kollin)
• Shuffling Off to Buffalo Gap Dance Camp (Pat McNees)
• Swing, lindy, jitterbug, shag, and hand-dancing
• Dating -- again! (that's extra, but often relevant -- dancing is one way to restore your social self, after separation)
Many of the stories by Pat McNees posted here appeared first in the Washington Post