The interior of the tent was open and brightly lit, with a bandstand at one end, and a large central dance floor surrounded by tables. At the edges of the tent were the concessions: a few with Greek clothing, jewelry, crafts and packaged food, but mostly a number of tables offering a variety of Greek meals and desserts. Even though I was itching to dance, we decided to get some food first, and did our best to find an empty table, from where we could watch the dancing. The crowd was mostly Greek and probably members of that church- they were seated in groups of family and friends, occasionally greeting familiar passers-by. The folks managing the food tables were gracious and happy to have outsiders visiting. A bunch of international folk dancers were there too, and were among the first to get up and dance a serious syrto or two to the live band. Later, costumed performing groups put on exhibitions, and some of the locals got up to dance the requisite syrtos with their own style. But the floor really filled up when the band played a Pontic tune- a huge long line of all ages formed to do a repetitive, but rhythmically complicated dance. In general, I got the feeling from the festival that this was a community of people enjoying themselves in THEIR way, and while others were welcome, this was distinctly a Greek way of having a good time. And this was even more obvious when they danced that Pontic dance- there was a sense that this is OUR dance and we know how to do. It was not just fun, it was also identity affirming.
This was the first of a series of dance events I got to participate in over the next couple of months, with different communities. One of the ideas I'm always going on about is how Yiddish dance has such great community building benefits. This Greek festival reminded me of what a universal phenomenon communities celebrating themselves in their own way is, and how joyful and necessary that is.
A month or so later, I took part in a yearly gathering of folks involved in teaching and sharing traditional folk arts: dance teachers, mostly, and music teachers, callers, musicians and storytellers. The event is called Pourparler and presents a yearly opportunity for professionals in the field to share and learn from one another. This year's event was held in the epicenter of New England contra dancing, Brattleboro, VT.
Like many of the workshops that I teach at, Pourparler is a once a year gathering with a good balance of repeat attendees and a quick embrace of newcomers. Even if one doesn't go every year there is a sense of society that exists from year to year. Newcomers make new friends easily- perhaps because we're all doing that sociable dance thing- and faces you haven't seen in a year or more feel like extended family. This is pretty typical of these fairs and festivals: a heady holiday camaraderie when like minded folks create a festive encampment. Each of us there was dealing with, within their own specialties, the goal of creating fun and nurturing environments for whatever population we they were dealing with, be they kindergarteners, school kids and parents, families, millenials, seniors, or any other mixed or specific group. But we were sharing and practicing with each other in a workshop setting, a sort of artificial microcosm.
That Saturday night we were all invited to participate, and some of us to lead, at the regular monthly family dance at the hall where we were holding Pourparler. This was the real deal- locals were used to showing up at this- families with young kids, long time folk dancers, a whole gamut. They were used to this and many of the children danced with wonderful skill and confidence. The presence of the Pourparler group added a bit of the exotic- the circus had come to town, bringing with it new personalities and new dances- and so there was some extra excitement in the room. Even though the group was most familiar with contra and barn dances, I was privileged to lead a few sure fire Yiddish figures with the whole group, who all had a fun time. What was wonderful for me to see was how this close knit community- most everyone at the dance knew everyone else- was committed to having their fun together and expected nothing less than a good time. THIS is how they spent an autumn Saturday evening. It's just what THEY did, and we, the Pourparler group, were welcome guests.
Benji and Julie's Wedding
I had to leave early on Sunday for another event in New York. It was hard to leave the intense warmth of the workshop, but I had committed to leading dance at the wedding of two very close friends from the klezmer world. Benji and Julie had, in fact, met at KlezKamp. Benji is a wonderfully talented bass player, singer, and composer, Julie is an ethnologist who had just returned from Moldova when we met, and we formed an immediate bond over martinis- which she hadn't had in a couple of years, and which I always bring supplies for making wherever I travel. Benji and Julie became a very obvious couple and were something of regulars at KlezKamp for several years, so it was no surprise about their getting engaged, more of a feeling of “about time”. And being part of the klezmer scene, it was clear that this was going to be a first rate wedding party, with music and offerings from their very talented friends.
And so it was: the ceremony in Prospect Park in Brooklyn was sweet and lovely, and the party afterward was a modern reboot of an old world wedding, a hip traditional khassene. I'm used to leading dance at weddings and b'nei mitzvah where the celebrants are mostly strangers to me. But at this wedding I was struck with the sudden temporal shift from the theoretical and almost academic, at the workshop, to the practical and lively celebration with my extended klezmer family. When friends weren't on the bandstand playing, they were with me on the dance floor, and not only knew exactly what to do, but they were anticipating doing it. By request we danced a sher (I normally wouldn't try such an elaborate and long dance at most parties that I'm hired for) and since it was a dance so many already knew, they were able to just have fun doing it with their friends. I, too, was dancing with my extended and well informed klezmer "family", and it made being there, at this wedding, with these people, so much more loving and satisfying. For this special group of friends and family, this was the only right way to celebrate Benji and Julie's wedding.
Late December found me, once again at the source of so much of what I do and teach: the Land that Christmas Forgot, The Mothership, The Jewish Brigadoon, KlezKamp. Begun 30 years ago this year, KlezKamp came into being as a way of introducing a new generation to the sources of klezmer music, and to put it into a cultural context. Much of that context had been obliterated by historical forces- the Holocaust, the nascency of Israeli culture, and the residual shame about and devalorization of Ashkenazy culture that formed from that intersection.. With musician and researcher Henry Sapoznik at the helm as director and curator , aided by clarinetist Sherry Mayrent and the late, influential Yiddish singer Adrienne Cooper, Klezkamp became a major crucible and engine of the klezmer revival, with scores of today's musicians soaking up and growing up in the rich environment of music, language, dance and folk arts. Many of the players on the old 78's that were the primary source for tunes and style were found to be still alive, and became faculty and mentors to the new musicians, making the learning a true oral tradition.
I started as dance instructor there about 15 years ago, with a fairly muddled and half baked understanding of the traditional Yiddish dances, but with a lucky ability to get folks moving to the music, and make the dance floor the fun place to be. Building on the research of those who entered the study of Yiddish dance before me, assiduous viewing and analysis of dance in vintage film, my own encounters with dancers from the tradition and my own dance background, I've gradually built up an approach to the dance that I feel well justified in teaching. And in that time, since there are a couple of hours of dancing every evening, I've had the opportunity to cultivate the dance floor there into a magic garden of possibilities. There is a society and set of expectations on the dance floor that regulars look forward to and embrace, and newcomers quickly come to understand and be part of. Dancing is at a level way beyond what can happen during a one time party or workshop. I firmly believe that the dancing is one of the things that helps this ephemeral conglomeration, which exists for as a formal entity for just one week a year, to unite into a real community. At the 25th anniversary of KlezKamp, I devised a dressed-up ball to commemorate the milestone. People took their dressing up seriously, and even somewhat whimsically. The evening was built on the model of 19th century balls, starting with a formal Grand March, and the glorious orchestra was comprised of the all-star faculty. Everyone looked spectacular, and the formal clothing and atmosphere gave the dancing an extra sparkle. That night KlezKamp put on the ritz, and celebrated itself. The Hoohah!, as the evening was called, was a such a hit that it has become a yearly tradition.
I think there are lessons to be learned from all this. What creates a group identity? This has been an urgent topic in the Jewish world, where it seems that it isn't necessarily religion, or social action, or politics that make us feel like us, like Jews. As often as not, these are the things that are divisive of a community. Rather, I'd argue it's the often overlooked integument- the foodways, the jokes, the music and songs, and yes, very importantly the dance, that let us celebrate who we are. These need not be exotic museum artifacts, or kitschy nostalgia, but can be a lively part of what holds us together. If the connection to those traditions has become broken or tenuous, there are people and processes that can revive and revitalize them. It takes a little dedication and commitment but it's hugely worth it.