A Stellar Experience

I’m late posting a report about the 2008 Stellar Days and Nights weekend. I hope I can remember stories from two weeks ago.

Dave, Noralyn, Hamish and I hit the road the morning of February 21, and despite a little detour in Española through the San Ildefonso Pueblo (“Dave, the shadows are wrong if we’re supposed to be heading north.” “Does this look right?” “Well, I don’t remember ever driving through the Pueblo before.”), we made it to Stellar by 4 p.m. We oohed and aahed at the herd of 15 elk of all sizes framed against the snowy piñons along the highway, saw multiple hawks and eagles perched on posts watching for lunch, and drove into the occasional vortex of whirling snow as we travelled farther north.

The Stellar weekend is located at the Adventure Unlimited Ranches, an 1,100 acre facility nestled in the foothills of the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness. “Bring snowshoes,” the organizers advised. We did and were glad. The Ranch sits outside Buena Vista, Colorado, about a 300-mile drive straight north of Albuquerque on Highway 285. It’s in a rural spot with the last several miles on a dirt, ice-splotched road. A frozen snow-covered lake is just below Valerie Lodge, where the eating and dancing and hanging out occur. The log lodge has a great wooden dance floor, giant windows with views of the Arkansas River Valley and surrounding mountains, and a large fireplace, which was lit all weekend long.

Valerie Lodge
Valerie Lodge, Photo by Merri Rudd

A distant 14,000′ peak peeked over the mountains beyond the lake and caught the last light of the setting sun. I have attended many camps before, but none in as beautiful a setting as Stellar. Did I mention there were about 4′ of snow already there? And we were at 8,600′ elevation surrounded by fragrant evergreens? I saw snowshoe hare tracks and scat, and one dancer actually saw the hare, blending in with the snow. Although it was well below freezing at night, I never wore all of the layers that I brought.

Over 100 participants, including 20 New Mexicans, stayed in heated log cabins with bathrooms. People skiied, snowshoed and tromped back and forth between the cabins and dance hall. I especially enjoyed snowshoeing to the lodge in my queen’s costume and long velvet skirt.

The staff consisted of Eden MacAdam-Somer & Larry Unger (who comprise a band called Notorious), Erika Gerety, Bruce Thomson, John Brinduse, Peter Esherick, and Gary Blank (Albuquerque’s own Hands Five), Jim Borzym teaching waltzing, Ron Sommers, the ace sound engineer, and me, teaching and calling contra and English country dance all weekend. That I still had my voice after this calling marathon is a testament to Ron’s skill.

Notorious, Hands Five, Merri
Stellar Staff, Photo courtesy of Peter Esherick

Eleanor Fahrney, the main organizer of Stellar, presented our mission at the staff meeting before Thursday’s dinner. Her six “Points” (like a star/snowflake has) of Stellar were Inclusivity, Quality, Keeping the Traditions Alive, Rejuvenating, Individualized, and Fun. Eleanor had help–other organizers and volunteers to whom she delegated tasks nicely (“I’m getting into this delegating thing,” she announced toward the end of the weekend). The best thing about the weekend for me was discovering that contra and English and square dancing really do have a next generation of energetic and talented leaders like Eleanor, Wendy Graham, Chad Filipski, and Andrea Earley-Coen (formerly with the midwest band Pig’s Eye Landing)–in the middle of rural Colorado, no less. They’re young (some aren’t even 30 yet), they’re energetic, they’re creative, and they love the traditions of folk music and dance.

We started dancing at 7:30 Thursday night and hardly stopped until 11:30 Sunday morning. Eden on fiddle and Larry on guitar and banjo are supremely skilled musicians; together they are musical synergy, feeding off each other and driving each other. They go places musically that most musicians can only imagine. Larry and Eden go there every set. At times they sound like a band of 5 or 6 musicians; their energy and skill take the crowd to dance nirvana. Toward the end of the weekend, Gary and Peter sat in with them on percussion and bass. During my ‘thank you’s’ on Sunday morn, I said that working with Eden and Larry was like skiing down a really steep, wild and wooly hill. But I knew I’d arrive at the bottom safely every time. And so I did. I wrote them when I got home and said I hope they wake up every morning grateful for the gifts they’ve been given.

Eden & Larry
Notorious, aka Eden & Larry, Photo by Merri Rudd

During a couples’ dancing workshop, Larry realized he’d left his Zweifacher music at home. So he sat at the back of the stage, lined music stave sheets in his lap, and created a new tune, “The Merri Zweifacher.” Brilliant.

English country dance requires one to move in totally different ways from contra dancing. In English dance one floats above the floor, leaning slightly forward, feet following. I like to say that you are “leading with your heart.” One challenge of introducing English country dance to contra dancers is to hold their interest. The uninitiated think that English country dance is “slow, boring contra dance.” How wrong they are! Mary Devlin of Portland, Oregon helped me create the two workshops that I taught. Plus I had done lots of “research” at Oklahoma City’s recent English weekend. For the first English workshop on Friday morning, Elegant English: A Proper Primer, I presented:

  • Lover’s Knot to the tune Black & Grey
  • Midnight Ramble
  • Take a Dance
  • Yellow Stockings (in 9/8 slip jig time)
  • Leah’s Waltz to the tune Amelia, in sets of three couples, and
  • Female Saylor
  • About half of the weekend’s dancers attended the English workshops, some dancing English for the first time (the rest were off sleeping, snowshoeing, skiing, singing, jamming, or soaking in the hot springs). Many were surprised at the exuberance of the dances. Others enjoyed the intense moments of eye contact and discovery of the various story lines of the dances. I reminded them that these great moments could also be found in other dance forms. Several reluctant contra dancers recognized the error of their ways and reported to me (with some surprise) that they “now love English country dance.”

    On Saturday morn, in my resplendent maroon and pink queen’s gown, I presented the second English workshop, Digging Deeper into English: By George, I think I’ve got it!, with these dances:

  • Indian Queen in 2/2 time
  • Well Hall in 3/2 time, one of my favorite dances for illustrating the great ‘moments’ of connection inherent to English dance
  • Jack’s Health (I made a movie of this one so I could remember how good the dancers looked)
  • Key to the Cellar, a triple minor dance that we did twice in Oklahoma, and
  • Fenterlarick, a modern English dance to the tune Nancy’s Fancy
  • A retired schoolteacher approached me at the end of the second workshop. She said she really enjoyed how I captured the dancers’ attention with my enthusiasm and love for English dance, which she felt was strongly evident. I stood silently for a moment, then with tears filling my eyes, I said, “For twenty years, I set a bad example on the dance floor with my disdain for English country dance. And then one day about five years ago, I ‘got’ it. I LOVE English now, and I’m trying to make up for all the harm I did before.” “Well,” she said, “don’t worry. You’re more than making up for it now.” Readers can judge for themselves the joy on these English dancers’ faces.

    Morning English Workshop
    Morning English Workshop, Photo by Merri Rudd

    Hands Five, who debuted in Albuquerque on January 1, 2005, have quickly risen to notoriety in the contra dance world. Their original fiddler was 17-year-old Ryan, who headed off to the northwest for college a year later. Bruce Thomson, one of New Mexico’s finest and most diverse fiddlers (only slightly older than 17 and with whom I’ve been calling for more than 15 years), took over. Joined by Peter Esherick on hammer dulcimer, Erika Gerety on bass, John Brinduse on guitar (and this weekend keyboard!), and Gary Blank on percussion and a haunting, full-sized didgeridoo, Hands Five know how to rev up the dance energy. Their repertoire is eclectic and entertaining. They love to play for both concerts and dances and most of them love to dance. They understand how music and dance fit together. They study tempos, matching tunes to dances, and ‘zinging’ the dancers with the tunes. I recommended Hands Five to Eleanor when she hired me last year, and I wondered how they’d fare alongside a band as seasoned as Notorious. I wonder no more. Hands Five shined; they rose to the occasion; pick your metaphor–they were stars.

    The dancers were stars too. They handled everything that Jim and I threw at them with good nature and enthusiasm. They forgave my mistakes, such as “sing on the side,” shouting “la la la la” in unison. They laughed and twirled and spun and appeared to have a grand time. We didn’t stick to my Plan A (we never do), but we did dances such as Peter Stix’s What are Hands Four?, Ted Sanella’s Love and Kisses, Cary Ravitz’s Snake in the Hey, Maliza’s Magical Mystery Motion, and Gypsy Star, Carol Ormand’s Stars of Alberta and Coray’s Silver Jubilee, Kathy Anderson’s Weave the Line, Danish Dessert, and Tropical Gentleman, William Watson’s The Devil’s Backbone, Martin Sirk’s Venus & Mars, Tom Hinds’ Batja’s Breakdown and The Tease, Robert Cromartie’s M.A.D. About Dancing, Mary Devlin’s Triplet to Eugene, Gene Hubert’s Halliehurst, Becky Hill’s The Eyes Have It and Smooth Sailing, Devin Nordberg’s Devin’s Settlement, Bob Isaacs’ Cure for the Clap, Joseph Pimentel’s Ramsay Chase, Susan Kevra’s Trip to Phan Reel, and my own Convolution. Of course, no Stellar weekend would be complete without Al Olson’s Eleanor’s Reel, named for Stellar’s Eleanor (I arranged ahead for her husband Andrew to dance this one with her). And The Dreaded Swing….

    These are only some of the dances that I called. All in all, I taught about 60 dances throughout the weekend, except for the last half hour of Friday night, when Eleanor leaped onto stage and called so I could go to sleep. Calling the weekend was fun, but it would have been more fun if I’d been able to dance more. I’m encouraging the organizers to hire two callers next year to share the work and the fun! I am looking forward to being one of three callers at Oregon’s Northwest Passage Camp, along with Bruce Hamilton and Sue Rosen. Notorious and Phantom Power will play.

    We couldn’t have maintained our energy all weekend without the gourmet meals provided by nationally known chef Annie Johnston from Bend, Oregon. She has been feeding dancers for twenty years–homemade frittatas, blueberry cobbler, foccacio, soups, Moroccan coconut chicken, rosemary bread, fudge caramel upside down cake, apricot almond poppy seed coffeecake, and other spectacular treats. Despite Annie’s decadent dishes, I didn’t gain any weight. Apparently, hurling my energy from the stage to the dancers burns off calories! Annie will be cooking for the Northwest Passage weekend too.

    Late Saturday night after hanging out in front of the big fireplace with wired dancers, I snowshoed back to my cabin. The bright light of stars pierced the pitch dark sky. Snow fell gently. I could barely breathe for fear of disturbing the beauty of the night. It was still snowing the next morning, and the Durango folks reported that they were leaving after breakfast, before the farewell dance, to make it over the pass before the snow made the roads difficult. But I looked out at the dancers (still three lines of dancers those last two hours), and I saw a few Durangoans dancing. “I thought you were heading home,” I said. “Yep, we are, any minute.” They stayed until the end, until Eden led us in a farewell song. Then people sledded their luggage to the road, packed their cars, said their good-byes, and headed out into the swirling snow, with tunes and songs and dances just a memory in their minds. And we four did the same, recounting stories and images and the joy of music and dance all the way home.

    We Four
    Merri, Noralyn, Dave & Hamish in Farewell Snowstorm

    The staff did not have a debriefing meeting to evaluate whether we accomplished Eleanor’s six Points. But I’m pretty sure if you polled those present, most would agree, “It was an amazing weekend, filled with awesome food, camaraderie, music and dance.” Perhaps some of them will post comments to this entry and share their own stories.

    Merri Rudd
    Albuquerque, NM