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, 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.
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.
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:
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:
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, 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.
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.
I just spent a whole weekend in Oklahoma City at an English country dance weekend. It was fantastic!
My long-time dance friends know that this is a remarkable declaration. I failed to embrace English country dance for more than 20 years, and only in the last five years have I discovered its beauty, nuance, and grace.
Eight New Mexicans attended the event, along with about 75 other dancers from Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia, Colorado, Kansas, and other spots. Meg, Kit, Mary, and I flew. Richard Wilson drove 1,000 miles with daughters Karina and Lily and family friend Mia. Karina is in her early 20’s and has become quite an accomplished dance fiddler. We stayed at local homes with wonderful hospitality. Our hostess extraordinaire Cia pampered us with meals and stories, and we were delighted to find tasty and affordable Indian and Vietnamese food around town.
Bare Necessities, THE premier English dance band in the world, flew in from various states for the event. Jacqueline Schwab played piano while calling the dances. Peter Barnes on flute, English horn, and penny whistle, Mary Lea on fiddle, and Earl Gaddis on fiddle rounded out the band. English country dance music is rooted in the 1600 and 1700’s, with some modern compositions thrown in. The music swells, transcends, and heartbreakingly evokes simpler and more peaceful times. The dances, each of which matches a particular tune, were danced in England in castles and villages. The dances immigrated to America along with the dancers. They require grace and precision with “moments” of connection with one’s partner and others. Many of the dances are jubilant, some are elegant, all are fun. Dance moves immortal through time.
It wasn’t until lunch at Lido’s on Saturday that Earl mentioned casually that he had 104 fever. Taking his temperature after his meal revealed that it had dropped to 99-something. During lunch we told him and Jacqueline about Karina, whose radiant fiddling is the hope for the future of English dance in New Mexico.
Most of the dancers who attended the weekend were somewhat or greatly experienced. However, a few new dancers braved the weekend and happily survived. We danced three hours Friday night, had a two and a half hour workshop Saturday morn, 3-hour workshop Saturday afrternoon, and fancy final ball Saturday evening. Surprisingly, I did not take an Advil, get a blister, or suffer any consequences from leaping and twirling and gliding about with vigor and exuberance. I had not planned to wear the “period dress” requested, but not required. However, a few days before we travelled, I found a maroon velvet queen’s costume with regal gold trim for $7 at the thrift store. AND it was machine washable.
Mary, Kit, Merri, Meg (photo by Richard Letts from Austin)
During the Saturday night dance, I heard an especially beautiful waltz flowing from the stage. I looked over and observed that Karina was playing fiddle with Bare Necessities and Earl was nowhere to be seen! Astonished, I sat out one dance to watch her fingers silently pluck the strings, rehearsing the tune while Jacqueline taught the dance. I admired Karina’s serenity and joy playing with these new-to-her musicians. I studied the communication between the musicians, and how each dropped out to showcase the others. Afterwards, Karina was euphoric and thanked us for “talking her up” to the band. “We’re very proud of you,” I replied.
Peter Barnes (in period dress?), Mary Lea, Karina, Jacqueline Schwab
photo by Mary Beath
It turned out that Earl was lying on his stomach behind the stage with 5 acupuncture needles protruding from the base of his skull. His fever had rekindled, and he needed help. Luckily for Earl, one of the dancers present was also a doctor and acupunturist. With needles still visible, he played the last few tunes of the night and proclaimed that he hadn’t felt this fine in several days.
The organizers of this weekend, Carol Barry and Kevin Barrett, created a memorable event from the beautifully decorated hall to the excellent sound to the ambiance of long ago. Even the name tags were brilliantly inventive, laminated paper with a washer, a magnet, and double stick tape.
As they might say in Shakespeare’s day…”Huzzah!!!”
Saturday’s Ball (Richard and Lily Wilson in foreground)
Photo by Mary Beath
Imagine travelling 600 miles to a remote mountain resort outside Salt Lake City, Utah to be the guest caller at a dance weekend you’ve never attended. You’ll be working with a band you’ve never heard play and calling for dancers you’ve never seen dance. Will they know how to dance? Does the band know the kinds of tunes you need? How will you be received? Luckily, I didn’t spend much time worrying about any of these things. If I had, it would have been a waste of time. The weekend worked out just fine.
I just wrote this blurb for the Bag o’ Tricks’, my band for the weekend, web page.
“I was hired to call a dance weekend in Utah with Bag o’ Tricks. Neither the band nor I had ever encountered one another. I was in for a mighty pleasant surprise–I absolutely adored working with Bag o’ Tricks! Anita Anderson, Dave Bartley, and Sande Gillette are hugely talented, supremely cooperative, eager to please, hilarious, upbeat and amazingly versatile. Need a rowdy, southern, tune? Done. Slinky, sexy, jazzy? Done, done, done. Flowing, mixed, African/Egyptian? No problem. English country? Anita will help you teach by lightly playing piano during the walk-throughs. And they authored half the tunes they play. An added bonus: all band members are delightful, good-hearted human beings and lots of fun to hang out with. I’d work with them again in a heartbeat!”
Bag o’ Tricks’ fiddler Sande Gillette replied,
“Thank you so much for all your kind words. The feeling is definitely mutual — we had so much fun working with you and experiencing your wide range of styles, your amazing ability to make people not only comfortable but ready to also try something new, and your fun sense of humor. We saw behind the scenes how much preparation and thought you had given to the weekend, but you have the great ability to make it all seem spontaneous — a recipe for success for dancers, musicians, caller, and camp. I hope we have the opportunity to work with you somewhere again soon!!!!”
Those two quotes summarize the success of the weekend. But I’ll share a few more details.
I was walking out of my room at the quaint Brighton Lodge, when I rounded a corner and saw two people, one of whom (Dave Bartley) I recognized from the Wiggle web page. “Are you Mary?” I asked the other person. “Are you Merri?” she replied. It was Dave and his wife Mary, returning from a hike. We hugged and immediately took to each other. These two have been married for 17 years, and both radiate exceptionally good kharma:
Mary & Dave Bartley, Photo by Merri Rudd, (c) 2006
The Wasatch Wiggle camp is set at 9,000′ elevation and the dance hall is up a steep hill from the Brighton Lodge. The Wasatch Mountain Club built the dark wood facility in 1921, I think, with various add-ons since then. It has low ceilings, good acoustics, a great wood floor, and two large posts down the middle of the room that scared me as I watched the dancers. No one knocked themselves unconscious dancing into the posts, I’m happy to report.
My Albuquerque friends and long-time travelling companions Melissa and Lew joined me at the Wiggle. An extra surprise: Richard Riger from Albuquerque signed up at the last minute to help Nancy from Texas gain admittance to the weekend. It was his first out-of-state camp, and he blogged about it at http://folkmadsroadtrips.blogspot.com/. Most of the other dancers hailed from Utah, with a smattering from Idaho, Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Florida and Georgia.
The organizers, Brenda, Tom, Melanie, Lori, and Debbie, have created a very welcoming weekend. It’s a small camp (65 dancers) in a woodsy setting. Communal eating at long tables fosters more camaraderie than urban camps, where everyone stays at different places. Head Honcho and Chief Chef Brenda provided a variety of tasty and nutritious food–from homemade granola to burgers (and veggie burgers) cooked over open grills on the back patio–yum! Salads, homemade peach cobbler, served warm with ice cream, brownies, sweet handmade breakfast tamales, and healthy main dishes rounded out the menu.
At least 6 and maybe 10 folks were there who were also at the Maymadness weekend I co-called in Prescott, Arizona a few months earlier. This time, however, there was not a second caller with whom to share the weekend. I was the guest caller for the weekend. I called three hours Friday night, taught three workshops Saturday, including English country, then called all but one hour of the Saturday evening dance. Called the Sunday farewell dance and then taught a two-hour caller’s workshop after camp officially ended. I called lots of interesting and some complex dances, many different than my Arizona program. I couldn’t stump the dancers; they looked great! Although I did go onto the dance floor a few times to avert some confusion…
On Saturday I’m heading down the path through the woods back to my room, when a lady approaches me. “I love English!,” she beamed. “Oh? Cool. How long have you been dancing it?” I asked. “First time was your workshop just now.” Ha!!! Another one hooked. For someone who hated English dance for 20 years (me), it shocks me that I love English enough to teach it now. Joseph Pimentel, one of my English dance coaches, is “thrilled” I’m leading English dance. He loves English country dance too and has taught it much longer than I have. What was great about the Wiggle weekend is that the band really liked playing English music, some of which was 400 years old. And the dancers were enthusiastic about dancing English too, which is not always the case with contra dancers. These dancers looked elegantly English and seemed to enjoy the nuance and saucy “moments” that English country dance provides. Whoever has been leading them locally has done a great job encouraging them to embrace multiple dance forms. Huzzah to the local dance leaders!
Sande (fiddle), Dave (mandolin), Anita (piano)
Photo by Merri Rudd, (c) 2006 (if someone sends me a better photo of all of us, I’ll post it!)
The Bellows Fellows (2 accordians and a guitar) played for a few workshops and one hour of the Saturday evening dance.
Bellows Fellows and Tom’s Bass Hand, Photo by Merri Rudd, (c) 2006
I made a little movie of them playing MUSIC FOR A FOUND HARMONIUM, quite amazing. John and Dori from California taught a Scandinavian workshop. They are excellent and graceful teachers.
Eight students attended my calling workshop after the camp, a few calling for the first time ever. It was really fun! Callers don’t come to the stage to copy dance cards anymore. Instead they take a digital photo of the sheet or card for later use. I wonder if other callers have noticed this?
My favorite feedback from the camp e-evaluations was, “Merri was quite good, better than I expected. Excellent decision, hiring her! Bands were good too. And I even enjoyed the Scandinavian workshop, something I don’t usually like.” I’m happy that I can pleasantly surprise folks on occasion!
Although my throat muscles were sore for several days after, I didn’t get hoarse or have laryngitis. Sound guys were great! I will spare readers stories about music in the key of P, the hungry, hungry flies, and stumbling about in the dark looking for the trail to the lodge, while avoiding holes in the road where water flowed UNDER the road surface.
Melissa, Lew, Mark and I camped together for 3 nights afterwards in Utah. Then Melissa and Lew headed back to Albuquerque. Mark and I stayed out another week or so, camping in WY and CO. One evening we spent two hours watching a great horned owl catch, kill, eat, rest, regurgitate, drink from the river, and finally roost on a fence post, silouhetted by the setting sun. Our last morning, we encountered a mama deer and 2 spotted fawns nursing in the middle of the forest road.
Photo by Mark Justice Hinton, (c) 2006
Whether she had twins or had taken in an orphaned fawn, either way, it was breath-taking. A few hours later we arrived back to the noisy, crowded urban world.
That’s my report for now. Unfortunately, I had to turn off the “comment” function on my blog due to spammers taking advantage. But email me anytime with comments, and I’ll be happy to post them.
You would think that on a one-hour, nonstop flight between Albuquerque and Phoenix, it would be difficult to lose a suitcase. Yet there I was on May 19, standing at the Southwest Lost Luggage desk, saying, “but my outfits and dance shoes are in that suitcase and I have to be on stage tonight.” A further complication was that the dance weekend was two hours away in Prescott, Arizona.
This was the 15th annual MayMadness dance weekend, http://sharlot.org/madness/ I’d been preparing for several months to entertain 250 dancers, along with caller Seth Tepfer of Atlanta, the Hotpoint String Band from Ohio, and the Privy Tippers from Tucson, Arizona.
I did at least have the foresight to carry my dance program onboard, plus fudge and pecan cookies for the bands. So I wasn’t entirely up the proverbial creek with no paddle. But my toothbrush was in that suitcase!
One of the Tippers and I drove up to Prescott, checked in and went over to the dance hall. Banners were up in the giant gymnasium, and the sound crew was doing sound checks. I had nothing to unpack, so hung around the hall and did a sound check. My first introduction to Seth was when he walked into the dance hall as I was asking for a mike condom (that gray foam thing that fits over the microphone head). Well, what else is it called?!
A bunch of us crew and organizers walked to a Chinese restaurant for dinner, where Seth and I chatted briefly about how to run the Saturday morning waltz workshop: I wanted to be Vanna White to his lead. Southwest called to tell me my suitcase had NOT gone on to California as originally thought, but instead never made it onto the plane in Albuquerque. They would send it on a later flight, then drive it up to Prescott on the shuttle. Seth called fun dances the first half of the Friday night dance with Hotpoint. I was on at 9:30 with the Tippers. Someone reported from the hotel that my suitcase was in town, but when I walked over, no such luck. I went back to dance, still in my airplane clothes. My suitcase arrived a few minutes before I was due on stage, so I was wrinkled, but ready, teeth brushed.
The Tippers, Jacquie Wohl on fiddle, her longtime hubby Craig Tinney on guitar, JerryRay Weinert on bass, and Dave Firestine on mandolin, and I have done half a dozen gigs. We love working together. But if I could leave my body and float off to observe myself on stage, directing 250 dancers and a band, I’m sure I would run screaming out of the dance hall. Calling is not for sissies. You are teacher, cuer, band director, programmer, stage personality, and trouble-shooter, sometimes simultaneously. All of this happens in the space of 32 seconds, which is about one time through the AABB structure of the dance tune. Yikes! It looks easy if all goes well, but it’s not as easy as it looks. To borrow from a “Futurama” episode where Bender plays god, “When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.”
I called an intermediate program, Swell Dance, Seth’s dance Will You Marry Me?, Kathy Anderson’s Weave the Line, Bob Isaacs’ Cure for the Clap, Pinewoods Crossing, Gene Hubert’s Firecracker, and Carol Ormand’s You Can’t Get There from Here. Teaching and calling seven dances in an hour and a half is pretty amazing for me–we did quick walk-through’s and I didn’t run dances too long given the heat and altitude (mile high). I watched how well the dancers danced and thought, “Ut, oh, I have nothing to teach them tomorrow in my workshops.”
What was especially cool was having 10 New Mexicans out on the dance floor egging me on. Lonnie, Julie, Chole and Judy showed up from Las Cruces. Bob & Linda, Joli, Larry, Laine, and Chris showed up from Albuquerque. Their smiling faces buoyed me all weekend.
At the catered breakfast the next morn, I randomly wandered and asked dancers for their ‘pet peeves’ on the dance floor. “Twirling me out of the line,” “bending my wrist back so it hurts,” “avoiding eye contact,” “not being there on time.” Voila! I had the makings of a workshop. First Seth called a “hot squares” workshop, then we co-taught the waltz workshop. Actually, I was Vanna, chipping in occasionally and walking around observing frame and posture and heart to heart alignment. Seth taught the step, framing, turns, and a ‘pause’ to accent the dance. At the end a dancer came up to me and asked, “do you know how to do that waltz pivot step?” “Sure,” I said, “It’s like a zwiefacher, waltz, 2, 3, waltz, 2, 3, pivot, pivot, pivot, pivot.” I danced this move with him and his eyes gleamed. “YES! That’s what I wanted to remember. Thanks!” Later that day a friend and I did that same move, adding a ‘pause’ at the end of the pivots. What fun! A new combo move!
We had a catered lunch for everyone at the dance hall. Then it was my turn to work with Hotpoint, who played for both of my afternoon workshops. The first one, Timing is Everything, Better Never Than Late, I started with some of the pet peeves I’d gathered earlier that morning. I had everyone close their eyes and clap on the #1 beat of music. No cheating! Clapping was scattered until everyone settled into the music. Then I had them, depending on their birth months, dance early, on time, and late, so they could all feel the jaggedness of discordance. It’s hard for good dancers to dance badly, so I suspect this was a challenge for many, to deliberately dance off time. When the tune switched, all danced on time. I polled them to see which way they enjoyed more. After that came a few more dances to accentuate and practice the timing of various moves.
The second workshop was Dancing Transcendently, no NOT transcendentally! People thought we were going to meditate, so I read them the workshop description to make my goals more clear. “Nuance is the key to making dance sublime. Sometimes the art of dancing can be lost in all the twirls, flourishes, and rowdiness. This dance workshop will focus on making you stand up, stretch out, lean back and discover an elegance, grace, and beauty you never knew you had.”
My calling teacher, Bill “Doc” Litchman, laments that we are losing the “art of dance” or the “elegance of dance.” So I sometimes teach workshops to remind people just how beautiful dance can be with gentle leads, small flourishes, flows, and treating each partner like a queen or king, if only for 32 seconds. I talked to them about the yoga principle of standing as if a string is coming up out of the crown of one’s head. This causes one’s shoulders to move back and the body to rise, creating a grace of movement akin to that found in English dance. And most important, it opens one’s heart to the joy of the music, infusing the dancer with an even greater connection to the band. I forgot to tell the dancers this last, most important point. I used four dances to illustrate these principles, Evan Shepherd’s Wedding Rings, Kathy Anderson’s Tropical Gentleman, Tony Parkes’ Hey Fever, and Tom Hinds’ Scooter.
Hotpoint is a master at choosing just exactly the right set of tunes for a particular dance, so the music for both workshops was wonderful. It is quite a treat for me to work with national caliber bands, such as Hotpoint. Members include Mark Burhans on fiddle, Hilarie Burhans, QUEEN (no kidding) of the banjo, Marlene Shostak on piano, Nick Wieland on bass, and wild man Mark Hellenberg on multiple percussion.
It is because of Hotpoint’s piano player Marlene that I am on the bigger stages at all. She heard me call one dance at a workshop in Houston in January 2003. The workshop allowed “baby callers” to call a dance with the “big band.” I called Don Flaherty’s Slapping the Wood. At the end, Marlene jumped off the stage, ran over to me, and exclaimed, “You’re no baby caller! That was great!! Who are you?” Until that moment, I never saw myself as worthy of the big stage, but something about Marlene’s willingness to take the time to make a kind remark, set me on my way. An Austin dance organizer was there too and hired me to teach a workshop and call an evening dance in Austin in September 2003. Based on that performance, Austin hired me to call my first dance weekend in November 2004, the 8th annual Fire Ant Frolic, with Rodney Miller and Airdance playing. I probably prepared over 100 hours for that gig, with the helpful, and infinitely patient, email and telephone coaching of Becky Hill and David Millstone. My essay about Austin and Airdance is now over 7,000 words and not yet complete. Suffice it to say, the weekend with Airdance made the “top ten best moments of my life” list.
Back to Prescott…by then it was 5 p.m., and a bunch of us were going out to dinner. Back at the hotel, I realized I had no energy left to sit up and interact with more people at dinner, so I begged Seth to bring me carry out, and I lay down for a while. This turned out to be smart. After scarfing spicy ginger chicken, Thai style, I walked across to the hall. I was on first with the Tippers Saturday night.
Callers live for moments of magic, yet can’t plan to make magic happen. Once I stood on stage with a classical violist from Bolivia, Willy Sucre. He had just come from playing Handel’s Messiah for 3 hours, and wanted to end the night doing something fun. So he stood in with Gemma DeRagon and friends. He wasn’t familiar with the music, but he listened, then started improvising right beside me. The hair stood up on my arms, and I marveled at how the music energized the dancers. Magic. Another time I taught the Mennonite group how to do contra corners (don’t tell them it’s hard) in three-couple sets (a relatively safe formation). A 6-year-old girl, now in her 20s, picked it right up, and was beaming as she did a full contra corners with her sixsome. Magic.
That first half of Saturday night’s dance felt magic to me. The dancers could do no wrong. The Tippers’ tunes were scintillating. We started with a triple medley, no walk through. We never looked back. We did the Devil’s Backbone, Eleanor’s Reel, a triple progression, A Rollin’ and A Tumblin’, Sicilian Gypsy, and Trip to Phan Reel. The dancers performed everything flawlessly. The band played Music for a Found Harmonium, Dancing Bear, and other driving tunes. Magic. Then Seth and Hotpoint were on, and all hell broke loose. Hotpoint is so dynamic and rhythmic, it’s hard not to go wild. Seth called one of my dances “Convolution,” that I had never danced before. It was chaotic, and I thought maybe I should take it off my web site. Later I figured out a little fix and wrote a new, even more convoluted version. One of the dancers said it was his favorite dance of the weekend. He must enjoy chaos.
Sunday morning Seth and I decided to reward the dancers with a program quickly accessible to the dancers, then get out of their way and let them connect to the music. My flow session featured Al’s Safeway Produce, the Dreaded Swing (photo below), Eyes Have It, and Venus and Mars. Seth then connected them to their inner klutz with gender benders and other fun games. Both Seth and I called the farewell dance with Hotpoint, sharing a medley of three dances with no walk through’s. We ended with Smooth Sailing and Daisies and Delphiniums. And the 15th annual Maymadness came to a reluctant end.
The MayMadness organizers, Terri Eichelberger, Steve Appel, Warren Miller, Leslie Loomis, and countless others, put on a welcoming, riveting weekend with great music, dance, and food. They deserve the dancers’ adoration and praise.
Seth and I headed back to Phoenix with Bill and Judy Norman, sharing stories and laughter. We ate a big Ethiopian dinner, then flew our separate ways. My suitcase, of course, made it home just fine.
Twenty-five photos of the weekend’s events and players are posted at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/merridancing/sets/72057594143467958/
This is my full report. Let me know what you think.
Many “small world” events populate my life. My past dogs me. Old beaus show up 2,000 miles from where they ought to be. Almost any random stranger on the streets of Albuquerque knows someone I know. The woman in the pool in Ouray, CO discusses an appellate tax case I worked on that went to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But few of my life history stories run as deep and long as my relationship with Bill and Sally Meadows. Bill was my first boss at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN in 1976. A few days after he hired me, my dad died of Lou Gehrig’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. “Take all the time you need,” Bill said. “You can start whenever you get back.” And that was that. We’ve been loyal and heartfelt friends for 30 years. Sally has shared our relationship all 30 years, and I have profound ties with her too. She has one of the best social consciences I know and is active with Common Cause and other worthy groups.
Photo by Merri Rudd, (c) 2006
To honor my dad’s memory, Bill gave me a membership in the Sierra Club in 1977. In our non-working hours, we both volunteered for various non-profit environmental organizations. My beau at the time was a botanist with the Tennessee Heritage Program, and he and I led botany hikes on weekends. Bill helped me get my next job at the Tennessee Environmental Council. After 20 years at Vanderbilt, he worked at Sweetbriar College for a few years, then at the Sierra Club as development director.
But he came into his ‘national conservation leader’ own when he became president of the Wilderness Society. Yes, THE Wilderness Society in Washington, D.C. with offices scattered across America, many in the west. If you read a news article about proposed drilling for oil on the Arctic National Refuge, chances are you’ll read a quote from Bill Meadows. Check out legislative battles on ‘the hill’ in Washington, and Bill will have testified. At least a quarter of the U.S. Senators know him personally. Interview a consortium of groups who love wilderness, and Bill has probably meddled in some of their meetings and policy strategizing. We think he’s a big deal; he thinks there’s always more to do.
The Wilderness Society has had two meetings of its Governing Council and staff in Albuquerque, one in 2000 and one a few days ago. And so I came to be one of the 20 or so wilderness society staff, governing council members, and a few locals, including trip leader Albuquerque City Council President Martin Heinrich, who traipsed onto America’s newest federally designated wilderness area, Ojito, near the Zia Pueblo off Highway 550. Mark and I had hiked several times on the periphery of Ojito, the “ACEC,” area of critical environmental concern, but never where we were on May 13. I was struck part by awe and part by irony at the moment. I felt history being made as I watched national conservation leaders hike on the new wilderness. But I was also mindful of the not-inconsiderable impact that 40+ human feet were having on the area.
Photo by Mark Justice Hinton (c) 2006
Bill and Sally have two Vanderbilt classmates now living in Albuquerque, who joined us on the hike–Robert and Diane Fleming. In typical “small world” fashion, Robert is a local dance fiddler and has played for several dances I’ve called.
The two-track trail ended at several flat (not vertical) panels of petroglyphs and the site of a recent seismosaur excavation. Most of us opted to hike off the edge of the cliff down to the wilderness floor below, over a sandy arroyo, up a hill, off another rocky cliff and over to some of the lowest elevation ponderosa pine trees in the state, complete with hoodoos and a perfectly shaded lunch spot. Along the way we observed gastroliths (jet black “dinosaur barf” stones, aka gizzard grinders), rare lavender blazing star flowers (looked a lot like a long-throated phlox), the bark of a walking stick cholla stripped by a porcupine (?), and Cabezon Peak off in the distance. Not to mention other mountain ranges spanning 100’s of square miles–Redondo Peak, Sandia Wilderness, Jemez Mountains, and more.
Photo by Merri Rudd, (c) 2006
We wandered in the wilderness for about three hours, then hit the dirt road where vans transported us home. I brought almond fudge, lemon cookies and a bag of ice cubes for the end of trip and also passed around 30-year-old photos of Bill. Many of his staff were not yet born when those photos of us were taken!
Bill says he likes to be out in the thick of things to get a “sense of place” and to be inspired to find new partnerships to preserve and protect wilderness areas. Bill shaped my own environmental conscience, awareness, and longtime love of the outdoors. We know there is much more to do, but Bill has shown us how to lead the pack in pursuit of wilderness preservation. Bill, we’re darn proud to know you. If we were wolves, you’d be our alpha male.
Photo by Robert Fleming, (c) 2006
I’m back from my Las Cruces trip to hear Ruthie Foster and Eric Bibb in concert. The Bosque was mostly deserted. A few looky-loo humans with monster lenses, the usual two bald eagles stuck to the tree in the middle pond in the middle loop. I watch them and the black phoebes, kinglets, and assorted ducks as I chow down my pastrami sandwich, trying not to eat the buzzing honeybee that wants a bite.
The Bosque presents various sights, like a familiar box of assorted chocolates. Harriers cruising, white tail bars glowing in the sun; Canada geese sucking up debris from the canal; the colorful pheasant on the side of the road; homebound cranes pecking through the tall tan grasses; red-winged blackbirds chortling; meadowlarks singing melody; a tiny marsh wren flitting through the reeds, sipping water. I walk east down a perpendicular side road, chasing a hunting harrier. She dives, grabs a mouse, hunkers down on the matted yellow grass for the “early bird special.” Blackbirds move en masse from one tree to the next as I approach. I try not to take it personally. I have to leave before the evening fly-in to make it to the concert in time.
I am driving down the interstate. I feel the wheels of my car stretch and elongate, sprout hooves. I ride on, galloping my steed down the road, hooves clopping rhythmically on the concrete pavement, through the sunlight and the desert landscape, wind in my face, steering reins in my hands, toward Ruthie Foster and food for my soul.
“I see what you mean,” says Laura, one of my Las Cruces concert companions, at the end of the concert. “It was amazing. I can’t imagine how that voice comes out of her body.” Ruthie has hooked another 300 or 400 folks. They held their collective breaths as she sang.
Ruthie was joined by her long-time companion and friend Cyd Cassone on percussion. Ruthie almost cried on stage as she introduced her song CROSSOVER. She talked of the civil rights marchers as they tried to cross the bridge from Montgomery to Selma, Alabama in the 1960’s. She, Odetta and Richie Havens were asked to create a soundtrack for the documentary “Where Do We Go From Here” about the civil rights movement. At the end of the introduction, Ruthie said, “I send this out to our sister Coretta Scott King.” Ruthie didn’t have to say that Coretta died a few days ago; we all knew. We got to sing along on the chorus.
CROSSOVER (listen here: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/ruthiefoster4)
…..I’m gonna plant my feet
no matter what hangs over me
gonna stand up for freedom,
go down in history.
When I want to roam,
I’ll never be far from home.
I’m gonna keep holdin’ on,
singing my song,
No matter what’s goin’ on
I’m gonna keep movin’ strong.
I’m gonna plant my feet,
keep my eyes on the prize
gonna climb higher and higher
to keep the dream alive.
When I can’t go on,
you’ve got to carry on.
Oh you gotta keep holdin’ on
singin’ your song
no matter what’s goin’ on
you gotta keep movin’ strong.
CHORUS: You gotta cross over (and overcome)
You gotta cross over (and overcome)
You gotta cross over (and overcome)
Oh, you gotta cross over (and overcome)
You gotta cross over (and overcome)
You gotta cross over (and overcome)
CROSSOVER, lyrics and music written by Ruthie Foster
I had never heard Eric Bibb sing. [My husband reminds me that I DID hear Eric sing once when he opened in Albuquerque for Odetta. OK, so I didn’t remember having heard Eric sing.] Picture a strikingly handsome, young man in shiny brown loafers, faded jeans, an orange sweatshirt, and a dapper flat felt hat. He sings alone, accompanies himself on guitar. He gently marches in place, knees rising deliberately, feet placed back down exactly. He is probably setting his tempo and rhythm, but to me it appears as if he is calling the music up from the soles of his feet, and sending the songs out through his voice, instrument, and heart. True soul music. Smooth mellifluous voice.
He and Ruthie, joined by Cyd on percussion, end the concert with a duet “For You,” written by Eric. “This song didn’t come alive,” Eric explains, “until it met Ruthie.” It is on his new CD “Friends.” Ruthie reins in her power to collaborate with Eric. You can tell that doing so challenges her.
I came home today. As I crossed the bridge over the Rio Grande, I looked for eagles in the shoreside cottonwoods and tried to ignore the dilapidated green couch sitting in the middle of the river. When I got home, I learned that Ruthie and Eric will be singing in Socorro tonight at the NM Tech campus. Oops, I could have driven only 160 miles instead of 498. However…I enjoyed spending time with Lonnie and Julie, Laura, Ruth, Judy, Mark and Chris in Cruces. Ruthie, Cyd and Eric will be in Farmington, Clovis and Alamosa over the next week. www.ruthiefoster.com and www.ericbibb.com have details. Travel to hear them if you can; you won’t regret it.
With almost daily reminders to ‘carpe diem’ while I’m alive and relatively healthy, I took the plunge and got a ticket to the Ruthie Foster/Eric Bibb concert in Las Cruces, New Mexico on February 2. They’ll also be in Albuquerque on February 4, but I’m calling a dance that night. I suggested to Hands Five that I find another caller for the dance so I could attend the Albuquerque concert. But the band wasn’t too keen about being pawned off on another caller. Plus, Hands Five is really fun to work with, and we’ve already had a 2-hour practice.
I will stop at my favorite place in New Mexico on the way down to Cruces, the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge. I never know what wonders I’ll encounter there. Being at the Bosque is almost as much a treasure hunt as the thrift store. Once I saw a coyote with his entire face stuffed inside a snow-white goose carcass. When he emerged momentarily after tossing the carcass around gleefully, his snout was smeared with blood. Another time a tanager flashed across the windshield, his startling scarlet color one I’d never seen before. Years ago, right over my head, the one whooping crane on site flew in with a flock of sandhill cranes, the whooper’s giant breast gleaming with the peachy pink setting sunlight.
Photo by Merri Rudd
Or the deer that seems nailed to place along the back trail because I’ve seen her several times in the exact spot. Or the muskrat paddling in the lagoon, the vermillion flycatcher winging its way up the middle loop, the merlin ripping apart the meadowlark, the eagle shredding a duck. The latter images may seem gruesome, but they are the ebb and flow of the Bosque. Maybe I’ll stop at Percha Dam Campground and listen for the owls in the secret tree or the red-winged blackbirds in the cattails. An opening act for Ruthie.
I am taking this trip because Ruthie’s singing “restoreth my soul.” I am taking this trip to honor the memory of Mike Smith and his love of good music. And I am taking this trip to fuel my own sense of adventure. I love gliding down the highway, alone, not knowing what will happen next. When I find out, I will post another entry.