Press-Republican

April 21, 2013

The trans-Atlantic legacy of Playford

By ROBIN CAUDELL
Press-Republican

---- — PLATTSBURGH — “Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot” is a smoking dance scene between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy in the 1995 BBC production of “Pride and Prejudice.”

Jane Austen’s most beloved heroine glowers fetchingly at the aloof and brooding aristocrat. Despite the fireworks and wicked repartee between the gentleman and gentleman’s daughter, they dance divinely together at the Netherfield Ball.

You, too, can learn to execute back-to-backs, castoffs and pousettes with Adirondack English Country Dancers. And, you don’t need to be attired in formal threads like Lizzy and Darcy to do it.

Comfortable clothing and clean shoes are good enough for English country dancing.

MACOMB BALL

Locally, Bruce Kokernot and Wendy Gilchrist are English country dancing “royalty” and introduced the 17th-century dance craze to the North Country in collaboration with J. Kellum Smith and Angela Brown of Hill and Hollow Music.

The summer they met Kellum and Angela, they learned about the Battle of Plattsburgh Commemoration’s Macomb Ball.

“They had this fancy ball,” Bruce said. “People paid $30 or $40 to have a dinner, and there was an orchestra. Angela brought it up that, ‘Why don’t we do a period dance?’ This kind of dance they would have been doing in 1812 and 1814.”

Bruce and Wendy’s nascent-calling skills, Angela’s organizational skills and the Waickman family’s musical skills gelled and increased attendance at the Macomb Ball.

“We get 120 people showing up,” Bruce said. “It’s almost become something that the re-enactors decide to come to Plattsburgh for because there is a fancy ball involved.”

FIGURES AND FORMS

When Hill and Hollow went on hiatus, Bruce, Wendy and John and Sharon Schenkel and other members of Step Lively! formed Adirondack English Country Dancers.

The social-folk dance has Renaissance roots. Its popularity waned in the early 19th century. Each figure, a specific series of movements, is performed by sets comprised of two, three or four couples as they progressively dance along two long lines, executing a figure while dancing with new couples along the way.

“When (English country dancing) went to France in the 18th century, they put their own spin on it,” Bruce said. “It came to the United States, and we put our own spin on that. It became contra dancing, eventually what we call square dancing. In Scottish country dancing, they (figures) are all very similar. They call the figures by different names.”

During the second English-folk revival from 1945 to 1969, interest in English country dancing surged in North America and Britain, where the dance was known as “Playford.” John Playford, a London music publisher, unveiled the “The English Dance Master” in 1651.

SENSE OF COMMUNITY

“We teach every other Friday night here in Plattsburgh and alternate Friday nights in Vermont and one Sunday a month in Montreal,” Bruce said.

Twenty years ago, he and Wendy landed in the right community: Berea, Ky.

“We went to a Quaker meeting and within 24 hours had been exposed to English country dance, contra dancing and shape-note singing,” Bruce said. “This community was really well-known for it.”

English country dance was not on his radar in his native Old Forge. The dances allow one to experience community and make musical friendships in a healthy and engaging way, he said.

Bruce and Wendy tried to make a go of the dance form in Washington state but were not successful. Running into Angela and Kellum were fortuitous, but their calling skills were of the thrown-in-the-deep-end-of-the-pool variety.

“We knew how to dance,” Bruce said. “Calling and dancing are different things. We learned basically by doing.”

Between Bruce, Wendy, John and Sharon, they have danced as far afield as Europe and Hawaii.

“We’ve had some wonderful dance camps in Hawaii,” Bruce said.

DRAWING CROWDS

“Since we started doing it, it has grown tremendously. A lot of that is because there’s so much good recorded music. When we started, it was almost all live music. Now for places like Plattsburgh that can’t have live music, we have recordings of country music.”

When he and his wife began, 40 to 50 dancers would attend English country dancing festivals. Now, there are upwards of 400 dancers.

“It happens because there is a community out there that realized it’s a great way to be involved with other people, making music and dancing with them. People have a great time. They don’t have to drink and smoke pot to do it,” Bruce said.

Bruce and Wendy launched the English country dancing invasion in Montreal and have taught there a dozen years. There, they have also danced with the Scottish Country Dancers a decade.

“The Francophones started (English country dancing) over the last 10 years,” he said. “Some people from Plattsburgh follow us up there. We often have 30-plus dancers.”

On Sunday afternoons, the Burlington Country Dancers draw 40-plus participants statewide as well as a following from this side of Lake Champlain.

“The biggest weekend of the year is Across the Lakes, the second weekend of June. We’ll have 140 dancers coming from around the country. It runs from Friday night to Sunday afternoon. It’s so popular; it’s already sold out,” Bruce said.

Across the Lakes started with his and his wife’s 25th wedding anniversary, which was celebrated English-country-dancing style. It was such a success that a committee formed to sponsor it annually.

The beauty of English country dancing is that no dance partner is required.

“You dance with someone else every dance. It’s not like couples’ dancing. It’s dancing with everybody in the room,” Bruce said.

It’s beyond Facebook.

“There’s real flesh there,” Bruce said.

There are thousands of English country dance figures, and he and Wendy can comfortably call 800. Some, such as “Picking Up Sticks,” date to the original Playford dance manual. English country dance is vibrant and ever-evolving. There has been a plethora of modern dances created the last five years. “Sarah Kay” is an example.

“She was a well-known dancer,” Bruce said. “She actually died dancing, which most of us would like to do. A guy wrote a wonderful dance and named it after her.”

Bruce and Wendy learned by dancing, dancing and dancing even more.

DIVERSE DEMOGRAPHIC

“You get the patterns in your muscle,” he said. “When we became callers, we had to get dances in our heads so we could verbally tell other people what to do or when to do it.”

English country dancing draws a diverse demographic. In Plattsburgh, it’s mainly 40-somethings and up with a few home-school families with teens. Burlington Country Dancers feature live musicians, many young, so their 20- and 30-something friends attend.

“In the dance community, (English country dance) and contra, when a dancer’s spouse dies, they usually find someone else in the dance community,” Bruce said.

For the unattached, it’s a way for a 21st century Lizzy to meet a Mr. Darcy.

Contra, in general, draws a younger demographic, but in Vermont dancers range from 12 to 90 years old.

Jigs and reels are the realm of contra. Scottish country dancing features jigs, reels and strathby, a very slow Scottish music. English country dancing has more flavors with the tango, waltz and polka added to the mix.

“It incorporates the whole range of music from ragtime to classical,” Bruce said. “We can take all of those, and we can put choreography to it. Our music is much more diversified than those other kinds of country dances. English country dancers, they’re already in heaven, so how can it get any better?”

CONTRA DANCE

The Schenkels have danced since the millennium. During the ‘60s at the University of California, Davis, John was in a folk-dance troupe. When he and his wife, Sharon, stepped in to the English country dance realm, he hadn’t danced for a long time.

“There’s no competition,” John said. “It’s just a dance, and it’s beautiful. You move in patterns to the music, and the music is beautiful. That’s what makes it very enjoyable. It’s challenging. It keeps you on your toes. Once you learn how to do the moves, you just become part of the music.”

The Schenkels also contra dance.

“It’s more energetic and easier to learn,” John said. “It’s very, very different from English country dance. What’s interesting, politics had a lot to do with dance forms. Prior to (English country dance), there were the very formal pavanes. The noblemen danced at one end, and the commoners danced at one end, and they didn’t get together. In (English country dance), everyone dances with everyone, and that’s when democracy started. The rise of the waltz and couple dances is when individualism started.”

CALLING

In the 17th century, English country dance was a flirting gateway.

“There’s a lot of eye contact in the dance and some touching, but not a lot,” John said. “It’s good exercise. The first night we did contra, we could hardly make it up the stairs. (English country dance) is exercise, but it’s a lot more mental.”

Sharon has been a caller for six years.

“The dilemma for me is, ‘Do I have to give up the dancing to do the calling?’” she said. “To stand up front in the room and teach people a dance and watch the whole room come together and see people enjoying it, it’s a totally marvelous feeling,” she said.

“I totally enjoy calling as much as I do dancing. Some are not good dancers, and they have so much fun. They make mistakes. They keep coming back and keep smiling. You have a good time and do the best you can.”

The Adirondack English Country Dancers sponsor a local ball, the Winter Social, held each January in the North Squares Building.

“We’re a very welcoming, open group,” Sharon said. “We love to have new people come. The first half hour, we go over some of the moves we will do that evening. It’s really fun.”

Email Robin Caudell: rcaudell@pressrepublican.com

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TO GET INVOLVED

Adirondack English Country Dancers meet at 7 p.m. the second and fourth Fridays of the month at the North Country Squares Building, Clinton County Fairgrounds, Morrisonville.Cost: $5.

For information, email lylfaceem@aol.com. Burlington Country Dancers meet at 7 p.m. the first and third Fridays of the month at Saint Michaels College, Elley-Long Music Center, 223 Ethan Allen Ave., Colchester, Vt. $10 live music (half price for Plattsburgh dancers).

To learn more, visit www.burlingtoncountrydancers.org.

Montreal English Country Dancers meet from 1:30 to 4:30 pm. various Sundays at the Red Barn, Baie d'Urfe, Montreal. $6 (Canadian). Contact Sarah Lawson at skgl@sympatico.ca for details.