Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Doing Stuff: Day 1, Germantown Country Dancers

"One, two... now post! Post and corner! Now full circle left turn!"

When I started brainstorming ideas for this Doing Stuff project a few weeks back, I checked all kinds of weekly listings for events to attend. My eyes, for some reason, were drawn immediately to one event: The Germantown Country Dancers. (

Their webpage was somewhat vague about what this group did. Their description of English Country Dancers follows: "English Country Dance is social, community dancing. Dancers take a different partner for each dance of the evening, and join a 'set' of couples. Each couple dances a series of figures with another couple, then repeats the same figures with each couple in the set. There's minimal footwork: If you can walk you can dance!"

The website also said that newcomers were always welcome, and that the only requirements were loose, baggy clothing and sturdy, flat shoes.

Well, I know how to walk! And I also own flat shoes and baggy clothing. This mysterious form of dancing seemed like a perfect way to start this project.

The weekly event of the Germantown Country Dancers is held at a Friends Meeting House (for those out of the area, these are places where Quakers go and practice their faith and they are fairly common in the Philadelphia area) in Lower Merion, not to far from my apartment. I arrived about 30 minutes early, as suggested, to get an orientation as to what to expect.

A mustachioed man in a worn, quasi-Hawaiian shirt approached me. His giant nametag read Sam.

"Have you ever done any dancing?"

"Only when I was drunk at my wedding."

"Oh... no, that's not what I meant."

Sam then explained to me what the Germantown Country Dancers do. "Have you ever seen any of the movies adapted from Jane Austen?"

I told him that I was familiar with them, which was a pretty blatant lie, unless you count Clueless. But now I knew the type of dancing these folks did... old-timey group dancing with a variety of partners.

Orientation was with Sam, a middle-aged woman named Jane and a man with a greying ponytail who kind of looked like Mick Foley. Sam led me through a variety of dances and steps, all of which involve intricate Figure 8 patterns and spinning in a circle while changing partners.

This seemed pretty simple and easy. Except for the Mick Foley lookalike. He kept on emphasizing making eye contact with your partners, especially when you're moving with them. He grabbed me and started moving across the room with me, staring me dead in the eyes with Swayze-like intensity.

This weeks event, I was told, was special. This was the last informal dance before the Predominantly Playford Ball, one of the big events on the Philadelphia English Social Dancing calendar.

The small meeting room soon became filled with about 50-60 people, most of whom were in their 50's and 60's. Some of the people were in clothing one would expect to see in a period piece from the Austen-era, others were in normal gear, and still others were so frumpy I couldn't tell if they were dressed in costume or not.

The partnering rule was simple. People just kind of approach you to dance and show you the steps. Sam would lead us through a run through of the dance, and then the music (performed live) would begin.

The dances I performed in were so complex, especially for someone as clumsy as myself. There were so many crosses, spins and movements that it was impossible for me. And because this is a group activity where one's movements effect the rest of the group (between four and 20 people, depending upon the dance being performed), I could sense people getting frustrated with me consistently messing everything up, especially since these people had a big ball coming up in a few days where they all wanted to nail their preformances.

But people's frustrations were more in a "kindly math teacher trying to teach pre-calc to a kid who can't even do long division" way. Everyone was exceptionally nice and helpful to me, despite my constant blundering.

In the middle of the dance, I recognized a familiar face. It was this lady Ann I used to work with. And fairly closely. After a few minutes, she of course recognized me. We both had a whole "why are you here" moment between us.

I hadn't even considered that I would find someone I knew at one of these events. and I never would have considered that Ann listed English Social Dancing as one of her hobbies. She seemed like an incredibly normal, average person who did stuff with her children and family.

I had no idea what to expect going into this event, and I had no idea about the types of people I'd meet. But it all makes sense. Even the most average, sensible person has a desire or a passion. Some people hide theirs. But other people enact on theirs. And dancing with other people who want to try and live out a little bit of a fantasy of life in a different era isn't just reasonable, but it's also pretty fun.

(EDIT: I'm going to put pictures up with this as soon as we can find the cord to hook up to our camera.)


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