Fun as folk
Folk dance traditions are alive and well in Reno
I’m dizzy from spinning. I’m sweating adrenaline. In the past 10 minutes, I’ve danced with a retiree in knee-length shorts, a bearded young Oregonian, the musician who is my date, and every other gentleman in the entire gym.
It’s Saturday night, the first noticeably chilly evening of the season, and the Sierra Contra Dance Society has drawn a bigger-than-usual crowd of about 40 to the Plumas Park Gym for its monthly dance.
The Moonlight Hoodoo Review strikes up some banjo-twanging, foot-stomping bluegrass. Caller Woody Lane accompanies the band on tap shoes, clicking fast with his feet as he calls through a microphone: “Your girl’s pretty, and so is mine; You swing your girl; I’ll swing mine.” The dancers, who’d switched partners a few seconds ago, respond by reuniting with their original partners, then back into lines of 12, then, on Lane’s cue, into new groups of four, down the line to yet more new partners. Phew!
Sierra Contra Dance Society member Art Lane (no relation to Woody) says he’s pleased that an unusually high number of newcomers have shown up—maybe it’s the weather—and surmises that the social aspect of contra dancing is perhaps its main draw. You quickly meet a lot of people. But, despite the fact that you dance with every member of the opposite sex within the span of a few minutes, there’s a dependable vibe of good-old-fashioned reserve.
“Contra dancing typically is a safe environment to be in, usually alcohol free, not really a meat market,” says Art. In the 15 years he’s been dancing, the few people he’s seen violate those conventions have received a stern talking-to.
Contra dancing is fast. It borders on athletic. My date, who’s no couch potato, says he skipped his afternoon workout on purpose to have enough energy. For all its complexity, it’s actually pretty easy to learn. With the caller’s continuous directions and the occasional gesture of advice from seasoned dancers, I’m catching on. After about an hour of practice, someone remarks that my swing step is improving.
I didn’t learn until reading an online FAQ that the real secret to that swing step—dancing close while spinning fast—is to do it without getting dizzy. Look at your partner’s eyes, say the experts. “Remember,” reads the FAQ, “they’re gazing into your eyes not because they love you but because … they don’t want to throw up on you.”
The Sierra Contra Dance Society holds a dance at 8 p.m. the second Saturday of every month except July and August at the Plumas Park Gym, 475 Monroe St. Newcomers are advised to arrive at 7:30 for basic instruction. The next dance is scheduled for Nov. 11. For more information, visit www.sierracontra.org.
Contra dancing, which evolved from English and Scottish country dancing in New England, isn’t the only folk dance tradition alive and well in Reno. Here’s a sampling of what some of the local folk-dancing clubs are up to.
“The wonderful part about Greek dancing is you don’t have to be paired off,” says Agnes Mannos, director of Saint Anthony’s Greek Dancers. The dancers form a line, hold hands and follow the steps of the person in front. Any number of dancers of any gender will do—a fact that’s conducive to spontaneous bursts of Greek dancing at parties.
Saint Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Church has kept its dance group going to help educate new generations about Greek culture.
“Our young people are so few and far between, and we try to keep them within the culture,” says Mannos. “Dancing spurs on a lot of excitement and good camaraderie.”
The group performs at festivals and offers dance classes to the public to help raise funds for new costumes. High-school-age dancers instruct, and the classes draw 8-year-olds, seniors and all generations in between. Greek pastries sometimes get passed around, and seasoned dancers might demonstrate advanced, heel-kicking dances like the Zorba. Expect to learn the Kalamatiano, or “10-step.” That’s the one people know at parties.
St. Anthony’s Greek Dancers hold one class in fall and one in spring 2007. For information, call Saint Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Church, 825-5365.
“It’s the toe-tapping music,” says instructor Miriam Blanchette. That’s what attracts people to Irish dancing, an energetic meld of tap and ballet. The Riverdance show helped raise the dance form’s profile in recent years, too. With torsos straight and legs flying, Blanchette’s students step and reel to traditional and contemporary Irish tunes.
“People get most excited about learning hard-shoe,” she says. It’s a fast, rhythmic predecessor to American tap dancing. Students need to master the leaps and “step-two-threes” of the four soft-shoe dances first, but they’re not too hard to pick up. Practice hard, and you’ll be clacking out loud, percussive steps in wooden-sounding shoes (the taps are actually fiberglass) in about six months, says Blanchette.
Classes at the Blanchette School of Irish Dance are ongoing. For information, call 781-2373 or visit www.reeljig.net. Also call Reno Irish Dance Company, 829-7878.
“Israel is like the U.S.,” says John Louie, a long-time member of Temple Emanu-El’s Israeli dance group. “It’s a melting pot of many different cultures. So you’ll see European, Mid Eastern, African, even Far Eastern styles mixed together. The music is the same way.”
Though there are a variety of types of Israeli dancing, this group tends toward line and circle dances, which are easy to learn and can accommodate any ratio of women to men.
Louie describes Israeli dancing as “tightly choreographed” but looser than, say, Scottish country dancing in terms of how you carry yourself. Israeli dancing continues to evolve actively, as contemporary musicians and choreographers keep adding new influences.
“It’s always very fresh,” says Louie. “It’s an active form.”
Temple Emanu-El’s dance group meets at 1031 Manzanita Lane every Tuesday, 7 to 9 p.m. and welcomes beginners. For information, call 825-5600.
"[The dances] are usually done in circles, so those that don’t know it can get behind someone who does and mirror their actions,” says Kate Camino, the Reno Basque Club’s dance teacher.
Some Basque dances are done with a partner, some in groups of men, some in groups of women. Some dances are easy. Some are more technical.
“We do a lot of the easier dances, not as much technical dancing, but it’s pretty energetic,” says Camino, who teaches about 25 to 30 children and adults.
To join her class, you have to join the Basque Club. Not too many non-Basques have joined, but Camino recalls teaching for a similar group in Wyoming, where members of many ethnic groups joined the local Basque Club so they could learn the fast, fun dances. She says she’d enjoy seeing that happen in Reno.
The Reno Basque Club’s dance-class season begins in January and culminates with performances at the Basque Festival in July. For information, visit renobasqueclub.org or e-mail email@example.com.
For information about joining the more technical, performance-oriented Basque dancing group, Zenbat Gara, call Lisa Corcostegui at 852-7885.