There have been so many studies and research showing that dancing is good for us and that it is a superhighway to happiness, maybe it should be included in the next overhaul to the Affordable Care Act. Imagine if your doctor’s prescription included two hours of dance every week? But there’s dance and there’s dance. If dance makes us happy, does it matter if we’re dancing around our kitchen, spatula in hand, radio volume on 10; or if we’re in a roomful of like-minded dancers working our way through a dance from the Middle East, a rumba, or a Virginia reel?
Sure, there are sophisticated dances with complicated moves and local classes where singles and couples can learn them, but moreover, the Upper Cape is rife, both in and out of season, with dance evenings that are inclusive—events that anyone can drop in on and join in the fun.
The slogan at my new gym boasts that the environment is a “judgment-free zone.” This moniker could also hold true for group dancing events. Attending a dance on your own—be it folk, square, or ballroom—could be intimidating, but I have always found community dancers to be a welcoming group. Remember: it’s not “Dancing with the Stars”; it’s dancing with your neighbors.
Folk dancing in Woods Hole in the summer provides not only wholesome fun at a multigenerational level, it is also an opportunity for a visiting scientist or student to contribute a dance and share their culture. This was the norm in the early 1990s when I was a frequent folk dancer and it continues today. Folk dancing takes place weekly, Wednesdays from 7 to 10 PM, during July and August and monthly for the other 10 months of the year.
William Roslansky has been dancing for as long as he can remember. It might have been a matter of convenience at first; growing up in the village of Woods Hole meant participating in the culture therein—one that included regular dance and community singing events.
“I didn’t know it would be something marvelous that would be such a big part of my life,” said Mr. Roslansky, who not only brings the music with him on the first Wednesday of the month so folk dancing can continue through the winter, but is also an avid swing dancer, participating in dance nights at the Cape Cod Dance Center and at other Cape venues.
“It’s a great way to meet people,” Mr. Roslansky said.
Folk dancing in Woods Hole began under the leadership of the late Jim and Mary Mavor. In a 2006 interview with Jeremy Korr, Jim Mavor recalled learning many of the dances and collecting records while he was a student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early 1940s. Mr. Mavor also recalled traveling around the country and finding like-minded folk dancing enthusiasts in places such as San Francisco, Washington, DC, New Hampshire, and Annapolis.
Many of those original records, now digitized, still make up the Woods Hole Folk Dancing collection, their vinyl scratchiness preserved for posterity.
I dropped in on the first Wednesday in December when a small, but hearty, group of dancers had turned out to dance.
Brian von Herzen folk-danced in Woods Hole as a kid but then spent several decades away from it until a chance encounter in Chicago, when he met a group doing some Balkan folk dances he remembered from way back. “I knew all the dances,” he said, “it felt like coming home.”
Since then, Mr. von Herzen has joined the New England Folk Festival Association, the group responsible for the April New England Folk Festival in Mansfield, now in its 74th year. Mr. von Herzen dances in both Woods Hole and Cambridge, depending on where he is. “Dancing is my music,” said Mr. von Herzen, “it works your brain and it’s an antidote to the computer.”
Whether it’s a slow and methodical misirlou or the increasingly fast-paced sestorka, folk dancing is “great exercise that doesn’t feel like exercise, plus it’s cheaper than therapy,” said one enthusiastic folk dancer. “It passes the longevity test,” said another, noting that in the summer dancers can easily range in age from “8 to 88.”
“It’s a very welcoming feeling,” said Jan Elliot, who regularly dances with the group. “Many dances are taught or reviewed, but people also learn by dancing behind the line or circle and entering when they feel ready.”
Ms. Elliot said she also appreciates the music and “getting out of the Western music ‘rut’ ” along with the sense of community that the dances inspire. “There are a couple dances, mixers where you have several partners, and circle or line formations with different handholds. Moving together to beautiful, unusual music can be calming and restorative—or fast and exciting.”
Admission to folk dancing, which pays for the use of the hall, is $5.
There is also free monthly Family Folk Dancing on Sunday afternoons at the Woods Hall Community Hall. Dances are led by international folk dance teacher Marcie Van Cleave, who provides the recorded music. Upcoming dates are February 4, March 4, and April 8, from 2 to 4 PM.
“I like to tell people when they do something right rather than when they do something wrong,” local dance instructor Ellen Brodsky said. Ms. Brodsky’s laid-back and light-hearted approach to teaching dance has made learning dance seem less intimidating for hundreds of students of all abilities since she began teaching in the mid-1980s.
Ms. Brodsky said she studied dance growing up because “in an artistic family there is often someone who plays piano and someone who dances—and my sister played piano.”
Ms. Brodsky studied under Mary French and took lessons through the Arthur Murray School of Dance prior to teaching on her own. She regularly teaches classes through the Falmouth Night School; leads a monthly drop-in ballroom dancing night at the Cape Conservatory; and teaches classes at the Cape Cod Dance Center, where dancers can sign up in advance for a round of classes followed by dancing, or simply drop in and pay as they go.
“It’s social. It’s active, and it’s a way of expressing yourself,” said Ms. Brodsky, citing just some of the ways that dance is engaging.
At her monthly events, which start up again in March, Ms. Brodsky will play easy music and provide basic instruction in the first hour. “I’ll go over basic dances such as swing, merengue, and rumba; then, depending on who is there and what they want to learn, I might add the fox trot and the waltz. As the evening goes on people might be up for something more challenging.”
Ms. Brodsky said she understands that some people are self-conscious about dancing. “It’s your body, and people might be looking at you. I try to reassure people.”
Contra dancing has many health benefits including being social and working the brain by encouraging dancers to move to music while listening to verbal instruction.
Ellie and Rich Armstrong of Woods Hole have been attending both folk and contra dances for years. They credited Jim and Mary Mavor as two of the founders of Woods Hole contra dancing nights. Contra dance is a dance form similar to square dancing, except that dancers generally form two long lines meaning that, unlike square dancing, dancing groups are not limited to groups of four couples but are open-ended, allowing a larger number of dancers to join.
“In the 1950s I remember folk and contra dancing at the MBL Club in Woods Hole,” said Ms. Armstrong, “it wasn’t until the 1960s that I remember it moving to the Community Hall.” At the hall Ms. Armstrong recalled that “Mary collected the money and Jim would play the accordion.” Later she and her husband, Rich, joined the band—she on fiddle and he on concertina.
Contra dancers are led by a caller, one who literally “calls” out the dance steps, keeping the dance going and keeping the dancers organized.
A caller is the most important part of a contra dance, said Ms. Armstrong, putting the caller above even the band in terms of importance. “A good caller can teach beginners a dance and still keep it interesting for experienced dancers,” she said.
While different months bring different callers, contra dances in Woods Hole are consistently accompanied by the Woods Hole Folk Orchestra. There are eight members of the orchestra, although all eight may not show up for every dance.
“When most of the band is there, you can put down your instrument and run down and join a dance,” said Ms. Armstrong, estimating that she plays fiddle for half of the dance and dances for the other half. Her favorite dances are mixers where the dancers move in a large circle, changing partners continually, so you get “a chance to say hello to everyone.”
Contra dancing in Woods Hole takes place on the first Saturday of every month. Because of the season, it is most crowded in July and August, when Ms. Armstrong said it’s “packed from door to door.” But she also noted that they get some big crowds in the winter, too, when SEA students or the students taking MBL winter courses might all turn up. A contingent from Martha’s Vineyard usually shows up as well, said Ms. Armstrong. In the warmer months the group sails over and in the winter they take the ferry, dancing for as long as possible and then running down to the Steamship Authority to go home.
While there are many regulars, Ms. Armstrong said there can be as many as 10 new people at every dance. That’s when experienced callers are most important. There’s no set lineup of dances. “You don’t know what the dance is going to be until the caller starts,” said Ms. Armstrong, adding that it is good to pair experienced dancers with new dancers.
In addition to Woods Hole on the first Saturday of each month, there are contra dances at other venues on the remaining Saturdays. Check at capecontra.org for the current schedule, which includes dances in Cotuit, Sandwich, Wareham, and Wellfleet. Admission prices vary. Admission to the Woods Hole contra dances is $10; students are admitted for less.
There’s a lot of crossover between the Woods Hole contra dancers and the folk dancers, especially in the summer—although contra dancing does attract an older crowd. It takes a little more maturity to contra dance, said Ms. Armstrong. “You have to be tall enough to dance with an adult and to follow the directions of the caller.”
When asked what people enjoy about contra dancing, Ms. Armstrong said that she thinks it is different for different people. “You can come without a partner, never having tried it before, and still have fun,” Ms. Armstrong said. “If you can walk, you can dance,” added her husband.