An Evening at White Waltham

by Andy Bettis

Driving back from the dance group last week I got to thinking how little I knew about dance evenings at other groups. I've been to lots of workshops, teacher gatherings, camps and what have you but since crossing the line to 'teacher' I hardly ever attend an ordinary circle dance evening as a participant. So I decided to describe one specific evening at White Waltham, the group that I co-lead with Laura Shannon.

The portents weren't particularly good for that evening. Laura was still in Paris teaching a workshop, not only did this mean that I had to run the group on my own but, due to the geographical distribution of home, work and dance hall, I needed to go straight to the group from work. In addition Laura had some of our teaching tapes with her, not really that much of a hardship but I tend to be a worrier along the lines of "What if Mzwyglozniac Kolo would be the perfect dance and I don't have the music?" On top of that our sound system had broken down and was in the shop for repair, and although the wonderful Debby was bringing along her machine (thanks again!) it meant I'd be using a new and potentially strange cassette player with NO CD!!!

Well I arrived on time, set the lighting, lit the candle and started putting together a line-up of dances from the tapes I had available. This was not as straightforward as usual - whenever I decided on a dance the music always seemed to be at the opposite end of the tape from another dance that I wanted to do. Still, I'd given myself enough time and by eight o'clock (the starting time) I had a sequence that I was happy with.

By five past I was reviewing how many triangle dances I knew, to match the number of dancers. It looked like being a quiet evening.

By quarter past we were in double figures but still no Debby and no machine. Luckily the White Waltham group are very sociable and we were able to utilise the extra time in a productive and useful manner. We chatted.

Finally Debby appeared and I could get to work. Unfortunately her machine doesn't have a track search facility so, to cause less disruption during the evening, I decided to do all of the lining up at the start, which took another five minutes. By the time I was fully prepared it was twenty past eight and I could sense the itchy feet in the room, so I just put on the music for the first dance and let that call the dancers to the circle.

I'd picked Valle Nuseve to begin. This is a sort of medley of dances, starting off with a simple Pravo Oro step then switching to a very basic Cocek and finally adding a couple of extra steps to get some serious hip swaying going. We've danced many, many Coceks at White Waltham over the years and it is still one of the most popular and requested dances, so there were no problems with getting the steps 'on the fly'.

Next was Bari Galousti Bar, a modern day Armenian dance choreographed by Laura Shannon and Shakeh Avanessian. This dance has a nice 'twist' in that although the music is in an even rhythm there are five bars in each musical (and dance) phrase, three which progress and have arm movements and two that are in place and don't. I've found that having a 'tricky' dance early on in the evening lets dancers loosen up and release any pent up giggles they may have brought with them. It can be lots of fun too, and indeed it was.

We then danced Zensko Berance, a women's dance from Macedonia. This too has an unusual rhythm, it is in 12/8 but split into alternating sevens and fives and, to make things even more interesting, speeds up all the way through. One of my all-time favourite dances, it takes quite a bit of learning to start off with but repays the effort many times over when it gets into the body. With a group of 'regulars' as we were this evening it left us on a real energetic high.

If I had to name one dance as the most requested, enjoyed and remembered at White Waltham it would have to be Bar from Armenia. We usually chose to forget the arm movements and dance it in a simple 'W' hold to allow maximum personal expression and interaction, which is what we did this evening. As with the previous dance there is a strong movement towards the centre in one part which seems to bind the group together, this combined with the freedom of the 'moving' steps lets each dancer explore both sides of the Individual/Group duality. With its easier rhythm and better known steps this left the group with what I can best describe as a feeling of release.

My next choice was Dada Sali Cocek, a 'Gajde' style Cocek with irresistable gypsy music from Ferus Mustafov. To be honest I'd picked this dance because I loved the music and I knew that a Cocek always goes down well at WW. We started off just having a good, fun dance together but after a short while we fell into an almost perfect synchrony of movement, pulsing in and out like parts of a shared heart.
One of my teaching 'jokes' has been the search for the fastest meditation dance in the network, a reminder that there can be a quiet, still point in the most frenetic of dances. Well this was certainly the record holder so far. Not only that but it wasn't a static state, as the dance went on the energy and feeling seemed to change without upsetting the balance between the dancers. At the sharing at the end of the evening Lynn described it as moving from meditation to celebration, which was as accurate a description as I could come up with. A marvellous experience which we basked in with a long, undirected silence at the end.

A change of tempo was required at this point. Tsamikos Voion is a Greek women's dance which has the pride and strength that I associate with the Tsamikos form but with a subtlety of movement that some of the more 'macho' versions seem to lack. After the pace of the previous three dances this let us get our breath back while still giving us something to get our teeth (or at least our feet) into.

As the group were picking up steps with a minimum of teaching I figured we had time for an extra dance before the break, so I asked for requests and My Little Lemon Tree was suggested. This is a modern Greek dance choregraphed either by Friedel Kloke or her daughter Nanni (sorry, I can't remember which one) with very graceful steps set to a lilting waltz time.

Back to my line up with Blagoevgradsko Lesnoto from Macedonia, a simple, medium-speed Lesnoto with an optional variation step of a complete turn. This variation is 'free' in that it isn't choreographed or called - each dancer choses when to turn just as they feel.
I've written at length about this Lesnoto form (a couple of years ago in the Grapevine) as another dance that brings together the polarities of Individual and Group. A dancer doing the variation exchanges the common central point for her own axis but must still move within the dance form as a whole, those doing the basic step hold the overall form but must be ready to release their neighbours, and may find themselves 'alone' between two 'turners'. And there is another joke - if everyone decided to turn at the same time nobody would ever know!
Tonight it was a gentle and reflective dance with twos, threes and sometimes more dancers turning together.

To finish the first half we danced Ketri Ketri, another favourite of the group. The third Cocek of the evening, this shows (at least to me) how much it is possible to 'find' in a dance by using different pieces of music and being willing to follow where the dance leads. This slow, slightly sad music can result in dancers drifting off into their own private experience but we'd danced so well together that the group feeling remained strong, helped by the solid earth connection in the steps. We ended the first half of the evening having found our group identity by emphasising our individuality, which is pretty much the ideal outcome for me.

Then it was break time, and as the group tucked into their well-deserved bikkies and juice I repeated my 'dancing fingers' routine as I rewound the tapes. Sandra wrote up the names and countries of origin of the dances on our white board and we indulged in a bit more social interaction.

Normally the second half of an evening at White Waltham is made up of dances repeated from the first half, and tonight was no exception. By consensus we decided to repeat Bari Galousti Bar, Zensko Berance, Tsamikos Voion, My Little Lemon Tree, Blagoevgradsko Lesnoto and Ketri Ketri. Of these only Zensko Berance and Tsamikos Voion needed any teaching, and in both cases it was no more than a quick reminder of the steps. Having the second half of an evening consist mostly of repeated or very familiar dances is very important for me, leaving people with the sense of having danced rather than studied for most of the time.

The last dance of the evening was Ivouschki, a modern choreography (by that clever Andy Bettis, who does such nice ones) to a traditional Russian song performed by Bratsch. With just the single, central candle for illumination and a close elbow-link hold there was a feeling of belonging and acceptance, while the slight melancholy in the lyrics reminded us that all good things must come to an end.

We ended the evening in our usual way, sitting around the candle. Passing the blessing basket around the circle we each took time to share how we felt and how the evening had been, then chose blessing cards for ourselves, our friends and others who we felt needed a little extra light in their lives. Finally, remembering Laura and other absent friends, we blew out the flame.