My first dance workshop (if you can call it that) was in 1986 or thereabouts at the Findhorn community in northern Scotland. I was attending a training course for aspiring Sacred Dance (see below) teachers and during a free period I'd offered to teach some of my fellow participants a selection of dances that I knew that weren't in the curriculum. Since then I've taught all over the world, from groups of half a dozen to several hundred, and from single hour sessions to week-long courses. But all good things must wind down over time and in November of 2016 I led what was to be my last organised dance workshop.
'Dance' covers a wide umbrella of styles so I should explain what it is I actually teach. When I first started it was called Sacred Dance, a collection of folk dance and contemporary group choreographies developed by Professor Bernhard Wosien, a German ballet master. The intention (as it was explained to me) was to use dance as a way of fostering group harmony and personal movement meditation rather than as performance or merely as recreation. As this style spread it was renamed Circle Dance (especially in Britain) to avoid some of the religious connotation implied by 'Sacred'. From quite early on my preference has been for the more traditional folk dances and as the years have gone on this has focussed mainly on the Balkans, particularly Macedonia, Albania & Greece. Although I'd probably describe myself as a folk dance teacher nowadays I still aim for a shared group experience rather than a polished performance, respectfully learning from these other cultures but still firmly rooted in my own.
So why stop? For most of my dancing years I've run or participated in ongoing regular groups, usually having at least one session per week (and often more). While living at Findhorn in the 2000's I would be teaching as part of Findhorn Foundation courses, leading the weekly dance evenings (one open to all comers, one for the ongoing local group), featuring in the annual dance festival and holding sessions for special events. However since moving back down to England in 2011 I'd been unable to establish a new, regular dance regimen - in my new home town there was no established group and I found I didn't have the energy or enthusiasm to start a new one off from scratch. I was still teaching the occasional workshop but I could feel my skills growing rusty, not my teaching as such but my feel for how many or what level of dances would be best for the group, making changes on the fly in response to how things were going. I was still receiving high praise and excellent feedback and I didn't want to drift into offering something that I wasn't proud of.
There's an easy way to ease out of presenting workshops - you just stop organising them or accepting invitations. I'd been asked to return to Malvern a couple of years ago and as my other workshops were completed this remained as the last one on my calendar. This was definitely a great way to end - I'd taught there several times before, it was a nice hall, and Sunnara & Simon were both dear friends and some of the best organisers I'd ever worked with. The cherry on top was finding that there was a direct train from Bradford on Avon to Malvern! And so it was set - Malvern 2016 was to be my last dance workshop.
It was interesting to see how the technology had moved on over the thirty years since I started teaching. Back then the compact cassette was the universal music format with the dilemma of either having a huge box of short tapes with one dance on each side or needing to carefully line up all the pieces of music you were likely to use in a session beforehand. I kept a Filofax for my dance notes, meticulously writing out the step natation and snippets of information for each and filing them in scrupulous alphabetical order. Today I turned up with an iPad mini which held my entire music collection, an app (Teachers DJ Mini) that not only let me quickly choose between them but also kept a record of which music I'd used, and all the dance notes from my website. A pair of small powered speakers provided high quality sound at an ample volume to fill the hall - Sunnara & Simon provided these but it would have been easy to bring my own in a carry-on sized wheeled case. While setting up I realised that I could have run all of this from my iPhone (my back-up sound source), how's that for living in the future?
I arrived the day before the workshop - I've always avoided travelling on the day of an event as the potential for something to go wrong wracks me with worries. This gave me time to catch up with Sunnara & Simon and to take them out to dinner as thanks for organising and hosting me. Come the morning we arrived at the hall in good time and with such expert preparation that we were set and ready long before the first of the participants started coming through the doors.
The workshop had been billed as A selection of Andy's favourite dances but coming up with a realistically small list had proved frustratingly difficult. I'd narrowed it down to probably twice as many as I needed in the week before and in the morning I'd trimmed this down further, still too many but arranged in such a way that I could make my final choices as the day progressed. My iPad app really helped, I set up a 'playlist' of possible dances & pieces of music in approximate order which allowed me to select between them with a single tap. To fit with the workshop timetable (allowing for lunch and tea breaks) I'd chosen three blocks of dances which could be run through and repeated before finishing with a repeat session of all (or at least most) of the dances at the end. This format was one I'd used successfully in the past, making sure we actually got to enjoy the dances rather than feeling we were always learning new steps & sequences.
In an attempt to cram in an extra dance or two I'd decided to do a 'bonus' dance for the people who'd arrived early so ten minutes before our official start time I put on some music and started dancing, with one hand extended as an invitation to join the line. It was a simple Pravo Oro, a dance I'd heard described as 'the simplest possible dance after walking', and within seconds the line stretched across the hall with new arrivals scurrying to take their place at the end. It was a nice long piece of music so I was able to double back and do a face to face greeting with everyone, a nice way to get things started. As we spiralled around I felt my initial anxiety & tension - something I always seem to go through when teaching - ease away as I settled comfortably into a very familiar dance, giving me space to check over the group and get a feel for the people. These were good dancers - this could be fun!
My first 'block' of dances were chosen to get people moving but also to build up into the first real challenge of the day. First up was a simple Čoček, a Rom (Gypsy) dance from all over the southern Balkans. This was originally intended as the first dance but after the pravo people were already warmed up and we breezed through it in no time. Next up was Sa, a more elaborate Rom dance, but the group were showing their confidence & competence by this point and once again it didn't require much teaching before the music was on and we were bopping around the hall. I was really enjoying myself, admittedly these were fairly straightforward dances that I'd taught a million times before but I felt I was reading the group accurately, neither starting them off before they'd really gotten the dance or drowning the energy by over-teaching.
Next up was Patrounino, a Greek Macedonian dance and the first venture into my signature 'unusual' rhythms. The dance has one of my favourite combinations - a simple set of steps but done in an uneven tempo, in this instance 11/8. My strategy, as with many uneven rhythm patterns, was to start off teaching the steps as if they were evenly spaced and slowly introduce the rhythm in my voice without explaining it (and certainly not saying '11/8'). People quickly learnt the short step sequence, subconsciously absorbed the rhythm, and we were soon dancing.
As soon as the music stopped (after a short pause to allow for questions) I put on a different piece and we danced it again. I've found this to be a really good way to pass on a new dance, it can give people a different experience or perspective, bring out different aspects by doing it faster or slower, or just show that a dance isn't tied to just one piece of music, something that was common in the early days of Circle Dance. In my mind it helps keep the dance alive rather than being fixed & static - in the absence of a live band it's the next best thing.
We then came to the first really challenging dance of the workshop - Gadje Preshevare, a dance that was described by my teacher as 'a Rom dance from north-west Macedonia with a strong Albanian influence', just my sort of thing. The step sequence wasn't particularly long but it seemed almost deliberately perverse - the first section had a mix of lifting steps and was repeated three times, starting with alternate feet. This was followed by a 'progressing' section with a different pattern that was twice as long as the first, giving a dance sequence of five measures done to a musical piece with a four measure phrase, in 7/8 to boot. To make it even more interesting the dance sped up dramatically through the music, ending up at a tempo that required the most fleeting of steps to fit. This was not a dance for the cautious or timid. To help people build up their confidence I have an edited version of the music that fades out before the speed gets too fast, and although there were a few expressions of alarm after the first run through it felt like most of the group were getting it for most of the time. This may sound like faint praise but for their first attempt I was very impressed. After a little extra tuition and advice on how to cope with high speed dancing I unleashed the full music and off we went.
When I was living in the Findhorn community there were discussions about whether Sacred Dance was a 'proper' spiritual practice or just a nice way to develop a harmonious group feeling. For me it wasn't the slow, meditative dances that achieved this but the more earthy (and often faster) ones - when I was fully engaged in a complex, often physically demanding dance with wild music propelling me onward I could feel myself entering an altered state of being, one where I was carried along and merely had to allow the dance to manifest through me. In the film Serenity a pilot, Wash, describes his almost impossibly perfect act of steering with the phrase "I am a leaf on the wind, watch me soar" which is as close an expression to this state as I've ever come across. It's a form of surrender but an exquisitely active one, running to stay in place while a greater presence emerges from within, going beyond yourself by finding more rather than stepping back. Like other transpersonal experiences it's frustratingly hard to find words to describe it but then again that's sort of the point.
As Gadje Preshevare sped up I found myself in a strange juxtaposition of mental states - checking on the group to see if any extra words would help or distract, being aware of where the line was going and if I needed to 'steer' into free space, estimating where we would end up as the music ended and and allowing for that, and wondering if the next dance (and piece of music) I had planed would be the right one to take us forward. I was enjoying the simple act of dancing but also balancing the need to keep to the basic step pattern as an example for people to follow against the temptation to indulge in some variations of step or style to show what could be done as personal expression without breaking the harmony of the overall dance. Part of me was the good teacher, helping everyone along, part was the developmental coach, pushing people towards the edges of their comfort zone, part was (I must admit) enjoying showing off and being the centre of attention, and part was the ecstatic dancer, immersed in the delight of expressing artistic movement to the best of all my abilities. A wonderfully alive state of being. And lurking underneath was the realisation that if I spent too long in any one of these I was likely to lose it all and probably make an embarrassing mistake.
As the music ended the group feeling was warmly positive - most had made it through without too many missteps and some were beaming with justly deserved pride at their achievement. The energy level was high but people had been physically & mentally stretched - it's always a lot more demanding when you're learning a new dance - so I calmed things down with Koritsa, a gentle dance from Albania. Not too gentle though - it had a tight sequence of faster steps and turns at the end of the step pattern that kept people focussed & attentive. We were settling down but at an appreciably higher level than the one we'd started at.
Having completed the first block of dances we repeated them all, in most cases with just a quick review of the steps and maybe a hint on style or refinement. I used different pieces of music for nearly all of the dances, nothing too radically different but enough to stop people taking it for granted. For Gadje Preshevare I used a live recording that sped up even faster and the group (& I) rose to the challenge magnificently, ending with whoops & cheers.
After a well-deserved tea break we started on the next collection of dances. Rather than call people back to the circle or have a fixed time to restart I once again put on a piece of music and began the dance alone, and once again the line formed quickly. To lead into the new dances I began with Sta Dhio, simple enough for people to pick up without any teaching and in the same rhythm pattern as the dance that was to come next, to subtly prepare people for it.
That dance was Çobankat, a choreography made up of traditional Albanian steps but set to precisely fit a specific song. I'd taught this dance the last time I was in Malvern and it was popular in the network so it didn't require much more than revising the steps and rehearsing the somewhat unusual transitions between the parts. We were soon ready and danced it very smoothly and gracefully, I called the changes so that people could relax into the movements and enjoy them while their subconscious minds assimilated the complexities of the sequence. Straight afterwards we repeated the dance with much slower music (which is actually more difficult) and I was able to do less calling as the group felt into the changes.
The trickiest rhythm of the day came with Beranče, a women's dance from Macedonia. This has a five-beat measure of slow-quick-quick-slow-quick but it doesn't fall easily into western time signatures - it can be played as 12/8 (3-2-2-3-2) or 17/8 (4-3-3-4-3) or more usually as something that's not quite either. As with a lot of traditional Balkan dances the best practice is to get in sync with the drummer and let that guide your steps. The step sequence is short but tricky (a common description of several of my favourites) and once again it speeds up sharply.
By this point in the workshop confidence levels were high and although the dance had unexpected weight & direction changes on top of the unusual rhythm the teaching went very quickly and soon the music was on and we were away. The group were dancing so well that I was able to ease up on being Mr Teacher and let myself delight in one of my most loved dances - something I can't really achieve easily on my own. There were smiles all around as we finished, I suspect one of the largest was my own. After using a very traditional piece we repeated the dance to something more modern to give some contrast and variety.
After two (relatively) intricate dances I ended the second block with a simple Rodopsko Horo, a sedate Bulgarian dance accompanied by a solo gajde (bagpipe). This was done in a 'basketweave' hand hold with the arms interwoven, bringing the people closer together and demanding more tightly synchronised movements. As with Koritsa this had a quick set of steps at the end of the pattern, a slight wake-up call to stop people just moving on autopilot. And to add a little extra challenge the music had some syncopated phrases just when you'd least expect it (even me - I hadn't used this music for quite a while).
Having already repeated the two trickier dances we broke for lunch at this point. After some 'housekeeping' - writing up the last few dance names, refilling my water jug, reviewing my music choices for the afternoon - I joined the queue at the shared food table, filled a small plate and found a spare chair to eat at. I was expecting a deluge of questions & comments but people graciously gave me space to dine in peace, a few friends joined me to catch up & chat and it wasn't until I was well into my (frugal) dessert that the dance queries started. And when they did it was very polite, a few clarifications about step notes, music sources and dance origins mixed in with some very nice compliments about the dances & the teaching and regrets that I was giving it up. Workshop mealtimes can often be a rush of reorganisation & inquisition for the teacher but this was nourishing on many levels and I was ready to start again long before the tables were packed away and the last cups of tea drained.
To draw the dancers back onto the floor I chose a gentle, simple Lesnoto, a walking dance from the southern Balkans. The music was a medley of traditional tunes that caused some grins amongst the more experienced dancers as the melody for Dospatsko Oro emerged, a tune normally associated with a much more complicated dance. The line spiralled into the centre and we ended in a cosy cluster of silent smilers. After opening out again we finally got around to a circle of names - something I think is very important in group activities but that I often forget to do until repeatedly reminded. It was nice to have introduced ourselves in dance before using words but this was probably a bit later than was ideal.
There were three more dances for the afternoon - these were generally slower & gentler than those in the morning but each had their own challenges. Afternoons can be tricky to get right in dance days, there's a definite post-prandial slump in energy levels and full tummies that will object to vigorous movement but a soft yet intricate dance will often come together easily and go surprisingly deep. I hoped I had chosen wisely.
The first was Syrtos Kritikos, a Greek Syrto variation from the island of Crete (which is essentially what the name means). The steps follow a familiar 12-step pattern in slow-quick-quick rhythm but it's danced in a much tighter & more constrained manner than is usual in this genre, with subtle changes of posture & direction. After dancing through to a fairly well-known tune we repeated it with a faster but somehow 'dreamier' piece, more modern and abstract than the more traditional song (but amusingly played by the same musician). As an 'afternoon dance' it had worked really well, focussing the group and building on the synchrony we'd developed in the morning.
Next was another Greek dance, Dipat from the Pontic tradition. This had fewer steps but a trickier rhythm - 9/8 but split into 4-2-3 which made each 'beat' in the triplet a different length, not easy to grasp when you're new to it. To add another level of difficulty the melody is often out of sync with the dance pattern (and is usually in four measures while the dance is in three) but this seeming disconnect gives a wonderfully transcendant feel as the steps are both tightly locked to the rhythm and yet never merely mirroring it. As a teacher I've often observed that the 'first' step in a dance pattern is purely a convenience, once we are dancing each step leads to the next in a continuum of movement, a wave that exists in superposition with the 'particles' of each footfall. Dipat is a wonderful example of this.
After dancing to a very traditional song I chose a longer, more modern piece of music for the repeat. This had an easier rhythmic structure to follow but an instrumental arrangement that had that same 'out of sync' relationship with the dance pattern, the 'start' coming at unexpected places within the melody. Wonderful. As we danced I became very aware that despite the presence of a small stamp in the step pattern the group were dancing almost silently with virtually no sound of footsteps, a magical moment.
The last new dance was Osagovka from Macedonia. I'd known this as a vigorous men's dance but at a dance camp in America I'd seen people doing a very different version - slower, simpler and much more graceful. None of the dancers had any more details about the it so I'd provisionally tagged it as a women's dance, the style was in keeping with several Macedonian women's dances I'd seen and it formed a tidy pair with the other version. Interestingly I'd been browsing through YouTube recently and had discovered film of a Macedonian performing group, all male, dancing this version, a nice reminder that there's always something new to learn.
The step pattern, once again, was short but 'interesting'. The dance began with the left foot while facing right, an unusual combination, and the 11/8 rhythm was split into 4-3-4 giving a slightly offset bounce to the movements. In the last section the final slow step is replaced by two quick ones that lead back into the first step, blurring the point at which the sequence repeats. The (generally) slower pacing contrasts with the very dynamic musical style giving a smooth, flowing feel despite the unevenness of the rhythm.
For our first dance through I used one of my favourite pieces of music, a medley of two traditional tunes but played much more slowly than is usual. Combined with the sedate step pattern this produced an almost meditative dance but with enough rhythmic complexity to keep us on our toes. As the music faded away a hum of satisfaction & approval rose to take its place. We repeated the dance to a faster track and it was great to see the smoothness & grace still there within the much more dynamic context. We broke for tea with laughter & joy.
The final session was a run through of (nearly) all the dances, a chance to add a little polish, let the dances bed down in our bodies, and simply enjoy what we'd learned. For about half of the dances I used different pieces of music to keep them fresh & alive while for the more complex ones I used the same tracks to provide a familiar context for the steps. As usual I'd not left time to do them all but the two that were missed were respectively well-known and fairly simple. This final set of repeats was a true joy - minimal teaching & demonstrating for me, maximum dancing for everybody. The group had really absorbed the dances and although it's never quite like being 'just another dancer' I was able to loosen a lot of my teacher's responsibilities and dance for the sheer joy of it, confident that we were holding the experience together.
As the last piece of music faded away I looked up and saw that we'd finished precisely on time, which I smugly announced to the group. After my usual 'Sufi blessing' to bring the teaching to a close I was warmly praised & thanked, something that never fails to move me but that I've leaned to not brush off with a joke or glib self-deprecation. Honest feedback is a valuable gift to be treasured & respected, especially the good stuff! As I modestly stood there and lapped up the applause it was good to realise that yes, I had done a good job and had helped bring some beauty into the world and into both their and my lives. It had been a very good workshop.
As I packed my stuff away - not a huge task with my high-tech setup - a stream of people came up to ask a few final questions and say how much they'd enjoyed the day. This was somehow easier to take than the group applause - no need to slip behind the 'famous dance teacher' mask - and yet, I suspect, more effective in getting through to my vulnerable inner self. As the last few participants left and my physical tiredness began to creep up on me I felt a deep sense of satisfaction.
Will I teach again? It was great to lead another workshop but I was aware of having to look up a couple of things in my own dance notes as I prepared for it and of being a bit unsure about which pieces of music would suit when contemplating impromptu repeats. Without regular dancing I can see this uncertainty growing and my repertoire shrinking in parallel - already there are a few dances that I can reconstruct from my notes but I wouldn't dream of attempting to seriously try to teach. It was good to find that my body can cope quite easily with a day of teaching & dancing and that I can still hold & focus a group (and get a few laughs along the way) but all things considered this felt like an excellent way to gracefully exit the stage. I'd love to dance some more (and definitely plan to) and if the opportunity arose I'd happily lead the occasional simple dance but my workshop days are behind me now. Now, what comes next?