Professor struggles to create folk-dancing community

by Francine Rubin | 1/28/03 6:00am

"I never would have thought that with college would come the opportunity to dance to a Kosovoan folksong about long-lost love," Jonathan Campbell '03 said one Sunday evening in Fuel.

Campbell was participating in one of a series of free international folk dancing lessons organized by Benjamin Szwergold, a research associate professor at Dartmouth Medical School.

Szwergold said the purpose of the lessons was twofold: he wanted others to enjoy it as much as he does, and he wanted to help create a place on campus where he can practice folk dance in a group.

"The lessons are not entirely selfless," he said with a smile.

With the help of the International Students Office, Szwergold inaugurated what he had hoped would be a three-session series of folk dancing lessons in Fuel, the dance club in the basement of Collis.

The first and second sessions, held on Sunday nights, attracted a small yet ready number of students. But the turnout wasn't high enough for Szwergold to continue the lessons.

In a BlitzMail message sent last night, Szwergold announced the cancellation regretfully.

"I remain convinced that among the 5000 plus students, faculty and staff on campus there are enough people who would enjoy this type of dancing. The problem is how to get it going," he wrote.

Szwergold related his first folk dancing experience with enthusiasm. Although he is originally from Poland, one of many places where folk dancing has thrived, it was not until coming to New York to study at Columbia University that he first tried it.

"I was passing by a church on 56th St. in '65 and heard strange sounds coming from inside," he said. There he found "all sorts of weird and interesting things."

After running into folk dancing unintentionally, he continued to study it at Columbia, other places in New York City and in groups in Jerusalem and Philadelphia as well.

Szwergold calls folk dancing "spiritual, earthly" and "meditation in motion," though he insists that ultimately it isn't conducive to being described in words.

"It's something you have to experience to know," he said, comparing folk dancing to skiing in that both require a combination of mind and body awareness.

In the Upper Valley area, Szwergold attends regular folk dancing events at Tracy Hall in Norwich on the first Friday of every month. He also dances at sessions at Kendall, a retirement community on Lyme Road, on Wednesdays.

Tracy Hall is often host to other dance events as well, such as couples dancing workshops, family dancing, contra dancing and English country dancing. The live band and energetic instructor at the contra dancing sessions bring in a multitude of dance enthusiasts, some travelling from out of town to attend.

Although Szwergold is grateful for local opportunities to cultivate his passion, he is nonetheless frustrated by the absence of an active folk dancing community on the Dartmouth campus.

"There are a few dance classes offered through FLIP, the Hopkins Center or Miniversity, such as Irish step dancing, modern dance or Latin dancing, but it is not enough. In the way of international folk dancing specifically, there is not much.

"Other college campuses have this community, and there is no reason why it can't exist here," he said. He regards Dartmouth as a place where folk dancing could take hold and thrive.

At the first session at Fuel, Szwergold demonstrated the Pravo, which is from Bulgaria, the Macedonian Raca, the Croatian Moja Driridika, the Gypsy Rumelai and the Larikos, which is from Greece.

Some of the dances were done in a line, others in circular formation. While showing the combinations, he would tell of the situations they would be performed in, as well as the people who performed them.

One dance was performed in a tight circle completed by interwoven hands as participants whirled quickly in a spinning frenzy from one side of the room to the other.

While they congratulated themselves at their ability to cruise this distance, Szwergold told the dancers the goal was to remain stationary while spinning so fast.

Still, he smiled at the enjoyment and noted that "the goal also is to have fun."

Many of the dances were related to love, either unrequited or sought after. Some were meant to be danced at weddings or other festive occasions.

"Folk dancing is for everyone," Szwergold said, emphasizing that in the countries where these dances are popular, all members of a community take part.

The students present in Fuel often exchanged smiles; with the first demonstration came nervous chuckling, but after a number of practices a more relaxed look of enjoyment was paramount.

The greatest satisfaction came the last few times a combination was repeated, when concern about remembering the steps was at a minimum.

"Ben was an animated and inspiring teacher, and you can tell he really enjoys Eastern European love songs," Campbell said.

After first showing the combinations and then breaking them down into smaller parts, Szwergold led the group so that all were dancing together.

When he was satisfied that all had the basic idea, sometimes he closed his eyes.

"Imagine doing this on a beach with lots and lots of other people. Everyone knows the steps and is in rhythm after a good meal and a few glasses of wine. It's an indescribable feeling," he said wistfully.