the episodes

How this started - the eleven "episodes".

It began in 2008 with an issue I was trying to address: a longstanding frustration with recreational folk dancing. I had trouble learning new material, and often felt awkward. Yet occasionally I also heard people say I was a good dancer. Sure, in the course of life, being hypercritical of oneself is a common pitfall. But I started noticing that beyond the internal conflict, I was also dealing with a contrast of values and esthetics within folk dancing that I had not previously noticed or heard discussed.
At the time, I was using Myspace for miscellaneous blogging. To maintain continuity between posts on this topic, I numbered each one as an "episode". Though I may not be focusing on the original issue, I think I'll keep the name for now. Kef is a good thing. Though you can't necessarily make it happen - when it does, it is always appreciated.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Hava Nagila or Tallava - who makes the choice?

Folk dancers can effect the quality of a performance - much like any other audience, but maybe more so, especially if they choose to dance up front.  They can inspire the musicians, and that's the way it's supposed to work.  But they can also be a damp blanket.  The latter, unfortunately, is what this post is about...

Much good music at Golden Fest - and the same at the "After-party" yesterday at Drom.  At the latter, a telling contrast between two good bands, a solid "Pontic Firebird," not Greek themselves, and a much younger "Balkan Express" (a.k.a., Ork. Zlatni Makedoncinja), apparently from the local Macedonian Roma community. My guess is that the former would have powered through their set, regardless of the audience in front - though actually they were blessed with some very decent dancing.  Whereas the latter were more "patron conscious," an ancient tradition among professional musicians.  The Express went on earlier in the evening - smaller audience, and few dancers, but the kind prone to do bouncy-wiggly American-style chochek to anything that "sounds Gypsy". Thank goodness that BJH got up to lead a gaida.
As the Express is leaving, I thank one of them for playing, and ask where he is from.  "Macedonia" - well, yeah, but I meant locally.  I mention "Sazet" band - who played at the Fest the previous two years - and it turns out they are related.  Others from the group cluster around.  I mention how I like tallava, and eyes light up.  "We play that, too."  I relate the experience of seeing Sazet in Sebastopol in 2012 - and how Sani onstage had to ASK them to play tallava, and what ensued.  And I mention that fabulous YouTube video that recorded the whole thing (minus Sal Mamudoski's initial taksim).  One of the clarinetists says he has seen the video many times (as have I).  And yes, annoyingly, for the first several minutes, there's a dude in the audience (who was standing near me), screaming "YEAH BABY," over and over again, like he's in a jazz club.
Then one guy says that during their Drom set, they scaled back their act, because the dancers couldn't handle the rhythm. But no sweat, hey, of course they need to keep the crowd happy.  It didn't occur to me to remind that the non-dancing part of the audience often has more receptive ears than the folk dancers - e.g., at this gig, with a lot of musicians in the audience.
Later, I pass on to a friend that the previous set had been scaled back - and he tells me how he has sometimes seen the same in jazz, where a soloist may start the evening playing fairly "dumb" - and if he doesn't see receptivity, just won't put out.  I may never really know why Sazet didn't play tallava their two years at Golden-Fest (or almost didn't at Herdeljezi).  But I imagine that poor expectations about audience reaction might have been a big part of it.
The festival blurb for Balkan Express, describes them as "traditional Macedonian, Albanian, Serbian, and Romani music in a modern and exciting way" - video clip 2013.  But at the After-party, they ended their set with Hava Nagila.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

split weekend - detour to Castro Valley (Facebook 9/23/13)

September 23, 2013 at 4:18pm

The annual Glendi at St. Seraphim's in Santa Rosa is locally famous for food, music, and enthusiastic dancing from across the Balkans.  Edessa was the band this year, so it was very hard to skip Sunday, and detour instead... the Independence Day celebration at Holy Cross Monastery near Castro Valley.  Also food and live music, but a much smaller crowd - and a very different experience, with its own validity and constraints. 

After an introductory announcement in Bulgarian, most everyone headed off towards the church.  A voice passing by said quietly in English, "We're going into the church," and it sounded like an advisory.  No anonymity - we're all in this together.  The flag and its people get blessed.

Such a treat to do pravo and lesno - comparatively simple, and yet perhaps not so simple - with people who genuinely care about the steps, and about the music, too.

 images credit: via Peter Kopralev

dancing at the back of the line (Facebook 12/10/11)

December 10, 2011 at 12:42am

Dancing at the back of the line can be rewarding, but also has responsibilities and pitfalls. 

Last week at the Kolo Festival in SF, I was chastised (mildly), during a dance, for not providing the leader enough room to escape from inside the circle.  I responded knowingly, "Oops, sorry.  I must have spaced-out."

Tonight, at an annual folk dance party in the North Bay, someone decided to rescue the end from me, "because" I had forced the leader outside the circle.  "People like to see the leader waving the handkerchief."  He explained further, "The person at the back of the line is referred to as the 'traffic cop'".  And to prove authority, he added, "I learned that at the Kolo Festival!"

Thursday, December 19, 2013

episode 11 - why Bulgarians don't go folk dancing (MySpace 6/03/2009)

This entry was written just prior to the emergence of the current Bulgarian-American folkloric groups, such as Antika Bulgaria in the Bay Area, which teach, practice, and dance according to their own standards and esthetics.  

This also ends the original "Where's the kef?" series on MySpace - additional hunks of material worthy of a full post just didn't emerge.  However,  I have appended some new material at the end that does add a bit of resolution. 

Subject Where's the kef? - episode 11 - why Bulgarians don't go folk dancing
DateCreated 6/3/2009 12:17:00 AM
PostedDate 6/3/2009 12:14:00 AM
Body Last weekend I drove down to a small Bulgarian "folkloric retreat" in Ben Lomond. Food, wine, campfire, conversation, contemplation - some singing, but this year no instrumental music or dancing. Took a friend from Sebastopol with me. She is an avid folk dancer who particularly enjoys Bulgarian folk dances.

On the way down, this friend asked me why the local Bulgarians never come to their folk dance sessions. I suggested that maybe the Bulgarians feel that the folk dancers' way of doing Bulgarian dances "has no soul". She was concerned - and demanded to know whether I had actually heard them say that. On reflection, maybe I hadn't. Perhaps I had just assumed.

So I shared her initial question with someone at the retreat. It brought instant recognition and a smile, and comments, such as: The folk dancers way of dancing "feels too artificial," and Americans are "too concerned about doing the steps".

Rewind to events in the previous weeks - Theodosii Spassov's Folk Project band, and the Kiril i Methodi celebration, both where most of the attendees were Bulgarians. Specifically the latter, where a middle-aged woman with short hennaed hair mysteriously arrived bearing a loaf of specially prepared bread, and danced solo amid the pravo line offering pieces to the dancers. Later, she led the line - not a virtuosic exhibition, but solid, and with excellent vigor, timing, and joy, and obviously inspired by the music - a perfect model for Americans to learn from. Yet, for many folk dancers, a simple pravo is a beginners' dance, not to be taken seriously, perhaps even boring - and appropriate for plodding through.

One more comment from Ben Lomond (paraphrased), "You are not ready for complex dances until you understand how to move in the simple dances". And one more from me: If a group doesn't seem to share their values, why should they want to come join them?

Nonetheless, Bulgarians have often expressed an appreciation for the interest that Americans - and other foreigners - have taken in their culture.  After all, there may be only 8 million of them in the entire world.  And more than one American has heard a Bulgarian say, "Thank you for inspiring us to again take up the culture we had largely put aside as irrelevant".  

Yet as I described above, the way the Bulgarian dances are usually done within the "Balkan Dance" recreational culture does not inspire their participation.  I can recall a brief awkward moment at a Bulgarian event in San Francisco.  When the music started, the Americans present were more ready to dance than the Bulgarians, and quickly lined up and began Racenitsa in the American fashion.  One dancer turned to a Bulgarian lady, opened the line, and invited her to join - a gesture of friendship, and I think also showing that they would feel honored to have her.  The response was so frank it took me by surprise, "Thank you, but this dance means too much to me."

So where do I fit in all this?  Sometimes it's hard to figure that out!  A case in point was at last year's Golden Fest in New York, with a gigantic American-style Racenitsa line, that was especially handicapped by large numbers of enthusiastic but clueless newbies.  No fun for me there, so I hung out in back by myself, moving and enjoying the music.  Eventually I thought, "what the heck," and started doing the American step by myself, shadowing the line.  Almost immediately, WHAM!  A small young woman latched onto my right, and started dancing with me. Her movements had a kind of timing I have long envied, but never quite grasped - so I flipped across, and put her in the lead.  Then she really took off - yes, inspiring, but I could barely match her new vigor.  And then the music ended.  "Where did you learn to dance?," she asked.  "I try to learn from Bulgarians."  She smiled, "That is always the best way.  You are not a high dancer, but you know what you are doing."  

And in that manner, she "put me in my place" - but not at all a bad place to be in - enjoying the music and the dance communally, on its own terms.  In that place, I believe there is room for all of us - even American beginners.   

episode 10 - hopping at the Hopmonk (MySpace 5/11/2009)

Where's the kef? - episode 10 - hopping at the Hopmonk
Subject Where's the kef? - episode 10 - hopping at the Hopmonk
DateCreated 5/11/2009 12:56:00 AM
PostedDate 5/10/2009 2:28:00 AM
Body Herdelezi Festival 2009... After 8 p.m., Brass Menazeri leads a procession of the multitude from the Vets Hall to the Hopmonk tavern two blocks away - some crew remain at the Hall to clean up. At the tavern, the sets indoors in the "Abbey" are jam-packed and jumping - VIA Romen (Russian Romani), and the Balkan All-Stars (other festival headliners doing southern Balkan Romani). Very different than the daytime crowd - looks like mostly Hopmonk regulars. Typical Balkan band in a bar - it's our music, but it's their scene. They are digging it on their own terms - dancing solo in every way imaginable. Perhaps tonight they sense they are getting the real deal.

I'm not eager for solo, but what else can you do in a bar? I'm largely invisible, so I might as well relax, enjoy, and practice my moves. But I also want to interact - I want to line dance - because I'm still too self-conscious to seek out some Balkan-aware dancers and solo in a group with them. However, these kids know how to freely move to music better than I do - why should I impose my line dance trip on their scene?

What the heck - so, who do I dance with? All of the few remaining candidates are either sitting it out ("Hi! It doesn't seem like a dance-friendly night, does it?"). Or they are up-front, blissfully writhing away solo with the rest - though in a more culturally appropriate manner. This includes my dance buddy "J" - who I've heard boast she can start a Balkan line even in the most jam-packed 20s-something bar.

Late in the evening, I finally get her to lead a line with me (she first). The two of us move from the periphery into the crowd. Old enough to be the parents of most of them - at worst, we expect to be tolerated. Several Balkan dancers spot this first opportunity of the night, and the two of us are no longer making a spectacle by ourselves. But soon I feel that the people on my left are a bit out of sync - and I turn to discover that the line is now mainly composed of the young bar regulars. They actually WANT to do our stuff! Don't know what the appeal was - but can guess that it included a desire for group participation, and perhaps our movements were providing insights into how to groove to this new music.

And that's how the remainder of the evening went. We started a line for each tune, using standard Balkan community dancing steps (but with a sharp execution), and they followed along. The only thing missing was hotshot youth leadership - to demonstrate cool moves and the opportunity for showing off and for flirting. If you could add that... Bingo! Modern Balkan dance scene!

Next: - ?
(might be continued)
Previous: episode 9 - the Opa Cupa conundrum
Start: episode 1 - the Peninsula

episode 9 - the Opa Cupa conundrum (MySpace 5/10/2009)

Where's the kef? - episode 9 - the Opa Cupa conundrum
Subject Where's the kef? - episode 9 - the Opa Cupa conundrum
DateCreated 5/10/2009 2:29:00 AM
PostedDate 5/10/2009 2:23:00 AM
Body Some time earlier this year, I find myself upstairs at the Friday folk dancing, and I hear a familiar piece of music on the audio system. I immediately feel "at home". Seeing my interest, a friend says, "that's Ciganko - very popular, everyone knows how to do it".

"Do" it?

To me it's a catchy song and instrumental arrangement from the Balkans (Serbia?) - but these people are folk dancers, and are in the habit of associating music with step sequences. Start to play the music, and folk dancers will want to do the familiar associated choreography. Another example is Opa Cupa (pronounced "opa tsupa"). I think it's a great song - they think it's a great dance.

Last fall at the so-called Kolo Festival in Sausalito, the band is about to start Opa Cupa. I get into the dance line, and then reconsider. "Are we going to do 'U Shest' or the folk dance 'Opa Cupa'?" U Shest is a widely known Serbian step-pattern that fits this music well, and can acommodate a wide range of ability in the same dance line. "I'm doing the folk dance," says the line leader, so I drop out. She does a fine job. Not hard, but the steps change according to the parts of the musical arrangement. There are enough experienced people in the crowd to support the mis-steps of the newbies, and despite not looking particularly Serbian, the whole thing looks good and comes off pretty well.

Fast forward to Herdeljez in Sebastopol last week. The Sonoma Academy high school opens the program with a mixed Bulgarian and Romani set - with Opa Cupa near the end. What is going to happen THIS time?

I back out as I see the line is being formed by folk dancers. But this time they have trouble finding the right steps. Another line forms alongside, tries, but also can't seem to find the groove. Most of the Academy kids are in one of these lines - and they seem at a total loss for what to do. Then I notice several Voice of Roma stalwarts have started an U Shest line - yeah! But they back off, likely for the sake of diplomacy.

The music sounded pretty good, though. No obvious problem, unless you were watching what was happening with the dancing up front. Later, I heard the back story. VoR had coached the band and the singers, and the rest of the students had been taught... U Shest.

Next time you are at a festival, and you hear that the band is going to play Opa Cupa - which dance are YOU gonna do?

Next: hopping at the Hopmonk
Previous: episode 8 - a Devetorka lesson
Start: episode 1 - the Peninsula

episode 8 - a Devetorka lesson (MySpace 5/09/2009)

WhereĆ¢€™s the kef? - episode 8 - a Devetorka lesson
Subject Where's the kef? - episode 8 - a Devetorka lesson
DateCreated 5/9/2009 2:07:00 AM
PostedDate 5/9/2009 1:49:00 AM
Body Another Friday at the international folk dance club weekly session... I'm waiting for "E" to arrive, so we can go downstairs and practice our tupan and kaval music thing. Small turnout this evening, and "B" is about to start teaching. An amazing person. She is far older than most everyone, yet still youthfully light in step, an excellent dancer, a joyous dancer, and a very good teacher.

On the blackboard are the dances to be taught. Among them "Devetorka". From the name, it's Bulgarian or Macedonian to a nine-beat rhythm. Do I know it? "B" obliges by playing the record cut she will use, and then demos the basic step and a couple of variations.

Ah, yes. The basic step is a common nine-beat line dance that's done at live music events. I tell her, "Yeah, two forward and one back" - the direction of line movement in measures. She responds with a "yes-but" - stresses and insists that the first two measures are quite distinct. For one, they start on different feet. O.k., but I counter that for practical purposes, the first two measures are the same.

We are both right. But good-golly, here it is again... this disagreement is iconic.

Though I am not a real dance teacher, I actually teach this dance very often in the trenches - meaning, in the dance line - to the "clueless newbies" who are sometimes in the line next to me. My usual aim is to try to get them to walk in time with the music, and I temporarily simplify my own steps to better serve as a model. "Walk-walk-walk walk, walk-walk-walk walk, back-two-three walk"... or something like that. Forget the left-foot right-foot niceties - just learning to move in sync with the line and the music is a powerful achievement. In this setting, being on the wrong foot is so trivial compared to being off rhythm. This is not rocket science - once you are moving in time, you may be able to find the proper "footedness" on your own.

When "TK" leads dance lines at live music scenes, she often starts by walking in time to the rhythm. "How democratic! What a wonderful teacher!," I initially thought. But when I offered my compliments, she related that walking in time to the music was the way some dances are started in her native part of Bulgaria. Whoa! So real Bulgarian dancing with Bulgarians can sometimes be more accessible than Bulgarian dancing taught by American folk dance teachers. But no wonder.

Next: episode 9 - the Opa Cupa conundrum
Previous: episode 7 - different strokes
Start: episode 1 - the Peninsula