Nonprofit group preserves traditional music, dance

By EDWARD MARSHALL / Journal Staff Writer
April 30, 2007

The first Saturday of each month, several people fill the second floor of the Men's Club in downtown Shepherdstown for contra dancing, a folk line dance. More photographs can be found on The Journal's Web site by clicking on CU. (Journal file photo by Martin B. Cherry)

SHEPHERDSTOWN For nearly three decades the nonprofit organization Shepherdstown Music and Dance has preserved and celebrated centuries-old traditional dance and music.

The group was founded in 1979 and is an affiliate of the Country Dance and Song Society, the nationally-based organization that sponsors traditional music and dance programs.

The organization hosts a variety of dance and music-based events and programs each year.

"It's a wonderful group of people, and we get good exercise and enjoy what we love most in terms of music and movement by dancing together," Concert Chair Joanie Blanton, a member of the board of directors, said. "Most of the dances are quite simple, and a lot of the dances are precursors to our contra dances that are popular here in this country today."

The organization has about 150 members and a locally based board of directors comprising 12 people, three of which are members younger than 25. That's a big difference from 10 years ago, when Blanton said, almost everybody who attended dances was older than 40, save for a few young children.

"We are starting to see a lot of young folks join in, and our dances are about 50 percent young folks these days, which was not the case 10 years ago," Blanton said.

The organization also hosts an international concert series. It usually puts on about six or eight concerts a year between September and the end of March. Concerts are open to the public and feature traditional groups who play instrumental music from all different parts of the world.

The organization has hosted a variety of musicians over the years including bands from the Balkan, Eastern Europe, Scotland, Ireland, England, France, Italy as well as the U.S. and more.

Shepherdstown Music and Dance co-sponsor many of the concerts with the Upper Potomac music weekends and offers workshops for people to learn from these musicians when they visit.

"There's a lot of musicians that come to the events, and we do music workshops as well," Blanton said.

One of the more popular dances is the contra dance. Since 1979, the organization has put on a monthly contra dance at the War Memorial building in Shepherdstown the first Saturday of every month.

"Throughout history people have done social dances where they dance with a partner," Blanton said.

Most contra dances are performed with participants standing in long lines standing across from their partners. They then dance up and down the line dancing with each couple they meet in turn.

"While you might come with your partner, you would dance with every person in the room before the evening's over," Blanton said.

The organization also has two Morris dance performance group. One is a women's group that performs traditional Morris dances from the northwest of England, while the other, mostly comprising men, performs dances from the western part of England.

The Morris dance is a traditional British dance that dates back to at least the Middle Ages if not earlier, according to Blanton.

"People say it has it roots in lots of the pagan rituals but is been documented from about the 1500s," Blanton said.

In fact, one of the more well known Shakespearean actors, William Kemp, was a Morris dancer. Blanton said he was famous for dancing from London to Norwich in nine days, a distance of more than a hundred miles, all the while stopping at pubs along the way.

" It's called the Nine Days Wonder. He's one of the early documented Morris dancers. There's lots and lots of literary and written sources that talk about William Kemp, and each part of England has its own regional style," Blanton said.

The dance is mostly performed at fairs and festivals usually at the changes of the seasons in spring and the fall, as well as during Christmas time. It's usually done in a costume, sometimes disguise. The most common disguise, Blanton said, is black face, hence the name Morris which is believed to have come from the word Moorish.

"For the medieval Britains, the only people they knew that had black faces were the Moors, so that's where we think Morris dancing got its name," Blanton said. "We tend not to do our dancing in black face. We tend to paint it with other colors, just because it's very politically incorrect to use black face today."

The organization also usually puts on four special event dances a year and sometimes will host dance weekends.

Some past events included Waltz weekends and special Scandinavian, Balkan, English Country, Cajun and Swing dance programs. Blanton said the programs tend to be traditional dance performed to live music. Any special kind of dance program usually also includes a workshop ahead of time.

"Our dances are extremely well attended. We always have a beginners workshop, and at any given dance there's always a half a dozen people who've never been to a dance before who are trying it for the first time," Blanton said.

This Saturday will also mark the organization's 14th Annual May Day Celebration, which is held all over Shepherdstown and features a parade. The parade leads to Rumsey monument park where there will be plays, poetry, music and dancing. The parade culminates with a traditional Maypole dance around a 22-foot-tall Maypole. A picnic in the park will also be held that afternoon as well as an evening dance program that evening.

"It's a participatory celebration. It has its roots in English May Day celebrations since we have two English dance groups," Blanton said. "It's pretty much a full day of dancing."

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This page last updated on November 3, 2007.