by David Millstone
I’ve been a contra dancer for some 40 years and an English country dance enthusiast since 1987. For decades, the only singing I did was with my fifth grade students, who didn’t understand that I couldn’t really sing. With that background, what took me on a overseas trip with Village Harmony for two weeks of singing and dancing, Macedonian style?
It started when I told my wife, Sheila, who has spent years coming along with me to dance weekends and camps, that it was time that I accompanied her instead of vice versa. (“He makes it sound like that was a punishment I endured,” she quickly adds. “I love to dance.”) This was the trip she picked. “It’s okay,” I said. “I can just spend my time documenting the trip with photos and videos.” This was met by a steely gaze that quickly translated into “You Will Sing.”
So, there I am in southern Macedonia, a self-identified non-singer with little experience in folk dance, and after the first few days I’m ready to hide under the covers. It’s a Slavic language, many songs are based on an oriental scale with elaborate vocal ornamentation, and then there are those odd meters: 7/8, 9/8, and more. My hands can clap the rhythms, but not always connected to the tunes.
This is just the singing; let’s not discuss in detail my feet. Unlike country dancing, stepping one beat at a time and learning a series of different figures, these dances all come in the same simple formation but with unfamiliar demands on my body—slow steps and quick steps, weight shifts, hops and pivots, downbeats with an uplifted foot. “The music tells you what to do,” right? If so, this music was telling me, “Get out of the way of people who know what they’re doing.”
For there were many around me having no trouble. There were strong singers, accustomed to learning by ear and holding down a part. Some had come to Balkan camps before, some sing and dance Balkan in their home communities, some even speak Serbo-Croatian or Macedonian. Although I’m a totally competent country dancer, I was definitely Out of My League on this dance floor.
This tale of woe has a happy ending—I had a great time. A lot of that was thanks to my fellow campers. “I don’t sing,” I mentioned to a tenor near me early on. “What do you mean?” he said. “Everyone sings.” He wasn’t making a political statement, just presenting this as a fact. Lesson learned: stop making excuses, listen, and open your mouth. I discovered, too, that I wasn’t alone. Their solution? Give it a try, and so I did. Can’t sing this particular tenor line? Okay, I’ll stick with the bass part here… it’s simpler. Not sure how this section goes? Turned out I wasn’t the only one, as one of our leaders drilled the group on the same four bars of music until we all had it.
Same thing with the dancing. I practiced by myself behind the line, got coaching on the side from those who knew what to do, and gradually felt more comfortable. (Yes, dancing in 12/8 is still awkward.) Some of it was letting go of the notion that I had to be able to do everything well. Sometimes I stumbled around in line, doing fragments of a dance and gradually adding other pieces. No one pulled me out for remedial lessons, no one frowned; folks on either side trusted that I’d ask for help if needed. When we gave our final concerts, singing and dancing in small villages, the locals offered no critical judgments—they joined our chorus on many well-known songs, grinned at our pronunciation, reached out a hand and made space in line with a smile.
In a few days, it’ll be time to join the community chorus at Harmony of Song & Dance, CDSS’s next program at Pinewoods. I can’t wait. I get to sing again!
In addition to being a contra and English country dancer, caller, dance historian, videographer, co-author (Cracking Chestnuts), coordinator of the Square Dance History Project), and new international dancer and singer, David Millstone currently serves as CDSS’s President.