Monday, December 15, 2014

Magic In the Dance Hall

This is the preface to the tune collection I compiled and edited in 2008 called Tuneadelphia. This week our Philadelphia area open band SPUDS will be celebrating its 30th anniversary. I've played with the band for 15 years and look forward to many more! Tuneadelphia is now out of print, but can be purchased as a PDF file here.  All proceeds benefit SPUDS and the development of traditional musicians in the Philadelphia dance community.

From the moment I first stepped into the dance hall I was enchanted. I loved the music and was delighted to find the dancing came easily to me. It quickly became apparent, though, that this wasn’t simply a fun way to pass an evening. I felt something inside had changed and knew that this place and experience would alter who I was and how I saw the world.

I’m not especially surprised to find that very often people talk about their first encounter with traditional music and dance as being magical. Magic, for me, is simply another way to describe transformation. In fairy tales the toad becomes a prince, and in a staged show the magician’s assistant is transported from a box to a tiger cage. Maybe the first passes the limitations of what we’re willing to believe. The second is an illusion where we could figure out the trick given enough time and the proper perspective. But spend enough time in a dance hall and witness how it transforms the folks who frequent it, and you can’t help but become a believer in real magic.

 Over the course of an evening, work-weary dancers discover a lightness and enthusiasm they didn’t know they possessed. New dancers arrive clumsy and confused and we see that gradually their bodies take on grace and confidence. The news on the car radio on the drive to the hall may have been the worst ever, and yet musicians never fail to pull joy and energy from their instruments. The callers shape the evening; cajoling, encouraging, singing us into moving and playing as one. Well, dang, if that ain’t magic, I don’t know what is.

For many musicians the open band is at the heart of their transformation within the traditional music and dance community. Many of us had our first experiences playing for dances in our community band, SPUDS. We were welcomed by experienced musicians and honed our developing musical skills in a safe and fun environment. Just as dancers are drawn onto the dance floor by the more experienced dancers, musicians often find their new musical home through the open bands.

They are encouraged by another musician to give playing a try and, once there, find themselves under the spell of the dance. Just like the clumsy dancer who learns to move with ease, the new musician often stumbles a bit in learning the skills needed for playing for dancers. The open band becomes a safety net with more experienced musicians acting as both guides and steadying framework. Some folks play quite happily in the open band for years, others branch out with their own, smaller, bands or other projects. The open band becomes a springboard for learning new styles of music, trying new instruments or, as is evidenced by this book, musical composition.

And as incredible as a good evening at the dance can be, I believe the greater magic comes in what we take away from the hall and carry into the rest of the world. Every evening spent in learning to dance and play together in the dance hall can empower us to move through the rest of our lives with more grace, confidence and light. Just as we learn to communicate with one another through music and dance, we can better learn how to connect creatively in all parts of our lives. I’ve watched shy, even awkward, bandmates blossom into active community members who encourage other new musicians. Folks who never thought they could write music, are suddenly turning out tunes. I am constantly in awe of just how much creativity one group can generate. What sends me right over the top is imagining how many other dances like ours exist in the world. And not just dances, but think of all the jams, community theaters, scout troops, jazz clubs, poetry readings, 4H mClubs, art galleries and any place where people gather to share in creative connection. And every time humans connect creatively, there is a moment where they are transformed for the better. Wonderful, everyday, anyone-can-do-it magic.

All of the contributors to this book have played at some point in time with SPUDS, the Philadelphia area contra dance open band. While there’s no doubt in my mind that much of this material represents the “best of the best”, more importantly it is a picture of the best of who we are right now. The artistic snapshot may look different in ten or twenty or a hundred years, but these are the stories, drawings and tunes that represent our collective creativity in this moment. As long as we continue to come together to experience the transformative power of music, dance, art and poetry, then we can believe in magic.

This book is dedicated to the magicians of the dance hall – all of you.
Sarah Gowan
January 2008