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Why do they do it?

By Michael Barnes
American-Statesman Arts Writer

Posted: Jan. 20, 2000

Why do otherwise normal Austinites rehearse up to five times a week, for no pay, solely to demonstrate movements preserved from a faraway culture? Just what's the allure of folk dance?

In preparation for Austin DanceFest, which showcases 40 area dance troupes at the Texas School for the Deaf Auditorium next week, we delved into the other-worldly world of Austin folk dancers.

Lesson No. 1 for this arts critic: These guys are serious. Many local folk troupes rehearse as often as Austin's ballet, modern, postmodern and jazz companies, night after night after completing a full day's work at their day jobs.

That's dedication!

From our chats with these brave folksters, we learned a good deal more about what pushes them into a life of scratchy vinyl, costumes sewn from hundreds of ribbons, and an endless swirl of jigs, reels, rants, hornpipes, arpas, marimbas, cs rd s, verbunks, leg nyes, tangos, waltzes, horas, debkas, bombas, plenas and seises.

Now we understand the attractions, at least better than we did before. Let's look at them closer.

DANCE MANIA: It's been called the endorphin factor. Once you start dancing, physical stress activates those devilishly pleasurable hormones, and, before long, you are addicted. Folk dancers can move for hours without asking for a break. "I've always danced," said Nancy Penner of the Irish Dance Company. "Then I became intrigued with Irish dance, got hooked and can't stop," Just like long-distance runners, folk dancers talk of a high achieved after hours of intense rehearsals. "Believe, me, this is exercise!" said Mike Revesz of the Cs rd s Hungarian Dancers.

SOCIAL MASSAGE: You read it right, massage, not message. Folk dance brings people into close physical proximity and weaves a common activity into their daily lives. "We run a very close-knit company," said Eimer Ni Mhaoileidigh, founder of the Irish Dance Company and descendent of award-winning dancers. "We're carrying on a family tradition," she said. In the world of folk dance, there's always the chance you might find a life partner, or, if you prefer, not. "Scottish dance is for women who don't like some man leading them around the floor," said Sarah Harrington of the Austin Scottish Country Dancers.

THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT: "Every dance is a new adventure," said Holly Plotner of the Cs rd s Hungarian Dancers. "The man leads, but after that, everything is improvised." Dancer after dancer told me that their hearts were totally engaged by their off-hours activity. "The music touches me," said Gayle Rosenthal of the Israeli Folk Dancers. "It's so ancient and modern at the same time. I feel it deep inside me." And then there are those for whom the intellectual stimulation is just as vital. "It appeals to engineers, mathematicians and librarians," said David Houston of the Austin Scottish Country Dancers. "People who deal in linearity, who like structure, like Scottish dance."

CULTURAL ENHANCEMENT: "I grew up listening to Puerto Rican music," said China Smith of the Puerto Rican Folkloric Dancers, who spent most of her youth in Austin. "Later, I found the dance (to be) so lively, colorful, diverse, expressing my cultures in a way that's sensual and dramatic at the same time." Whether an immigrant experiencing culture shock in a new country, or a native Texan discovering hitherto buried cultural affiliations, folk dancers tend to be fascinated by something they can't get from television, movies and pop music. It's a link to the past, a bond with deep histories and ethnic associations. "I like to share my culture," said Cathy Mendez of Roy Lozano's Ballet Folklorico de Texas. "It's just so beautiful. I'm proud of my heritage."

Before you think that DanceFest is only about these traditions, note that besides these folk troupes -- all slated to perform -- the 40 represented companies will move their bodies in just about every genre known to American dance. And if you were surprised to learn that there are 40 Austin dance groups, let me share this: DanceFest producer Chris Valentine tells us that he has tracked down more than 70 area dance troupes.

Seventy! Obviously, a lot of local people love to dance, perchance to dream.

Next page: Puerto Rican Folkloric Dance >>

You may contact Michael Barnes at or at 445-3647.

When: 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 27-28; 1:30 and 7:30 p.m., Jan. 29; 1:30 p.m., Jan. 30
Where: Texas School for the Deaf Auditorium, 1102 S. Congress Ave.
How much: $8-$12 (DanceFest pass, $30)
Info: 454-TIXS
More: Lectures and master classes associated with DanceFest are at Cafe Dance, 3307 Hancock Drive, on Saturday and Sunday. Call 451-8066 for information.

Local Groups
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