EIGHT-YEAR-OLD Miriam Mathis of Montgomery County has been folk dancing since before she was born. An easy claim to make when your parents are the organizers of a family folk dancing series. Each month Miriam, along with her parents and sister, Hannah, 4, gather with other families for a good old-fashioned community dance. And we do mean old-fashioned; most of these dances date back at least 100 years.
The Folklore Society of Greater Washington, a not-for-profit group whose goal is to "further the understanding, appreciation and performance of traditional folk music," sponsors a monthly dance for families. Featuring live music and dance instruction, the events usually attract between 40 and 50 families for an afternoon.
"When was the last time you said to your family, `Let's go out dancing'?" asks dance organizer Bob Mathis. If you're like most families, he says, the answer is not very recently. Mathis's own enthusiasm has deep roots. He met his wife, Talis, while folk dancing at Glen Echo Park a decade ago. After marrying and having children, the two dancing devotees had a decision to make: either quit dancing or find a way to bring the kids. For them, the choice was obvious. And they weren't alone. Today several of the couples who first met at those Glen Echo dances have returned, this time bringing their children. "We all just wanted to continue dancing," Mathis says.
What has changed since the early days of the Saturday night folk dance is the atmosphere. This time around, the dances are family-based, Sunday afternoon affairs, where the participants' worries have less to do with having two left feet and more to do with knowing their left foot from their right.
Those unfamiliar with folk dancing shouldn't worry; beginners are always welcome. As for what to expect, this is dancing done in a group, usually with a partner, and always with easy-to-follow instructions. As in line, contra or square dancing, parents and children are taken through lively steps by a caller, in time with upbeat music.
"I try to keep the steps simple," says Brad Saylor, an indefatigable folk dance caller from Charlottesville. Saylor takes time to work with the children before each dance. Going over the steps and keeping directions straightforward and simple is the best way to get children started. The kids usually turn out to be better dancers than the adults, says Saylor, explaining that children often pick up the steps quicker and are less self-conscious about getting out there and dancing.
Toddling children are a common sight at family dances. Saylor advises parents of very young children to dance with the child as a "couple," an easy way for parents and a small child to work their way through more complicated steps. Though the steps aren't too complicated, says Saylor, who stresses "anybody can do them."
On a scorcher of a summer day, Saylor slows things down a bit after a few energetic dances, encouraging adults and children to gather around him on the floor in a circle. He then leads the group through sing-alongs with inventive lyrics and elaborate hand motions. He even does a short riff on nursery rhymes, making the children laugh at every verse. "Face it," says Saylor, "if the kids aren't happy, then the adults aren't going to be happy. We like to keep the kids happy."
Jeanne Garner, 3, of Silver Spring, dances "the Old Bald Eagle" with her grandmother, Patricia, of Chevy Chase. She spreads one "wing" while holding on tightly to her grandmother with her other hand. Dancers clap along as the couple "flies" around the dance floor. It's not unusual to see several generations on the dance floor, says Mathis, whose own mother is often in attendance. This is a multi-generational event, attracting all age groups.
With family folk dancing comes the opportunity to train the next generation of dancers; it also gives children a hands-on lesson about the traditional dances and allows them to hear the music and see the dances as they were originally performed. Events like these keep the dances alive; a legacy passed from one generation to the next.
"It's a hard thing to explain," Mathis says. "But here we are on the eve of a millennium still having fun and enjoying dances that were being performed at the last millennium. This is wholesome fun."
Unfortunately, the family dances have yet to find a permanent home: The venue changes from month to month, often returning to the Town Hall in Glen Echo. To keep informed, participants can call the Folklore Society hot line or sign up for an e-mail reminder from Mathis, who sends out the monthly electronic message: Time To Dance!
Family dances run about an hour and a half, with a short juice and cookie break in the middle. After the dance there is often a potluck supper, open to all participants.
The family dance is community-building at its best. The kind that starts when you reach out and take someone's hand.
FAMILY DANCE -- The Folklore Society of Greater Washington's next family dance will be held Sept. 5 at Glen Echo Town Hall, 6106 Harvard Ave., Glen Echo. (Parking available on University Ave. or in the main Glen Echo parking lot -- please, no parking in front of Town Hall.) It begins at 3:30 p.m. and will be followed by a potluck supper. Bree Kalb will call, the dance and the Elftones will provide the music. Dance admission is $5 for adults, $4 for children ($15 maximum per family). For more information call Bob Mathis or Talis Stopak at 301/589-7539. If you wish to receive monthly e-mails about upcoming family dance events, send a message to Talibob@boo.net
All dances are sponsored by the Folklore Society of Greater Washington. For more information about other area dances or the Folklore Society, call 202/546-2228 (hot line) or visit their Web site: www.fsgw.org. The Folklore Society can also be reached by mail: FSGW, P.O. Box 5693, Friendship Heights Station, Washington, DC 20016-5693.