Community Folk Dance

A recent picture in the New York Times caught my eye.  Couples of mixed ages were joyfully dancing together.  The setting was a small-town county fair in West Virginia.  There was a live band with fiddle and banjo, and a caller who shouted out the moves.  Apparently the Pendleton County Fair in Circleville, Virginia (pop 700) had featured square dancing in the past, but the tradition has been missing for a few years.  Through the efforts of a group called The Mountain Dance Trail, a project out of the Augusta Heritage Center, the dancing was reintroduced this year.  Since April this non-profit group has researched and promoted dances from the West Virginia heritage.  They look for the oldest square dance callers in the area, and interview them to document their vocal and dance styles.  Their mission is to “preserve and promote West Virginia square dances from the Virginia line to the Ohio border.”

At the Circleville dance that night there were people in their 60s, toddlers, young adults, elementary school kids and even teenagers from a nearby summer camp.  A “highlight of the trip,” the camp counselor declared.  Becky Hill, one of the researchers from The Mountain Dance Trail, gives a clue to the delight on the faces of the dancers in the article’s accompanying video.   “You’re not just dancing with one person,” she said, “you’re connecting with everyone on the dance floor.”

Connection, flow, laughter, joy.  For those of us who teach folk dance in our music classrooms, we know those feelings.  Perhaps we’ve also created some community events where a mix of generations can dance together.  But even within the classroom, if we include folk dance and play parties, then we can surely capture some of that magic.

~ Liz

Visit the FACEBOOK page of The Mountain Dance Trail for more information. Read the New York Times article HERE.


The xylophones have been moved back to the music room.  The boxes of scarves, drums and puili sticks are shoved off to the side and will be put away soon.  The songs and poems from the big performance are tucked neatly away in a folder marked, Winter Performance 2012.  We did it!  And it’s time to move on.

In the days after a big school performance the whole energy in the music room shifts.  We are all exhausted, children and teacher alike, from working on the same materials for many weeks.  After the concert that intense energy evaporates.  This is a transition time, and the children need time to reflect, to have some choices, and to try something new.

The very first time I see the students after a performance I ask them two questions.  First of all, I invite them to reflect on their experience.  I ask them to think back to how they felt as they stood up to walk onto the performing space.  They offer a range of emotions: they felt nervous, scared, proud, awesome, embarrassed, happy.  I can see their faces relax as they see their classmates name emotions that they shared.  The word “stagefright” is discouraged.  It is such a loaded, negative word.  I prefer to have them talk in a more personal way about how their belly was fluttering, or if they were feeling shy.  I then assure the class that it’s okay to feel all of these things, and that anyone who performs experiences those same things, all mixed up together.  As we talk through the experience most of them realize that these uncomfortable feelings lasted only until the song or the dance actually started.  There is something about actually doing the materials of the performance that focuses the mind and leaves anxiety behind.  The reward is feeling the warm energy of the audience, and feeling proud at the end.

The second reflection activity is for the students to remember one song or dance that they enjoyed watching.  An answer of, “I enjoyed everything” is not accepted.  They are encouraged to recall details, perhaps some of the lyrics of a song, or a few words of a poem.  Maybe there was an instrument or prop that caught their attention.

The next part of the transition is for the students to have some choices.  Music class turns into a Request Day.  They can ask for a song or a game that we haven’t done in a while.  It is fascinating to see what they remember and want to do again.  In my classes this week, they asked for materials from earlier in the year, but to my surprise, they also requested games and songs from much further back.  Several first grades wanted to play Little Bird, a game they learned in Kindergarten.  A second grader wanted to sing a song from last May, an original end-of-the-year song that they sang as a thank you to their teachers.  They remembered every word.

Then it’s time for something completely new, and there is nothing better at this point than a new singing game or play party.  Some of my favorites are Down in the Valley, Punchinella, Little Johnny Brown, I Let Her Go-Go, Bow Belinda, and Chickens on the Fencepost.

Fellow music teachers – how do you handle the transition from the big concert back to regular music class?  I’d love to hear your ideas.  You can use the comments below to share.  (If no comments are visible, then click on the word: Comments, below the title of this post.)

Jump Jim Joe

“I’m gonna jump, jump, jump Jim Joe.”

Tap your toe!

A child stands in front of a classmate and holds out his hands.  The other child takes the offered hands, and the song begins.  So many levels of activity going on here, but the most poignant is the social connection.  These games evoke some of the most basic experiences of being human: What does it feel like to be included?  What does it feel like to be rejected?

The song can be taught.  The dance can be taught.  But the puzzle remains of how to choose a partner, and that also needs to be taught.  First of all, every person in the class needs to be included, so the children are instructed to choose a new partner each time the game begins again.  Also, everyone deserves to be treated with kindness, so the children are taught that if someone holds out their hands, you accept.  For the quiet child, the challenge is to reach out to others, or at least to be available for others to invite them.  We demonstrate how you can raise your hand high if you find yourself without a partner, so that someone can find you.  Often the other single person is behind you, and out of sight. And there is always the option of  “Emergency 3′s” where you can join a group of two if time is short, and no other singles are close by.

An Emergency 3.

Why go to all this trouble to teach the step-by-step social skills of this simple play party game?  Ah… the social skills make ALL the difference in the experience of the game.  If everyone feels valued and if each person knows that they will be treated fairly, then something magic begins to happen.  The energy flows and bubbles over.  There is an almost ecstatic feeling when everyone in the room is feeling the kindness of others, and they are singing and dancing together.  This moment is worth every minute of teaching time spent on the minutiae of social connection.

“Now you find another partner, and you jump Jim Joe.”

~ Liz

Click HERE to download a pdf of Jump Jim Joe.