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Folk Songs: A folk dancing camp for the people

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Erin Nolan
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There’s a camp in the woods of Massachusetts where traditional styles of folk music and dance from around the world are kept alive. It’s the oldest continuously operated folk dance camp in the United States. It’s called the Pinewoods Camp, and it’s right in the middle of the folk music history of the Northeast.

Pinewoods sits on 25 acres in Plymouth — about an hour from Boston, Providence and Cape Cod.

Pinewoods board president Martin Barbour says it’s a quintessential summer camp — cabins nestled among trees and a pristine lake.

“The green of the pine trees, frogs, birds,” Barbour says, “and then all of a sudden you start walking down the road and you hear music filtering through the woods. And you’re like ‘I’m here.’”

Pinewoods began as a girl scout camp in 1919. It was the first national training school for girl scout leaders — founded by philanthropist Helen Storrow, one of the early women behind the Girl Scouts organization.

Storrow also loved to dance. But she found classical styles like ballet a little too fancy.

“Dancing should be for pleasure and not primarily for show,” she wrote. “The moment it is self-conscious, there is something wrong. If in fancy dancing a position is taken because it is believed to be graceful, it isn't. There is no meaning in it.”

Storrow discovered Europe’s centuries-old traditions of folk dances — sometimes seen as less refined or artistic, but meant to be done in social settings where everyone can take part.

“If we succeed in transplanting these beautiful old dances of other countries and they take root, they will grow and spread and blossom into other dances, showing the genius of our people, and reflecting our life and times,” she wrote.

The camp still does create new dances — and it’s preserved some styles that are familiar now because they’re taught at Pinewoods.

Nearly a century later, there’s a whole roster of week-long and weekend camps, mostly run by the Country Dance and Song Society. True to its name, it blends folk singing and dancing — especially at the annual Harmony of Song and Dance camp.

After lunch in the cafeteria, a group of singers warm up their vocal chords. They’re shape note singing — a style popularized in England but with deep roots in New England, Appalachia and the South. Shape note singers read a different kind of musical notation that uses shapes like triangles and squares.

In a nearby pavilion, a dozen or so people learn Morris dancing — a tradition that goes back to 15th-century England. Dancers strap bells to their feet and clap swords or sticks to add percussion.

“Let’s put on some damn bells and hear how we jangle, yeah?” says teacher Chris Bracken and she hands out bells for campers to strap on.

“And if you become a regular Morris dancer, people will constantly make the joke that you can’t sneak up on anyone,” Bracken says.

Campers stamp on the ground and turn in sync with each other. They slam big sticks against the ground in time with the music.

“It’s got a lot of rhythmic energy and a lot of connection to seasonal stuff, so May Day is a big holiday and harvest festivals,” Bracken says.

“The biggest challenge for me as a teacher is figuring out how to break down and find the right words to describe the motions that I’ve been doing for 25 years, and are kind of muscle memory and second nature,” she says.

She says Morris dancing eventually becomes intuitive for her students.

“You think you didn’t know, but your body does the thing,” she says. “That’s really fun to see that kind of come together. And see people take joy in something that I love.”

Campers don’t come in any one particular age here. Older folks are pretty common, but a lot of attendees are in their teens and 20s, too. 32-year-old Jeremy Carter-Gordon leads a French bal dance. Dancers twirl and step in time on a wide wooden pavilion floor.

Carter-Gordon says, like a lot of modern folk dances, French dancing disappeared from French villages -- then enthusiasts brought it back in the ’60s.

“There wasn’t sort of a village where all of these things were being done,” he says. “It was really this process of revivalists coming together to have fun and connect with some heritage, but also just connect with each other in the present moment.”

Carter-Gordon doesn’t stress perfection too much. He says this is about having fun.

“We all enjoy dancing and singing as children, and most of us don’t get to continue that because we’re not professionals,” he says. “And this is a camp basically of amateurs.”

And Carter-Gordon says that’s true to founder Helen Storrow’s original philosophy: anyone can dance.

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Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.