Ethnic Dance Chicago
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Chi Lives: Paul Collins's mixed steps
Chicago Reader - March 30, 2001 - Chicago Reader
by Kate Schmidt

Paul Collins laughs acknowledging that newcomers to his folk dance group, Ethnic Dance Chicago, might be taken aback at first. "They walk in and find two black guys setting up--some must think they've ended up in hip-hop dancing by mistake." Occasionally his group's inclusiveness also raises eyebrows. "In my country, women don't do that dance," a Bulgarian guest instructor protested, with some consternation. But no one here's going to tell the young woman executing the foot-stomping, scarf-snapping male part in the West African ibo that it's verboten. "We just say, We dance in a different village," Collins shrugs and grins.

The group's Friday evening gatherings begin with an hour and a half of beginning- and intermediate-level instruction; Collins has been known to drag the diffident out onto the floor. From 10 PM to midnight, Collins plays selections from his library of over 12,000 tracks, filling requests and mixing accessible dances with advanced patterns that, in the words of one regular, "can get pretty heavy." ("Opaa!" turns out to be an interjection uttered apart from the delivery of flaming cheese.) In all, a typical night's session might range from the baffling triple time of a Macedonian dance in 7/16 to the familiar two-step of the Charleston; from the trite puti, a Balkan circle dance that accelerates into aerobic exercise zone, to the courtly shifting quadrilles of a contra dance; from the subtle sway of the Hungarian lassu sergo to an Israeli dance that could teach an old Deadhead new tricks.

Growing up in south-side Chicago in the 50s, Collins was introduced to American folk music by his grandfather, who Saturday nights would tune into National Barn Dance on WLS, at that time the Prairie Farmer Station. When his parents, both educators, began square dancing at the 50th Street Y, in Hyde Park, Collins tagged along and, by watching the sets, soon taught himself the steps and calls. By age 11 he was proficient enough to join the adults, though "All my contemporaries would laugh themselves silly--'Paul likes square dancing,'" he recalls.

In the early 60s, square dancing, like most walks of life, was with rare exceptions racially segregated. But in 1963 an international folk dance forum at the Illinois State Square Dance Convention exposed Collins to a larger world. There, alongside Poles, Swedes, Scots, and members of many other white ethnic groups, were "Asians, Haitians, Jamaicans, people from the Bahamas," he remembers. "The teachers each had a segment, and suddenly there was this black guy [Nate Lofton, for many years a teacher at the Old Town School of Folk Music] up there teaching Greek dances."

A burgeoning Hyde Park circuit allowed Collins to pursue his interest in ethnic dance and culture throughout the 60s. At Hyde Park High School, a teacher nicknamed "the Mad Russian" organized an evening of Russian folk dance performed by African-American students in a show emceed by Dick Gregory. There was ethnic dancing at the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club and the University of Chicago International House; other groups specialized in German dances, Jewish dances, or English country reels. Says Collins, "You could dance every night of the week."

Since that time, Collins's repertoire of dances has grown to number hundreds, and he's played a major role in fostering an integrated, multiethnic folk dance scene in Chicago. For twelve years, beginning as a U. of C. undergraduate majoring in German and Economics, Collins led the International House group, attracting in its heyday over 100 regular participants, black and white.

He served as organizer of the long-running International Folk Festival, an annual event whose performances, dances, and workshops brought nationally known teachers and troupes to Chicago; his own classes have been featured in festivals at Navy Pier and the Museum of Science and Industry, among others. In the mid-70s Collins succeeded Lofton, his early inspiration, at the Old Town School, where his classes drew capacity crowds into the 80s. Now Ethnic Dance Chicago is in its 14th year under Collins, who by day is a corporate consultant. Some of the diverse crew of 30 to 40 regulars date back to his time in Hyde Park.

Over the years Collins has seen vicissitudes in the popularity of ethnic dance, and he concedes that today especially an African-American kid "would have to be a nonconformist to get into folk dancing." His own history suggests, however, that if you free your mind, your dupa will follow.

Ethnic Dance Chicago meets Friday evenings from 8:30 to midnight at Saint Josaphat Parish Hall, 1400 W. Southport. Admission is $5, $4 for students and seniors. Call 773-506-8222 or see for a detailed schedule and more information. --Kate Schmidt