Ethnic Dance Chicago
Dancing as a Second Language
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Dancers use feet to learn other cultures:
ethnic music, steps help build bridges

Chicago Tribune - January 21, 2003 - Chicago Tribune
by Jon Anderson

Swaying bodies. Stomping feet. A shriek of Balkan bagpipes. A handkerchief waving in the air.

It is possible, with a little imagination, to transport oneself back to ancient days, watching dancers dramatize the hard life of the Macedonian people, with never-ending battles to defend the flocks, the land, the tribe.

Yes, it's only Wrigleyville on a Friday night, specifically the gym of the St. Josaphat Parish Hall, a wood-floored space marked off for basketball at the corner of Belden and Southport Avenues.

But for two dozen members of Ethnic Dance Chicago, it could be the hills of Croatia. Or a Swedish hamlet of the 1700s. Or an Armenian picnic. Or a bonding ritual amid the grass-roofed huts of a West African village.

Chicago Tribune Photo by Robert La PennaAs the music changes, so do they.

"My own favorite," said Fran Gilbert, who has been coming to the dances for years, "is the Swedish hambo, a couples dance. It feels like you're flying, because you're turning so much. It's pretty to look at. Fun to do."

"I like anything Balkan," said Joan Amsterdam, another regular. "I like the little, bouncy steps. Also, you don't need a partner. Most of them are done with circles of people. I can choose to dance--or not to dance."

In a time when the world seems to be fracturing along a thousand fault lines, one appeal of folk dancing is its ability to offer non-verbal insights into the joys, fears, hopes and struggles of cultures different from our own.

"We call it, `Dancing as a Second Language,'" said group leader Paul Collins. "Wherever you are in the world, if you show some knowledge and understanding of how the people dance, they warm up to you."

The dances, which are open to the public, start each Friday at 8.30 p.m. They swirl on until midnight.

Between flings (from the Scottish Highlands) and drmes steps from Croatia, dancers took time out Friday to talk about their adventures, which include dancing at local ethnic restaurants to regional folk festivals.

"Folk dancing is addictive. You can go alone and party all night," said Dit Olshan, a retired schoolteacher.

"I enjoy it. It closes off my week," said Bill Lee, a social worker. "Folk dancers are the best people in the world. It's wonderful to be able to express your feeling in music--and to capture the styling of each country," added Gilbert.

Dancers told of nights in clubs in Romania, in China and in Greece, where knowledge of the subtle differences between a mainland and an island syrtos helps a visitor dance appropriately between restaurant tables.

Using the group's Web site, at, the Wrigleyville dancers tie into other local groups, ranging from the Loch Michigan Scottish Country Dancers to International Folk Dancing at the Village Inn at Fermilab.

Getting to that gathering, in Batavia, isn't as easy as it used to be.

"While Fermilab is under security, call or e-mail a day before coming," a flier advises folk dancers, adding that passes now are needed for all non-employees to enter the grounds.

Collins, who got his start as a folk dance organizer as a student at the University of Chicago in the 1960s, has never lost faith in folk dancing as a way toward if not world peace, at least a lowering of cultural barriers.

"Generally, when cultures mix, there's suspicion on both sides," Collins said. "I know a young fellow who went to Hungary during the Cold War. He wondered why people were cold to him. `Why are you here?' one man asked.

"But when they found out he was interested in Hungarian folk dances, and knew a bit about them, they warmed up."

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