BY Molly Congdon
CLIFTON PARK— On Jan. 9, the gymnasium at Karigon Elementary School — full cougar footprints on the walls, old-school square backboards, ropes dangling from the ceiling and a wide variety of rainbow lines across the aged wooden floor — filled quickly as second-graders shuffled in, drawn to the mesmerizing tune of a fiddle.
George Wilson, one of the three members of Homespun Community Dancing — a program that helps children learn about traditional ways of life, when people lived without television and other modern technologies and had to create their own forms of entertainment — tapped his feet and made smooth sweeping motions as his bow collided with the strings of the black violin in his hand.
Wilson, Paul Rosenberg and Peter Davis started doing this program in 1994. Rosenberg is the dance teacher while Davis and Wilson are the musicians of the group playing instruments including the fiddle, banjo, guitar, gourd banjo, clarinet and Chinese hulusi.
“The value of what we are doing is to have the kids learn about their own traditions,” Davis said. “We ask them to think about their parents and grandparents and what they might be able to learn from them about their past. It’s important to preserve those traditions and not let them die out in the face of huge media popular culture today.”
However, they also stress an emphasis on going beyond one’s own ethnic background. “We educate the kids about history, geography and other social studies regarding other people around the world,” Davis said. “Even though we started out doing mainly American stuff, we got interested in people of the world and we try to convey that to the kids.”
Music has been a part of their lives since they were kids themselves. Davis’ parents used to listen to opera records, and when he was 1 he was humming certain parts of those operas. “My father was a dentist in World War II and he was in Chicago and my mother and I were in New York,” Davis said. “And I remember taking the train to see him and there were big crowds of people around me because I was humming opera.”
Wilson’s earliest music experience involved listening to his mother sing hymns in church with the congregation. “I grew up on a small farm, didn’t have a TV,” Wilson said. “Then when I was 12 my buddy and I got guitars and figured them out on our own.”
Rosenberg used to avoid dancing at all costs. “When I was a kid I would say I was sick so I could stay home from school when it was dance unit in gym class,” he said. “I didn’t go to my first contra dance until I was 30; I was dragged to it. It was the first time I had ever enjoyed it, and as time went on I thought I could lead people in this dancing.”
After quizzing the children on the names of the instruments, they began with an African tune, “Fanga Alafia,” which means: “Hello, Welcome.”
However, it was the next dance, which originated in France, that really got the blood and enthusiasm flowing. As soon as the music began to play, Rosenberg started doing jumping jacks, which was quickly followed by a bicep flex pose. The entire dance was a fusion between the beat and fitness moves. The kids marched in place, shot invisible basketballs at the backboards, kicked ghost soccer balls and even did some pushups.
“It’s one of the funniest dances, because it’s one full of exercises for gym class,” Rosenberg said. “I altered the dance to make it more current for today’s American kids. You get some of the boys who don’t want to dance, so I like to start with a couple of dances that get them realizing how much fun they can have. Once I get them doing that, we can go on to the other dances.”
The group later moved on to one of Pete Seeger’s favorites, “Old Dan Tucker.”
The kids chanted and acted out the movements by swooshing their arms, shaking scolding fingers and dosey doe-ing with their partner.
“Old Dan Tucker was a mighty man,
Washed his face in a frying pan
Combed his hair with a wagon wheel
Died of a toothache in his heel
Get out of the way! Old Dan Tucker,
You’re too late to get your supper.”
This form of dancing is meant to be a community builder.
“People nowadays are always looking at their phones; people have gotten away from actually being with each other,” Rosenberg said.
“We are meant to be social beings, we hunger for it. I think eventually everyone will see the value in community dance, doing things together face to face.”