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The Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH)

African-Americans in International Folk Dancing
By Paul Collins

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Paul Collins

INTRODUCTION

The comic tragedy we title "Human History" involves not only dramatic entrances and exits, but also epic shifts of scenery. Entire acts present these shifts, called diasporas, which involve the dispersion of a people from their homeland to isolated, widespread, and identifiable communities around the world.

Most diasporas result from a "push," in that people emigrated to seek refuge or a livelihood. Armenians fled Anatolia to escape genocide. Irish left Eire to find sustenance. Indians left the subcontinent to pursue economic advancement. One diaspora, however, resulted from a "pull." The great African diaspora occurred as slave traders such as Arab, Portuguese, Spanish, English, and Americans took Africans in bondage to other lands.


AFRICAN-AMERICAN FOLK DANCE LEADERS

Nate Lofton

Nate began dancing in Chicago in the 1940s and became a folk dance leader in 1957. He founded the International Folk Dance (IFD) group at the Old Town School of Folk Music, running it until 1969 or 1970, and there met his wife, Sue. Nate then moved (due to School politics) his group to other locations in Chicago and continued until he "retired" in 1981. Nate still teaches seniors at the White Crane Center.

James Collins

Just as the square dance revival of the 1930s peripherally fueled the International Folk Dance (IFD) movement, James Collins, a square and round dance leader of Chicago, peripherally influenced IFD through his son, Paul. Early Chicago folk dancers still remember, however, James and Laura Collins attending folk dance functions in their elegant square dance costumes, and I would suspect that many Chicagoans danced their first international folk dances in James' physical education classes.

Paul Collins

Quoting Paul Collins:

People from out of town (and locally) were always meeting me and telling me how they attended "my group" at Old Town. This was before I started leading the Old Town Group's second (1974-1981) and third (1986-1988) incarnations! They confused me with Nate, but I had a beard and he didn't. I can't understand why people thought I was Nate or that Nate was me! [Paul jokingly refers here to the fact that he and Nate were both African-American. Paul continues:] "My group(s)" were at the University of Chicago, various ones from 1965 through 1983 or 1984, when I quit in disgust over, you guessed it – Politics!

Coincidentally, Nate's father and Paul's father were friends from youth, and Paul met his Japanese-American wife, Susan, at the Old Town School group where Nate Lofton had met his Japanese-American wife, Sue. Paul continues to lead folk dance groups in Chicago and, with Gerhard Bernhard, founded and has directed since 1979 the Door County Folk Festival at Sister Bay, Wisconsin.

Larry Hawkins

Still quoting Paul Collins:

Also in Chicago, Larry Hawkins led groups of African-American High School students in IFD and Square Dancing and took demonstration groups to Germany, Yugoslavia, and other places). He taught around Chicago the Serbian and German dances he learned in Europe. Larry also coached Carver High School's basketball team to the Illinois State Basketball Championship in, about, 1960, and has been active in developing programs for African-American teenagers about to go to college.

Carl Sharp

A Chicago dancer from the late 1950s or early 1960s, Carl Sharp led and taught, part-time, the University of Chicago group from the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s when he more or less stopped dancing.

Bill Brooks

In Philadelphia and later Buffalo, New York, possibly a teacher.

Corrine ?

"A black woman in New York who worked for the Police Athletic League, an excellent dancer, possibly a teacher."


APROCRYPHAL ANECDOTES

IFD stereotyping

The way that many IFD groups and individuals welcome newcomers (actually the way that they are rather cold to them) probably discourages many African-American dancers. This, and other anecdotal evidence suggests that many folk dancers are socially retarded. Add to that the aspect of race, and social graces vanish. Some people assume that African-Americans obviously "don't know jack" about IFD and attempt to help (sometimes genuine and sometimes very patronizing) or refuse to dance with or next to them because they assume that an African-American "cannot possibly know this very complicated stuff."

Ethnic reactions

A group of Macedonians and folk dancers, including Paul Collins, was told to leave a Memorial Day picnic at the Serbian Monastery in Libertyville (north Chicago suburb) because Paul was in the group. They were first told "members only," but pointed to Greeks, Ukrainians, Jews, and whites who were not members of the Serbian Church, let alone Eastern Orthodox. Violence threatened, so they left. Paul also reports many good times with ethnic communities although many ethnics wonder at African-American interest and praise Paul's ability while virtually ignoring his talented white friends and wondering less at their interest.

Turning the tables

At a typical IFD evening at the University of Chicago in the late 1960s, the leader announced "Segregated lines for Ravno Oro." For folk dancers, "segregated lines" means lines of male dancers separate from lines of female dancers. The approximately 20 African-American dancers present (with an honorary Asian or two) actually segregated themselves into a "minorities" line. White folks tried to "integrate" the line and felt insulted when refused!

A night to remember

In about 1959, Ed Skirpan, of Russian descent, taught math at Chicago's predominantly African-American Wendell Phillips High and performed in "Kalinka," a Russian ensemble directed by Alex Karaczun, an émigré, former Moiseyev dancer, and father of folk dance teacher Danny Karaczun. James Collins taught physical education, including square dancing, at Phillips Elementary, where Paul Collins attended. James heard that Skirpan had some students ready to put on a show of IFD. James taught Squares, Rounds and did an Adagio number with a couple of James' girls. Master of Ceremonies was a relatively unknown nightclub comedian by the name of Dick Gregory. They rehearsed two or three nights per week, working hard, often staying from 3:00 or 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. The show was a big success, and everyone looked forward to doing it again. However Skirpan (known as the "Mad Russian" or the "Mountain Man" or the "Bone Crusher" in later years) was seen as too weird by the school administration and sent packing to Hyde Park High. As a free spirit he did not believe in the more traditional forms of discipline or instruction, which got him into trouble at Phillips High.


CONCLUSION

Although many African-Americans participated in International Folk Dancing (IFD) in the 1960s, their numbers did not reflect the proportion of African-Americans in the general population. African-American IFD leaders, however, have left a substantial legacy of IFD institutions and dancers.


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