The Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH)
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Information: Morris "Morry" Gelman, teacher of Bavarian and Austrian dance, but also taught international folk dances.
Morry was born on April 6, 1920, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He was the third child of Jewish immigrants from Poland and Romania. Morry was the premier teacher of Bavarian Schuhplattlers and Ziefachers in the United States, teaching at camps, workshops, seminars, and conferences all over North America. He started folk dancing in high school and continued in college in New York (he graduated from New York University in 1943) and Connecticut.
Morry continued his involvement in 1946 with the Westwood Folk Dance Co-op in Southern California, acting as its first president during the summer.
In 1947, Morry moved back to his hometown of Minneapolis. With a European heritage and a love for dance, he helped organize the international Folk Dance Federation of Minnesota in 1951 with Dr. Ralph Piper, a professor at the University of Minnesota. Morry began his teaching career in 1947, teaching Cotton-Eyed Joe, learned from Ray Shaw, who had learned it from his younger brother, the famous Lloyd Shaw. From 1947 to 1951, Morry taught international dance full time in the upper Midwest. He met Nancy Borgman when she walked into his Minneapolis YMCA folk dance class in 1949. The couple was married in 1951 and danced together for over 50 years.
From 1951 to 1956, while working as a United States Air Force engineer in Europe, Morry and his wife Nancy lived on an air base just outside of the Bavarian city of Munich, Germany. The couple later moved to Wiesbaden. While in Bavaria, Morry and Nancy were members of a Munich Schuhplattler Trachten Verein dance group. Four of their children were born while Morry was stationed in Germany.
In 1958, the couple returned to the United States, moving to Santa Maria for two years, and danced with Audrey Silva's group. They then moved to Los Angeles, California, where Morry started four folk dance groups. For example, with Walter Grothe's help, Morry approached the Oxnard city government to stage a folk dance festival in City Park and to approve $500 for putting it on. Walter chartered an Army parachute plane and ferried enough performers to form three performing groups from San Francisco to Oxnard for the festival. The following week, Oxnard had a flourishing folk dance group! He also formed southern California's G.T.E.V. D'Isartaler, which performed Bavarian Schuhplattlers and Ländlers, one of whose members was Dick Oakes. Two years later, Isertaler merged with G.T.E.V. D'Oberlandler of which Morry's son, Michael Gelman, became "Vorplattler" (lead dance teacher).
In 1959, Morry was invited to teach at the Stockton Folk Dance Camp for the first time. He subsequently taught many times at the San Diego State University Folk Dance Conference and the Idyllwild Folk Dance Workshop.
In 1961, Morry began working for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). He served as the Atlas launch vehicle engineer for Project Mercury at Cape Canaveral in Florida where he worked with several astronauts such as John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, and Deke Slayton. He worked for NASA until his retirement in 1995, after which he volunteered his time there.
In 1971, the Gelman family moved to Laurel, Maryland, in order to continue his NASA career at the Goddard Space Flight Center, where he worked as an aerospace engineer on several unmanned missions: Solar Maximum Mission, Geostationary Operational Environmental Sattelites (GOES), and the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS) project. In 1972, not wanting to give up Schuplattling, Morry and Nancy started a German dance club in Baltimore. They named it the Gebirgs Trachten Verein Immergrün. Luckily, four of their six children developed a love of ethnic folk dancing, performing authentic Bavarian dances at Oktoberfests and other cultural festivals on the East and West coast for many years. Several of them still dance today and his oldest son, Michael, teaches European folk dance just like his father, and leads Immergrün.
In 1973, Morry and Nancy participated in an all-Austrian folk dance and music seminar that was held in the South Tirol that is sponsored each year by the Austrian Folk Dancers Federation, just one of the many trips the couple made to Austria and Germany.
After retiring from NASA in 1995, Gelman didn't stop he volunteered at Goddard’s Visitor Center working in educational outreach for students and conducting tours of the center.
In August of 2000, Morry's beloved Nancy passed away. For years, Nancy had been a volunteer at the art center at the Montpelier Mansion, built around 1783, helping with special events, decorating the many rooms for holidays, etc., and she really loved the mansion. According to her wishes, her ashes were scattered in one of the gardens there.
In 2001, Morry received the Preserving Our Heritage award for his lifetime work in the folk dance field from the National Folk Organization.
On October 2, 2004, folk dance friends and family gathered in Maryland to honor Morry's lifelong contribution to German and Austrian dance. He was the first recipient of the "Gretel and Paul Dunsing Lifetime Achievement Award" for his outstanding contribution to German and Alpine dance in the USA.
Morry continued to travel to Austria (Innsbruck, Salzburg, and Vienna) to attend Tanz Treffens (dance seminars) and to Germany to visit with his Bavarian friends in the Schuhplattler groups of Munich. He regarded his friendships with renowned Austrian folklorists as the important result of his visits to Europe. He said that his knowledge of Bavarian< and Austrian< music and dance would not have been possible without the good will and generosity of spirit of people there, such as Herman Derschmidt, Herbert Lager, Tobi Reiser, and Richard Wolfram, that allowed him to introduce many dances, including several Ländlers and many Zwiefachers.
In April 2010, more than 90 friends, NASA colleagues and family members gathered for an evening of waltzing, polkas, and a myriad of international folk dances for Morry’s 90th birthday. Everyone still chuckles when they remember all of the family history stories he wanted to tell that night. It was a fitting way to celebrate a life of dance, music, culture, and friendship.
After being on dialysis for kidney failure beginning in 2004, Morry died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 91 on September 19, 2011, at his home in Bowie, Maryland. His ashes are scattered in the same garden with his wife, Nancy.
Morry was blessed with six children: Michael, Nina, Steven, Rick, David, and Victoria (Tory). He was also survived by a brother (Sam), a nephew (Bruce), a niece (Celeste), and four grandsons (Paul, Sean, Jacob, and Sam).
On November 18, 2011, a Celebration of Life was held in honor of Morry. Many of his and Nancy's long-time friends came to pay tribute to him.
Editor's note by Jim Mork, editor of the Tennis Shoe Tuesday Night Rag, July 29, 2000: This was originally published when Minnesota folk dancing was celebrating its 45th anniversary. Now that Twin Cities folk dancing is 53 years old, I thought I'd reprint it.
"The Summer of 1947 Folk Dance Memories" University Folk Dancers University of Minnesota Morry Gelman
Congratulations to all Minnesota folk dance friends on the 45th birthday of University Folk Dancers. Obviously, the Tuesday Night Rag June '92 headline brought back many joyful memories for me personally. As Ceil searched for historical data about the University Folk Dancers (UFD) origins for that first year (1947) of pre-UFD activity, I venture to say she found very little exact information about the beginnings of square and folk dancing at the University of Minnesota in 1947-48. I do not think a detailed account of the dance activity during that period was ever written down, so here goes.
When I arrived in Minnesota in April 1947, from Los Angeles, my first contact was Ralph Piper at the University. To my good fortune the St. Paul International Institute's Festival of Nations was on that week and Ralph generously showed me around and introduced me to numerous nationality groups and dance leaders. Incidentally, there was a university student taking part in that '47 Festival of Nations, Dick Crum, as part of the group of Croatians from South St. Paul, I believe.
Ralph identified all the on-going Twin Cities dance activity for me that he knew of. I attended the square dance session at the Coffman Union that he held weekly in one of the game rooms for students, faculty, and friends (this was not an organized group or club at that time, just an activity he enjoyed doing). Knowing I had just come from California he invited me to teach a dance; we did Cotton Eyed Joe for the first time. The square dancers were knowledgeable in couple dances since Ralph also taught them some schottis and waltz forms as well as the squares.
I danced weekly with Ralph at the University through the rest of the 1947 Spring Quarter; it was here I met my first Minnesota dance friends: Kayo, Cathy, Myrt, Bill, Jim, Bud, and others. At the end of May, Ralph announced the final session until the fall; I asked about dancing through the summer (in California folk and square dancing was a year-round activity with a lot of it out-of-doors in those days); he replied no one would come to dance in Minnesota, it was too hot. I suggested we might try dancing outside at the Union during the upcoming 6-week summer session; there was lots of support for the idea from many dancers present. Ralph agreed to give it a try and he arranged with Union officials for us to hold an open folk and square dance on Tuesday nights on the rear courtyard of the Union. The Union advertised the open dance at the start of the summer session; we were amazed when over 100 people showed up. Ralph called squares and I taught a few of the folk dances (couple, triple, and line dances) I had learned in California. Each week the crowd grew and the Union officials were impressed, and invited Ralph and me to continue the activity indoors at the start of the 1947 Fall Quarter. Ralph arranged for us to use the Main Ballroom on Friday nights. A number of times that first year we danced at the Armory when the Ballroom was needed for other (more important?) University activities. That first 1947 fall quarter, dance activity in the Union was still not being held (or promoted) as an organized club; it was a student activity sponsored by the Union. Ralph and I shared the teaching and I was even given a $10 honorarium since I was not associated with the University.
It is now necessary to add some other ingredients to the Minnesota folk dance stew in order to explain the developments in Twin Cities folk dance activity that eventually influenced folk dancing at the University. During the six weeks of those first international folk dance sessions at the University, a small core of folk dance enthusiasts asked me if I could teach them more folk dances than it was possible to do at the large open-air session (dozens of new people showed up each week so we did only the simplest of dances). I agreed to show them more advanced dances if we could find a place to meet off-campus.
The Pillsbury Settlement House nearby was available and with permission (and no charge) from Mr. Currie, the Director, we danced there weekly during June, July, and August 1947. We had a small group of regulars including Ralph Piper, when his University duties allowed, and several couples from various nationality groups of the St. Paul International Institute. The St. Paul couples invited me to teach a similar international folk dance session at the International Institute in the Fall; thus in September 1947 the Wednesday night folk dance evening came into being. My Tuesday night folk dance session at the Minneapolis downtown YMCA came into being by way of the volleyball court. I mentioned folk dancing to Doc Stanwood, the Physical Director, during a game at the YMCA that summer and he invited me to try to start a folk dance evening in the Fall; thus in September 1947 we started the Minneapolis YMCA group on Tuesday night. Mr. Currie enjoyed the folk dancing I taught at his "Pill House" facility that summer and asked me if I would like to continue a folk dance class in the Fall for which I would be on the Pillsbury House staff and receive room and board; thus the Thursday night folk dance evening came into being. With the Friday night at the Coffman Union I now had four folk dance sessions going in the Twin Cities.
As we moved into the Fall months Ralph and I talked about time being ripe form a statewide organization similar to the Folk Dance Federation of California for the purpose of promoting folk and square dancing statewide. I had a copy of the California Federation constitution as a guide and Ralph had a list of 40-plus callers from the Twin Cities and around the state. We drafted a letter of invitation to the folk dance leaders (those mainly associated with the International Institute) and the callers on Ralph's list to come to a meeting in November 1947 at the International Institute to discuss the idea of a Folk Dance Federation. Ralph chaired the meeting of 100 or so people who attended; he introduced me to explain our purpose and especially to talk about the California Federation and how it might work for Minnesota. There was a positive response from all those present and a motion was made to hold elections and adopt a constitution for a Folk Dance Federation of Minnesota. I was elected President (can't list the names of the other officers but it's in the history somewhere; I think they were Ray & Eleanor & Ralph & ?) and the first order of business was to have a folk dance festival in December.
A number of the regular dancers from the Friday night dance at the University were at the International Institute meeting and they offered to host the December inaugural Festival at the University. A group of active dancers from the Friday night session at the Union organized into committees to do all the work involved in putting on a Festival; Ralph and I acted as advisors. That first program consisted of lots of squares and two international folk dances between squares, since there were many more square dancers than folk dancers in Minnesota. The first Festival was a huge success with the Union wall to wall with people; there were at least 25 squares dancing for the callers. With the help of the University dancers I taught the square dancers some of the simpler folk dances. The University dancers performed the Hopak (New York version) during one of the intermissions.
In my opinion the action of putting on and participating in the December 1947 Festival is what coalesced the Friday night dancers into a group, and as the folk dance movement in Minnesota grew into 1948 and beyond the University folk dance group matured as part of that growth. I was not involved in teaching folk dancing at the University after the 1947-48 Fall-Winter quarters; several regulars of the Friday night dances at the Union such as Bud Baadsgaard, Myrtle Hoppe, and Bill Levthauser (and others) stepped into the gap and taught the folk dances and moved the activity toward an evening devoted to just folk dancing at the University. This group continued to sponsor the annual anniversary festival at the University for the Folk Dance Federation. The Federation went on to sponsor free monthly festivals in the Twin Cities and around the state.
With fondest memories of my four years in Minnesota.
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