By David Perry
When COVID-19 ended many of UMass Lowell’s student activities last spring, UML Folk Dance Club President Sarah Bustin didn’t take it sitting down.
Life without folk dance would be difficult for Bustin, who says her body and soul are enriched by the human connection it brings.
The Folk Dance Club would continue even if it had to do it via Zoom. Bustin, a rising junior who is majoring in physics, teamed with the Folk Arts Center of New England to set up weekly Tuesday evening Folk Dancing by the Virtual Fountain, July 7 through Aug. 25. The pandemic had also claimed the Folk Arts Center of New England’s weekly summer dances, so Bustin’s overture was welcomed.
She secured the services of the UML club’s dance teacher, Andy Taylor-Blenis, rounded up additional support from the Lowell Cultural Council, and got the word out. Participants include UML students, as well as dance instructors and enthusiasts from around the country.
From the earliest moments of the first online session, it was clear Bustin had created an entirely different folk dance experience. It was oddly intimate and personal. People’s living rooms and dining rooms showed up in the squares of video that line the top of the screen.
A recording of traditional music plays, and Taylor-Blenis begins dancing around her room, calling out steps as she does. “One-two-three-four and five-six and seven-eight …” Dancers watched the instructor on their screens. She repeats the dance, faster this time. “Quick-slow, quick-quick-slow.” The dancers viewing step tentatively at first, then with more abandon. “Cross-front, quick-slow.”
At one point, a dog strolls slowly through Taylor-Blenis’ room.
As the evening progresses, the number of dancers grow — 43, 49, 72 …110.
“Aloha, from Hawaii,” chirps one dancer.
Aloha, indeed. Throughout the summer, the weekly online dance session has drawn an average of just under 100 faithful dancers and instructors from Chicago and Los Angeles and points in between. On Aug. 11, Joan Hantman taught via Zoom. She specializes in Israeli, Balkan and other international dances, then goes to work as a nurse at the UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica.
The group routinely runs through traditional dances born in the likes of Serbia, Macedonia, Greece, Israel, Portugal, Japan and other countries.
It is, when joined by computers and cameras, a new dance that emerges, notes veteran dance teacher Taylor-Blenis.
International folk dance is loaded with “community and contact,” says Taylor-Blenis. “When people hold hands with one another, they are getting information from one another. People learn to dance by watching, listening and getting assistance from those surrounding them. Finally, the teacher is speaking, demonstrating and watching the dancers to see what assistance they need.
“In this pandemic, what people won’t get is the human contact as both stimulant and an assistant,” says Taylor-Blenis.
Bustin agrees. “Online dancing is fun, but it's very different from the real thing,” she says.
Bustin, who is from North Reading, Mass., has been folk dancing for most of her life. Her grandparents on both sides taught folk dance, and she learned contra and international dance as a child.
She shares a bond with Taylor-Blenis that she only uncovered a few years ago.
“Andy and my mother were roommates at Maine Folk Dance Camp when they were teenagers,” she says.
Bustin chose UMass Lowell for its UTeach and physics programs, not its dance offerings. She was “dismayed” to find neither a dance department nor international dance group on campus when she arrived. During her first semester, Bustin continued to attend a weekly folk dance in Lexington, Mass.
In October 2018, she heard the MIT Folk Dance Club (FDC) was shut down because its percentage of student members dropped below 50 percent of total members, which included dancers from the faculty and the local community.
“This was incredibly disappointing for the international dance community,” says Bustin, “as the MIT FDC had been dancing since the 1960s and had gathered a large, vibrant, supportive community.”
She and Taylor-Blenis agreed to start a club at UML. In October of her freshman year, she made a club sign-up form.
“I asked everyone I met to sign up. I gave the form to classmates, people standing next to me in the lunch line, students I’d never met in the hallway,” she recalls.
She created an email list, recruited officers and faculty advisors. By May 2019, they were an official club sport. The group held weekly two-hour practices at the Campus Recreation Center. That summer, the club volunteered to help at the Lowell Folk Festival and offered a dance night with live music open to the community.
In February, the club collaborated on an event with the Cambodian Student Association. Then, COVID-19 sent everyone home.
The ongoing Tuesday summer sessions have drawn new dancers, and donations to pay teachers (there is a suggested $5 minimum donation) have picked up, says Bustin.
“She has always brought passion to our dances and made a welcoming atmosphere for people to join in,” says Sarah Souders, a rising senior biology major with a biotechnology concentration. She is one of Bustin’s recruits, now a club officer.
What appealed to Souders? Folk dance is “filled with history and meaning, but also something fun to do with friends and relax after a long day.”
Since the virtual sessions began, Souders loves “seeing those from all over the country come together with a similar interest in cultural learning through dance. I joined because of my friend, but I stayed because of the dance.”
Despite student clubs not meeting in person in the fall due to the pandemic, the Folk Dance Club will continue online, says Bustin.
“A lot of folk dancers are scientists, mathematicians and engineers, as the patterns and formulae of the dance steps come easily to them,” she says. “Others dance because they love listening to beautiful music from other cultures or because it's a low-key way to meet new people and socialize without the pressure of small talk.”
For more information about the club, which will continue to host Zoom events Tuesday evenings in the fall, visit the Folk Arts Center of New England website or sign up for its email list.