"This is not the only thing I do that no one else my age does," states 16-year-old Jennifer Allen placidly. She's sitting in a folding chair with her legs tucked beneath her, watching as a roomful of men and women -- most of whom are at least four times her age -- dance in a circle. Their feet stamp out a simple, repeating pattern, keeping time with the Macedonian folk song coming through the sound-system's speakers. Allen observes them quietly for a moment.
"I guess I have an old soul or something," she says.
With that, she hops to her feet to join the dance.
A sophomore at Pinewood School in Los Altos, Allen is the youngest dancer at this evening's session of The Palomanians, a group of international folk-dance enthusiasts who meet on Tuesday nights in Menlo Park. Allen discovered folk dance while on a trip to Greece and came home inspired to find a group where she could learn those steps.
"I had always liked dance, but the styles weren't great for me," she explained. "Like ballet: I had tight hamstrings. And hip hop just looks weird. I was surprised that folk dance was something I liked and could conceivably do." Back in California, Allen joined Stanford International Folk Dancers and has become one of the groups regular weekly attendees. She sometimes dances with the Palomanians, too. Asked what she liked about folk dance, Allen replied, "The moves are pretty simple, but you can put a lot of energy into it and express emotions through it."
As the Palomanians' name suggests, the group started out in Palo Alto. That was more than 70 years ago. They and many groups like them were formed during a surge in popularity of international folk dance that paralleled the American folk revival of the 1940s and 50s, when artists like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger were reintroducing folk music to mainstream culture. Alongside American dance forms like the square dance, the public began to take an interest in folk dances from around the world: Bulgaria, Lithuania, Hungary, Turkey, Italy, Greece, Serbia, Armenia -- countries that to many seemed shrouded in mystery, particularly during the Cold War era. Thousands of people flocked to dance halls and community centers to learn the steps and hear the music of these far-off cultures. Peninsula-based folk dancer Karen Bartholomew remembers attending folk dances with her parents in San Jose in the 1950s.
"You could have as many as 2,000 people show up at the Civic Auditorium," she said. "Exhibition groups would perform, and the public would come to watch."
Though the popularity of folk dance isn't quite what it was in the mid-20th century, today the practice retains a loyal following in certain regions of the U.S.
Northern California -- and the Peninsula in particular -- remains a folk-dance epicenter, with no less than seven groups meeting on a weekly basis in Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton and beyond for everything from English and Scottish country dancing to Balkan, Hungarian and Transylvanian folk dance. Add to that the monthly folk-dance parties, special events, folk-dance camps and classes in nearby San Jose, Santa Cruz, San Francisco and the East Bay, and there's a reason the Folk Dance Federation of Northern California is considered one of the nation's most active and vibrant folk-dance organizations.
On a recent Friday night, musicians Jim Little, Melissa Miller and Lew Smith -- collectively known as Svirači -- set up at the center of the hall at First Baptist Church. Miller held a kaval or chromatic flute from eastern Europe, while Smith set up two mandolin-like instruments: tambura from Macedonia and a Bulgaria. Meanwhile, Little busied himself with his gajda (pronounced guy-ee-dah), a bagpipe made from sheep hide, inverted so that the fur is on the inside. Three tubes protruded from the yellowish bag, which hung a bit sadly from its stand. Yet when Little picked it up, tucked the bag beneath his arm and began to play, the sounds it emitted were undeniably rousing. Forty dancers rushed to form a circle around the musicians, took each other's hands and began walking in unison in a simple, repeating pattern. As the music grew faster, so did the steps, until what had begun as a hypnotic swaying had become an energetic jig. With the final note of the gajda, the room burst into laughter and applause.
Though many in the folk-dance community have been involved for years, they welcome anyone who walks through the door. Unlike some social dance styles, there's no partner necessary for kolo or circle dancing. Some come to folk dance specifically for the social contact; others love the music and the dancing above all else.
Lucy Chang has been involved in folk dance since she was in high school in the late '60s. "It was the Vietnam War era," she recalled. "I was a teenager. My mother wanted me to play the piano, but I fell in love with the gajda; it was so awkward and so great. I loved the brassiness of the zurla (an oboe-like woodwind from the Balkans)."
Aside from her passion for the music, Chang said she started folk dancing "to meet guys." It worked; Chang met her husband, Richard, folk dancing in Berkeley.
Hollis Radin keeps a list of married couples who met folk dancing in this region. The list dates back to the 1940s, and includes more than 24 couples. Radin said one of the things she loves most about international folk dance is the way it allows participants to experience a bit of many different cultures.
"I feel like I've gone on a trip around the world," she said. "In one evening, you can dance a sad Israeli dance mourning the loss of a daughter, a bouncing cheerful Turkish wedding dance, a Romanian dance created to sing news across a river."
Simply watching and listening doesn't quite convey the power of these dances, Radin's husband, Lon, added. "It's not a spectator sport," he said. "You have to feel it."
Longtime dance instructor Denise Heenan explained that while many of the dances done today in international folk-dance circles are actually choreographed by Western dance ethnographers, traditional folk dances from countries like Serbia and Croatia would have been fully integrated into daily life; people would do them "from cradle to grave."
"Some feel these are the pure dance forms," Heenan said, explaining that those who grew up with such dances would simply "link arms, dance and talk about the latest wedding, who had a baby ... It was just like walking."
In contrast, she acknowledged, she and her students "have to think about it. Your brain is always working."
And yet, to watch some of the more experienced students, you might think they'd been dancing all their lives. Maybe that's because so many folk dancers work in technical fields; memorizing intricate systems comes naturally. "Engineers like folk dancing," Radin said. "Maybe it's the introversion -- this is a good way to meet people -- but I think they're also drawn to the complex patterns and rhythms."
For many regular attendees of folk-dance groups, the camaraderie and fellowship are as important as the music and the dancing.
Palomanian Shireen Bickford is a polio survivor who credits folk dance with banishing her depression, boosting her memory and giving her a sense of profound belonging. "I am never made to feel inferior or left out," she noted. "Every week I look forward to my fix of joyous movement."
Newcomers sometimes find folk-dance groups like the Palomanians and Stanford International Folk Dancers a little intimidating; some of the more advanced dances do get pretty complicated, everyone else seems to know the steps, and participants are clearly familiar with one another. In fact, these groups are thrilled to have beginners show up.
Wendy Ellis discovered the Palomanians on Meetup.com, and showed up for her first class uncertain what to expect. "I kept trying to take a break and send a text message, and somebody would always sit down and say, 'This one is easy; you can do it!'" Ellis remembered. "It literally took me all night to send one text."
As Ellis learned, new dancers are heartily encouraged to jump right in. Stare too long at your feet or count the beat out loud, and someone's bound to lean over with a friendly reminder: "Don't think so much!" Because folk dance isn't really about getting it right; it's about joining hands with those beside you and becoming part of something larger -- if only for an evening.
What: The Palomanians
Where: Juniper Room, Arrillaga Family Recreation Center, 700 Alma St., Menlo Park.
When: Tuesdays, 7:30 p.m.
Cost: $8 (first class free)
What: Stanford International Folk Dancers
Where: First Baptist Church, 305 N. California Ave., Palo Alto
When: Fridays, 8 p.m.
Cost: $7 general, $10 on live music nights, $15 for special events and workshops. Students: half price. Children: free. No one turned away for lack of funds.
Info: Go to tinyurl.com/bdwlya3.