Over the years, I’ve relied on Folk Dance Musings to help me learn folk dances and prepare to lead them. I also refer to the website whenever I prepare another installment of my I’d Rather Be Dancing series on ARHtistic License.
Andrew Carnie, the creator of Folk Dance Musings, agreed to an interview for ARHtistic License. I think you’ll agree that what he has to say about folk dancing is interesting and enlightening.
ARHtistic License: Do you teach at the University of Arizona?
Andrew Carnie: Yes, I’m a professor of linguistics at U of A. I am a syntactician – that means I study how the mind processes and produces the sentences of a language. I specialize in the syntax of the Celtic languages, particularly Scottish Gaelic and Irish. My work is largely around principles governing patterning in grammatical systems, which I think is why I’m so fascinated by folk dance and folk dance description. Folk dances are also governed by principles of pattern and form.
I got my BA (hons) from the University of Toronto and my Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I’ve taught at the University of Calgary, University California Santa Cruz, University of Michigan, Harvard and at MIT. I’ve been at the University of Arizona since 1998. From 2012 to 2022,S I was the Dean of the Graduate College and the Vice Provost for Graduate Education.
In addition to my linguistics classes, I also teach a General Education class for freshmen in the dance department which is an introduction to Folk Dances of Europe and the Middle East. I’ve been teaching it for 3 years now and it’s very popular.
AL: How long have you been dancing?
AC: When my parents immigrated to Canada from Scotland in the late 1960s, my mother joined the local Scottish Country Dance club. I was brought along from the start. I’m not sure exactly when I started SCD, but there are pictures of me as a pre-teen dancing. I also did highland dancing as a teenager – my knees can’t do that any more.
My first exposure to international folk dancing came when I was around 16. A friend who was a student at the University of Calgary took me to the international dance club on Campus. The first dance I learned was Arap. I was an instant convert and have been going to folk dancing as often as I can wherever I am in the world.
AL: What is it about folk dancing that you love?
I’m a pattern guy. I love figuring out patterns in things. Folk dancing of all kinds is filled with patterns. But I’m also a big fan of different rhythms and cool music. A great tune will transport me. I find that if I’ve had a hard day at work, an evening of folk dancing calms me, revives me and raises my spirits.
AL: Do you do other styles of dancing besides folk dance?
AC: As I mentioned above, I started with Scottish Country Dancing and Highland Dancing. I’ve also dabbled in Contra dancing, Square dancing and Clogging.
AL: What are your favorite dances?
AC: There are too many to mention. Good music and a pattern that make you “fly” are often favorites. My personal favorites are dances from Macedonia and Albania, but I like all kinds of dances.
AL: How do you learn dances?
I’m a visual learner. I often don’t stand up during the teaching of a dance, I just watch, and then I can do it. I know many people need to feel the dance by repeatedly doing it. I rarely do this except when a step is exceptionally hard. People are often surprised when I stand up and do a dance after watching. They’ll say “have you done this one before?” Nope, I just prefer watching to learn. It drives some teachers nuts.
AL: Do you usually dance to live music or recordings?
AC: In Tucson we normally dance to recorded music largely due to our wide ranging repertoire. However we do have a couple of local bands that play for us occasionally which is a special treat.
AL: Have you traveled to some of the countries whose dances you’ve danced? Have you ever danced abroad?
AC: When I travel abroad, I often travel for work which means going to Scotland and Ireland. I’ve done Ceilidh/Ceilí dancing in both places.
AL: Do you have any ethnic costumes you like to wear for dancing?
AC: When I performed with Vinovana, Mandala and TEDE I had a full range of stage costumes. Sadly most of these don’t fit anymore. I do have a kilt that still fits that I can use for family events and formal occasions. But for most evenings of dancing I wear the IFD ethnic costume of a T-shirt and sweatpants!
AL: What sort of footwear do you prefer for folk dancing?
AC: Because of injuries to my knees, I now mostly wear sneakers. These don’t always work well on Marley floors which are found in many dance studios, so I wear glides (little socks) on the toes to help with turning and twisting.
AL: Do you ever go to dance workshops or dance camp?
AC: For many years my work has really prevented me from traveling to workshops and camps. So I’ve been restricted to local workshops here in Tucson and a few up in Phoenix, when instructors travel through. Over the past 10 years we’ve had small local workshops with Shlomo Bachar, Tineke and Maurits van Geel, Elena Dimitrova, Joe Graziosi, Lee Otterholt and Iliana Bozhanova.
Ironically the pandemic and virtual workshops and camps have been an amazing resource for me. The past 3 years, I’ve been lucky enough to attend virtual Laguna, Stockton, Texas, June Camp, Mainewoods, Kolo Festival, Door County and more. I’ve also been able to attend virtual workshops given by the Eastern European Folk Life Center, LIFE Balkan in LA, and the New England Folk Arts Center. Instructors I’ve been privileged to take online classes from Alex Markovic, Steve and Susie Kotansky, Michael Ginsburg, Joe Graziosi, Ahmet Lüleci, Sonia Dion and Cristian Florescu, Yves and France Moreau, Mihai David, Alexandru David, Tom Bozigian, Aaron Alpert, Alix Cordray, Roo Lester, Andy Taylor, Bata Marčetić, Ben Koopmanschap, Bianca de Jong, Caspar Bik, Erica Goldman, Franklin Houston, Gary and Susan Lind-Sinanian, Genci Kastrati, Gergana Panova, Ira Weisburd, Janet Reinek, Jan Pumpr, Jitka Bonušova, John Filcich, Kyriakos Moisides, Yianni and Simo Konstantino, Penny Brichta, Richard Powers, Rena Karyofylldou, Roberto Bagnoli, Šani Rafiti, Sevy Bayraktar, Shmulik Gov Ari, Vlasto Pekovski, Yanni Economou, Yvonne Hunt, Željko Jergan and more! I never would have been able to attend in-person classes with all these fabulous instructors, so the shift to virtual dance teaching was a blessing in disguise for the richness of my folk dance life.
AL: Do you have any favorite dance instructors or choreographers?
AC: Folk dancing is blessed with many excellent teachers and instructors – see the above list. But my favorites are Steve Kotansky and Yves Moreau. Both of whom are not only masters at choosing material that IFD audiences will love, but are scholars of the dances they teach and bring more than the footwork to the dance floor.
AL: Have you choreographed any dances?
Yes, and there’s a few that have even caught on in various places. Here’s a list.
AL: Tell me about your dance group.
AC: There are three international folk dance groups in Tucson.
The group I run is the Shala Folk Dance Club that meets at “Movement Culture” in midtown Tucson. The group started as a class in 2001 at the YMCA, but we eventually moved on to our own identity. This is probably the largest group in town. We have a beginner to intermediate focus. It’s also the only group that’s now hybrid. In addition to our in-person class, people can join us from all over the world via Zoom. We regularly have dancers from DC and southern California who join us virtually. The Shala club meets on Tuesdays 7-9 PM. For those that want to join virtually, use this link.
There’s one group in town that I’ve only ever been able to join on special occasions because they meet on Friday mornings when I’m at work. Ironically this one is the one that meets closest to my home! This group was founded by Harvey Gardner and is now run by Shirley Hauck and Raven Siva and it meets at Sun City in Oro Valley. This group is more beginner focused and every dance is taught (or at least reviewed).
Finally, we have the Tucson Folk Dance Club which meets on Monday afternoons also at Movement Culture. This group, which was founded by Bill and Karen Faust as a University Club back in 1963. It is in its 60th year! Bill and Karen, along with Nancy Bannister, run this group.
We also have the university general education class, but this class is only open to enrolled University of Arizona students. But we have an enthusiastic group of 18-22 year olds who are learning to love folk dancing. This class is taught by me, Nancy Bannister and Shirley Hauck.
Some participants of the Phoenix International Folk Dance Festival in 2015
AL: What advice do you have for someone who wants to learn folk dancing?
AC: Folk dancing is for everyone — all ages and abilities. It’s about community and it’s about developing social connections. I think a lot of people, especially men, have fear of starting dancing or dance classes because they won’t be skillful. But I think the best kept secret about folk dancing is that for most people, it isn’t about skill or performance but about developing interpersonal contact through the medium of movement.
AL: What advice do you have for someone who wants to teach or lead folk dancing?
AC: I think my first piece of advice is “know your audience”. Are you teaching 20 year olds or 60-80 year olds? Choose your material appropriately. What goes over well with the over-50 crowd may not cut it with the younger dancer. Second, I’d recommend understanding the structure of the dance before you start to teach it: How many parts does it have? How many measures are there in each part? How many beats are there in each measure? Third, I’d be really careful about terminology. For example, are you doing a stamp (no weight) or a stomp (takes weight). When you say turn R, do you mean turn by the R hand or do you mean make a clockwise turn? Etc. Fourth, choose good music. Many of us fell in love with the old crackly and crunchy tunes from 78s recorded at the beginning of the last century, but those aren’t necessarily the best recordings to dance to or to bring people into the world of folk dances. When teaching beginners I always try to find high quality sound files with sounds and rhythms that are accessible. Only later do I introduce slightly more esoteric meters and recordings. Finally, make sure you emphasize the fun. I’d prefer to dance with a dancer who is doing the dance slightly wrong, but is having a blast than with a dancer who is paying so much attention to the detail about getting the style right that they forget to actually dance and forget they are dancing with people. Folk dancing is about community.
For additional information about folk dancing or about Andrew Carnie and his work in linguistics, check out his websites: Folk Dance Musings, International Folk Dancing for Kids, Folk Dance Tucson (although this one is probably of most interest to members of the Tucson club), and Andrew Carnie.