Footworks Stomping a Folk Ballet of America's Many Rhythms
Feel the music as the Annapolis company breaks from national touring to dance its annual hometown extravaganza.
by Paula Anne Delve Phillips
Tell me what'd I say? Tell me what'd I say? ... croons a familiar voice as Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble get down to work in their rehearsal studio at 2083 West Street in Annapolis.
"Tap first, then switch to clogging," instructs artistic director Eileen Carson-Schatz, who calls dance "a joyous response to music." Her troupe is known for fusing many cultural styles, such as clogging, tap and step dancing, in exciting collaborations with guest artists.
See the girl in the diamond ring, she knows how to shake that thing ... sings Ray Charles as the percussive dancers tap out a staccato rhythm that begins to swing with syncopation. To the tap shoes they all wear, some of these pros have applied duct tape on the soles to reduce slippage.
"You have a definite polyrhythmic deal going," Carson-Schatz says to Kim Jones, the choreographer for the piece. Like many of the company dancers, Jones, of Upper Marlboro, dances with a college degree. She holds a bachelor of fine arts in dance-choreography from Virginia Commonwealth University.
Rehearsal moves at a steady pace toward February 25, the national touring company's Eighth Annual Hometown Show on stage at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts.
As more dancers, including two from the junior company, join the rehearsal, fiddle music starts up, sounding like something from deep in the holler. "Let's clog, ya'll!" yells rehearsal captain Emily Crews.
The cloggers tap their way into a circle for "Scotland," a piece choreographed by junior company co-director Christine Galante.
A descending bass line grabs attention from the ever-present fiddle, the lifeblood of clogging music. The energy lifts and the room turns into a mountain meadow as the dancers whirl, jump and pivot. Yeeeeeeip! a dancer yelps with gusto, even though it's only a rehearsal. There will be a lot more of that come show time.
The Family Tree of American Dance
"My parents were upwardly mobile hillbillies," says Carson-Schatz. "They wanted us to be educated. My mother wanted me to speak French and study ballet." Carson-Schatz shifts her dark mane to the other shoulder, enjoying the irony, for she has become a pioneer for the folk-art traditions her own mother had grown up on, clogging and percussive dance.
It's a multi-cultural tradition with deep roots. "There's a lot of Scots-Irish in the southern mountains," says Carson-Schatz, who herself combines many of the ethnic strains: Irish, English, German and American Indian. "You can feel the Native American presence in mountain clogging," she adds. "It's in the attack, the way the feet strike the floor."
She's made continuing those traditions her life's work. As a young woman, she married dancer Rodney Sutton, and the couple saw themselves "on a mission" to promote Southern culture. They competed and performed with North Carolina's Green Grass Cloggers. Moving to Maryland a quarter of a century ago, the third dancer Eddie Carson, who became Eileen's second husband, founded the Fiddle Puppet Dancers, from which Footworks evolved in 1994.
Along the way, they traveled the folk-festival circuit, prospering in folksy performances on wide-open outdoor stages.
"I bet a lot of people don't realize how much these folk festivals inspire the creativity of artists," Carson-Schatz explains. These were the first world-beat, multi-cultural festivals. Mainstream music promoters later picked up on the idea, with stars like Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel leading the way.
"Not only did the festivals give traditional roots-based artists a place to play," says Carson-Schatz, "they brought Irish, African and English dancers together in one place." When the Fiddle Puppets witnessed this world of wonders, she recalls, "little light bulbs went on over our heads about our multi-cultural roots."
Shaping the evolution was Mitch Podolak, founding director of the acclaimed Winnipeg Folk Festival, where Fiddle Puppets performed more than a dozen times over the years.
"In 1987 Podolak took us off the festival stage" says Carson-Schatz, to perform in a club setting. "We did this theater act, and afterwards he said, ‘You don't even know what you've done, do you? You've created a folk ballet.'" He had helped them create the type of theatrical performance that propelled the troupe to international stardom.
All the while, the Footworkers have remained true to the traditions of Southern Appalachian music and dance while celebrating all the connecting roots and branches of this American art form.
They have traveled to festivals in Scotland, England, Japan, Canada and 35 American states. They have performed concerts and held workshops or residencies across the country, Canada and abroad, highlighted by a Riverdance show in London. They've been to at least 17 of the 23 Maryland counties.
"We are fortunate to have such a vibrant and influential group representing the State of Maryland," wrote former first lady of Maryland Frances Hughes Glendening in a congratulatory letter to the troupe. "Footworks is an exemplary model for arts organizations around the world."
The Business of Art
|photo by Jeff Knowles
Some of the Footworks members have applied duct tape on the soles of their tap shoes to reduce slippage.
In his office on the other side of the 3,600-square-foot Annapolis Dance Center, the new home of the 26-year-old Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble, executive director Edward Johnson packs up his laptop after the monthly meeting of the board of directors. It's 10pm, and a dozen details dance through his mind. A school performance is scheduled in two days with one dancer out sick ... Will the reception sponsor come through? ... Must they reschedule that radio interview after three artists have finally agreed on one date and time? ...
Born in a little town near Lafayette, Indiana, Johnson has "always been interested in business," he says. "When I was a little kid and had a paper route, I actually had people working for me." At Purdue University in West Lafayette, he earned his bachelor's degree and followed it up with a master's of business administration from the Kellogg School of Business at Northwestern University.
At the same time, he also attended the symphony, visited the nearby Chicago Museum of Industry and never missed The Nutcracker when Christmas rolled around. "I've always had a love of the arts but no appreciation for what was involved in producing it," he says.
That changed after a career move brought him to Annapolis, where he encountered Footworks.
In two years, Johnson has increased the non-profit's budget by 26 percent, projected at $420,000 for 2005. Payments to artists for teaching and community projects have increased spending, but earned income is also strong, bolstered by fees from classes at the company's new Annapolis Dance Center. Now Johnson hopes to increase corporate giving. In that area, he's already gained some solid support, GHP Holdings, for one, came on board in a big way after the owner's wife saw a Footworks performance.
At the same time, Johnson manages a broad range of programs: an international touring company of dancers and musicians; artists-in-schools programs at some 100 sites yearly; the annual hometown show; a new dance school that houses teachers from three companies; and community outreach, including the two-year-old Community Rhythm Project, which reaches out to under-served youth.
"A lot of people know us for arts in education, a theater production or community outreach, but very few people know we do the whole thing," Johnson says. "With everything we do, we probably perform in front of 500,000 people in a given year."
Dance for Everyone
|photo by Jeff Knowles
Footworks musicians include Neil Knicely on bass, John Glik on fiddle, Mark Schatz on banjo and Danny Knicely on guitar.
The Annapolis Dance Center opened last August to house two studios and the administrative offices of Footworks. It is also a center for all kinds of dance. The Footworks credo is "dance is for everyone," says Carson-Schatz, adding that dance should be "first and foremost fun." There are plenty of ways to have fun at the center.
"We have a wealth of experience to bring to the new studio, including how to make dance fun and accessible for all kinds of folks, as well as provide top-notch training for the more advanced dancers," Carson-Schatz says.
Classes are taught by company members as well as by the Ballet Theatre of Maryland and the Teelin School of Irish Dance. There's also world-music drumming, hip-hop, salsa and ballroom dancing for children and adults.
Children can begin clogging as early as seven and work up through three levels of instruction. Ages five to eight can begin the Irish Step dancing popularized by Riverdance. Traditional Irish dancing and step are offered in other classes for ages eight to adult. There are even classes to teach creative movement and rhythm to children under five.
Classes in jazz, tap, modern dance and ballet reach out to people of all ages. Family members can take classes together or separately according to their interests and skill level.
The high-caliber instruction offers a gold mine in training and performance to children who want to develop a career, avocation or hobby. Such youngsters often step up to Footworks Junior Company.
Young dancer Jesse Pittman began taking classes at eight or nine, joining the juniors as a fifth-grader.
Her mother, Karen Cunnyngham, likes the tone at the dance center. "It's not competitive. The kids get a lot of pleasure out of it," Cunnyngham says. "They see the adults — the company dancers and teachers — dancing for the love of it."
That love animates Jesse's whole family, says her mother, who is also president of Footworks board of directors as well as a contra-dancer — and public policy research analyst in Washington, D.C.
Other junior company members are Helen Doherty of Annapolis, Andrew Fleming of Harwood, Monica Heffel of Bowie, Andrew Keegan of Millersville, Kathleen Overman of Severna Park, Kim Perry of Annapolis and Laura Zseleczky of Harwood.
There are always new opportunities for dancers who want to perform. "Some of our junior company members have graduated high school, gone on to college and come back during the summer to perform with the professional company," says Carson-Schatz. Footworks also periodically auditions new talent for the touring company.
No matter what their goals, the children "start to know dance as cultural expression," says Carson-Schatz, "rather than showing off or performing. When the kids start to have a deeper attachment to dance, it has a deeper meaning for them."
See for Yourself
|photo by Jeff Knowles
World-class clogger Christine Bolthouse-Galante and Maureen Berry, who directs the Teelin School of Irish Dance.
The pace of rehearsals quickens as February 25's annual extravaganza of cultural diversity approaches, convening a mini-folk festival right in our own back yard.
Joining the professional company for this show are dancers from the Teelin School of Irish Dance and the Footworks Junior Company.
Creating the music that sets the dancers moving is Footworks' musical director Mark Schatz, Carson-Schatz's partner in life as well as music. After learning guitar from his older sister, Schatz began studying cello at age 10, switching to string bass and then in high school to electric bass. Inspired by his love of folk and traditional music, he added mandolin to the mix. He earned a degree in music theory and composition from Haverford College in Pennsylvania and studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
At a pivotal point, he says he "picked up the old-time banjo and went to my first old-time fiddle festival in Fiddler's Grove, North Carolina." Since then, he has played with many musical greats, including Bela Fleck, Tony Rice, Tim and Mollie O'Brien and Emmylou Harris. He began playing bass with the young Grammy Award-winning trio Nickel Creek two years ago, after they erupted onto the national music scene with their bluegrass-influenced acoustic music.
Special guests at this year's annual festival are cross-cultural percussionists Elizabeth Melvin and Steve Bloom, with his group Sweet Saludos. (The name is a Spanglish term meaning sweet greetings.)
A high-spirited D.C.-based musician, Bloom has studied and performed Cuban, Latin, Celtic and Middle-Eastern rhythms. Wrote one Washington Post reviewer, "Steve Bloom has never met a rhythm he couldn't master."
Annapolis musician Elizabeth Melvin studied formally in a graduate ethnomusicology program at University of Maryland and in the school of life from such diverse teachers as a Cuban refugee, an African griot and Caribbean band mates.
The performance is followed by a reception with the artists and even more music as the Rob Levit Trio (featuring Levit on guitar, Frank Russo on drums, Amy Shook on bass and guest vocalist Eric Hanson) plays until midnight. Galway Bay of Annapolis and Killarney House of Davidsonville serve traditional Irish fare and beer, while wine and sumptuous desserts come from House Specials Personal Chef Service.
See for yourself 8pm Friday, February 25 @ Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, 801 Chase St., Annapolis. Tickets usually sell out: $25 show; $25 reception. 410-263-5544; www.marylandhall.com.
Visit Footworks at www.footworks.org. For information or course catalog for classes beginning the week of February 28: 410-897-9299 (M-F 9am-3pm).
~ About the Author ~
Paula Phillips is a lifestyle writer and arts promoter. In her last story for Bay Weekly, "Changing Lives" (January 6, 2005), she profiled three Chesapeake neighbors who veered off the straight and narrow into success.