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Folk Dance

The increasingly popular pastime of participatory folk dancing offers converts a world of movement

If it’s Sunday, it must be Israeli folk dancing. Hungarian dance is on Friday. And Scottish country dance is every Sunday, Monday, and Thursday. Your feet can take a tour of the world practically any night of the week, thanks to the local folk dance enthusiasts who gather to celebrate village dances from long ago and far away. There are dances for singles and for couples, and events for families and for gays and lesbians. Some are tailored to experienced dancers, but most provide opportunities for novices to walk in off the street and kick up their heels, often to live music.

The beauty of many of these folk dance events is that you can learn as you go, with callers — the people who direct the dance moves — and more experienced participants helping fellow dancers through their paces. The chance to dance the night away in a communal, noncompetitive atmosphere has made converts of legions of local area participants, many of whom thought they’d never have the courage to brave a dance floor.

‘‘Nobody is born knowing how to dance,’’ says Marcie Van Cleave, executive director of Folk Arts Center of New England, an umbrella organization that sponsors a variety of dance events as well as a bimonthly newsletter and a website ( Someone who’s never participated in a folk dance before ‘‘can walk in and get swept away, because that’s how it would be done in the tavernas in Greece or the fields of Bulgaria,’’ she says. ‘‘If you can join the circle and hold hands with your neighbors, you can dance.’’

This weekend marks one of the year’s biggest folk dance events, as the New England Folk Festival will be held at Natick High School. A sampler of the wealth of folk-dance activity in the area, the three-day festival features participatory dancing, ranging from contra dance to a variety of international styles, as well as participatory singing and instrumental jams.

Performances include concerts by ethnic dance groups, Morris dancers, and more. Family activities include hands-on arts and crafts as well as storytelling; vendors will sell ethnic crafts, books, recordings, and clothing. If you find yourself working up an appetite, food stalls will offer a range of treats. Many hardcore enthusiasts make a weekend of it, but if you’re just testing the waters, the festival is an ideal way to check out a variety of dance styles, both as a viewer and a participant.

Converts to folk dancing find themselves among people of all ages, and from all walks of life.

‘‘I could be standing next to the world’s most famous brain surgeon who’s tripping over his own feet, or a taxi driver on the other side of me, and I wouldn’t know it,’’ says Van Cleave. ‘‘Those kinds of differences are invisible. Dance makes us all equal.’’

Software engineer John Peyton was initially drawn to dance by the music, but a large part of what keeps him going back is the social interaction.

‘‘It’s a lot of different people who are very interested in trying something new and challenging,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s fun watching younger people get involved again, like the tradition is being passed on.’’

For some of the older dancers, like Stella Penzer, who moved to the area from Poland more than 50 years ago, dance events can provide a communal lifeline. ‘‘Folk dancing has been very important to me since I moved to America,’’ she says in heavily accented English. ‘‘It cures my occasional depression, and the physical movement and music just flow through my veins.’’

For most folk dancing, no special shoes are needed, though Van Cleave suggests a sole that slides easily on the floor. In many dance forms, you don’t need a partner, either.

In English country dance, for example, from which contra and square dance are derived, participants dance in mixed-gender groups of four or six, sometimes more, rather than with a single partner. This creates a sense of community that participants say continues off the dance floor. You can go to a dance not knowing anyone and end the evening with a slew of new acquaintances.

For many, that’s a large part of the appeal: ‘‘Dance historically has been something people do together,’’ Van Cleave says. ‘‘In times of war, villages banded together in dance to stay strong, literally and figuratively. It brings people together in cultures that are spread out, and where you don’t see your neighbors very often. That same sort of thing translates into our world. People come every Friday night to the dance in Arlington Heights. You walk in and know you’re going to see people who you enjoy. And you get a little exercise, too.’’

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