Is the beauty and charm of those old English country dance tunes so compelling to you that it just demands dancing? If so, then you're like many of us here in the Central Ohio area. For twenty-five years, we in Columbus have had the opportunity to enjoy this wonderful pastime, thanks to the dedication of a number of people who have been drawn to the beauty of the old tunes. On this, our anniversary, I'd like to tell the story of some of these people.
In the summer of 1974, a young graduate student at the Ohio State University, Craig Kridel, traveled to Pinewoods for Early Music Week. He so enjoyed his experience of the music that he wanted an opportunity to continue playing it, but found there was no regular English country dancing in Columbus until his search brought him into contact with John and Betty Shaw. That fall Craig gathered up some freshly matriculated OSU students and, with the Shaws and some other dancers, began a series of Sunday evening English country dancing. The demand of midterm exams soon discouraged some of the students, but others had come under the spell of the music and dance and soon more joined in. By the spring, the group was able to perform at the first Ohio State University Renaissance Festival which Craig organized. That festival and the Columbus ECD participation in it has continued to this day.
Craig was fortunate in meeting up with the Shaws. John and Betty had discovered English country dancing in their college days at Cambridge University in England during the 1940s. John was studying science and in pursuit of diversion and exercise, he would go hiking with some young men in a group called the Rambling Club. Young ladies of the University who were hiking, too, wanted the men to come enjoy their interest, English country dancing, and John was introduced to the Round, Cambridge University's dance club. Enthusiastic as many a new dancer is, he ventured off to the barn dances held in the town, where they did some of the raucous dances frowned upon by the Old Men of the Round. But John had the opportunity at the Round to meet many of those early disciples of Cecil Sharp, William Palmer, Lionel Bacon, Arthur Peck and others. He also joined the Cambridge Morris Men, eventually becoming its squire. In the meanwhile John had married fellow dancer Betty Wroe.
After settling in Columbus, the Shaws discovered square dancing at the local YMCA and folk dancing at OSU's Hillel Foundation and met other like-minded friends, all eager to teach each other the dances that they knew. In 1953, the Shaws, with their expertise in English dance, helped organize the Columbus Folk Dancers. (This organization, with a tradition of cooperative leadership, has been the focus of international folk dancing in Columbus and will soon be celebrating its fiftieth anniversary.) The mid-1950s also saw the beginning of the United Nations International Festival in Columbus where John would often bring some of England to it by performing a morris jig while Betty accompanied him on the concertina. For many years, Betty coordinated the dance presentations at the festival.
All this dancing didn't prevent the Shaws from starting a family - Jennifer, Stephen, Michael and Peter - but children didn't diminish their zeal to teach dancing. A folk dance class at a new recreation center took wing in 1959 and blossomed into the Whetstone Folk Dancers. All this teaching put Betty in good stead. She, like John, now took a turn in the academic world by teaching folk dance classes for the OSU dance department, but Craig Kridel's search for a dance group gave John and Betty an opportunity they had long relished -the chance to focus their teaching on the dances and the music which they had grown up with and first loved, the English dances.
Betty applied the expertise she had gained with her other dance groups. She gathered books and recordings of English dances and music from CDSS and sources in England, making an astonishing collection! She prepared copies of music for our musicians and a collection of tapes when they couldn't be there on Sunday evening. A guest book was always out to gather names and addresses of new attendees. At every evening's dance, Betty would note the dances done and the dancers who were there. John and Betty would travel to Berea Christmas Country Dance School and other workshops to bring back new dances and, lest our light be under a basket, they were always in search of volunteers to dance at various festivals around the Columbus area. The emphasis was always on the social nature of our dance club. John and Betty wanted people to come, dance, play, meet others, but always have a good time!
Our dances have always reflected the Shaws' Cambridge heritage and have favored the old Playford dances, but we also include traditional English dances and early American contra dances. In the early days, the group would teach some morris dances, too. Notes from one evening report seven country dances and morris practice (exhausting)! The Black Joke and Lads A Bunchum were in the repertoire along with the Kirkby Malzeard longsword dance. An independent morris and sword team emerged which dances today as the Olentangy Motley Morris and Sword. A dancer of the early 80s, Kamesh Ramakrishna was one of those first morris leaders and the team has since had Dean Allemang, Marty Scott and Michael Darby as foremen. By the 80s a regular contra dance had formed in Columbus, the Big Scioty Barn Dance, and many of the contra dancers eventually found their way to Sunday evening English, helping to swell our ranks.
Sadly, in 1990, Betty passed away and is sorely missed. Her presence greatly influenced the new generation of leaders: Fred Todt, Dean Allemang and Michael Darby all started leading programs on a regular basis and recently Joseph Pimentel has been calling on Sunday evenings; these leaders have started to introduce the group to some of the more modern country dance compositions. John continues to be active in dancing, teaching and leading the group, especially taking care of our financial affairs and arranging for festivals and demonstrations. We still dance most first, third and fifth Sundays.
From our first days with Craig Kridel, the group has always been blessed with musicians eager to play for us. Dave Leonard (flute/recorder) is remembered from the early days, along with Bob Loechler who went on to a solo career on the hammered dulcimer. Craig went on to play with the Mellstock Band. John Shaw relates the story of a young physics student who found that as a student he was eligible for free music lessons. Thanks to those lessons and playing on Sunday evenings, Brent Warner became an accomplished violinist and is now a well-known musician in the Washington, DC area. Often playing with Brent in the 1980s was our fine oboist Kathy Zetts. This tradition of live music continues with our present musicians: Leslie Scott (recorder), Kim Fippin (hammered dulcimer), Gretchen Kumlien (guitar) and Harold and Janet Kohn (assorted interesting instruments). With a host of others, they have continued to compel our feet with the charms of the old English tunes.
John recently recalled for me a trip he and Betty took to Pinewoods one summer. Two of their children went along, not too sure they wanted to spend their summer with mom and dad at a dance camp. But on the return, Michael told his father he had discovered that "the music was absolutely wonderful." John responded that indeed it was wonderful music and was pleased to point out to his young son, "It's your music!" Thanks to the dedication of many musicians and dancers but, most especially, John and Betty Shaw we in Central Ohio, too, can say that this music and dance is ours! And it is truly wonderful!
CDSS News #156, September/October 2000