By Cathleen Ann Steg
Jim and Peggy Baden introduced their sons to international folk dancing--and the fancy footwork and fun festivals have been nonstop ever since.
The Badens, A Scouting family in Huntington, W. Va, like to spend their time together a bit differently than other families. So, when they're not tying their hiking boots for a weekend Scout outing or lacing up their athletic shoes for league play, Boy Scout Kurt and Webelos Scout Erich put on their dancing schuhe--as well as their lederhosen--and practice German folk dances with their parents, Jim and Peggy.
Since 1993 the Badens have been members of the International Folklanders, a dance troupe based in nearby Ashland, Ky. They rehearse with the troupe every Sunday evening to prepare for performances at such venues as the Hill Top Festival in Huntington and the Oktoberfest in Columbus, Ohio.
Between performances at the 1997 Oglebayfest, an annual autumn festival at the Oglebay resort in Wheeling, W. Va, the Badens talked about their unusual family activity.
When many families use TV as a group activity, and most adolescent boys choose sports for their spare time, why are the Badens involved in folk dancing?
"It's not an either-or thing," dad Jim explains, pointing out that both boys are active in sports. In fact, they are so active, says Jim (who is vice president of his sons' basketball league), that the family has a rule of "only one sport at a time."
Something 'totally different'
Jim and Peggy started folk dancing lessons with Carol Prietzel, director of the International Folklanders, for both exercise and fun. At first, Kurt and Erich played in the playground during the lessons. After a few sessions, Prietzel encouraged the whole family to join the 20-member troupe.
"I was 9 at the time and didn't really want to dance with girls," recalls Kurt with a grin, "but I was bored watching everybody else dance."
Erich remembers asking at the time, "Do we have to do this just because we're German?"
Today both boys consider their family's folk dancing hobby "really fun"--though they'll tell you the "practice, practice, practice is hard work."
"We're doing something totally different," adds Jim. "We're able to get out, meet new people, go to different places together. It's refreshing."
Peggy says her husband is the igniting force behind their involvement. In college Jim played drums in a polka band near Toledo; he enjoyed the tie with his ethnic roots, something he missed when he first moved to Huntington.
"It was good for us to find this opportunity to keep in touch with our culture," says Jim. Tradition continues in other ways: For performances, Jim wears his father's old loden hat, storing it afterward in its original 1940s box.
Peggy enjoys instilling in her sons a sense of pride and understanding of the family's culture. "They get a real sense of their German roots by performing at these Oktoberfests," she says, smoothing her red, Bavarian-style peasant dress before the show.
"Between Jim's German background and the Native American roots on my side of the family, the boys can learn so much about the different cultures in this country."
Though the boys have not performed Native American dances, Erich attended a powwow last summer with Peggy, and they both danced with the other attendees. With International Folklanders, they have learned many other styles of dance as well--from Irish, which they perform at a special St. Patrick's Day festival, to Latin American dances.
"Our favorites, though, are the dances of Germany," says Peggy.
Intricate patterns required
Despite their young ages, Kurt and Erich participate in the majority of the complex dances, including the special "men's dances," which involve lots of complicated hand-clapping, foot-slapping (plattl), and horseplay on stage. Erich's stage debut, in fact, came about when one of the men in the troupe was suddenly unable to attend a performance.
Rather than scratching the popular Hoop Dance from the program, then-7-year-old Erich was enlisted to substitute. He learned all the steps in record time, weaving the long hoop-making strips over his head in the intricate patterns required of the ancient dance, practicing with his dad and his big brother the night before the show.
After a successful debut in this challenging dance, the announcer hoisted little Erich up in front of the audience and jubilantly proclaimed, "He just learned this dance!"
"I'm pretty comfortable in front of a large group," Erich, now 10 years old, says confidently, as he puts the finishing touches on his costume, adjusting his red tie and green loden hat. "And they always put me in front, so usually the people are staring at me!"
Kurt, too, dances with self-assurance, showing the greatest enthusiasm in dances requiring the biggest leaps or the most horseplay. When asked if the agility he's learned in basketball helps him dance better, or if the fancy footwork needed in German folk dances helps him on the basketball court, he responds with a wry smile: "Definitely it's the dancing. Coordination is everything."
The troupe's performances, held in the Rathskellar on the Oglebay grounds, brought in crowds of all ages; the dancers made everyone in the audience feel a part of one family.
Shoe-slapping and clapping
In the Stern Polka, for example, all the members of the troupe invited people from the audience to dance with them. At 13, Kurt managed to lead both a young woman and a much older mother of three around the dance floor without missing a step. Jim, very much in his element, called out frequent whistles and whoops of encouragement, helping both young and old learn the moves of this traditional polka.
The audience's favorite dance was the Ambos Plattl. Featuring only men, it was the perfect opportunity for displaying the talents and high spirits of Jim and his two sons.
The traditional mountain dance recalls a time when men, after a hard day's work, would round up the oxen and head for their cabin in the hills for food and relaxation.
At center stage a man banged rhythmically on an anvil with two hammers while the other men (and boys) showed off their tricky footwork, shoe-slapping, and hand-clapping. At the same time they would sneak up on the other dancers to playfully kick, poke, and distract them. Erich and Kurt tried valiantly to make their father a victim of such high jinks, but Jim was clearly a master at avoiding such a fate.
The Oglebayfest has been a regular stop for the International Folklanders for 12 years. It's also a favorite for the Baden family, with its emphasis on German music and food as well as dancing.
The Badens' dream is to attend the ultimate Oktoberfest--in Munich, Germany. They may realize that dream next year, because the dance troupe is working on an exchange with some German dancers.
A special hobby
Both Jim and Peggy know the time commitment that goes into their special hobby will become increasingly difficult as the boys get older.
For the present, though, folk dancing gives them many opportunities to grow closer as a family, whether through practicing the toughest steps of a men's dance in the living room in the evening or watching the fireworks together at Oglebayfest after their day's performance is done.
"This makes us cohesive," Peggy explains, looking on with pride after her sons complete another dance successfully. "This isn't 'our life,' but it sure is fun for our family."
Freelance writer Cathleen Ann Steg, a frequent contributor to Scouting magazine, lives in Fairfax, Va.
Committed to Scouting, Too
The Badens divide their time equally among dancing, sports, and Scouting. They belong to Pack and Troop 62, chartered to the Pea Ridge United Methodist Church in the Tri-State Area Council's Muguyoh District. Jim and Peggy both serve as assistant den leaders for son Erich's Webelos Scout den.
Erich, who started in Scouting as a Tiger Cub, enjoys Webelos Scout camping experiences and was eagerly awaiting his first fall den camp-out, scheduled soon after the Oglebayfest.
Eighth grader Kurt is a Star Scout in Troop 62 (in which Jim helps out as an "adult leader at large"). The highlight for Kurt in 1997 was attending the national Scout jamboree at Virginia's Fort A.P. Hill as a member of the Tri-State Area Council contingent.
German Dances Tell a Story
German dances frequently tell a story or remind the audience of specific traditions from different regions of Germany and Austria:The Hofbrauhaus is a stately dance, reminiscent of the favorite dance performed at the world-famous Hofbrauhaus in Munich.
The Schnee Waltz (snow waltz) has the dancers sliding along the floor, like ice skaters in a German winter.
The Hoopmaker's Dance or Hoop Dance, has male hoopmakers intricately weaving their strands of thin wood in a pattern over their heads as another man enters the center and twirls a hoop round and round, balancing a glass within it.
The Kiss Kiss Polka (which Erich used to dance with a little girl until he reached the ripe old age of 9) has dancing pairs pretend to kiss, then sign to the audience to keep quiet about what they see.
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