‘So ancient, so satisfying’
Guiding Star Grange to host new Balkan dance series
Photo courtesy of Becky Ashenden
Becky Ashenden traces her interest in Balkan dancing to her childhood, when she convinced her older sisters to let her tag along at weekly dances at Smith College. That’s her at right, with her sisters, at 12 to 13 years old.
XOPO, shown here at a dance at the Shelburne Falls Yoga Studio, has been playing for the past decade or so at monthly international folk dances in Brattleboro, Vt., and in Amherst.
Photo by Beth Reynolds
XOPO, which means “dance,” is pronounced “khoro” in many Eastern European cultures. However, the band pronounces it “Zopo” to make it easier to say locally because the key to these dances will be making them as accessible as possible, says founder Becky Ashenden, not pictured. Photo by Beth Reynolds
SHELBURNE FALLS, MA - (July 13,2013) - Xopo performed and taught traditional dance at the Shelbune Falls Yoga Studio during the Art Walk. Becky Ashenden led dance lessons. Xopo plays traditional dance music from the Balkans in many styles and teaches traditional dance. Photo by Beth Reynolds
Recorder photo/Beth Reynolds
The members of XOPO are multi-instrumentalists. For example,
Chuck Corman plays bass, accordion, guitar, santori (a hammer dulcimer,) jaw harp, rotary valve trombone, tupan (drum) and a host of other instruments.
Photo by Beth Reynolds
Band member Annie Guion. Photo by Beth Reynolds
SHELBURNE FALLS, MA - (July 13,2013) - Xopo performed and taught traditional dance at the Shelbune Falls Yoga Studio during the Art Walk. Xopo plays traditional dance music from the Balkans in many styles and teaches traditional dance. Photo by Beth Reynolds
Recorder photo/Beth Reynolds
Many of the traditional dances performed by XOPO are line dances, in which groups dance together, unlike many of the dances now at the grange — such as contra and waltzes — which require a partner. Leading this group is Becky Ashenden of Greenfield, the band’s founder.
Anyone who’s heard music pouring out of the grange hall on a Friday or Saturday night, in Greenfield or Montague, can probably guess it’s coming from a contra dance or a square dance.
But here come completely un-square dances, with names like kolo, zaramo, tsamiko or maybe even paidushko horo.
The music — played more often in odd meters like 11/8 or 9/16 than in the more straightforward 2/4 of contra reels — could well be coming from a tamburitza, a rotary trombone, tupan, accordion and other instruments played by members of the band XOPO.
Time for something completely different at Greenfield’s Guiding Star Grange, 401 Chapman St., on Friday, Aug. 2. That’s when the faraway-sounding local band plays a 7:30 p.m. “dance extravaganza” in sweet anticipation of a first-Friday monthly series it will launch there in January.
XOPO has been playing in one configuration or another for the past decade or so at monthly international folk dances in Brattleboro, Vt., and in Amherst.
If you’ve ventured to any of these events, you’ll find mostly line dances, done without a partner.
Instead, you’re dancing with the entire community. And that’s the magic, says organizer and founding group member Becky Ashenden of Sheburne.
“Line dances have been a form of social dancing worldwide, probably since caveman days,” she says, although the image seems a little hard to imagine. “Probably the reason they still exist is because it’s so pleasurable to do it together.”
But for anyone easily intimidated, Ashenden and company plan to sprinkle in plenty of special features to these dance events: an assortment of contras, waltzes and other features, with special guests, sit-in sessions for any musicians who want to play along and, of course, lessons for beginners.
Just saying XOPO could seem a little scary, especially as it’s actually pronounced khoro in many Eastern European cultures, owing to the Cyrillic alphabet, to mean “dance.”
“ZOPO” is the way this band pronounces its name, though. That’s because getting the gutteral “kh” sound out of people around here isn’t all that easy and the key to these dances will be making them as accessible as possible, says Ashenden.
She remembers being a 7-year-old just trying her tiny toes out in international folk dances at Smith College with her two sisters and their delight at poring over cartons of esoteric recordings brought home for safekeeping, each with its own odd-sounding “xopo” (khoro) title:
“Let’s play this ZOPO record!”
“Now let’s play that ZOPO record!”
The Americanized pronunciation also telegraphs (tweets?) how these musicians see themselves shaking up the traditions a bit. “Because we are actually Americans doing this music, we said, ‘Why not just say ‘Zopo?’ That represents a bunch of Americans doing their own thing with this music, which we really like.”
The “we” includes Ashenden’s own 19-year-old nephew, Gawain Thomas, from Worcester, along with Addie Rose Holland from Montague, Joe and Barbara Blumenthal from Northampton and Annie Guion and Chuck Corman, both from Newfane, Vt.
Between them, the seven play a “guesstimated” 20 instruments, says Ashenden, who begins counting up the number and then surrenders to the complexity of counting various kinds of percussion, brass, stringed and woodwind instruments, several of which have cousins in the mix. Combine them this way and that and there are probably 30 or 40 groupings of different instruments in all, adds Ashenden, who for years played piano at contradances around the area before “going Balkan.”
Imagine all that variety as the dances switch from Croatia to Greece, from contras to horos, and from all horns, to multiple accordions, to vocals, to total tamburitzas or maybe even a collection of kavals (flutes.)
Fear & fun factors
Mostly, square dancing and contradancing move dancers to steady one-two, one-two rhythms in geometric formations down a line or around a square, but Eastern European dancing seems to have more complicated footwork going on, usually in rhythms that may not feel as safe for untrained ears and feet.
Be not afraid, says Ashenden, who recalls the first time she convinced her older sisters to let her tag along as a wide-eyed 7-year-old to the weekly Smith College dances.
“We get there, and I say, ‘I don’t wanna go in!’” she said, recalling her fear of those oddball dances as she was coaxed inside. “Then I sat there all night, watching and listening, scared, and someone dragged me” to join in what she figures must have been a lesnoto, a Macedonian dance whose name literally means, “The easy one.”
“I said, ‘I can do this! It’s easy!’ Then I think I did every dance possible,” she recalls gleefully. “I went every Friday.”
Now Ashenden sometimes leaves her accordion behind to step out into a roomful of dancers and lead them through a dance with the same glee, using nothing more than a confident arm gesture here and there.
“My main goal is to bring people together and have them have a good time,” she says. “It comes from such a rich tradition and there’s plenty there that’s wonderful, and it’s nice to learn what you can about it but not be upset about someone who’s doing it wrong. My own philosophy is 180 degrees opposite from that. I’ll get everybody up into line to do it together and you can easily ‘do the shape’ of the dance.”
Holland, who plays clarinet and lute-like brac (pronounced brach), agrees: “I feel it’s less about what your feet are doing and more about how the line is moving. If someone’s feeling the music and feeling the dance but they’re not doing the perfect footwork, not getting every single step, that’s less important than feeling comfortable and having fun.”
In fact, these folk dances may be much less threatening for dancers who feel anxious about finding a partner, as may be the case at a contradance, says Holland. There are no partners. “The social trauma of contradances, that tension, is gone. This is a whole different chemistry. Line dances are so ancient, so satisfying.”
Folk dances have long served a social function in places like Greece and Bulgaria, in Bosnia and Croatia, and they’re all about sociability, Ashenden says.
“There are groups that learn to do fancy things, but the basic form is social dancing for everyone and it’s accessible to everyone. It doesn’t have to be hard,” she says. “It’s possible that a hardened dancer will come to our dance and say, ‘This is boring,’ but that’s because they’re not paying attention to the music.”
Ashenden doesn’t insist that those not in the know shadow behind the line of dancers to mimic their choreography without being “disruptive.”
“I get people in right away, to experience dancing next to people. I think you learn it best physically,” says Ashenden, who nudges a dancer gently to help the flow. “It’s just this physical thing of being together, of moving together, of being in this shape together ... and being included.”
For people with “two left feet,” who don’t even come to dance, Holland says simply coming to enjoy the music or the flow of watching the movement can be plenty of fun.
Ashenden, who ran a monthly series of international dances at the grange back in 1991, when she brought in performing groups from New York and Boston, says the new series will also try to mix things up, with continuity from month to month.
Included at 7 p.m. will be a half-hour sit-in for any musicians, no matter what their instruments, followed by a half hour of dancing basics. Musicians can practice the music online in advance at XOPO’s website: www.xopoandfriends.net.
There will also be Scandanavian couple dances played by guest performers Lydia Ievins and Andrea Larson, who recently returned from spending a year in Sweden playing fiddle and nyckelharpa. Also expect some zweifachers — Bavarian turning dances — and even some contradances called by Chris Ricciotti.
Although there’s a mindset for some, especially on the East Coast, that contras and international dancing are from entirely different planets, for different kinds of feet, Ashenden proclaims, “This is an attempt to bring people together.”
Tupans and tamburitza
As she followed her two sisters with their mother to Smith’s Friday night dances, as well as those at UMass’ Cape Cod Lounge on Mondays, Ashenden recalls that the three girls learned to play the tunes by ear.
They all played piano. The oldest, Kate, who played the foreign tunes on guitar as middle sister Amy played along on flute, instructed Ashenden, then 16: “Becky, you should learn to play accordion!”
The next thing she knew, they’d taken her to Gribbon’s Music Store in Greenfield, where they found an accordion for $125. Soon the fledgling accordionist was at work figuring out how to play a Serbian tune like “Pinosavka” by slowing the phonograph’s turntable with her finger.
“At some point, I got a fiddle and, at one point, someone loaned me a trumpet,” said Ashenden, who eventually joined a group of high schoolers playing the Balkan tunes on cello, flute and whatever else they could.
That white accordion was, like the fiddle, baritone horn and stringed bass, just another instrument Ashenden tried, but didn’t try to master, until after her sister Amy died 30 years ago.
“Losing someone just gives you a kick in the pants to do things now,” she says. “I’d wanted to play the Bulgarian stuff I love, so I said, ‘I guess I need to do that now.’”
Once she began attending Balkan Camp in California, she met Corman, who had a tamburitza orchestra made up of the family of stringed instruments that come from Eastern and Central Europe. He moved here around 1994 and began playing with Ashenden in various groups, including The Moving Violations contradance band. Corman plays bass, accordion, guitar, santori (a hammer dulcimer,) jaw harp, rotary valve trombone, tupan (drum) and a host of other instruments.
Holland, who together with Guion sings duets, says she had no exposure to Balkan music before singing with the chorus Greenfield Harmony and then joining a subset of that group with Guion after traveling to a Bosnian singing camp in 2006.
At those early Smith dances, where Ashenden first met the Blumenthals, they danced to recordings, which dictated exactly how long each dance would last. Those recordings are still used, for the most part, at weekly Amherst and Brattleboro dances, but adding the element of live music frees music and dance to become more spontaneous and fluid.
“Sometimes we play it like the recording, sometimes we don’t,” Ashenden says. “In this day and age, there’s so much research that can be done on the Internet, through YouTube. We can go ‘visit’ the village and see what the young people there are doing now to music like this and what’s happening to their folk tradition. If they’re doing something fun, we can do that. It’s not like a recording; it’s living, breathing and current.”
Instead of simply being about preserving tradition, XOPO’s live-music dances bring the tradition to life.
“I love some of the older styles of music and we can also go back to the old recordings and make your own style,” says Ashenden. “We have contact with older natives and they encourage us to do our thing with it.”
Admission is on a sliding scale, $5 to $10.
Senior reporter Richie Davis has worked at The Recorder more than 30 years. He can be reached at email@example.com or
413-772-0261, ext. 269.
Beth Reynolds is a photographer and educator. She runs Base Camp Photo Community Center in Greenfield. She can be reached at