BELFAST, Maine — Contra dance caller Chrissy Fowler of Belfast practically bubbles over when describing the joy and connection of social dancing.
She loves the music, the eye contact, the touch and the smiles that happen when dancing in a crowded room with strangers and friends alike. But those are the very reasons why people haven’t been able to contra dance since the onset of the pandemic.
“I think those sorts of things get us through hard times, and we can’t do that now,” she said. “It’s part of the tragedy of it all.”
Though traditional dances can’t be held during the pandemic, the nonprofit group she helps run, Belfast Flying Shoes, is continuing to bring the community together through music.
Members have been focusing on outreach programs that bring music instruction to local schools and the Maine Coastal Regional Reentry Center, which aims to give incarcerated men the skills and experience they need to be successful upon their release.
They’ve also held outdoor concerts this summer and fall at Tall Pines in Belfast, the congregate care facility that was an epicenter of the pandemic in the spring and which saw 13 residents lose their lives to COVID-19.
The Flying Shoes group was extra careful outside Tall Pines, where residents and staff had endured traumatic months of loss and fear. Musicians wore masks, and everyone was socially distanced, in order to make it as safe an environment as possible. But the joy residents found in the music was not diminished by those things, according to Fowler.
“People would sing along. They’d clap. They’d pat their knees, and sway,” she said. “One woman was singing along and crying during an old-time, sweet waltz. It was incredible. The musicians also loved it because they hadn’t played for people in a long time.”
The concerts meant a lot to residents who had been largely isolated from the community since March, according to Mary Jo Abbott, the activities director at Tall Pines.
“It was a connection to the world outside of here,” she said. “I’ve been here for 30 years, and this is the worst year ever. It’s been very difficult, for the residents, the families and the staff. But the whole music thing, it was just great. I can’t say enough good about it … It was the highlight, really, of the week. Even though we had to remain socially distanced outside, it was happiness for a while.”
For Fowler, it’s felt crucial to keep the Belfast Flying Shoes active and engaged, even as actual dancing has remained out of the question. Maine Fiddle Camp, another non-profit organization that supports and promotes traditional music and dance, is taking a different approach to get to the same goal — technology.
At fiddle camp, held in rural Waldo County, dancing is important, too. Most of the tunes that campers learn come from dance traditions, and in normal years, every night, campers and staff members can participate in an old-time country dance. But not in 2020. Beginning last summer, the multi-generational summer camp moved its programming online. In addition to monthly concerts featuring camp instructors, next month staff will offer the second virtual Maine Fiddle Camp.
For camp director Doug Protsik, pivoting to virtual programming wasn’t an easy decision. At first, he wondered how on earth looking at a computer screen could compare to the real thing. At camp, part of the excitement is that 350 people come together to share their mutual love of music.
“We dance together, we play together, we’re intimately close together,” he said.
But he reconsidered, and is glad he did. He and other staff members have polished their editing skills to make music videos, create virtual ensembles and more.
“We’re constantly creating new tools and new ways of engaging people virtually,” Protsik said. “In the first video I made, I was singing an old song on the ukulele, about looking for the silver lining. That’s what we’ve been doing. Trying to find the silver lining and ways to be engaged, keep our spirits up, keep music a part of our lives. It’s made life a lot more interesting than if we’d just given up on the world.”
As for Fowler, she’s been pleased and grateful that the Belfast Flying Shoes has persevered through a year without dancing. It will be a long time until dancers will twirl, waltz and swing together again, but that day will come, she said.
“After the 1918 flu pandemic, people were craving [dancing], and square dancing caught on, around World War II,” she said. “I think there will be a resurgence. But for us, in Belfast, we’re really going to take our time and make sure it feels responsible.”
Fowler was happy that community members contributed to the group’s annual fundraising campaign, despite the lack of dances. In 2020, the group aimed to raise $20,000 to support programming, and donors exceeded that goal. The money will be used to support the concert series, purchase ukuleles for use by area 4th and 5th graders, fund music lessons for the reentry center residents and more.
“[It’s] very buoying to us, knowing that at this tough time in our organization, the community is supporting the work we do and seeing that there is value in participatory music and dance,” she said. “People are standing up and saying, ‘Yes, this is important. We want it to happen afterwards. We want it to be happening now.’”