Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ask, don't grab, your partner in old-tyme dance

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GLENBORO -- When shops teacher Bob Williamson pulled aside two kids hanging out in the hallway and said he was going to teach them to dance, he never knew how far that little lesson would go.

The male-female couple later danced onstage at a variety concert where Williamson, a fiddle player, and his bandmates performed old-tyme music. "We never had such a great response," he said.

Next, Williamson got permission to incorporate old-tyme dance into the Glenboro School curriculum. It's a bit like Glee meets Bonanza. Teachers in the K-12 school agreed to give up class time so kids could go for weekly dance lessons with Williamson.

Then, back in their regular classrooms, kids would run through the latest dance steps beside their desks before they went for their breaks.

Call it social dance. Call it old-tyme dance. Maybe just call it retro dance. Kids out here, 150 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg, are leading a small revival of the country waltz, the foxtrot, the polka, even the schottische.

The dance program has already spread to five other schools in western Manitoba. There's talk of holding an old-fashioned street dance next year with participating schools, something more common in small-town Saskatchewan.

"Astonished," said Williamson, when asked his reaction to events. "It's like a tidal wave."

Why are kids so receptive to these old dances? You wouldn't want to learn your parents' dances but these aren't. They're the dances of the kids' grandparents and great-grandparents. The dances seem almost stylishly retro, when turned over in the modern, computer-edged sensibility of young people.

"It's not like they're hard steps. I know students will remember them for a lifetime," said Grade 12 Glenboro student Teagan Pringle. Matthew Klassen, Grade 9, is just happy to learn some structure for when he hits the dance floor. "Growing up, our generation never learned these steps," he said.

Or any steps, said Williamson. He describes today's dancing to "rugby scrums," all free-form and no design. As one senior told Williamson, people haven't known how to dance for the last three generations.

The first lesson in old-tyme dance is respect, as about 60 students demonstrated for the Winnipeg Free Press and Brandon Sun in the Glenboro School gymnasium recently. So the boys must ask: "May I have this dance?" The girls, if they agree, reply with, "Yes, you may."

Williamson and five other teachers performed the live music. The set list included Bowing the Strings (waltz); Lop-Eared Mule (schottische); Lonestar Rag (foxtrot); Mockingbird Hill and Maple Sugar (butterfly); and the Black Velvet Waltz.

It wasn't just students. Teachers, substitute teachers and even administrative staff hit the dance floor for the impromptu hootenanny. Glenboro School has held several dance events this year. Last month, parents, grandparents and neighbours joined students for a school dance.

While there is something about the old-tyme dances that appeals to kids, the biggest factor may be Williamson himself. "He entertains the students and it's pretty contagious," said principal Kevin Newton.

Williamson is well-known in western Manitoba. Besides playing the fiddle, he is an inductee of the Manitoba Baseball Hall of Fame. He retired about two years ago from the River Side Canucks of the Manitoba Senior Baseball League.

Williamson taught for 35 years and was retired when he got an emergency phone call in 2011 -- on Aug. 30 -- that Glenboro desparately needed a teacher. This is his second year back teaching half-time. When other schools in the area expressed interest in his dance program, Williamson went on his own time to give lessons. Schools in Holland, Bruxelles, Baldur, Swan Lake and Manitou also started dance programs this year.

Kids in Glenboro dance in the halls, too. Williamson will pipe in music and give out cookies or doughnuts to whoever polkas. The senior-grade kids are often too cool to dance but Williamson has a ploy to melt that cool. He gets the elementary kids to dance first, then have them approach the older kids. It's hard to say no when a girl in Grade 4 asks: "May I have this dance?"

The dance steps are fairly simple. The polka is 1-2-3, slide, and repeat. The foxtrot is step-slide-step-step. In the schottische, kids dance in quartets, going 1-2-3-hop, 1-2-3-hop, then the front pair rotates to the back. The butterly, of course, employs the famous elbow-swing.

Williamson has offered to make a presentation on the dance program at a provincewide teachers' in-service next fall but has not heard back from officials.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 11, 2013 A7

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