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Davis, California

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

English Country Dance club brings new life to renaissance dancing

Bob Linehan attended his first English Country Dance practice not as a new member, but to say goodbye to a friend who graduated and was leaving Davis. After encouraging words from club members, he learned a few basic dances. Charmed, he came back the next week, and then the week after that, and has now been a member for years.

The English Country Dance Club (ECD) is a group that learns and performs dances that originated in England during the Elizabethan Era. Along with weekly rehearsals, they find time to perform in festivals and make their own costumes.

The group strives for historical accuracy, and finds the steps for each of their dances from John Playford’s 1651 dance anthology “The Dance Master,” a formal compilation of dances that, according to ECD president Vanessa Valdez, was not created until after Queen Elizabeth expressed interest in them.

ECD’s motto is “If you can walk, you can dance,” and they make sure to teach everyone, whether they be a visitor or a new club member, the basic steps. This sense of welcoming is what immediately hooked Valdez.

“My very first practice was in January 2010.  I was a little intimidated, as any newbie would be.  Yet, my fellow group members wasted no time in getting me started. Within five minutes, I was learning the cornerstone steps to our dances. Needless to say, I was charmed,” she said.

Long-time member Sarah Williams likewise loved the group’s welcoming spirit, which gave her a newfound confidence in her ability to dance.

“They took my two left feet and lack of rhythm and turned me into one of the teachers,” she said.

ECD practices in preparation for their performances both at UC Davis events such as the Fall Student Activities Fair and Picnic Day, as well as Renaissance festivals. For Valdez, her first festival performance remains her favorite memory.

“I remember I was so nervous prior to performing.  But once the music began, I truly surprised myself.  I got through the whole routine without incident!,” she said. “However, I knew it I made it because I had my friends with me.”

ECD is a part of the Northern Californian renaissance performance troupe “The Merrie Pryanksters,” who they perform with at festivals. Such festivals, which the club either applies to or is invited to perform at, usually occur during the summer and in the month of October. In such festivals, which feature a range of dance groups whose costumes and dance moves represent different social classes of Elizabethan England, ECD is proud to represent the common man.

“Everybody wants to be a princess, but in reality there weren’t that many. We represent everyone else,” said member Casey Davis.

Along with their dancing skills, ECD also designs and creates all of their own costumes. According to Valdez, the costumes are created by the club’s “garb specialists.”

“The [garb specialists] do extensive research to figure out what kind of textiles and colors we can incorporate into our performances. That way we can provide the most entertaining and educational performances possible. These specialists usually double as skilled designers, so they generously help the rest of us who aren’t nearly as skilled as they are,” she said.

Even with all the dancing and costume-making, it is the sense of community and family that the members of ECD really love about the club. Their practices, which consist of dancing to music played by members on instruments such as the flute and violin, are always accompanied with sounds of laughter and chatter as the group revels in getting a complicated dance right. Valdez said this is something the group prides itself in.

“One of the signature hallmarks of our organization is that it provides an outlet for our group’s propensity to be silly and spontaneous. At times, rehearsing a single dance ends up being a comedic affair. “

Williams likewise considers the club to be a family to her, and it is with them that she shared one of her best memories.

“One practice my boyfriend arranged for us to do my favorite dance and at the end of the dance, he dropped to one knee and proposed. He managed to get the word out to many of the group other than me, so friends who can’t always make practice were there.  It was perfect.  Of course I said yes.”

The English Country Dance Club always welcomes new members. Practices this quarter are every Thursday from 6:30 to 9 p.m., in 102 Hutchison.

ANNETA KONSTANTINIDES can be reached at arts@theaggie.org.


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