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Dazzling dancing on ‘Common Ground’

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

WESTMINSTER, Md. — Under the auspices of McDaniel College, the Common Ground on the Hill music and arts program ended two weeks (June 30 through July 5 and July 7-12) of classes, workshops, and other activities with the American Music & Arts Festival during July 13-14 on the spacious grounds of the Carroll County Farm Museum.

Singer and multi-instrumentalist Walt Michael, a 1960s student at Western Maryland College (recently renamed McDaniel College), founded the program eight years ago to explore “a common ground among ethnic, gender, age, and racial groups,” he says. From what I witnessed on Saturday, July 13, he achieved that goal, despite a disappointing turnout attributable to the ever-present threat of rain.

On the pavilion stage, activist singer-songwriter Si Kahn, whose compositions include “Aragon Mill,” covered by Ireland’s Planxty, sang about the hard luck and life of working “In the Spinning Mill.” Later on the same stage, folk-blues legend Odetta voiced a similar sentiment with searing renditions of “You Don’t Know My Mind” and “Poor Man Blues.”

Also on stage with Odetta were 89-year-old Etta Baker of Caldwell County, N.C., who nimbly picked a 1959 Gibson electric guitar on such tunes as “North Carolina Breakdown” and “One Dime Blues,” and gospel singer Shelly Ensor, who shone on Bobby Troup’s 1946 classic, “Route 66,” and a pre-Civil War song, “Wade in the Water.”

The summit of Saturday’s performances, however, came not from musicians but from dancers. Two exciting ensembles, Step Afrika! and Footworks, followed each other on the pavilion stage, and they electrified the crowd.

Forged in African-American fraternity and sorority life at college, stepping is a riveting form of percussive dance involving body slaps, hand claps, stomps, taps, jumps, leaps, and other impressive feats of feet and torso. Step Afrika! also included a stirring rubber gumboot routine drawing on native African tradition. Based in Washington, D.C., the troupe performed to the inventive, tightly coordinated choreography of its founding director, C. Brian Williams, and its assistant director, Kirsten Smith.

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Led by artistic director and former Green Grass Clogger Eileen Carson, Annapolis-based Footworks matched the intensity of Step Afrika! in its “Incredible Feets” presentation. At least three Footworks dancers have strong Irish ties. New York’s Megan Downes took Irish stepdancing lessons from Donny Golden and has taught step, set, and cTilf dancing at the Irish Arts Center and outdoors at Lincoln Center. Maureen Berry has a TCRG (teaching certificate) in Irish stepdancing and has performed with the John Whelan Band and the Green Fields of America. Virginia’s Matthew Olwell is an accomplished Irish stepdancer and flutist who plays a wooden flute made by his famous luthier father, Patrick.

Those four joined Kristin Andreassen, Heidi Kulas, and Emily Crews for an exhilarating exhibition of Irish stepdancing, clogging, flatfooting, waltzing, hoofing, tap-dancing, hamboning, and, in a tribute to Step Afrika!, stepping. The music played for them by Mark Schatz, Jon Glik, Keith Wardell, and Greg Root featured a tangy mix of Irish traditional, Appalachian old-timey, and original tunes flavored by both idioms.

Also at the festival on Saturday were such Irish musicians as Omagh-born singer Mary McLaughlin and Craobh Rua vocalist-guitarist Jim Byrne, as well as bluegrass banjo virtuoso Bill Keith, singer-autoharpist Bryan Bowers, the Baltimore-based Sankofa Dance Theater, and dulcimer and guitar player Walt Michael himself.

Without doubt, variety was the strongest spice throughout this small, admirably conceived, multicultural festival.

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