Hoeing the Fertile Soil of Dance Community

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By
Andrew Gaines

Growing up in suburban Long Island, my only contact with gardening was my weekly chore of mowing the lawn. So unaccustomed to the way of plants, I was amazed one spring when my father bought a few seedlings, threw them into the daffodil bed, and actually grew some scraggly tomatoes. Six years ago I yanked myself out of NY city and moved up to the country. Weeks after this transition, I learned that the plethora of sumptuous vegetables I ate came from a plot 50 feet from the house. I basked in the wealth and wonder of this feast, and, within the next few years discovered the tremendous amount of planning, hoeing, planting, pruning, weeding, and harvesting that is required to bring us the "fruit of the vine". Next I discovered that this is also the case with Earthdance.

Earthdance: In 1986 a group of dancers from Boston joined together to find a way to more fully integrate this art with their lives. They decided to create a home in the country, live as an "intentional community", and share their art with others. They established Earthdance Creative Living Project, Inc. with the mission of offering programs in creative arts, cooperative lifestyle skills, and environmental education.

Searching the Northeast for a base they found an 1812 farmhouse and some 175 acres of fertile soil in the Berkshire hills on which to build. First storage shed, then dance barn, sauna, big yurt, little yurt. They built, and built…and bred. Marriages were sealed, babies were born, and members gradually began wanting to continue their explorations in smaller, more independent units.

In 1992 members of the "intentional community" voted to disband, but one of them-Stephen Yoshen-proposed turning it into a workshop and retreat center. And so it was reborn, and so it has grown and flourished. At our July 4th Jam this year, 65 people came from different states and countries to meet, dance, and play with one another. One afternoon, a torrential rainstorm unexpectedly hit the property. A horde of bodies bolted outside, stripped off their clothes, and ran, slid, rolled, and bounced on the trampoline with joy and abandonment. Another evening a group of dancers formed teams, made rules, and led and followed one another in the spontaneous choreography of movement games. Friday evening we shared a ritual blessing over an offering of bread and wine.

During the Jam I began to recognize the important role the Earthdance founders had in fomenting this grace and magic: Penny Schultz led a community sing which culminated in a mass of voices belting out an African chant and reaching upward in ecstasy.; Milton Hanzel lived in the instrument corner of the dance barn spurring musical jams with saxophone, penny whistle, piano and drum. And Stephen Yoshen, the "visionary spearhead" of this place, graciously and ceaselessly twirled bodies in circles upon his shoulders. These and many other initial members planted and tended the garden of Earthdance community, and now the fertile garden is readied for further cultivation and growth.

Today people come for scheduled events, including workshops, jams, "laboratories" (a time for group study in particular movement forms), and innovative explorations (i.e. a silent weekend). They come for personal respite and retreat: dancing in the dance barn, sweating in the sauna, bathing in the hot tub, dipping in streams and hiking trails. They rent the facilities for self-produced workshops, weddings, family gatherings, and rituals in the woods. They also come to work. In mid-May 25 people came to participate in our bi-annual Work Weekend. Some weeded, shoveled manure, and seeded the beds in our organic garden. Others operated a wood splitter and chain saws, preparing wood for use in the sauna. Some gathered and carted away 2 ½ tons of accumulated refuse to the local landfill. The following weekend Trisha Brown, members of her company, and others gathered to clear ¾ of an acre for the forthcoming wedding of long-time company member Diane Madden.

People want to work. Manual labor often helps us to feel grounded, connected with the earth. Seeing the correlation between our efforts and the tangible change in the environment helps us to feel our creative power. When artists have tools to employ their vision-such as a hammer, a rake, or a saw-what emerges is often enraptured with artistry and passion. As I write this I look out on the delicate stone walkways lined by flower beds leading to that large, ever expanding organic garden; I feel the spaciousness of this glassed-in sunporch; I imagine the dining room behind me with its hand hewn cabinets and cherry wood floors behind me; and I picture above me the second floor dormitory with its many beds and massage room.

So much of what I see and feel has been touched by the hands of artists in recent years. No sooner is one totally unexpected and phenomenal transformation accomplished, are we on to the next. We recently began to fanaticize about building a 40 foot octagonal addition to our current dance barn. A grand idea, yes. Far out, yes. But when we introduced this concept at the latest Jam, someone spoke up and asked that we pass around a pad for people to pledge an intended monetary contribution. With more than $10,000 of intended donations listed we're considering putting in the foundation this Fall. I have a strong suspicion that I will be dancing in a glorious new dance space in a year or two.

Until last year, Earthdance was operated and administered solely by volunteer labor. People had vocations elsewhere but would take on necessary tasks to keep the center functioning. As our aspirations, and the demand for what we have to offer, increased it became evident that our next step was procuring regular management and oversight. In January of this year I became the first paid, part-time Managing Director. At the outset I struggled with my self-judge that accused me of bastardizing the pure generosity and spirit upon which this place was founded. I knew, however, that concerted effort could only make Earthdance a more healthy and vital place.

And so it has. We're producing more varied events, including a Silent Jam, a workshop in Dance Meditation, and an upcoming Thanksgiving event celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Contact Improvisation. This summer we've hosted a concert with singer/songwriter Andrew Lawrence, and a fundraiser for the Body-Mind CenteringTM Association. Every Monday we host an open dance jam, and monthly we have a Community Sing and potluck dinner. We've set up a website (www.earthdance.net), put out a newsletter (the Earthdance Muse), and formed a network of "contact people" in major cities across the country. And, much desired, the people we serve is becoming more varied. This summer, 40 African-American and Latino inner city boys came up with The Brotherhood from New York city; 20 teenage girls visited with Catholic Big Sisters; and a dozen Mexican youth will be here to create a dance with Sondra Loring.

Plants growing too closely together in the garden must periodically be pruned. As with all growth, consistent choices must be made. This last Jam we had to turn dear friends away because it was filled to capacity. We've had to tell people they couldn't come up for a sorely needed respite because the facilities were fully rented. We've needed to create more structure, putting up more signs and setting more detailed guidelines. Our registration procedures have become more formal to insure that we are compensated for our facilities and services.

As we expand, I am left with many challenging questions. How do we continue to provide people with the sense of a relaxed, flexible home when we need to create more structure? How can we maintain a feeling of trust with the establishment of more formal procedures? How can we maintain a feeling of community as we expand and have more people around who have no personal connection with our history? It is my hope that we can gracefully dance our evolution by bringing attention to these emerging issues, speaking about them, and unceasingly returning to the founding seeds of love and gratitude for this gift of community life.

For more information, call (413) 634-5678, or write us at:, 252 Prospect Street, Plainfield, MA 01070.

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