International folk dance teacher Lee Otterholt says one of the best things about folk dancing is that it literally brings people from diverse milieu into the same social circle.
“It doesn’t matter where you come from or who you are, you can hold hands in a circle and have fun with people,” he said. “And from the dancing all kinds of things can come,” like new interests in folk music and international travel. If you pick up a few traditional Greek dances, he said, you can go into any taverna in Greece and join right in with the locals, even if you don’t speak their language.
“They’ll ask you in Greek ‘How do you know our dances?’ They’re just so impressed that someone appreciates their culture and five minutes later you’ve got 20 new best friends and you’re eating and drinking and singing songs together. It’s a great way to meet people. That’s my favorite thing to do.”
Otterholt will be making his fifth trip to Juneau this weekend to teach a variety of folk dances – including Greek -- as the guest of the Juneau International Folkdancers. He first came to town after being invited by former mayor and current dancer Bruce M. Botelho, whom he met at a workshop in California, his home state. Over the years he’s gotten to know many of the avid dancers in town and says he really looks forward to his visits.
“Its been a fantastic run,” he said.
Otterholt has traveled all over the world teaching folk dance at festivals and workshops. Born in Wisconsin, he spent 27 years in Norway, the country where his passion for dance really took root.
“I went over to write my doctoral dissertation in political science at MIT, but I became a dancer and dance teacher and choreographer,” he said with a chuckle. “I always had dancing as hobby. It never occurred to me you could make a living doing that.”
He never got the PhD, but soon he was teaching at the National Ballet School and other venues and helping teachers figure out how to bring dance into their classrooms.
His biggest project while he was there was helping to choreograph the opening and closing ceremonies for the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer with six other choreographers, a project that involved 250 folk dancers, 100 horses pulling 50 sleighs, 250 children and 120 skiers, as well as a handful of reindeer and the Norwegian Army.
“You only get to do something like that once in life. It was a real kick,” he said.
Otterholt’s instruction in Juneau this weekend will include line and circle dances from Bulgaria, Greece, French Canada, Romania and Serbia. The Balkan nations are heavily represented in traditional folk dancing because they kept the old ring, circle and line dances alive, he said.
“Whereas the rest of Europe went over to couples dancing around the late Middle Ages, the Balkan countries were part of the Ottoman empire, and didn’t have contact with modernizing influences, so they kept alive these older forms of dance and interesting older forms of music,” he said.
The weekend might also include a Japanese dance. Otterholt said some instructors develop a specialty over time, but he simply couldn’t narrow it down.
“But I just loved them all too much so I couldn’t choose,” he said. “I like doing a variety.”
Beginners are encouraged to come try Otterholt’s workshops, which run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday and from 1 to 4 p.m. on Sunday at the Filipino Community Hall downtown. No partner or experience is necessary.
Did he have any words of enticement for first time participants?
“They’re a welcoming crowd. Don’t be afraid!”
• Lee Otterholt’s workshops will be offered Saturday and Sunday at the
Fillipino Community Hall downtown. Admission is $45 for the weekend or $12 for single sessions. For more, visit www.jifdancers.org.