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Chi Lives: Paul Collins's mixed steps



Paul Collins laughs acknowledging that newcomers to his folk-dance group, Ethnic Dance Chicago, might be taken aback. "They walk in and find two black guys setting up—some must think they've ended up in hip-hop dancing by mistake." Occasionally his group's inclusiveness also raises eyebrows: "In my country, women don't do that dance," a Bulgarian guest instructor protested one night. But no one here's going to tell the young woman executing the foot-stomping, scarf-snapping male part in the West African ibo that it's verboten. "We just say, 'We dance in a different village,'" Collins says with a shrug and a grin.

Ethnic Dance Chicago meets every Friday evening in the parish hall at Saint Josaphat's church in Lincoln Park. Gatherings begin with an hour and a half of beginning- and intermediate-level instruction, during which Collins has been known to drag the diffident out onto the floor. Then from ten to midnight, Collins plays selections from his library of more than 12,000 tracks, filling requests and mixing accessible dances with advanced patterns that, in the words of one regular, "can get pretty heavy." A typical night's session might range from the baffling triple time of a Macedonian dance in 7/16 to the familiar two-step of the Charleston; from the trite puti, a Balkan circle dance that accelerates into aerobic exercise, to the courtly shifting quadrilles of a contra dance; from the subtle sway of the Hungarian lassu sergo to a serpentine Israeli dance that could teach an old Deadhead new tricks.

Growing up on the south side in the 50s, Collins was introduced to American folk music by his grandfather, who on Saturday nights would tune in to National Barn Dance on WLS, at that time the Prairie Farmer Station. When his parents, both educators, began square dancing at the Washington Park YMCA, Collins tagged along and, by watching the sets, soon taught himself the steps and calls. By 12 he was proficient enough to call his first dance, though "all my contemporaries would laugh themselves silly—'Paul likes square dancing,'" he recalls.

In the early 60s, square dancing, like most of American life, was with rare exceptions racially segregated. But in 1963 an international folk-dance forum at the Illinois State Square Dance Convention exposed Collins to a larger world. There, alongside Poles, Swedes, Scots, and members of many other white ethnic groups, were "Asians, Haitians, Jamaicans, people from the Bahamas," he remembers. "The teachers each had a segment, and suddenly there was this African-American guy [Nate Lofton, for many years a teacher at the Old Town School of Folk Music] up there teaching Greek dances."

A burgeoning Hyde Park folk-dance circuit allowed Collins to pursue his interest throughout the 60s. At Phillips High School, a teacher nicknamed "the Mad Russian" organized an evening of Russian dance performed by African-American students in a show emceed by Dick Gregory. There was ethnic dancing at the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club and the University of Chicago International House; other groups specialized in German dances, Israeli dances, or English country reels. Says Collins, "You could dance every night of the week."

Since then, Collins's repertoire has grown to number in the hundreds, and he's played a major role in fostering an integrated, multiethnic folk-dance scene in Chicago. For almost 12 years, beginning when he was a U. of C. undergraduate majoring in German and economics, Collins led the International House group, which, in its heyday, attracted about 100 regular participants. He served as organizer of the long-running International Folk Festival, an annual event whose performances, dances, and workshops brought nationally known teachers and troupes to Chicago; his own classes have been featured in festivals at Navy Pier and the Museum of Science and Industry, among others.

In the mid-70s Collins—who by day works as a corporate consultant—succeeded Lofton, his early inspiration, at the Old Town School, where his classes drew capacity crowds into the early 80s. Ethnic Dance Chicago, his current endeavor, is in its 14th year. Some of the diverse crew of 30 to 40 regulars date back to his time in Hyde Park.

Over the years Collins has seen vicissitudes in the popularity of ethnic dance, and he concedes that especially today an African-American kid "would have to be a nonconformist to get into folk dancing." But his own history suggests that if you free your mind, your dupa will follow.

Ethnic Dance Chicago meets Friday evenings from 8:30 to midnight at the Saint Josaphat parish hall, Southport and Belden. Admission is $5, $4 for students and seniors. Call 773-506-8222 or see for a detailed schedule and more information.

—Kate Schmidt

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Dan Rest.

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