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The Springfield International Folk Dancers perform at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum.
By Springfield International Folk Dancers | SUBMITTED
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Worldly whirls
By Janet Seitz Carlson

They're kind of a global positioning unit. Navigating the dance floor, their movements indicate a presence in another country or time period. The Springfield International Folk Dancers, setting themselves a whirl apart since 1975, has worldwide experience with local presence.

The non-profit group promotes world cultures through learning and presenting native folk dances. Its repertoire includes dances of the Americas, Balkans, British Isles, Eastern and Western Europe, Israel, Italy and Scandinavia, representing some 20 cultures.

"It's been part of my life for 30 years," says Jan Zepp, folk dancer and board member. "I like the variety - of countries, of new experiences, of people you meet ...We get to experience first-hand the dances, music and food of other cultures as well as study the history of the people through the costume research and stories behind the dances. Folk dance is a family activity for all ages. We believe that we are a part of living history in our community. Best of all, it's a great way to socialize, make friends and make memories together."

Those activities are through performing, hosting various workshops or joining in weekly rehearsals and lessons. Working with other organizations in the community brings new memorable experiences, too. Highlights, Zepp says, have been participating at First Night Ball and Fourth of July at the Old State Capitol, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, Muni's "The Sound of Music," and international student events at the University of Illinois Springfield and Lincoln Land Community College. Other noteworthy performances were at Sangamon Auditorium with Grammy award-winning musicians from Ken Burns' "The Civil War" and an early 20th century dance at the Dana-Thomas House.

The core group averages about 25 members but may double during the fall with the group's Civil War Ball lessons.

"We have teachers, office workers, nurses, gardeners, homemakers and retirees," says Zepp, a music teacher who benefits from experiences she can take back to the classroom. "Each of them has their own story about how and why they joined SIFD, but we keep coming back because we enjoy our time together and how it enriches our lives."

Among those long-timers are SIFD founder Hedy Hoemmen, who began folk dancing in her native Germany, and in her 70s still teaches.

"Hedy truly was the guiding force behind this group," Zepp says. "For years she went to workshops, planned performances, made cassettes from records, did costume research and sewed for people who couldn't. She has tried really hard to turn over most of the teaching and administrative duties to the rest of us over the last two years. We are trying to make sure that we continue her philosophy that folk dance is for everyone."

The group recently partnered with LLCC's Community Learning to offer a series of introductory classes to expand its influence. "People can become involved in the group at whatever level they are comfortable with," Zepp explains. "If they want to come just to classes, that's fine, or if they enjoy wearing costumes and sharing what they have learned with others in the community, that's fine, too."  

Zepp and her family have learned from far-away communities, having hosted visiting dance groups from Leipzig, Germany, two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and from Novgorod, Russia - "a rare opportunity to experience what we all have in common as people trying to live and provide for our families."

The group sees a wide range of ages and skills involved. "It's easy enough for a beginner," Zepp says. "There are basic steps that go for every country. For example, the American Square Dance is the Quadrille in Germany. From the basics we gradually add variety to each."

"We are preserving the tradition when dances were the social event of the community," Zepp says. "Everyone from children to older citizens was involved. You often have a different partner for each dance who is more or less skilled than you are. ... The experience is not about you and your partner, but about enjoying the activity with everyone around you ... It's fun. It's so nice to see the smiles. It's a happy time."

Story published Friday, September 3, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 5 )

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