French folk dancing is alive and well in Toronto
On an especially freezing Monday night, roughly 20 people braved the elements and made their way to the Hogtown Cure on the corner of Dufferin and Dundas. But it wasn't to sample the little cafe's coffee or pastries. They were there to dance and play music.
Balfolk Toronto brings Western European folk dancing and music across the pond and offers Torontonians a taste of the lively Breton tradition that resembles a square dance. Emilyn Stam and Tangi Ropars founded Balfolk Toronto because of a shared love for the Balfolk tradition that each experienced while living in Europe.
"Tangi is from France, so he grew up dancing these dances," says Stam of her friend. "My family is from the Netherlands, where these dances are popular, and I learned them there."
Stam, who plays the violin in several folk bands including the Lemon Bucket Orkestra where she met Ropars, says young people's interest in folk dancing and music is on a steady incline.
It's hard to disagree with her after watching the couples at the Hogtown Cure swing each other around the room to the sounds of the fiddle, oboe and hurdy gurdy - a crank-turned string instrument with a unique, almost bagpipe-like sound.
Some of the dances, like the bourree, are danced in pairs, while others moved the group around the room in a circle, arms linked.
The group of about 18 ranged in age and familiarity with the dances, but the relaxed atmosphere allowed them to teach each other, and the ease of the steps meant everyone eventually got the hang of it. Some were regulars, but others were just passing through.
"I'm couch surfing with one of the guys here, and he brought me with him," said Emanuelle Simons, who lives in Montreal and works for a digital communications company. "I'm here for work, and it's cool to chill after a long day. I'm from France, but I've never danced like this."
Balfolk Toronto is a regular Monday night destination for Elin Marley, who is a school garden educator in the city. "I come pretty much every week. I think I've only missed about three since July," said Marley. "I've been Estonian folk dancing since I was little, but it's a lot more performance-based, whereas this is just fun. This is a Monday night to relax."
Although the dancers took up most of the room on this particular evening, fiddle player Eli Allen Bender said that the musicians often outnumber them. A music teacher from Michigan, Bender just became a permanent Canadian resident.
"I am an awful dancer, but these nights were so accessible," said Bender. "To combine my musicianship on my instrument with the dancing added a whole new layer of meaning to the evening. I make a point to at least dance one every night."
This little community is all about encouraging its members to learn from each other, and learn where balfolks originated and what they mean to French culture, and people are clearly receptive.
"It seems to be constantly growing," says Stam. "The thing that makes people come back is that it's not intimidating and you have fun right away. It's a really relaxed group of people, and because of that, I think we're developing a Toronto-style of this kind of thing because we're isolated from anyone else doing it. It's like the folk-way of doing it."
It's been almost a year for Balfolk Toronto, and to commemorate their anniversary, a "big Bal" will be taking place this month. BALfolkFESTnoz promises the same French folk dancing and music as the usual Monday night dance, but they're hoping for an even bigger turn out.
"It's going to be a really cool party," said Ropars, who is working with Stam to plan the event. "We'll have different bands from Montreal, from Holland, and hopefully from New York, Boston, or Chicago. We are trying to gather all the different communities of Balfolk and try to connect them all together by inviting them here. It's going to be an amazing event."
BALfolkFESTnoz is on March 22, at 918 Bathurst Street, from 6 p.m. to midnight. Tickets are on sale at the Hogtown Cure for $10, $12 at the door, and $5 for kids. The regular Monday night Balfolk Toronto dance starts at 7 p.m. for musicians, 8 p.m. for dancers, and is pay what you can.