Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Joy of Dance

If you head out to Stoughton this weekend for its annual Syttende Mai celebration, make a point to catch a performance by the Stoughton Norwegian Dancers.

Made up of twenty-three Stoughton High School students, the group performs authentic Scandinavian dances throughout the year and concludes its season each year at Syttende Mai.

In fact, the history of the group is intertwined with that of the festival. Stoughton’s first Syttende Mai took place in 1952 and after the celebration, a school administrator approached the girls gym teacher at the time, Jeanne Reek, asking her to start a Norwegian dance group to perform at future festivals.

Reek rose to the challenge, creating the group and researching Scandinavian dance, music and costumes—going so far as to travel through Norway for seven weeks one summer to learn the customs firsthand.

The result is a group that shares authentic dances—circle, square and weaving dances that incorporate flips and other athletic moves—music and costumes with audiences in the Madison area as well as on tours around the country.

Being part of the group is a major commitment for these fifteen- to eighteen-year-olds, an experience that can’t help but shape their high school experience, says Polly Goepfert, who took over for Reek as director ten years ago.

Students try out in the spring and the new dancers are announced after Syttende Mai. Practice begins the first day of school in September and continues every morning through May. Their first performance is in October and they have roughly sixty more until Syttende Mai.

“They prepare all year for Syttende Mai,” Goepfert says. “The community expects them to be flawless.”

Despite all those practices, being completely prepared seems tough. The dancers know over forty dances—but they don’t know which they’ll be performing until Goepfert calls it out to them. She likes to be able to tailor performances to audiences’ reactions. “I change my mind in the middle of the program,” she says. 

The Stoughton Norwegian dancers have several performances planned for the weekend: a street dance at 2 p.m., big performance at 3:45 p.m. and an alumni dance at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, plus a final performance at 3:45 p.m. on Sunday.

That final dance is an emotional event for the teenagers, as well as their family and friends who come to show support.

“Because they’re seniors, they want to give that weekend their entirely best performance,” Goepfert says. “It’s very touching.”

But “touching” is how even first-time audiences often describe the experience of seeing the dancers, Goepfert says. People come up to her after performances to tell her how much they enjoyed the dancers or the memories the group evoked.

“They really do touch the hearts of people and inspire the young and old,” she says.

Syttende Mai runs Friday through Sunday in Stoughton. Find more information here.

Photos are courtesy of Wayne Krantz.

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