February 21, 2003
I have attended many music/dance festivals both as a performer and as a member of the audience, and the Saratoga Springs Dance Flurry is my favorite. The number one reason why I started playing at this festival, and have been playing every winter for four years, is Paul Rosenberg. What Paul has done to make the Flurry a success is truly remarkable and above and beyond what most music/dance festivals can claim. At this festival we have what can only be called a “musicians’ paradise” and a “community of dance.”
The festival hires around 530 professional performers, the number in 2003. But many more professional and amateur musicians from the northeast show up either to partake in the many jam sessions or to be around musicians and learn their tunes. The effect is a huge “kitchen junket,” with every corner, doorway and staircase teaming with live music as you go from one event to another.
Because the festival is in the winter after Valentine’s Day every year, it must be located indoors, which means that all of the big halls and ballrooms throughout this small city must be rented, an expensive undertaking. As far as I can tell, all of these venues have been rented save for the very old Victorian ballroom at the Adelphi Hotel that is closed for the season.
Although held in some modern buildings, the festival has an old-world feel to it. One of the ways Paul creates this is to hire almost exclusively from the local community. While most festivals boast of their ability to bring musicians together from the far reaches of the country, Paul is proud of the talent in his own area. It is this approach that makes the Flurry truly unusual. Never mind that cancellations due to big snowstorms are less likely if the entertainment is local, it is the local sound and sense of community that makes the Saratoga Springs Dance Flurry outstanding. Let me explain.
The conventional reasoning goes that if you are an entertainer from outside Saratoga with a name and a following, you must be good because your name got this far. People will be more likely to see you than their own musicians because we don’t get to see you very often; it’s so rare that you’re here, so we’ll pay top dollar for that privilege and thus bring in more money for the venue and the town. The result is that if you are a local musician, you’re out of luck, opening for someone, or on the road. If you really want to stay in your hometown, then you settle for a noisy bar where no one listens. This situation forces most musicians to travel for work.
Many people come to the Flurry from all parts of the country; some come every year from as far away as England and Alaska. Most folks, in general, come to Saratoga to soak up the local color: the Victorian architecture, European-like streets with their outdoor cafes, fine cuisine, galleries, boutiques, race track, nightlife, and the music and dance events at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. So the reasoning goes for the Flurry: why not throw into that mix a community event with local songs about the Adirondacks, some storytelling about our area from our world-renowned author Joseph Bruchac, and some fiddle tunes that were played in our area at the turn of the century performed as they were then, by local violinists? And it’s not like we’re isolated either: many of our entertainers play the usual Celtic, Traditional and New Folk, Reggae, Swing, Big Band, Dixie Land Jazz, Renaissance, Baroque and other styles. Yet you’ll notice most of us who are playing an audience-tested style are also putting our own slant on the material and composing originals.
Another important consideration in hiring from the local pool is that many of us know one another, have played with each other, hired each other for CDs and other projects, or at the very least, admired each other from afar. The result is connection. For the listener this means a violinist who plays back-up to a harpist in one Flurry venue can also be part of a contra-dance band an hour later at another Flurry venue. It makes for tighter playing, as local musicians can get together to practice a lot more than musicians coming from a distance. Thus, the overall impact is a community of musicians who know how to play together and want to cooperate with one another to produce wonderful music. The compassion that Paul feels for the local acoustic musician also helps create a family feeling.
Aside from the “musicians’ paradise” that the Flurry creates, it also forms a sense of community with its emphasis on participatory dance. I have been up one contra-dance line at the Flurry where I have twirled with a fellow teacher, a local receptionist, a local psychologist, a friend who is a web-master and my old band’s bass player. And then faces you haven’t met are suddenly looking at you intently as you practically embrace for a dizzying swing.
Even the Swing Dance room, normally emphasizing dances for pairs, isn’t exempt from community dance as one participant after another approaches tired people on the sidelines for a dance. Apparently, swing dancing is much less an activity for couples to spend all evening in each other’s arms than a chance to become part of a community of dancers.
“I want the world to be more like this,” Paul Rosenberg said to a cheering contra-dance crowd in the Main Hall, Room D, of the City Center. “This is the real world, where you meet face-to-face, where you make your own music, dance to your own music, and where you meet every person on the floor with acknowledgement and acceptance and open arms. If we accepted a world more real, more like this, then surely we would have world peace.”
His greater mission, then, is peace. And you do, indeed, get a sense that this is what peace and harmony among people would look like, with every citizen taking joy and mixing it with acceptance, cooperation and participation -- all with music that seems to come from heaven.