Are you having a good time?" asked the man in my arms as we two-stepped around the wooden dance floor to the twangy strains of "All My Ex-es live in Texas." Concentrating hard on my feet and muttering "fast, fast, slow, slow," I nodded.
"Well," said my partner, "would you mind telling your face?"
I had forgotten the first rule of summer camp: It's supposed to be fun.
But then learning to dance the Texas Two-Step is serious business at the 26-year-old Augusta Heritage Center in the central West Virginia mountain town of Elkins. So is learning to make a blues harmonica wail, to belt out soulful gospel lyrics and to spin a personal tale in the style of the ancient griots (West African storytellers). Here, for five weeks each summer - July 5 to Aug. 9 in 1998 - the hilly 170-acre campus of Davis and Elkins College metamorphoses into a nonprofit music and arts school with nearly 100 workshops promoting America's multi-ethnic and racial heritage. The idea is to bring together masters of those art forms and students who want to learn them, so the traditions don't die out along with their practitioners.
Each week is themed - from blues and swing to Appalachian arts, Irish music and dance, English country dancing and bluegrass, Cajun culture and all kinds of vocal music. Weekly Elderhostel and Folk Arts for Kids (ages 8-12) programs tie into the predominant themes. Classes are complemented by daily roundups with lectures and demonstrations, and nightly concerts feature the wide-ranging talents of the music and dance instructors. Even in their off-duty hours, teachers can be found jamming with students and other faculty members or exchanging artistic insights during communal meals in the school cafeteria (where $5.10 gets you all you can eat).
I had signed on for Swing and Blues Week, taking most of my classes in Swing Dance - the bubbly Lindy, the rhythm-and-bluesy West Coast Swing and the Country and Western-style Texas Two Step - with a mini-class at night in beginner blues harmonica. I had no experience with swing, having come of age in the arm-flailing '70s. But I'd faked at jitterbug for years and longed to strut some flashy stuff when big-band music kicked in at weddings, and to join the couples twirling around the dance floor at my local C&W; joint. The harmonica class seemed like a fun way to be a part of the week's steamy blues scene and the nightly jam sessions all over the campus. I figured if I could master a few notes and a half-decent whah-whah, I could quietly join in the background harmonies.
The setting was another draw. Nestled in West Virginia's Potomac Highlands, Elkins was just a short drive from the 900,000-acre Monongahela National Forest, a dense green expanse of hiking trails, swimming holes and steep ridges overlooking miles of mountain valleys, planted fields and distant hazy peaks. When not in class, I could explore the countryside on foot - a mellow chaser after stressful doses of dance instruction.
Augusta hooked me right off.
Even before the workshops officially started Monday morning, the place resonated with music. Walking to the registration building Sunday afternoon, I passed a trio of blues guitarists sitting under a shade tree, trading licks. A few feet ahead, 74-year-old tap-dance legend Earl Scoggins was holding forth before a group of enthralled Elderhostel participants, breaking into dance periodically to demonstrate some smooth move he'd mastered on the tough streets of Chicago in the '30s. And not far from that group, a young woman in white spandex shorts was gyrating her torso suggestively as she sang "I'm a Red Hot Mama" in a rich, throaty alto, accompanied by a mandolin player, who periodically let out an appreciative, "Yeah, baby."
That night, a square dance in the school's wooden, open-air pavilion gave the 500 students from the various swing and blues courses a chance to mingle before our specialties divided us the next day. Still later in the old stone ice house up a steep hill from the pavilion, a blues jam session got bigger and hotter as the night wore on, and Blues Week regulars who hadn't seen each other for a year got into the mood with bawdy ballads and soulful instrumental numbers. Leaning on the rails and crouching along the steps that wound down the three-tier interior, we observers swayed and clapped to the beat, happily losing ourselves in waves of sensations that intensified as the burgeoning crowd sent the room temperature soaring, and sweat poured down our bodies. When I reluctantly pulled myself away and off to bed at 2 a.m., the jam session was still in full swing (I counted 14 guitarists among the group) with vocal instructor Gaye Adegba-lola belting out the raucous "Baby what's Wrong with You?" Behind her, five women with tight pants and loose lyrics waited their turn at those classic female blues themes: I need, I don't get, I hurt.
My swing-dance classes were far less free-spirited, and I quickly learned that just as blues thrives on improvisation (once you've got the basics down pat), swing as a dance form holds to carefully choreographed body movements. While couples may add flourishes on the floor, you're either doing the Lindy or you're not. Renegade movements likely will provoke a scowl from your teacher and/or partner, if not a full-scale dressing down.
Each class, our instructors - a different male/female pair each subject, all with extensive teaching experience - started out with a demonstration of the moves we would learn that session, throwing in a few flourishes just to keep us humble. Then they broke down the steps into slow movements, and we tried them out, always accompanied by a live band, which patiently stopped and started all session as we repeated each move until most of us got it right. By the end of the class, we were putting all the moves together, trying to make a smooth transition from one to another.
Classes that started out all sweaty palms and tense smiles evolved into more relaxed sessions as the true beginners among us gained some self-confidence. I knew I was on my way to finally getting the hang of things the day I no longer felt the presence of the third foot I seemed to have grown, and which persisted in tripping over my other two feet as well as my partners' two - or three - feet, no matter how steadfastly we counted out our paces.
By lunchtime each day I was exhausted from my efforts, and, after grabbing a quick sandwich at the campus cafeteria, high-tailed it to my lodgings for an hour's nap before the afternoon sessions. I'd been warned by Augusta veterans that a nap was essential for surviving a full load of classes and wee-hour blues jams.
As the days passed, I came to realize that, although the students had come for structured classes in their chosen fields, the real magic of the place was the opportunity to mix participation with observation, each of which reinforced and enriched the learning process. Taking a 24-hour vacation from my dance sessions, spent one day just meandering from class to class - watching the blues-guitar students practicing their slides, listening as West African storyteller Jamal Koram guided 10 Elderhostel students in crafting cautionary tales out of pivotal life events, while accompanying themselves on drums. Hearing music coming from the stained-glass-walled chapel, I peeped in to see 50 open mouths earnestly harmonizing about "Seeing the Light" as instructor Ethel Caffie Austin, one of the region's best-known gospel singers, passionately exhorted the group: "Enunciate, enunciate, LET ME SEE THAT LIGHT!"
The most joyful surprise of the week was a "blues" wedding between blues vocal instructor Richard Smith and staffer Cherie Michell. The Detroit couple had been coming to Blues Week for years and decided it was the ideal occasion for their marriage. No formal invitations went out, but word quickly spread that everyone on campus was welcome, and Wednesday at 6 p.m. dozens of us filled the chapel. As Blues Week instructor Rich DelGrosso strummed a jazzy wedding march on his mandolin, the bride, in flouncy off-the-shoulder white party dress, strolled to the pulpit, where her groom awaited in white satin vest and baggy white chinos. I recognized the minister (who was also the groom's brother) as one of my more tolerant swing-class partners. The groom's mother, who had flown in for the week, kicked off the ceremony with a powerful "Amazing Grace." Later, she led the entire gathering in a chorus of hallelujahs that followed the newlyweds out the chapel door and over to the scheduled Blues Week barbecue, where the bride cut the cake, tossed her bouquet and then joined in the night's blues jamming.
I would have played the happy couple a wedding serenade on my harmonica, but the little instrument had proven a tougher challenge than I'd anticipated. The few chords and wimpy whah-whahs I could manage were hardly sufficient for a solo of any note.
I didn't feel chagrined. By the end of the week, my head was filled with enough music to last me a lifetime - but it won't have to. Next summer I plan to come back to Augusta - though not to swing dance. After all those soulful spates in the ice house, this lady has decided she'd rather sing the blues. I may be no Billie Holiday, but what the heck. Beneath this staid, suburbanite veneer, I feel the sparks of a red hot mama just waiting to burst out.
An Ideal Day
8 a.m.: Wake up in enough time to grab breakfast at the cafeteria and digest before jumping right into the first class.
10 a.m.: West Coast Swing class
11:30 a.m.: Quick lunch at the cafeteria and then back to the dorm for a power nap.
2 p.m.: Lindy class.
4 p.m.: Texas Two-Step class.
6 p.m.: Dinner at one of the planned barbecues.
8 p.m.: Check out the instructors in action and in concert.
10 p.m.: Head to the pavilion to practice, and show off, newly learned moves.
2 a.m.: Off to bed for some rest before another busy day.
When you go
Getting there: The Augusta Heritage Center at Davis & Elkins College is located in Elkins, W.Va. The town is about five hours from Baltimore. To get there, take Interstate 95 south to Interstate 495 west. Continue on I-495 West to Interstate 68 west. From there take Interstate 81 south, exiting at Route 55 west. Follow Route 55 through Moorefield and Petersburg until reaching Seneca Rocks. Take U.S Route 33 west into Elkins. Make right onto Randolph Avenue at the intersection of U.S. routes 33 and 219, and follow to statue of iron horse. At statue, turn right onto Sycamore Street, then make first left onto campus of Davis & Elkins College and follow signs.
Workshops: During Augusta's five themed summer weeks, about 200 workshops are offered for all levels of experience. The schedule for 1998 is:
* Cajun/Creole week, July 5-10
* Blues and Swing, July 12-17
* Irish Music and Dance, July 19-24
* Dance Week and Bluegrass, July 26-31
* Vocal Week and Old Time Appalachian Music, Aug. 2-9
Each week, additional courses supplement the main themes. During my Swing and Blues week, classes were offered in tap dancing, African-American quilt-making, stone masonry, banjo construction, mountain dulcimer and traditional storytelling.
Prices run about $300 per week for a full schedule of classes in a chosen subject, plus evening concerts, dances and jam sessions. Evening mini-classes, such as my blues harmonica class, cost about $50.
Dorm living: Campus dormitory housing costs about $250 per person, double occupancy per week, and includes all meals in the campus cafeteria. Sheets, pillows and pillowcases are provided, but students must bring their own blankets and towels. The dorms have shared hall bathrooms. Meal plans are available for students staying off campus - a good idea because much mingling occurs during meals.
Other accommodations: My room with bath at the Victorian-style Warfield House, just across from the Davis & Elkins campus, cost $55 per night, including a big breakfast. For information, contact the inn at 318 Buffalo St., 304-636-4555.
Events: The final week of Augusta is capped off with the weekend Augusta Festival in the Elkins city park, which brings together musicians, dancers and crafts people representing all the summer's themes. The festival runs Aug. 7-9 in 1998 and is free to students enrolled in the last week of Augusta. Others pay $20 for the weekend, $15 for children under 12 and seniors.
Tips: Dormitory rooms are not air-conditioned, so a portable fan is recommended.
Information: For a workshops catalog and registration information, contact the Augusta Heritage Center, Davis & Elkins College, Elkins, W.Va. 26241; 304-637-1209 or 800-624-3157; fax 304-637-1317.
Nearby: Although you won't need a car on campus, one is recommended for exploring the area's mountains, forests and rural communities, or if you're staying at a motel outside of town. Make sure to check out Monongahela National Forest, only a 10- minute drive from campus. Hiking, white-water rafting and biking are also perfect activities while visiting this area located in the heart of the Allegheny Mountains.
Pub Date: 5/17/98