A Visit with Dick Oakes
By Vonnie Brown
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DICK OAKES has been part of the folk dance movement as a dancer and teacher for many years. This experience, coupled with his vitality and zest for the dance, has made him one of the nation's leading teachers in international folk dance. For a number of years Dick danced with AMAN, the semi-professional folk and ethnic dance company based in Los Angeles. He was also a founding member and dancer with a well-known Hungarian dance ensemble in Los Angeles called Betyárok. Dick has toured the United States and Canada teaching dance workshops, and has taught at a number of folk dance camps including Lighted Lantern in Colorado and Holiday Camp in California (which he co-directed). Dick has added much to the folk dance scene throughout the state of Texas and parts of the "Great Folk Dance Desert" of the South.
YOU HAVE HAD CONSIDERABLE EXPERIENCE TEACHING IN THE FOLK DANCE COFFEE HOUSES IN LOS ANGELES. WHAT ARE SOME OF THE PROS AND CONS OF TEACHING IN THESE CENTERS?
I think a strong point of coffee houses is that they promote excellence in teaching. A poor teacher doesn't draw customers, and without people there's no business. A coffee house is a business, and it simply has to get the best teachers possible in the area if it is going to survive. The better the teaching, the better the quality of dancing — this is another plus. Also, people tend to imitate the teacher who, in almost all cases, is a good dancer.
Besides good teaching there must be good programming, and this aspect (the evening dance program) is usually handled by the person doing the teaching. A situation might exist where a teacher is not a good programmer, and in this event someone else may be hired to handle this portion of the evening. However, this is rare. Most teachers like to be involved in the programming in order to see what is being danced, what is being requested, and what needs to be taught or retaught. The program has to be in tune with the people who come, and the people who come on a given night one week are different from those who come on the same night the following week. So your dance program has to be in tune with the people who are there. I think the best way to meet this objective is to take requests and make up the program from the requests.
Folk dance coffeehouses go in for atmosphere. I think this is a positive feature. Coffee houses are a lot different from the ordinary folk dance meeting places. Often folk murals adorn the walls, costumes are displayed, and records, costume items, pottery, and bric-a-brac are for sale. All these things are inducements to draw customers. Some evenings live music is featured and this is another drawing card. Average folk dance groups don't seem to care for live music, possibly because the musicians usually charge for their services. But coffee houses can pay, so they often have live music and performances by various local folk dance groups. Sometimes the folk dance groups are paid for performing, but most often they are given a free meal or something of that nature.
Another feature that makes the coffee house scene different from the regular folk dance scene is that food is served — folk food, so to speak; not hominy and grits, but baklava, souvlaki, and other Greek and international dishes. Coffee is either free or may cost only 10 cents for the entire evening. Sometimes imported beer and wines are also available.
I honestly enjoy the coffee house scene and prefer it to most folk dance groups in the Los Angeles area. In my opinion thre aren't too many negatives associated with the coffee houses, but one that does crop up is that as a teacher you are not totally in control. As a leader in a recreational folk dance group you usually are completely in command; you can teach as much or as little as you wish, and such things as scheduling are entirely within your domain. In the coffee house environment you are tied into a certain teaching time. For example, from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. you may have to teach a beginner's class, from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. an intermediate to advanced class, then precisely at 9:30 p.m. you have to start the programming. This is important because some people do not come for the classes, and when they arrive they don't want to sit around waiting for the teaching to end. This can be bad because often you have to cut off the teaching session when perhaps only a few more minutes would wrap up the lesson in a way that would be satisfying to both you and your students.
Oh yes, another problem you sometimes have to contend with is that the owner may have a couple of guests in and you are requested to adjust the program according to his or their desires. It may be that his guests are from Peru and he wants you to put on some Peruvian music. Well, naturally no one dances because how many people know Peruvian dances? Often, requests such as this can kill a good party.
A Greek owner often wants the music played extremely high because this is the way most Greek and Turkish music is played. Sometimes this loud music drives people crazy and they leave. This is bad, but there isn't anything you can do because you must comply with the owner's wishes.
Another problem you sometimes enounter is that you have no control over the amount of alcoholic beverages consumed, and, of course, sometimes people get out of hand and this doesn't leave a good taste in your mouth — so to speak.
Still another disadvantage is that as a teacher you rarely get nights off. There just aren't enough capable substitutes; moreover, customers don't want a substitute teacher. If a certain teacher is advertised to teach on such-and-such a night then people expect that techer to be there, come hell or high water. They have arranged their schedule to be at the coffee house that night, paid their money for that particular teacher, and it is that teacher they want there teaching. So, if something like "Roots" is playing on television that week, you don't get to see it because, as the teacher, you must be at the coffee house even if only one person or no people show up. I'll tell you, when "Roots" and the moon landings were on, that was a bad time for me and a bad time for the coffee houses!
WHAT DOES IT COST A DANCER FOR ONE EVENING AT A COFFEE HOUSE AND HOW DOES THIS COMPARE WITH WHAT ONE MIGHT PAY FOR AN EVENING AT A RECREATIONAL FOLK DANCE GROUP?
At a recreational group it is sometimes free. In these cases it is because the group does not have the services of a qualified leader who has to be paid, or the facility is used free of charge and, therefore, no fees can be collected. Some recreational groups request donations each night and they have a kitty can up in front in which you are supposed to drop change. Some people will put in a quarter (if that), some people don't put anything in, and some people may just jiggle the can and make it sound like they've put something in. Then there may be some who just sit and watch the can and take out some quarters for themselves. Some groups charge only a dollar a night, but in some areas it is not uncommon to pay as high as two or three dollars a night. In New York, for example, Steve Zalph has to pay very high facility rent, so he has to charge more for admission. Square dancers found out a long time ago that they had to pay for something good. Folk dancers would be wise to do the same thing. Generally, the price goes up according to quality of leadership and facility rental. Co-op groups usually charge the least.
Now let's talk about the coffee houses. Suppose that at the Intersection in Los Angeles you wanted to take one class. To get in costs you $1.50, and it costs $1.50 for each class you take. A 50-cent discount is given on the first class as an inducement to get people to take a class. The teacher gets paid only by the number of people who take his or her class, so some encouragement is given to sign up for classes. So, right there you have $2.50. If you want to take two classes you are charged an additional $1.50 for that second class. Some people come in and take both classes plus the general dancing or programming and they pay $4.00 for the evening. Now, some folk dance recreational people can't see that price — that's way out of line for them. Yet they will pay $3.50 or $4.00 for a movie and think nothing of it. Most dancers pay more for a sandwich and beer after folk dancing than they pay for a whole evening of dancing! In my opinion you are getting as much, if not more, for your money at the coffee house, and I think it is worth both your time and money. Sure it costs more than the local co-op dance group, but in most cases you are getting better teaching, too.
HOW IS A TEACHER'S PAY COMPUTED FOR TEACHING IN A COFFEE HOUSE? IS THIS MORE OR LESS THAN WHAT WOULD BE PAID FOR LEADING A RECREATIONAL GROUP?
The teacher usually gets paid 40 percent of the amount charged per person per class. So, if a person takes one class and pays $1.50 for getting in, plus $1.00 for the class, the teacher gets 40 percent of $2.50 or $1.00 for that person. Some coffee houses, however, say that they have to pay a tax on people who dance, so they will take 25 to 50 cents off the top and then you get a commission on what is left. In most cases you don't get paid for those people who come in just for the program, so that is why you always try to "sell" classes. Your take-home pay can be okay or very mediocre; it all depends upon how many people you have coming to your classes. It is important to build up your classes — hustle a little — in order to build your income.
Then another problem crops up; you're taking in poeple who really shouldn't be in a certain class. You get beginners in an advanced class even though they don't belong there. Experienced dancers don't like the less advanced folks in the advanced class, so they quit and you're back to where you started. I don't know what the answer to it is. Some teachers are getting around the problem by requesting a flat fee, but for the most part coffee houses continue to pay on a percentage basis.
As far as how much a teacher gets paid in a recreational folk dance group, it all depends upon where you are in the country. In Fort Collins, Colorado, I taught classes for the Parks and Recreation Department and they charged $1.00 per person — I got paid half of that. So, again, my salary depended upon how many people I could draw to my classes. The positive thing about this system is that it really encourages a teacher to do a good job, because you simply won't draw people to your classes if you do a poor job. I know some people who run groups and don't get paid at all; moreover, everything they do for the group comes out of their own pocket. This is really a sad situation when the leader is a competent person and deserving of being paid for his or her talents.
COFFEE HOUSES SEEM TO SURVIVE ON LINE DANCES RATHER THAN COUPLE DANCES. DO YOU THINK THAT COUPLE DANCES WILL EVER MAKE IT IN THE COFFEE HOUSE SCENE?
Actually, a great many couple dances are being done in the coffee houses, especially on Israeli or international nights. Remember that coffee house dance programs are dictated almost solely on what their customers want, so if they demand line dances, that is what they get. When customers begin demanding more couple dances, these dances will be taught and danced in the coffee houses. One reason a lot of line dances are done in the coffee houses is because most people come without partners and therefore prefer non-partner dances.
DO YOU THINK THAT THE COFFEE HOUSES HAVE REACHED THEIR PEAK AND ARE NOW ON THE DECLINE IN TERMS OF POPULARITY AMONG FOLK DANCERS? IS THE TREND NOW FOR FOLK DANCERS TO RETURN TO THEIR VARIOUS LOCAL RECREATIONAL GROUPS FOR INSTRUCTION AND DANCING?
It is possible that coffee houses have reached their peak, but I don't think this is permanent thing. The coffee houses seem to reach many peaks, so if they are on the decline now, they will return. I estimate that recreational folk dance clubs have about a seven-year cycle and coffee houses about eleven.
When the coffee houses became popular, the recreational groups really began bemoaning their fate. They thought that the coffee houses would take all their dancers away. Well, interestingly, that didn't happen. The folk dancers stayed with their groups, and those who went to the coffee houses went on nights that their recreational groups didn't meet. The really strange thing that has happened is that the coffee houses have drawn people from the general population faster than the folk dance groups have. I think the reason for this is that the coffee houses offer a comfortable resturant-type atmosphere that is more familiar, more appealing than the usual folk dance meeting places. The coffee house crowd usually gets really turned on to dancing, they can't get enough, and so eventually they tend to seek out the recreational folk dance groups that exist in their area. So I think the reverse has happened from what the folk dance people thought might occur. During the past 13 to 15 years the coffee houses have definitely been feeding dancers into the recreational folk dance groups.
FOR A NUMBER OF YEARS YOU WERE A DANCER IN AMAN, THE WELL-KNOWN SEMI-PROFESSIONAL FOLK AND ETHNIC DANCE COMPANY BASED IN LOS ANGELES. WHAT ARE SOME OF THE POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE FEATURES OF BEING A PERFROMING MEMBER OF SUCH A GROUP?
First of all, there is a greater attention to styling. You are really drilled in the styling of various countries, and everyone in the group has to look like everyone else. Performing dance really satisfies the desire to do something well. Many of us have this need and desire, and performing dance groups are a good outlet for these feelings.
Performing dance also stimulates deeper cultural research. Some dancers joined AMAN just because they wanted to dance, but after a while they found that they really enjoyed learning more about the countries of the dances they were doing. They developed a deeper interest, and eventually a number of them went on to do research in other countries.
Another positive feature of a performing group is that it allows you to work with other dancers of like ability in a common worthwhile endeavor. In addition, the social interaction in a group of like-minded people is really nice. Some of the AMAN parties have been the greatest parties I have ever attended. You really become a close-knit group and develop some binding friendships.
On the negative side, I think that performing groups demand too much of your time. If you are really dedicated you must devote all your time to the group. For instance, AMAN rehearses all day Sunday plus Tuesday and Thursday evenings. If you are in the orchestra you also have other nights to rehearse. Performances and concerts, of course, take up more days and nights. There really isn't much time left to pursue any other interests.
WHICH DO YOU ENJOY MORE — RECREATIONAL DANCE OR PERFORMING DANCE, AND WHY?
I really enjoy recreational dance much more than performing dance. Performing dance satisifies an ego need, but the recreational dance is really "where it's at" for me. I find teaching dance especially satisfying and I guess this is where my main interest lies. As a teacher I also enjoy getting up and dancing with a group rather than just sitting and watching.
WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER TO BE THE GREATEST PROBLEMS A PERFORMING GROUP DIRECTOR MUST FACE?
One problem is the availability of enough interested and talented dancers who have the right temperaments to cope with the demands of performing dance. You simply can't find these people in some areas. For instance, in Houston it is difficult because they don't have a large base of folk dancing.
Other problems are availability of qualified costume reasearchers, materials for costumes, and makers of costumes. Creating or obtaining choreographies is also a big item. Often you see the same choreography from one area to another because they are just copied.
Keeping a group together is probably one of the biggest problems with which a director has to cope. As I mentioned, performing groups demand so much time that it is often in conflict with one's personal life. If you're not willing to give this time you must either drop out of the group or be dropped. Keeping dropouts to a minimum is difficult.
Integrating new dancers into existing choreographies is also a problem. This has application not only in performing groups, but recreational groups as well. A group gets so advanced that to bring a beginning dancer in makes it very tough on the people who are already there. Groups often break up because of this one problem.
YOU HAVE GIVEN A GREAT MANY WORKSHOPS THROUGHOUT THE UNITED STATES AND CANADA. WHAT ARE SOME THINGS YOUR VARIOUS HOSTS HAVE DONE FOR YOU AS A GUEST TEACHER THAT YOU FEEL ARE IMPORTANT AND THAT YOU GREATLY APPRECIATE AND WHAT THINGS ARE SOMETIMES NOT DONE THAT YOU CONSIDER TO BE IMPORTANT ITEMS IN THE SUCCESS OF A WORKSHOP?
Workshop hosts have almost always been just great to me. Only in one instance was I subject to faulty negotiations. In this case I was shown a flyer that advertised me as the workshop teacher, and no confirmation had ever been made with me. I went ahead and did the workshop but there was one problem after another associated with this particular event. First of all, I was supposed to begin a new job at this time and my employer wasn't too happy about the delay in starting. When I arrived for the workshop, no organized arrangements had been made for lodging of participants, no schedule had been prepared in advance for the three days, and the workshop director was out of town leaving the other committee members in a state of confusion. These were only a few of the problems.
YOU HAVE WATCHED THE INTERNATIONAL FOLK DANCE MOVEMENT IN THE UNITED STATES GROW AND BECOME BIGGER AND BIGGER. YOU MUST HAVE SOME POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE REACTIONS AS TO THE COURSE OF ITS DEVELOPMENT. WOULD YOU COMMENT ON WHAT YOU CONSIDER TO BE POSITIVE DEVELOPMENTS AND ALSO NEGATIVE DEVELOPMENTS?
This may sound a little trite, but I think the folk dance movement is doing its small part toward world understanding and tolerance among all the poeple of the earth. ALso, I think folk dance has helped to preserve the folk culture of some countries when the trend was to forget tradition and become more Westernized.
On the negative side, I think we are teaching too many "hot shot" dances to satisfy a few and I think this is alienating newcomers. We need to go back to the basics, teach more usable dances, and start more classes or groups for beginners. One of the positive developments in this regard are the beginner's festivals that are being held in northern and southern California. These festivals are totally packed, not with just beginners but advanced dancers, too. They are held for beginners because beginners don't know a lot of dances and as result they don't like to go to the typical folk dance festival. I think these festivals represent a great trend.
I believe one of the mixed blessings of the folk dance movement is the standardizing of dance notes. Standardization gives us one version of a prticular dance, so that wherever you go in the country you can feel free to get up and join the dance. It also, however, discourages variety and spontaneity. Moreover, very often interesting steps and figures are omitted in a standardized version of the dance.
YOU HAVE BEEN INVOLVED IN THE INTERNATIONAL FOLK DANCE MOVEMENT FOR MANY YEARS AND HAVE STUDIED UNDER PRACTICALLY ALL THE "FOLK DANCE AUTHORITIES" WHO HAVE APPEARED ON OUR FOLK DANCE SCENE. WHICH OF THESE PEOPLE HAS LEFT THE GREATEST POSITIVE IMPRESSION ON YOU AND WHY?
Whew, what a question! It's hardly possible to name all the authorities who have made the greatest impression on me. I suppose the really first big impression on me was made by Louis Denov, who perhaps isn't the folk dance authority you're talking about. Nevertheless, he had a great influence on me when he taught me years ago in San Diego. This guy had such vitality that he often couldn't keep the styling within bounds. Yet you always knew when was going out of bounds with his high leaps and things like this. He was great in so many ways, and from him I picked up my teaching style and a lot of the best qualities I have in my dance.
Other teachers who have left a positive impression on me are Vyts Beliajus, Dick Crum, Madelynne Greene, and Rivka Sturman. The biggest reason I admire and respect these people so much is because of their complete lack of selfishness in the promotion of folk dance.
Although I have never had the privilege of having classes from Michael and Mary Ann Herman, I have met them and taught for them and would like to recognize them because they were foremost in the folk dance field in its formation. If you need another list of names, open up the People's Folk Dance Directory and all the rest of them are right there on those pages. I've had classes from almost all of them, and have learned something from each and every one — not just dancing and dances, but other things as well.
From Folk Dance Scene of Baton Rouge, March-April, 1979.
Reprinted with permission of the author.