Fireside Chats are an enthusiastic experiment meant to ignite conversations, boost empathy, and offer a platform for shared stories to help all of us set new intentions for our collective future. The event takes place monthly on the front lawn at Waterfall Arts for anyone to gather around warm fire pits for a night of storytelling.
Belfast Flying Shoes was our featured nonprofit in February and we were joined by BFS Director, Chrissy Fowler, and former All Comers Band leader, Jennifer Armstrong. Director Chrissy Fowler says, “These fireside chats are yet another way that Waterfall Arts is building community through the arts—a perfect match for Flying Shoes, with our focus on connecting people through participatory dance and music. In 2019, Waterfall Arts collaborated with us to offer a music workshop with renowned Quebecois musicians, and we’re thrilled to reignite that partnership by telling stories around the campfire.”
Chrissy Fowler begins the evening:
Jennifer Armstrong follows up. Come for the “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” stay for the fiddle music during the story:
Chrissy Fowler: For those of you who don’t know about Belfast Flying Shoes, we’re a local nonprofit that was founded in 2005. Basically, to bring back contra dancing to this area. There have been dances over the years, many years, in fact, if you go to the third floor of the Belfast Free Library, you can find a map of where dances were held in the in the town of–in the city of Belfast over the years.
And so we founded it to bring this contra dancing stuff back to Belfast, it hadn’t been happening for a few years, and then our organization evolved. And currently, we aren’t doing any dancing for obvious pandemic reasons. But we are doing lots of other participatory music and movement programming in greater Belfast, but also throughout the state.
The little brochure that I am having Jennifer handout is one that we put together in February. We finished it in February of 2020. It was brilliant timing. And it tells a little bit about our programs. Most of the photos are of people dancing, but we still have those same programs, programs in schools, programs at the Maine Coastal Regional Reentry Center, which is a corrections facility here in town, where people who’ve been incarcerated are moving from jail or prison into the–getting ready to move out into the–community to be released. And so it’s kind of a an in-between: a reentry program. And we also have been doing programs for older adults, partnering with hospice volunteers, and making some concerts happen in the pandemic times and those are available last year’s concerts are available on Belfast Community Media, on BCTV-2. You can see them yourself. So we still are doing lots of programs that are outlined in the brochure.
The story that I thought I would tell is of how we got our name, because in fact I was here in the in the basement in the Fallout Shelter at a great event that was held here at Waterfall Arts–for, I think it was the Arts Commission maybe put it on–and it was people who were coming from around the region talking about, you know, how do you work to other arts organizations, and lots of different people were there. And here I was with my little name tag that said Belfast Flying Shoes and somebody said, What are you like a, like a footwear company? I said, Oh, no. No. And I explained to them all about us.
But when we were founding the series, my brother and his then girlfriend and now wife, and our dear friend, were thinking, well, what are we going to call it? We didn’t just want to say “Belfast Dance Series.” It didn’t sound very interesting to us, and we wanted something fun. So we had this giant piece of chart paper that was on their fridge–on my brother’s fridge. And we brainstormed all sorts of different ideas, many of them based on our local heritage here in Belfast, like Broiler City Contras, or Gizzard City Dance Series, or Chicken Contras. But eventually what bubbled to the top, thank goodness, because I don’t know how I would have done with some of those choices was a title of a song by Townes Van Zandt, and it was a favorite of ours, especially as rendered by Lyle Lovett. And it’s got this great line about “I’m just going to be tying on my flying shoes.” And that image for us evoked what eventually became true what happened with our dance series and later with our programs.
But basically this this idea of, of these shoes flying around with great joy and great abandon, and can– helping connect people as they move through the dancing together. And that’s really what our organization is all about. So when you see the name of our group, don’t think footwear–that’s Colburn’s. But you can think about just bringing joy through participatory dance and music.
I will say on the joy front. One of the most joyful aspects of our contra dance series was the community dance, which featured an open-to-everyone allcomers Band, sometimes there’d be 30, or 40 people playing in the band, and another 130 people dancing of all ages, my son played in the all comers band from the basically the time he was born and can hold the ukulele. Up until he became too cool for it. Luckily, that was around the pandemic too. So he didn’t have to say no. But he he was one of many children who just grew up playing, strumming along in the band. And other children who were very talented and capable played– people of all ages, all experience levels, all instruments. Even I’m sure for–lovely for the leaders of the band, people who weren’t particularly rhythmic playing very loud drums or, or, or making other excellent contributions to the overall beauty of the allcomers band. Well, that band was led by several people over the years and one of them is the very talented storyteller and musician Jennifer Armstrong, who’s going to kick things off for us for a story to lead off.
I would invite everybody to tell any kind of story. It doesn’t have to be on the theme. I did find the other one I popped in last month I found it so enlivening to hear everybody’s different voices and takes on the theme and how it all meshed together in a beautiful way. Really just like that’s, that’s what our organization hopes to make happen a lot. So without further ado, thank you, Jennifer for leading us in our first story.
Jennifer Armstrong: Well thank you to Chrissy Fowler for organizing Belfast Flying Shoes, because they do so much in the community and I have been very thrilled to be a part of many of their offerings. So when she called me about this and said ‘fireside stories,’ you must have said it was outdoors but somehow that that went–that was not something I remembered. Yeah, I’ll talk about barn dances and they’re not actually in a barn anymore. Right? So fireside stories. it didn’t ever occur to me it would be outdoors. Luckily, Chrissy called me about 1:30 today just to say I hope you’re going to bundle up and I thought Why? What is she going on about? And then I thought well, I better get I guess I can’t take my fiddle like I was planning to. And now here we are indoors after all. So I do have the fiddle and it brings up the age old problem of holding a microphone and playing the fiddle. So when we get to that part I’ll have to have some help.
But this so reminds me of my mother’s and father’s music parties, when you talked about passing the microphone around. I grew up in Wilmette, north of Chicago, and my parents were called the ‘Mom and Pop of the Chicago folk music scene.’ And they would have these big music parties where they would pass the guitar around the circle. And I heard from so many people when I was an adult, how terrified they were at my mother’s music parties. Because you were not allowed to pass. Now I will say here: you are allowed to pass. Do not sit here in terror as the microphone comes your way. Because my mother would shoot daggers at anybody who didn’t have something to contribute. You were not here just to soak it up people. You were here to give and contribute to the tradition of music and story. And, you know, I was a kid I didn’t know I knew I had to do something. I was the daughter of the hosts, right? So I knew I had to have something prepared. So it wasn’t an issue for me, but I was so astonished at how many people would say they would be sitting there quaking as the guitar move closer! And closer! So my mother–bless her–appreciated music and dance very much but particularly loved singing because in the song was where everyone could join in.
So I thought we’d start things out by a song with a chorus and, you know, it might have been more appropriate outdoors where it’s about being warm. But it’s okay, it’s still alright. This is a little story song about three owls and your part, the chorus, says Ninky Ninky do dumb day. Let’s try it: Ninky Ninky do dumb day.
There were three little owls sittin’ in a barn / and Ninky Ninky do dumb day / They were huddled up together to keep their bodies warm / And Ninky Ninky do dumb da / and the song that they sang I will sing to you it began and ended with a two-hoo and a very pretty song I think it was too / Ninky Ninky do dumb day / there were three little mice sat a-listening to the song / Ninky Ninky do dumb da / Though they knew that what they were doing was very very wrong / Ninky Ninky do dumb day / for the old my said little mice beware when they always come singing to-hoo take care their song It’s nothing more nor less than a snare. / Ninky Ninky do dumb day / But those three little mice they thought they’d have a lark / Ninky Ninky do dumb day / so they crept out very softly just as soon as it got dark / Ninky Ninky do dumb day / and the song to-hoo sounded so nice closer and closer crap the three little mice till the owls came in gobbled them up in a trice / Ninky Ninky do dumb day / Then those three little owls flew back into the barn / Ninky Ninky do dumb day / They said those little mice make us feel so nice and warm / Ninky Ninky do dumb day / And they began to fluttering and singing to-hoo? I don’t think much of this song do you? The only thing is it’s perfectly true / Ninky Ninky do dumb day / Ninky Ninky do dumb day / Ninky Ninky do dumb day / Ninky Ninky do dumb day.
Well I started playing fiddle when I was eight, and was fortunate enough to learn from a number of different traveling fiddle players who would come through town it used to be that there were a lot of clubs on the east coast and the west coast but not much in between. And so people all came through Chicago, where the folk clubs were, and my parents would offer home hospitality, so we got to meet so many people as I was growing up, who played music and told stories. So I learned from different, different people.
And I started teaching the fiddle when I was 13, and I taught the way, I’d been taught that someone would just play a phrase of music, and I’d answer it back, play a phrase of music, I’d answer it back. So my sight reading and music theory were very minimal. You know, I just played the tunes. So I discovered as a teacher, a lot of people have a lot of questions. And I had no idea. You know, when the first time I played in the key of C, now some of you might know that that means there’s no sharps and flats. I said, Whoa, what’s this key, there’s all these flats in it. Because you learn in the key of A on the fiddle, which has three sharps, because that’s what suits your, your finger position on the violin. And key of C was just bizarre. So anyway, I found that I had a whole lot of holes in my understanding. And as a teacher, I thought I need I need more of a methodology.
So in my 20s, I was told about this violin method called Suzuki, the Suzuki School of Music, and that it was like folk music, in that it was taught by ear, and so it might be a good fit for me. And I thought, well, that sounds interesting. So I decided to go take Suzuki teacher training Book One A. Book One A begins with the song “Twinkle, twinkle, little star,” and sometimes you’re on Twinkle, twinkle little star for a year or more. And you learn all kinds of different bow rhythms and your whole setup. And it’s actually quite brilliant–
I, I… Is this what’s humming? Or is something else humming something else? Okay.
John Monroe: If you hold the mic a little closer than I’ll back off the gain.
Jennifer Armstrong: Okay. So I went to take the Suzuki teacher training. And I knew how to play “Twinkle twinkle little star” so I had a good head start right? Well, they have a number of rhythms. The first one is called Taka, Taka Stop, Stop, or sometimes called Mississippi Hot Dog. So I really liked all of the little names. The next one was “Raspberry Blueberry,” or it could be called “Run mommy run daddy.”
While I was given that rhythm to teach to the group, and that was perfect because that is in fact, a shuffle bow. What you’ll hear at every contra dance as you’re going to start and you’ll hear the fiddle player do four shuffle bows. “Ya. Da Pa Da Da Pa Da Da Pa Da Pa Da“, and then everybody knows when to come in, and what the tempo is. And that’s how you come in. So I thought this would be so great. So now I need to actually play you what happened so:
So I got up, to teach my rhythm. And I played this: [plays fiddle] and everyone started laughing and I kind of drifted off to a stop and I said, What? What? And they said What? Why are you hiccuping? I said, What do you mean? They said well you’re going Ya. Da Pa Da Da Pa Da. I said well, but that’s how it goes. I mean, the dancers would be really unhappy if you didn’t give them that lift. And they said what dancers? I said well the dancers! No, no, they said it goes like this: (Now I have to concentrate really hard to play it this way): [plays fiddle]
I said all the dancers just left the floor. Where is the lift and the off and that energy and the joy and they said well, but you’re hiccuping Well, this was day one. Suzuki teacher training course. And it was fascinating to me that right from the get-go. It was so different, you know, in how you would express yourself on how you play because as a dance fiddler, you have to give that lift on on where the feet are coming off the floor, or it’s deadly. And if you have enough lift you can carry so many drummers and piano players and guitar players, who maybe don’t have the best rhythm. It’s okay! You know, you got the lift in there, everyone is, is doing great together.
So I was I spent a lot of time teaching fiddle and folk dancing at Suzuki institutes never taught the Suzuki method, because I could see that it wasn’t going to work for me, but but the whole idea around it is brilliant. And I’ve, I’ve watched so many wonderful teachers through that method. But at the first faculty concert, when I was teaching fiddle and folk dancing, I thought I will honor “Twinkle, twinkle little star,” and I will play it as a dance tune. So that they can all hear how a fiddle player plays this tune. And I’m here to tell you, they did not recognize it. This is a tune they teach every student–and sometimes the students spend a year or two on it–and they did not recognize it. I was blown away. I mean, I wasn’t trying to trick them at all. That was an that had not been my intention. I was just honoring them with their song. Right. So anyway, here’s “Twinkle,” how I played it for them [plays folk version of Twinkle Twinkle].
Thank you. And they said ‘What was that?!’ And it was good. It was good. So anyway, that was what I wanted to start out with. And I would love to pass the microphone on to someone else who would like to tell a story of dancing and music in their life.