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A Great Lady is Gone

March 21, 2016

I met Phyllis Weikart in the mid 1970s when, on a whim, I decided to take a folk dance class at the UofM. My only previous experience with dance lessons was about six or seven years earlier, when as a senior in high school, I asked a friend of mine if she would teach me a few basic steps so I’d be able to dance with my date at the senior prom. She kindly, patiently—and oh so slooowly—taught me the box step. Which proved utterly useless at the prom, in the somewhat inebriated bunny hop/conga line—the only dance it turned out that my date and I danced that evening. It was a night I’ve tried to erase from my mind, but have not yet managed to forget.

 

Point being that I didn’t have any good associations with dancing when I met Phyllis. But, at that time, I was only a few years out of college, had just recently moved to Ann Arbor, my brother Laz and I were at the start of our career playing music, I felt freer than I ever had in my life, I was relishing pushing at boundaries real and perceived. I don’t recall now how I found Phyllis, but I could not have made a better choice. Phyllis’ teaching philosophy was fully formed by then, and remained constant for the rest of her life. The way she saw it, her work as a teacher was to make sure that her students succeeded in learning what she taught. Vastly oversimplified, this meant that she was willing to break down complex dance steps and patterns into units small and simple enough that anyone, and everyone, could learn them. Then she gradually built up to the complete dance, never losing anyone in the process. It worked with me, and it worked with everyone I ever saw Phyllis teach. Of course, there was more to it than that. There was also Phyllis’ exuberance and irrepressible enthusiasm. She loved to dance and loved to teach. It was always evident on her face and in her voice. The combination was irresistible. In just a few months of classes I developed a love of dancing that is with me to this day.

 

Laz and I crossed paths with Phyllis’ a few years later when, in November of 1982, Laz and I released Good Mischief, our first recording for children. On the second side of that album, (remember this was in the pre-historic age of vinyl, the large black Frisbees...they had music on both sides), we recorded a number of traditional and international folk dance tunes. Phyllis and her husband, David (founder of the HighScope Educational Research Foundation), had been coming to our concerts for years and this new recording gave Phyllis an idea. She’d long been teaching international folk dances and using original recordings by musicians from those cultures in her dance classes and workshops. But many of those recordings were no longer available (so she couldn’t tell people where to find them for their own use) or they were recorded on poor quality equipment, or they were not quite the right tempo or length for her teaching purposes. After she heard our folk dances on Good Mischief, Phyllis asked if we’d be willing to re-record some of the pieces she’d been using so she could make them available to her students. That conversation led to one of the most exciting and engrossing projects of our career. Beginning in January of 1983 and continuing through 1988 we recorded twelve full-length albums, 172 tunes, of international folk dance music for Phyllis and HighScope. Because of Phyllis’ extensive work in training movement and dance teachers, those recordings and her accompanying books have since been used in countless school settings all over the US and even internationally.

 

When we first sat down to discuss the project, we only envisioned making one record. We also agreed that we’d discuss the tunes beforehand, but that it would not be necessary for Phyllis to actually be in the studio with us while we laid down the tracks. Still, it seemed like a good idea for her to be there on the first day of recording. We met at Ann Arbor’s Solid Sound, where Laz and I have done many of our albums over the years, and began working on the initial tracks. A couple of hours later several things were evident. One, this was going to be a lot of fun. Two, the three of us really enjoyed working together. Three, Phyllis’ input was essential and invaluable. After Laz and I recorded a basic track, Phyllis would move out of the control room and into the recording studio and begin dancing to the music to make certain that the tempo was exactly right. Her thorough knowledge of the dances, and her brilliant musical instincts helped shape many of the details of the arrangements we created for the dance tunes. Each album took over a month to create, which meant we spent countless hours together in the studio. (The opportunity to spend that much time in the studio was invaluable and something else for which we will always be grateful to both Phyllis and HighScope—in particular, to Chuck Wallgren who oversaw the entire project. Laz and I learned so much about recording and working in the studio, knowledge we were able to put to good use in later years as we continued making our own albums.) Phyllis’ enthusiasm, energy, kindness and supportive attitude never flagged. I am as proud of those records as of anything we’ve done in our career. In the years that followed, Laz and I got to collaborate with Phyllis regularly, playing at workshops and conferences all over the US, sometimes even forming bands to replicate the overdubbed sound of our recordings, so she and her students could dance to live music.

Circa 1984. From left to right it's Laz, Phyllis, Willard Spencer (who was the lead engineer on most of the Rhythmically Moving series) and San.

 

Phyllis died recently, on March 11, 2016, about a month shy of her 85th birthday. By happenstance, two days before, Laz and I sang at Brecon Village, the senior community in Saline where Phyllis had lived for a number of years, and where, at her invitation, Laz and I sang two or three times a year ever since she moved there. Phyllis wasn’t in the audience this time. She was already in the hospital and her prognosis was not good. That night we sang a song we’d sung every time we’d played there, and indeed every time over the years when Phyllis was on stage with us or in our audience.

 

Erev Shel Shoshanim is a gorgeous Israeli love song. Written in 1957, it has since replaced Here Comes the Bride at many Jewish weddings in Israel and elsewhere. It was special for Phyllis because it was the first piece of music to which she’d ever choreographed a dance. It was a circle dance so simple that she often taught it as the music was already playing. She almost always used it as the final dance of her programs and it was simply mesmerizing to dance or watch it.  

 

If there’s a good place where good people go after they’re gone, then surely Phyllis is there now. And if there’s dancing there—and how good could that place be without dancing?—then surely Phyllis is dancing now. And if there are good people there who can’t dance, (Yes, you can be good and not know how to dance, but you’d be happier if you knew how), then surely Phyllis is teaching them to dance now. I’ll always be grateful I got to dance with her here.

 

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Eclectic, genre-bending, genre-blending acoustic trio who both sing and play a variety of musical styles.