Bare feet bounce to international beats in Vannie tradition

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It was a family affair at Barefoot Dancing in Van Cortlandt Park on July 17. Not only were parents and children out dancing and picnicking, but instructor Caren Calder had members of her own family drumming and dancing along with her.

Hosted by the Van Cortlandt Park Conservancy, Barefoot Dancing has brought different kinds of dance instruction and performance to the Bronx for the last two decades. The program, which moved from Wave Hill to the borough’s biggest park six years ago to accommodate growing interest, invites people to kick off their shoes and enjoy an evening of dancing and live music while the sun sets. 

“It’s a little fun, a little bit of culture in the neighborhood,” said attendee Elizabeth Dworakowsi. “My favorite was the Israeli dance last year, and I love the salsa.”

With a rotating array of styles every summer, last Thursday night focused on west African dance. While families set up blankets on a lawn near the Van Cortlandt House Museum, Ms. Calder and her daughter, Crytal El, began their lively instruction with some basic moves. Ms. Calder said her daughter is her “favorite dance partner.” 

Another of Ms. Calder’s family members, Desmond Powers, played one drum while their close friend Phillip Williamson played another. Their group is called Indigo Arts, and describes itself as a family-based company providing music, dance and storytelling based on African tradition.

“We’re so lucky to have Caren Calder here,” said Margot Perron, president of the Van Cortlandt Park Conservancy, who started Barefoot Dancing. “She just has terrific creativity. It’s been very exciting partnering with Lotus.

Lotus Music and Dance, which Ms. Calder has been affiliated with since 1997, holds multiple ethnic dance classes in their midtown studio. Their partnership with Van Cortlandt Park Conservancy has brought even more dance teachers and styles into the mix.

West African dance was the second barefoot event so far this summer, with Balkan Dance taking over the lawn two weeks ago. Barefoot dancing has three more Thursdays left this year: Tahitian on July 24, Middle Eastern on the 31st and salsa dancing with a group called Retumba! on Aug. 7.

“It always rains when Retumba! comes,” Ms. Perron said. “Three years ago it rained at the beginning, two years ago in the middle and last year at the very end. Let’s hope it holds off this year!”

Many families come for every Barefoot Dancing session and have been doing so for years. Jelet Casimiro, who was a first-timer, said she loved it and would keep attending. 

“It’s just a great environment for the kids to run around,” she remarked.

Her son Miguel, 3, said he liked the dancing but was ready to play. He split off with other children, who were enjoying the open air, playing soccer or finding ladybugs. As the night went on, many attendees who had not been dancing the whole time were drawn in by Ms. Calder’s infectious energy. Some joined while others took a seat on the lawn to watch.

After a little over an hour of practice, young and old alike seemed to have the moves down. A closing dance circle gave a chance for attendees to show off what they had learned.

As the sun began to set after 8 p.m., Ms. Calder led the group in a closing ritual.

“It’s even more important because we are in nature,” she announced, asking everyone to rub their palms together, clap 11 times and then “throw your net into the universe. Share this beautiful energy with the earth.” 

Toddlers, teenagers and parents all opened their arms wide, sweaty and laughing. Children danced on their parents’ feet. Two little girls wore pink ballerina skirts. Not a single frown was visible on the lawn.

After Ms. Calder’s joyful closing ritual, families packed up their blankets and picnics and pulled their shoes back on. The lightning bugs were just coming out. Ms. Perron made some closing announcements and remarks, ending with, “We are all better people for Caren Calder and family.” 

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