Being flexible has been the name of the game for Bill Thompson as he migrated his Folk Dancing classes through West Point Grey Community Centre over to an online platform in 2021 for the first time.

“Dancing online is a good alternative way to maintain those connections with others that we’ve had as a group for so long, until we’re able to get together again in person,” says Thompson, who, with his friend Denis Laplante, started the Folk Dancing program at West Point Grey CC in 1978.

Folk dances are often described as traditional forms of dance practised by people of a certain time and place who are considered to be outside of the elite classes of their society.

Here’s an example of one of Thompson (wearing the white turtleneck) and his class’s favourite dances.

Sometimes referred to as traditional dance, folk dances are as diverse and unique as the people who practice them. Across the world, they are found in the form of Irish dance, polka, clogging, fandango, Greek dance, Turkish dance, square dance, bhangra, buyo and Hungarian csardas, to name only a few.

Thompson says he can probably teach between 200 to 300 folk dances and “could dance along just fine to 700 or more.”

One of his more recent acquisitions is “Take it Easy Baby,” a folk dance he learned online from a Chicago dance teacher. “It’s based on cha-cha, which has Cuban origins, and done to zydeco music, which comes from Louisiana.”

A long transition

Born in Washington, DC, and raised in Los Angeles, Thompson’s first introduction to dance was as a child when his mom enrolled him in various dance classes, such as swing, American square dance and ballroom dance. But it wasn’t until the retired ecologist was first introduced to folk dance while studying towards his PhD in ecology at the University of British Columbia (UBC) that Thompson’s passion for dance truly blossomed.

Thompson attended folk dance classes, led by Marcia Snider, at UBC’s International House facility for a while. Then, when a new venue was needed, he and his wife (of over 50 years now) held a few dances on their lawn before Thompson launched the Folk Dancing program at West Point Grey CC, which has taken place in Aberthau Mansion’s Oak Room ever since.

“Part of what I love is the accessibility of folk dance,” enthuses Thompson. “Essentially, you’re walking to music. It’s something that almost anyone can do.”

In the zone

Since the beginning, Thompson has taught folk dance on a volunteer basis to help keep the costs to participants down. Pre-2020 pandemic, the typical drop-in rate was around $4 per person. A full program of 13 online sessions currently costs only $39.

During classes, couples and singles of all ages move through the easy-to-follow steps led by Thompson, performing around 25 dances over the course of each two-hour session.

“We’re not fussed if people don’t remember the hand hold or get the steps a bit wrong,” says Thompson. “So long as you’re enjoying yourself and moving together, we’re happy with that.”

An international promenade

Over the years, Thompson has taught folk dance in several locales, including North Carolina, Australia and California, as well as performed in various venues, such as the Russian Cultural Centre in Vancouver, BC.

His curiosity about different cultures propels his investigations into new dances and ways to find them. He is always refreshing his skills by way of one or two weekend-long workshops per year, and by attending conferences, such as the Kolo Festival, which took place over Zoom in 2020.

Plus, there is always his own research and dance exchanges with fellow folk dance enthusiasts.

“A lot of the dance that we do nowadays is a modern version of folk dance, including line dancing,” says Thompson. “It’s really wonderful, and so much fun.”

Find Folk Dancing programs through West Point Grey Community Centre by visiting www.westpointgrey.org and searching for “Folk Dancing” in the search bar.