Where to Dance

Where to Dance Interview: Fiona Murdoch

Fiona Murdoch is the director of Dance Folkus  - a social and recreational dance group based in Hamilton. Dance Folkus has a broad and eclectic repertoire of dance genres from around the world and across the ages. Classes and events are about participation in historical and traditional dances for people who can't ignore the dance in their DNA, who love the cultural insights and understanding that traditional or historical dance offers, and who are seeking an enjoyable introduction to dance in a non-competitive and social community setting.  It’s about having fun together, stretching our physical capabilities, and enjoying the music, rhythms and patterns that are a reflection of the many lands and societies that make up our community. Our dance parties and events also provide an opportunity for those who love costume and a reason to ‘frock-up’ according to the era.

Tell us about folk dancing in New Zealand .. Folk Dance New Zealand was set up in 1995 by folk dancers, for folk dancers, to get more folk dancing. We aim to promote and support all types and functions of folk dancing by sharing information, resources and expertise. We run folk dance events and teacher development.  Anyone can join – as a group or individually. Membership opens up the world of folk dance as it is experienced in New Zealand: connection, resources and support from folk who love to dance.

The moment I fell in love with dance was .. There were two moments  – the first when I was about 10 years old, I was allowed to accompany my mother to a Scottish country dance ball in my hometown of Cambridge. I did not yet have the skills, nor the beautiful long white dancing dress and tartan sash, or the special laced dancing slippers to participate in a formal ball. But I was able to go up to the (then) balcony of the Cambridge town hall and watch the patterns and movements being created by the skilled dancers below. I could see the smiles and enjoyment on everyone’s faces and I could hear the spirited live music that lifted the dancers off the floor and through the dance. It was transporting! I longed to join in. I quickly learnt the skills, acquired the dress and accessories, and continue to attend Scottish Country Dances to this day.

The second occasion that cemented this passion was when, some 15 years later, I was cycle-touring through eastern Europe. I’d long had an interest in world music and was an enthusiastic world music festival-goer. Whilst in Hungary I was invited to spend a few days at a cultural festival and join in with a local dance group – I loved it and have since sought out traditional dance in all its shapes and forms to match the world music that feeds my soul. 

How my class came to be and how it has grown .. I arrived back in NZ from several years in Perth WA where I danced and taught with the Perth International Folk Dance Group. My work as a physiotherapist brought me to Hamilton but there was no international dance group, so I built Dance Folkus to satisfy my own craving and have been enjoying the challenges ever since.

Three of my favourite dances are .. A real mix and soooo hard to choose with over 1000 dances in my repertoire – in the top 10 are ‘La Bestringue’ – a French-Canadian partner/mixer dance with great music and lots of swinging, I can’t sit down when that music plays, a colonial quadrille, of which there are many – where 8 people dance together in patterns from the mid-late 19th century, and anything in 3/4 time – not necessarily a partner waltz as there are many chain and circle dances in this enjoyable tempo from across the ages.

Tunes that will always get me onto the dancefloor are .. ‘La Bestringue’ as mentioned above, but also anything in 7/8 from Bulgaria or Macedonia.

A quality that defines a good teacher is .. the ability to make a dance accessible for the level of learning required. If necessary simplifying the dance until the dancer has the competency to proceed to more complex steps / patterns - often simple is best and most enjoyable.

What I tell dancers to think about is .. Have fun, feel it and don’t over think it!

My top dance etiquette tip is .. Know where and how to join in the dance – this varies by dance genre and origin.

My tip for beginner dancers is .. Be prepared to learn new skills – you may not have them all at the commencement of your dance journey, but they will come. Expecting to get it right first time will only lead to frustration and quash enjoyment.

A skill every dancer must learn is .. To listen – to the music, to the beat, to the phrasing, to the instructions, to their body

One of the health benefits of dance I most appreciate now is .. Its role in providing my brain with new and exciting information to keep those neurons active through learning!

My biggest inspiration is .. The collections, bodies of research and cultural traditions, and choreographies of dance collectors/leaders through time. 

I would like to thank .. Too many people to mention – Folk Dance NZ, the many different groups I‘ve danced with here and overseas, the dance tutors, experts and choreographers who inspire ongoing interest and challenge, and of course the musicians – but most of all the dancers who have joined me in the Dance Folk classes in Hamilton over the years.

My mantra is .. or a quote I’d like to use here is .. Through historical dance and folk dance you can travel through time and around the world without ever leaving home.

What I look for in a good pair of dance shoes is .. Structural support where I need it, suppleness and springiness – I’ve yet to find the perfect dance shoe, because I do so many styles of dance I have a need for several pairs of shoes.

My hot tip for taking care of my body as a dancer is .. Keep as flexible as possible.

One of the highlights of my dance career has been .. Two highlights – one as a dancer when I joined 6 New Zealand traditional Greek dancers to present Katerina Goodwin’s ‘Maenads’ neo-classical Greek dance performance on the Dora Stratou Dance Theatre stage below a moonlit Acropolis in Athens. We received a standing ovation from the crowd which felt great! The second was as the director of an ensemble of 45 performers including Renaissance Dancers, classical guitarists, early music ensemble, and madrigal singers to celebrate the opening of the new Tudor Garden and a public performance in the Hamilton Gardens.

I’d like to see the dance industry in NZ .. Acknowledge the value of community dance and provide opportunities for everyone to give dance a go, not just focus on professional dancers or what’s trendy.

What else are you up to?

I’m very excited to be invited to the Costumiers Fantasy Masquerade Festival in Rotorua to provide the dance leadership and 'circle of time' programme for the inaugural Time Travellers Ball.

Portrait of Fiona at top: Bruce Mercer