I caught up with Eileen Carson Schatz, founder and director of the Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble. This past year Footworks celebrated their 35th Anniversary and coming up on April 30th is their semi-annual hometown show at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in Annapolis, Maryland. Eileen talked about the history of Footworks, their past accomplishments and what the future holds for the company.
The Whole (S)tory (TWS): How did Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble get started?
Eileen Carson Schatz (ECS): Footworks originally started in 1979. The original name of the company was The Fiddle Puppet Dancers. Two other original members and I had been Green Grass Cloggers out of North Carolina for several years previous to 1979. We continued our passion for southern Appalachian music and dance by creating the Fiddle Puppets.
We changed our name to Footworks in the early 90s to reflect the fact that we were no longer just presenting clogging. It started out of a great love and passion for Appalachian music and dance. From audience responses at major folk festivals all over North America and the United Kingdom, we became convinced that though slightly underserved as art forms they were worthy of theater presentations. We are credited with pioneering professional theater productions of Appalachian clogging.
There was four people in the original group, which also was an innovation at the time, most traditional clogging groups were six or eight. Without really knowing it, to present it with four people immediately introduced innovations to the choreography. We started getting requests, again for major festivals all over North America and the UK and started doing theater presentations in the late 80’s.
TWS: It sounds like it was really different from what the original cloggers would of done, were they performing at more private events?
ECS: No, the Green Grass Cloggers were performing at folk festivals and so were the early Fiddle Puppets. In fact those festivals brought us in touch with traditional fiddle styles and percussive dance styles from other traditions such as English Clogging and Scottish and Irish dancing. We started to collaborate with artists from those traditions thereby adding those valuable, in some cases rare styles to our repertoire which is one of the things that makes us very unique. Everything we learned in big collaborations made festival presenters have a lot of faith in me and they started working with me as far as what other acts they hired for the express purpose of us doing main stage collaborations, presentations and workshops. Those collaborations and the material that we learned first hand became an important part of our repertoire.
TWS: What are some of your favorite things the dance company has done and are doing in the future?
ECS: There are a few that are equal to each other. It is our privilege to take everything that we have learned from traditional and roots backgrounds and present them in theater settings and I’ve always been overjoyed by the response the general public
audiences have had. One of the things that Footworks is credited for and I’m proud of is we have pioneered bringing traditional music and dance into professional theater venues. We have created many productions for that, I’ve already mentioned working with Tim O’ Brien and Step Afrika. It’s a lot of hard work but those projects provide artistic growth and expansion of the repertoire for Footworks as a whole.
Another favorite is performing at festivals, which is where we got all the raw material and inspiration in the first place. We love being around other artists and festival audiences who have a wild response to us every time. I’m pretty devoted to festivals, I call myself a festivarian and think they are incredible live art events that serve the audience that attends, the local community, as well as a way for artists to be inspired by other artists.
Equally favorite is our work with youth. I’m a certified teaching artist in Maryland and other states which means I’m an arts integration specialist and I can use music and dance to teach lesson plans for American History and Social Studies. I’ve been very devoted to that and I love it.
We also work with underserved youth. It’s amazing to see how music and dance, especially traditional music and dance which we have a unique approach to teaching can make it accessible to participants and transform someone’s life.
We do special productions every two years in our local arts center, Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts and it’s an artistic growth vehicle for us. In our hearts it’s a gift for our local community.
In our local community, in my mind, Common Ground on the Hill is included. You and I met each other at Common Ground and you don’t need me to tell you the incredible work that it provides creating opportunities for participants transforming their lives and creating a community. Common ground is very important to me in that way and has provided a vehicle of growth for me as a teacher, performing artist, and has brought me into connection with other artists which adds to my work. As we have been working really hard on this production my hope is that many people from the Common Ground community will also attend the April 30th event.
Something else I should mention, this semester the music department at McDaniel College, which is where Common Ground takes place, has commissioned me to teach rhythm skills to the gospel choir and choreograph a dance number for their spring show which is May 7th at Alumni Hall on McDaniel’s campus in Westminster, Maryland. The McDaniel College Gospel Choir is under the direction of Shelley Ensor and you know who she is, she’s a big hero for anybody who’s ever been to Common Ground.
TWS: Let’s talk about the April 30th show. How did Footworks get involved with the Teelin Irish Dance Company?
ECS: The Teelin Irish Dance Company is run by Maureen Berry, she was a principal dancer with Footworks for several years from the 1990s into the 2000s. She still returns to us as a principal dancer for special projects and has continued to be a guest artist with us.
In the meantime she started the Teelin Irish Dance School. She received her TGRC (a credential where you have to take an exam that allows you to be in the competitive world of Irish dancing and take your students to competitions) and decided to enter into that highly organized, highly competitive world of Irish dance. Maureen always credits me and Footworks for her experience with us showing her the way on how to honor traditions and present them while also adhering to professional presentation skills required for stages and venues.
TWS: I saw that one of her dancers just won the world championship for Irish dancing.
ECS: Saoirse DeBoy just won the world championship in Scotland in March for her age category. First place world champion is just an extraordinary accomplishment for Maureen, Saoirse, and for the school.
It’s a special note to me that Maureen and I did some of the companies very best work in previous productions like The Crossing with Tim O’ Brien and Soulmates with Step Afrika. There’s a really great collaborative relationship and effort going on back and forth there.
TWS: Is there going to be any collaboration between the two companies at this show?
ECS: Yes. What’s really awesome is that Maureen is joining Footworks for their dances for the April 30th show, including at her urging, the revival of two works of choreography from Footworks repertoire that have not been performed for quite some time. We are creating the Irish suite with her which is at the top of the show and she is also in new works that we are choreographing to dance with The Claire Lynch Band.
TWS: How did you get connected with The Claire Lynch Band?
ECS: Even back in the 70s, when I was a Green Grass Clogger, I knew of Claire because her band at the time, The Frontporch Stringband was popular on the festival circuit. The first time I heard her, I think it might of been in 1977 or 78 at a festival in Alabama, we were up in the performer’s area and heard her singing and Amy (founding member) and I went running down to the stage to hear where this beautiful sound was coming from. I’ve been a fan of hers since. I don’t remember the exact year but over 8 years ago, Mark Schatz, the musical director for Footworks, joined Claire’s band and has been performing and touring with her full time since then. We consider her a national treasure and have been very invested in The Claire Lynch Band because we are huge fans.
After forty years of touring, after 2016 Claire is at least for a time taking a sabbatical and not maintaining a full time band and will go onto special projects. Including her in our semi annual special concert that we present for our hometown venue, Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in Annapolis, is an idea that I just couldn’t get let go of. We secured Maryland State Arts Councils Presenting and Touring Program funding in order to have The Claire Lynch Band come from Nashville and be in the show.
In my mind it’s in celebration of her body of work which includes numerous recordings and awards and her extraordinary songwriting. It’s in celebration of Claire.
Our musicians, Jon Glik, Mark Schatz, Danny Knicely, Jordan Tice, and Steve Bloom will be our band that night and just the live music alone is going to be incredible. We are also thrilled to have the opportunity to collaborate with the Teelin Irish Dance Company and The Claire Lynch Band.
I really hope that anyone within a few hours of Annapolis will head out and see this special performance on April 30th. I have been watching all three acts for years and know this will be a night to remember!