Earthdance survives changing vision, changing times

BACK in 1986, a loose-knit group of dance enthusiasts from Boston asked: Is it possible to escape city life, share a house and children, and give themselves over to pursuing art in the bosom of Mother Nature?

They found their answer in a ramshackled farmhouse and 175 acres in Plainfield that became the community called Earthdance. Ten dancers bought it with visions of turning the rundown Property into an “intentional community” and a retreat for dancers and other creative types.

Ten years later, Earthdance is no longer a residential collective. That dream faded away, a casualty of attrition, financial stresses, divorce, and finally, disagreement about what kind of community Earthdance was meant to be.

But the vision of creating a vibrant dance center – a pastoral refuge from a noisy world that can so easily drown out the artist’s inner voice – is alive and well. That Earthdance has not disappeared, as did so many “communes” of the last 25 years, is due to the ongoing support of hundreds of people who have been associated with Earthdance over the years, and the determination of the only original member to still live on the property, 40-year old “visionary spearhead” Stephen Yoshen.

To the passerby heading up the gravel incline of Prospect Street, there are few indications that the white farmhouse on the hill is anything special. There is no sign announcing it as an artist’s retreat There is no large parkng lot for the sometimes dozens of cars that (to the chagrin of neighbors) spill out onto the road when there is an event at Earthdance.

Such passersby would not guess that on any given weekend there may be a workshop being led by a nationally known figure in the dance world. In the 24-by-48-foot cathedral-ceiling dance studio behind the farmhouse, teachers like Deborah Hay of Texas, Andrew de L. Harwood, Zjamal Xanitha, Aileen Crow and other names known to serious dancers are regular visitors to Earthdance, where they are encouraged to take their work to new outer limits.

Nor would they guess that a Wednesday yoga class is held there for Hilltown adults, that an arts camp for local children has taken place for two summers, or that monthly “community sings” bring together people from all over the area.

Nor would they know of the strenuous dance “jams” that take place, sometimes for days on end. (The upcoming New Year’s jam runs for five days straight.) These woods and fields have been used for sweat lodges, full-moon rituals and “blind-mute walks,” developed to increase tactile awareness through one person being led through the woods with eyes shut by a silent leader.

Behind the screen of trees are two yurts and a number of other outbuildings, a sauna, a springfed quarry and room in the farmhouse to sleep 20 workshop participants. From the road the farmhouse, with its newly-added porch, hardly looks like a place that would attract writers, poets and painters to come for a weekend, a week, for months to recharge their creative batteries.

But increasingly, Earthdance is being used exactly that way.

“This is an environment where people can explore their personal vision of their dreams and projects,” said Andrew Gaines, a movement therapist who coordinates dance programs at Earthance. “It’s a place where they don’t have to think of the everyday logistical details. Instead, they can go into the studio to work or to the woods for a process of reflection.”

While there are sylvan retreats for ballet and other disciples of classical dance forms, Earthdance is meant for the experimental and the avant-garde – those highly contemporary forms like Authentic Movement, improvisation and Art for the Dreambody, a technique that draws on Jung’s theories to blend the physical and the psychological.

This summer, for instance, Texas-based dancer Deborah Hay – famous for her “no warm-up, no rehearsal” technique of spontaneous movement, taught a three-day workshop called “Performing Statelessness.” Upcoming workshops run the gamut from ethereal to pragmatic: a “contact improvisation lab,” with Northampton dancer Nancy Stark Smith, will help experienced dancers in this freeform genre stretch their limits. On the practical side, a December seminar by artists’ consultant Elise Benum will teach “How to Market Yourself: Creative Self-Promotion for the Artistically Employed.”

First the dream

For the 10 who first created Earthdance in the summer of 1986, all of this was just a flicker of the possible. There was no clear idea of what, exactly, the wooded property could become. The original members had been influenced by the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and ’70s, and knew how hard it was for such collective arrangements to work. Cohousing, the Scandinavian idea of cooperative living that caught on in the United States in the 1990s, had not emerged. As Victoria Yoshen, a founding member who now lives in Easthampton noted “I always felt we were either behind the times or ahead of our time.” But the idea of starting a community dedicated to dance had caught fire in the imaginations of the founders. Penny Schultz of Haydenville, who lived at Earthdance until 1992 and is still on the advisory council, said, “There was no way any of us could predict how Earthdance would grow. We were all willing to be in it for the adventure.”

Back to the garden

Stephen Yoshen had ridden a bicycle around the world, lived on a kibbutz in Israel, and was managing the produce department at a food co-op in Boston when he got the idea of starting a community, late in 1985.

He proposed his idea to a group of dancers who met weekly to dance. Contra dancing, and also the highly gymnastic sensual style called contact improvisation, were the glue that held this group together. Of the 50 or so people who showed up to discuss the idea of communal living, 10 were serious about leaving Boston for the country. They included an accountant, an outdoor leadership teacher, a music teacher, an electrician, a teacher of the blind, and others.

Victoria Yoshen, who was married to Stephen at the time, said, “We wanted to be able to live our lives creatively, without being ‘caught’ in the 9-to-5 routine. We wanted to find another way to live, where we were cooperative with other people and sharing resources.”

After only a few months of day trips around New England, they found the Plainfield property, actually five parcels brought together for the sale.

The first look was less than impressive. The house was barely habitable. Miners had lived in the “hobbit holes” upstairs, in small rooms with mattresses. They had been on the land around World War II, mining the quarry for manganese, a lightweight metal used in aircraft. Snow made it difficult to picture what the land was like.

But the group knew instantly that this was “the place,” and the next day made an offer. That summer they quit their jobs and moved out over a period of a month or two. The Yoshens arrived with month-old daughter Kiera. Immediately they began rebuilding the house, tearing down the dilapidated parts and adding, within a year, the dance studio.

“We were very arrogant, very full of ourselves,” said Schultz, who had left “the perfect job” as a teacher at a Quaker school to join Earthdance. “We needed that kind of hubris to be able to do this.”

As an arts community, the group applied for non-profit status with the state. Their legal name – the Earthdance Creative Living Project – reflects the two missions of the place, which were to live creatively with each other as well as artistically, noted Victoria Yoshen. They toyed with an egalitarian lifestyle, with men and women sharing carpentry, cooking and childcare. (“That lasted until about December,” noted Schultz.) They led their meetings with a vaguely spiritual feeling (though there was no religious common ground as in many intentional communities). Decisions were made by consensus. They experimented with various ways to share expenses, from a household “kitty” into which everyone would put money, to a set fee. (The latter won out, said Victoria Yoshen, with monthly costs being $450 a person.)

The group also got involved in the Plainfield community, in an effort to establish themselves as contributing residents of their new hometown. Victoria Yoshen was on the Hilltown Resource Management Cooperative, which led early recycling efforts. The extroverted Schultz ran the dump. Milton Hanzel joined the Planning Board. Even though they were technically a nonprofit, they paid taxes because, as Stephen Yoshen said, “We decided early on we lived in this community, we used the roads, and we wanted to support the town.”

Plainfield residents had mixed feelings about the “unconventional” lifestyle of the group on Prospect Street, said Board of Health Chairman Jon Lynes. There have periodically been complaints brought before various boards on such issues as parking, septic systems, building use and the number of people who can legally reside in a house – a fact corroborated by Earthdance residents.

But, as Lynes noted, “There have been alternative communities coming and going in the Hilltowns. Some fly, some don’t. We hold that community up to the same expectations of compliance as any other residence.”

Andrew Gaines said town residents have not been unfriendly as much as bewildered at times about what exactly takes place at Earthdance.

“Initially it was this ‘intentional community’ that got everyone’s hair up – is this a hairy commune?” said Gaines, a 32 year-old Long Island native who has lived at Earthdance for four years. “It was a tittle more earthy and wild at the beginning. The town doesn’t know where we’ve evolved to since then.”

Split mission

Earthdance eventually began to run into trouble as it, struggled to define itself.

Almost from the start, dance workshops took place in the large, sunny studio, bringing people from the outside to Earthdance. That was great for bringing new energy – and the scores of people who fell in love with the place and would come back for weekend “work parties” – but it made it difficult to form a stable household.

“It’s hard to have an intentional community with a lot of people moving through,” said Victoria Yoshen, who left Earthdance when she and Stephen’s marriage ended, in the early 1990s. “And it’s very hard to raise children with eight other people. It would get chaotic.”

Members eventually left for other jobs, or to start families of their own. While others would come and stay for a while there were 18 residents at its peak in 1991 – the transience caused the Earthdance mission to grow hazy, said Stephen Yoshen.

What pushed the project to its limit, though, was the construction of a huge house – some 4,000 square feet – on a back part of the property, in 1991. It was intended both as a place for people to live, but also to be a kind of school building, complete with fire doors and other institutional touches, in case Earthdance became a major dance teaching center.

Though members and volunteers did most of the work themselves, the construction put the community in debt, said Stephen Yoshen. By the time it was finished, there were only six residents left. They sold the large house and all but 68 acres of land to a developer. In 1992, the group voted to disband the intentional community part of Earthdance. Yoshen proposed running it solely as a dance and retreat center.

That is what it has been ever since. Whereas workshops had been held every three months or so, they now became monthly events. It has taken some time, but Earthdance is gaining a reputation as a place where dancers and other artists can find stillness for as long as they like.

This has meant becoming more like a business, said Gaines, something few of the original members would have envisioned. A new administrator, Teresa Smith, has been hired to handle phone calls and mailings. And policies concerning food, fees and other aspects of running a dance center are being developed out as they go, he said.

Yoshen and Gaines, as well as Schultz and the many others who remain involved from near and far, say they believe Earthdance is only going to grow. It continues to draw on a large body of supporters from around the country; some $11,000 was raised in a recent fund-raiser for new construction. Despite the roller-coaster of the years, those who stay involved say it will remain a place where cutting-edge dance can emerge from dancers’ imaginations.

“Earthdance is a place where people can really feel free to go out and explore the less known,” said Gaines. “Teachers sometimes get in the habit of running workshops and teaching their same stuff.” That’s not what the spirit of this place is about. It’s about climbing out onto an edge and seeing what’s out there.”

For more information about upcoming workshops, personal retreats or group rentals at Earthdance Workshop and Retreat Center, call 413-634-5678.

© 1996 Daily Hampshire Gazette. Reproduced by permission.

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