Buffalo (Gap) guys and gals come out and dance by the light of the moon In West Virginia, lessons keep campers stepping lively

June 20, 1993|By Judi Dash | Judi Dash,Contributing Writer

CAPON BRIDGE,W. VA. — Capon Bridge, W.Va.--Come summer, these hills are alive with sounds of music the Trapp family never imagined.

From late May through September, weekend cowboys, Cajuns, Scots and other ethnic wannabes flock to this rural town in a mountain valley of northeastern West Virginia to learn the music, dance and folklore of a variety of cultures.

The action takes place at Buffalo Gap Camp for the Cultural Arts, a former children's camp set on 200 lakeside acres just outside of town. Since 1984, the camp has attracted singles, couples and families from across the country. Three-day weekends as well as five-to-seven-day sessions are devoted to promoting and preserving the musical heritage of such diverse cultures as Louisiana's Cajun country, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, England and the American West (as in country-western). There's even a weekend of swing-dancing thrown in to keep things, well, swinging.

A family week (July 10-17) devoted to the traditional arts of America and England has an extensive program of storytelling, dancing and singing for children ages 3 to 12. At night, baby-sitters check on the youngsters in their cabins so parents can kick up their heels at the evening dances.

Though the camp is owned and operated by a group of 30 investors, specific weekends are run by private dance and cultural organizations who lease the facilities for their own particular ethnic program. The groups hire the musicians and instructors, organize the classes and set up supplementary activities such as talks, slide shows and videotapes on the history of the specific culture.

The price couldn't be more right. Three-day weekends run from $150 to $200, including all instruction, dances, accommodations and food. Weeklong sessions cost up to $460. There are discounts for children.

Participation is the byword. While folks at other festivals might be content tapping their toes to the music, nobody comes to Buffalo Gap just to watch. This is the quintessential learning vacation -- you get a heaping dose of instruction, usually to the accompaniment of live music, while meeting other like-minded people in an atmosphere of cooperation and play. And you work up a pretty good sweat doing it. Beginners always are welcome; there are separate classes for novice and experienced dancers.

And if you just don't dance, you can opt instead for singing sessions as well as workshops with folk instruments -- rub-boards from southern Louisiana during Cajun weekend, kavals (a kind of flute) from the Balkans during the Eastern European program. When was the last time you got your hands on a well-tuned gadulka (a small, stringed instrument from Bulgaria)?

As for accommodations, this isn't the Ritz, folks. Up to 300 "campers" sleep on bunks in rustic six- to 10-person cabins with communal bathrooms (22 double rooms are reserved for instructors and staff musicians, with a few available to couples on a first-come, first-served basis). Those who want more privacy often bring a tent and camp.

Meals are taken at long picnic tables in a big mess hall that adjoins one of the large dance areas. The food ranges from simple, hearty fare prepared by the permanent camp staff to the elaborate ethnic specialties of cooks who are brought in to match a particular ethnic group running that session's camp. For instance, there's jambalaya and gumbo for Cajun weekend; yogurt and lamb and Turkish coffee when the Middle East's in session. There always are options for vegetarians, and coffee and tea are available all day.

You seldom hear people complaining about the down-home nature of Buffalo Gap Camp. It's all part of the fun, and if my weekend of Cajun dancing last summer was any indication, folks of all ages seem to relish the back-to-basics experience.

Getting to Buffalo Gap Camp is half the fun. The route takes you through some of Virginia's prettiest horse country.

Once at the camp, you register in the recreation room, grab your bedding (oh, yes, you're supposed to take your own sheets, sleeping bag, pillow, and towels) and head for your assigned bunk.

During my Cajun weekend, last year titled "Buffalo on the Bayou" June 25-27 this year), some 140 Louisiana-lovers from around the country spent Friday through Sunday learning Cajun two-steps and

waltzes as well as the more sensual moves of Cajun's bluesy black cousin, zydeco.

Well-established bands from Louisiana played for the classes (although some beginner sessions used taped music because of the need to constantly stop to practice new steps). Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, regulars on the East Coast club circuit, played traditional Cajun ballads featuring accordion and fiddle and often sung in the soulful French patois of the region; John Delafose and his band's sexy zydeco numbers set our hips gyrating from the first note.

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