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Inside Turlock’s largest international folk dancing group
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Dori McElroy of Hughson dances with a guest at a local Oktoberfest (Photo contributed).

On Friday nights, it may seem like there isn’t much going on inside the walls of the Carnegie Arts Center in Turlock, but stepping foot in one of the rooms will reveal an environment full of energy and liveliness, all thanks to the art of international folk dancing.

Every Friday from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., dozens of dancers from Turlock and the surrounding area come together to form the Village Dancers, moving their hips and tapping their feet to the traditional music of countries like Russia, Greece, Sweden, Poland, Romania, Albania, Scotland, Bulgaria Mexico, Israel and more. And not only are the songs and dances diverse, but so are the dancers themselves.

Ranging anywhere from a one-year-old with their parents, to teenagers, to couples in their 80s and 90s, it should come as no surprise as to why the Village Dancers have been in existence for over 80 years.

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The Village Dancers perform for the 20th year at the Scandinavian Festival in Junction City, Oregon (Photo contributed).

Some of the longest-tenured members of the group are David Raub and George Fairbrook, both in their 90s.

“What has attracted me to international folk dancing is the combination of a variety of music coupled with body movements,” said Fairbrook. “I have done various forms of dancing, including ballroom, jazz, round and square dancing, but I enjoy the rhythmic variety of international folk dancing the best.”

Raub, though, had a very different introduction to the world of folk dancing.

“Some people [like George] got into folk dancing because they like to dance, well, I got into it because I never liked P.E. in school,” Raub joked.

Robert Rudholm joined the group in 1980s after being introduced to the art at the Scandinavian Festival at the Turlock Fairgrounds. Like Fairbrook and Raub, he enjoys the fun of dancing and the exercise that naturally comes along with it.

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Aaron and Connie Sorensen of Turlock bring their one-year-old to dance with the group on Fridays at the Carnegie Arts Center, marking the youngest member of the Village Dancers (Photo contributed).

Similarly, Vicki Harmon was introduced to the group and the genre of dancing at the Scandinavian Festival almost 30 years ago. In recent years, the Pitman High School teacher has had more free time on her hands, and officially joined the group in 2014.

“It was so fun to watch them do it with the Scandinavian dancers, but I had three little boys, and decades went by before I found out they were doing it here at Carnegie. I started coming and it’s just been so fun. Everybody is great and we have a good time together. Learning the dances is fun, performing is fun, so fun seems to be the key word,” she explained.

With folk dancing becoming a part of her weekly routine, Harmon has even brought some of her current and former students along with her, sharing the art with the future generations.

“Throughout this entire time, we have always had that mix of young and old,” said member Milt Trieweiler. “And one thing you always notice with folk dancing is that everyone is friendly. Anyone is welcome here at any time. Sometimes the building with be holding another event at the same time, as people walking by would see us and we just tell them to come on in and join us.”

In some unique cases, the camaraderie of international folk dancing has brought some members even closer that you could expect, which is seen in the story of Bob and Elyse Benjamin and their marriage.

“My parents have been folk dancing their whole lives,” said Elyse. “We (her and Bob) met at folk dancing and the rest is history.”

Over the years, the Village Dancers have traveled across the state and the West Coast to perform at festivals. According to group coordinator Judy Kropp, their membership has been slowly rebuilding since the COVID-19 pandemic and as several members have aged out. She encourages anyone interested to swing by on a Friday night. The group charges $7 to help cover the costs of using rooms at the Carnegie Arts Center.

“It’s a great way to keep in shape, socialize with friendly people and listen to unusual music,” Kropp said. “Come join us and bring a friend.”