Cathy Free: Looking for a few good (male) dancers

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 17 2011 9:50 p.m. MDT

SOUTH SALT LAKE – Margaret Strickland is looking for a few good men, which is really nothing new.

Ever since she tied on her dance shoes more than 60 years ago, it hasn't been easy to convince men to slip into elaborate costumes, balance a few bottles on their heads and join her in a rousing Hungarian folk dance or two.

"I can promise that they'll have a good time, if they give it a try," says Margaret, the founder of Utah's Duna international folk dancing troupe. "Right now, there is only one man in my group and he's quite in demand. It sure would be nice to have a few more."

There are certainly worse ways for a man to spend an evening than holding hands with Margaret and her circle of dancers as they rehearse for a busy season of festivals throughout the Intermountain West.

The 77-year-old Scottish native puts her troupe through enough high-stepping paces to rival an episode of "The Biggest Loser."

Since age 14, she's always expressed herself through movement, from ballet and Spanish flamenco to the African Togo dance. But it was the allure of a foot-stomping Slavic tradition that especially captured – and quickened — her heart.

"In Scotland, I was a traitor," she says with a smile, recalling how she preferred folk dancing to the bagpipes, kilts and the "Highland Fling." "It just spoke to me somehow."

Eager to share her story in the hope of inspiring others (especially men) to get off the couch and sign up for a few Bulgarian dance lessons, Margaret recently joined me for a Free Lunch of muffins and fresh fruit after one of her dance practices at South Salt Lake's Columbus Center.

The halls are full of teenage girls, giggling in spangled leotards and twirling to hip-hop and rap as they await their turn for recital performances in the community center's auditorium. They're a little surprised to find Margaret and her Duna dancers in room 106, whooping and trilling to the ancient sounds of the kaval (a wooden flute) and the gadulka (a bowed, string instrument), picking up the tempo in perfect unison.

With her long gray hair and furrowed complexion, Margaret is accustomed to drawing second glances when she takes to the stage with women less than half her age.

"I love the challenge of performing – it makes me feel young," she says, slipping into a pair of pointed leather folk-dancing slippers. To keep current on new choreography and costumes (which she sews by hand), she regularly attends Balkan summer dance camps around the country.

She is especially happy that her troupe provides a way for Utah's Eastern European immigrants to hold on to a bit of their past and hinder their homesickness.

"Folk dancing makes me feel as though I'm still connected to my own country and culture," says Duna dancer Mariya Radkova, 41, who came to Salt Lake City from Bulgaria six years ago and now works in a hotel gift shop. "There are only about 500 Bulgarians scattered around Utah, so we're a fairly small group. Margaret helps us to remember our roots."

On this particular afternoon, the group is running through six different routines, beginning with a dance about Bulgarian girls finding true love at the village well, and ending with a lively Hungarian bottle dance similar to the one popularized in the movie, "The Fiddler on the Roof."

Rather than waste a good bottle of wine if somebody has a misstep, the dancers will carefully balance vessels of colored water on their heads at festivals this summer and fall.

"If the stage doesn't end up covered in broken glass," says Margaret with a smile, "then we'll know it's been a good night."

Have a story? You do the talking, I'll buy the lunch. Email your name, phone number and what you'd like to talk about to freelunch@desnews.com.

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