TOWNSEND -- Occasionally, during one of the meetings held downstairs at Memorial Hall, people look up at the ceiling with a puzzled frown. Muffled thuds echo through the old building.

What is going on up there?

It is a Renaissance dance class that Michael McDonald is teaching.

Many of the participants are members of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), an international group dedicated to researching and recreating the arts and skills of pre-17th century Europe.

Dance was popular in all levels of society then, both court and folk, and many people participated.

"Our grandparents -- that's what they had for entertainment," McDonald said.

Some of the participants are in "garb" -- clothing made to look like the dress of a much earlier time period. Others wear whatever they had on that day.

Heidi Fowler, the Townsend librarian, wore a dress made by Stephanie Strauss, of New Boston, N.H. With a round neck, fitted waist and long full skirt, the wool shift moved fluidly as Fowler danced.

McDonald teaches dance from the Renaissance period, the latest part of the time period SCA specializes in. Not many dances survive from earlier eras, he said.

One dance he taught in January was developed by a lawyer's guild in Italy. McDonald explained that guilds were responsible for providing entertainment during festivals, and "being lawyers, they kept good records."

The dancers walk through steps similar to modern square dancing, McDonald said, and most of the dances were group dances rather than couples dances.


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After walking the dancers through their steps, McDonald plays a recording of period music and leads the dance. He calls out the steps if any of the dancers seem to be confused.

McDonald and Fowler are part of an early music performing group, "Sir Robin's Minstrels." McDonald plays guitar, which he said is a challenge since none of the music was written for that instrument. (It did not exist yet.) Fowler play drums.

McDonald used their CD for the Renaissance dance music.

Everyone is welcome to participate in the dance classes. Membership in SCA is not required, and neither is a costume.

Fowler said members of a folk dance group in Pepperell sometimes come by and so do various library patrons. Some are in garb, some are not.

Strauss bases her clothing designs on period practices and the material used for Fowler's dress is based on material recovered in an archeological dig in Greenland. She said the way the cloth is cut minimizes waste, an important thing when you weave your own material and it is only 22 inches wide.

The site in Greenland was settled by Scandinavians. These settlers later founded a brief-lived settlement in North America around 1,000 A.D., McDonald said.

McDonald is an enthusiastic teacher willing to impart general knowledge and help people enjoy the dance. "I was born with two left feet," he said, "so I have to figure things out. That's what makes me a good teacher."

The program is sponsored by the library. "Nobody gets paid," McDonald said, but he does get the pleasure of teaching his class in a spacious room.

The next Renaissance dance session will be held Thursday, Feb. 19 at 7:30 p.m., upstairs in Memorial Hall.