When COVID-19 ended many student activities at UMass Lowell last spring, UML folk dance club president Sarah Bustin did not take the time to sit down.

Life without folk dancing would be difficult for Bustin, who says her body and soul are enriched by the human connection it brings.

The Folk Dance Club would continue even if it had to do so through Zoom. Bustin, a rising junior who is majoring in physics, has teamed up with the New England Folk Arts Center to host a weekly folk dance Tuesday night by the virtual fountain from July 7 to August 25. The pandemic had also claimed the Folk Arts Center of The Weekly New England Summer Dances, so Bustin’s opening was well received.

She secured the services of UML club dance teacher Andy Taylor-Blenis, got additional support from the Lowell Cultural Council and spread the word. Participants include UML students, as well as dance teachers and enthusiasts from across the country.

From the first moments of the first online session, it was clear that Bustin had created an entirely different folk dance experience. It was strangely intimate and personal. People’s living rooms and dining rooms appeared in the video squares that line the top of the screen.

A recording of traditional music is played and Taylor-Blenis begins dancing in her bedroom, shouting footsteps as she does. “One-two-three-four and five-six and seven-eight…” The dancers watched the instructor on their screens. She repeats the dance, faster this time. “Fast-slow, fast-fast-slow.” The dancers who watch walk at first with hesitation, then with more abandon. “Transversal, fast-slow. “

At one point, a dog slowly walks around Taylor-Blenis’ room.

As the evening progresses, the number of dancers increases – 43, 49, 72… 110.

“Aloha, from Hawaii,” chirps a dancer.

Aloha, indeed. Throughout the summer, the weekly online dance session attracted an average of just under 100 loyal dancers and instructors from Chicago and Los Angeles and points in between. On August 11, Joan Hantman taught via Zoom. She majored in Israeli, Balkan and international dances, then worked as a nurse at UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica.

The group regularly performs traditional dances born in countries such as Serbia, Macedonia, Greece, Israel, Portugal, Japan and other countries.

It is, when joined by computers and cameras, a new dance that emerges, notes veteran dance teacher Taylor-Blenis.

International folk dance is charged with “community and contact,” says Taylor-Blenis. “When people hold hands, they get information from each other. People learn to dance by watching, listening and receiving help from those around them. Finally, the teacher talks, demonstrates and watches the dancers to see what help they need.

“In this pandemic, what people are not going to get is human contact as both a stimulus and an assistant,” says Taylor-Blenis.

Bustin agrees. “Line dancing is fun, but it’s very different from real life,” she says.

Bustin, originally from North Reading, Massachusetts, has practiced folk dancing for most of his life. Her grandparents on both sides taught folk dance, and she learned contra dance and international dance as a child.

She shares a bond with Taylor-Blenis that she discovered only a few years ago.

“Andy and my mom were roommates at Maine Folk Dance Camp when they were teenagers,” she says.

Bustin chose UMass Lowell for its UTeach and physique programs, not for its dance offerings. She was “appalled” that she could not find a dance department or international dance group on campus when she arrived. During his first semester, Bustin continued to attend a weekly folk dance in Lexington, Mass.

In October 2018, she learned that the MIT Folk Dance Club (FDC) had been closed because its percentage of student members had fallen below 50% of total membership, which included dancers from the faculty and the local community. .

“It was incredibly disappointing for the international dance community,” says Bustin, “because MIT FDC had been dancing since the 1960s and had brought together a large, vibrant and supportive community. “

She and Taylor-Blenis agreed to found a club at UML. In October of her freshman year, she made a club registration form.

“I asked everyone I met to register. I gave the form to classmates, people standing next to me in the queue, students I had never met in the hallway, ”she recalls.

She created a mailing list, recruited agents and educational advisers. As of May 2019, they were an official club sport. The group held weekly two-hour practices at the campus recreation center. That summer the club volunteered to help out at the Lowell Folk Festival and offered an evening of dancing with live music open to the community.

In February, the club collaborated on an event with the Cambodian Students Association. Then COVID-19 sent everyone home.

The ongoing summer sessions on Tuesday have attracted new dancers, and donations to pay teachers (there is a suggested minimum donation of $ 5) have increased, Bustin says.

“She has always brought passion to our dances and created a welcoming atmosphere for people,” says Sarah Souders, a top biology student with a concentration in biotechnology. She is one of Bustin’s rookies, now a club manager.

What attracted Souders? Folk dancing is “steeped in history and meaning, but also something fun to do with friends and relax after a long day”.

Since the start of the virtual sessions, Souders has enjoyed “seeing people from all over the country come together with a similar interest in cultural learning through dance. I joined because of my friend, but I stayed because of the dancing.

Although student clubs do not meet in person in the fall due to the pandemic, the Folk Dance Club will continue online, Bustin said.

“A lot of folk dancers are scientists, mathematicians and engineers, because the patterns and formulas of the dance steps come easily to them,” she says. “Others dance because they like to listen to beautiful music from other cultures or because it’s a low-key way to meet new people and socialize without the pressure of chatting. “

For more information on the club, which will continue to host Zoom events on Tuesday evenings in the fall, visit the New England Folk Arts Center website Where subscribe to his mailing list.