Mike Fitak jumps in the air as a group of dancers twirl inside the barn at Fermilab, in Batavia. (Kerry Devine photo)

Reels, Jigs and Kilts at Batavia’s Fermilab

Meet a group of fun-loving scientists who aren’t afraid to don kilts in the winter or to learn the complex patterns of Scottish dancing.

Mike Fitak jumps in the air as a group of dancers twirl inside the barn at Fermilab, in Batavia. (Kerry Devine photo)

In the 1970s, on a vast prairie near Batavia, the U.S. government built a particle accelerator called Fermilab, to help scientists answer the deep, puzzling questions of the existence of the universe. Since that time, many questions have been answered, but some remain: Are there undiscovered principles of nature? Are there extra dimensions of space? How did the universe come to be?

Deep in the heart of Fermilab’s sprawling 6,800-acre complex, particle physics scientist Doug Jensen stands in a converted barn, wearing a kilt, green-ribboned knee socks and a T-shirt that poses yet another question: Why jog when you can jig?

The answer is easy for Jensen and the other Scottish dancers who gather each Tuesday to trot the night away: it’s fun. A Fermilab physicist by day, Jensen teaches Scottish dance by night, to a group known as the Silk & Thistle Scottish Dancers, inside Fermilab’s Kuhn Barn. With the help of fellow instructor and particle physics scientist Mady Newfield, Jensen and the dancers pursue the patterned principles of Scottish country dance.

On this Tuesday dance night, members and guests arrive at the barn, deposit snacks on a table, chitchat with one another, and start warming up. Beginners are given an orientation so they’ll know some basic steps, and the group generally starts with a less complicated dance. It’s often a strathspey, a slower, elegant style originating in Scotland around the “strath” of the River Spey, a place also famous for Scotch whisky. After that, it’s on to more complicated strathspeys and other dances, and the dancers talk and walk through the more difficult steps before the music begins.

“The real joy for me is in the combining of the steps, more complication and subtlety,” says Jensen. “It feels good to have it flow really nicely.”

Jensen’s enthusiasm is unmistakable as the night progresses, and it’s evident that he gets as much enjoyment from teaching the dances as he does from performing them. Born in Michigan, Jensen was teaching physics at Princeton when he became interested in dance, and he credits his wife for sparking his interest. “It was international dancing first, at Princeton, where friends were dancing,” he says. “She encouraged me, ‘Come on, you have to try this.’”

Later on, Jensen was working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), Fermilab’s counterpart in Switzerland. While there, he learned Scottish dance from a group of expats, while Newfield, who worked at CERN around the same time, joined a different international dance group. Jensen eventually traded Geneva, Switzerland, for Geneva, Ill., where he once again found himself working with Newfield at Fermilab. Now, the two also work together out of the Kuhn Barn, each assisting the other with individual dance groups.

Halfway through the Tuesday evening class, a break for a snack and some socializing is followed by more dancing, sometimes with different partners. Up-tempo music picks up the pace for reels and jigs. Smiles abound, and an occasional whoop goes up from the dancers, who stride in great circles and jump into the air.

Bagpipes seem a natural accompaniment to Scottish dance, but at events in which live music is played, it’s more likely to come from an accordion, fiddle or piano.

“I rarely play pipes for Silk & Thistle,” says dancer Mike Fitak, of Hanover Park. “The dancers are sensitive to the tempos, and it’s difficult to control with bagpipes.”

Fitak has been with Silk & Thistle since the early days of Fermilab, and he’s not shy about wearing a kilt to class, even in the dead of winter. Fitak is mostly of Polish descent, so his love of jigs and reels isn’t inherited. As a computer analyst by day, however, he seems to fit into a common belief that the Scottish steps appeal particularly to math and sciences people. “That seems to be the type drawn to this dance,” he says.

Newfield agrees: “I think it does appeal to people who think out interesting patterns, Scottish country dancing in particular.”

But Jensen has a different perspective. “I don’t see any correlation between Scottish dancing and physics,” he says. “It turns out that people who are in the sciences are also deeply involved in the arts. Science is artistic in a sense. You have to be curious and fascinated with the world around you.”

He insists that Scottish dance has universal appeal.

“If I look at the people who dance with us, there’s a wonderful variety,” Jensen says. “They’re really not of one ilk at all.”

The group brings together people of various ethnic backgrounds and includes ages high school to senior citizen. Often, group members enjoy more than just dancing.

“I can think of two or three couples that have gotten married after dancing with the group,” says Fitak. “What’s nice is that it’s flirting set to music, in a way that there are boundaries. Part of what makes it fun is making your partner smile. When it was created, dancing was how the boys and girls could interact, with some parental supervision.”

Adds Newfield: “It can be flirty, but it’s safe.”

Flirty or not, the dancers also like to put on a good show, displaying their skills at the Museum of Science and Industry’s Christmas Around the World event, and various others, from Milwaukee to Valparaiso, Ind. Regardless of where they dance, it’s really all about the fun.

“This is social dancing,” says Newfield.

And if it’s exercise you’re after, why not do it in a social environment? “Partners are not necessary, as everyone dances with everyone,” says Newfield. “And, it’s free. Anybody from the community can come, not just the lab community.” For more information, visit Silk & Thistle Scottish Dancers’ website, www.fnal.gov/orgs/scottishdance/. Dances are held in the Fermilab auditorium June through August. ❚