Johns Hopkins Magazine
Johns Hopkins Magazine Current Issue Past Issues Search Get In Touch
Winter Escapes
By Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson
Illustrations by Wally Neibart

In January, as winter all too slowly waxes toward spring, a sort of mental hibernation takes place at the Homewood campus.

The month or so between semesters means a break from 18-credit course loads, all-night study jags, and the scramble for grad school or job recommendation letters. While some students do use winter recess to catch up on credits in biotechnology, others tap a decades-long Hopkins tradition of personal enrichment, a.k.a. fun courses. On the mostly dormant campus, about 300 Intersession students, including some staff, can dabble in art, dance, music, Eastern martial arts, or Western wines. All for about $25 to $80 a course.

"I think it's a breather for them," says Jane Rhyner, who organizes the dozen or so enrichment courses among her many jobs in Hopkins's Office of Student Life. "I also think they meet people. Women students come up and say, 'Did any guys sign up for ballroom dance?'"

So, beloved pastimes are shared. Contact with campus maintained. And non-resume skills, like origami, learned. The results may take the shape of tiny folded paper flowers, a more discerning wine palate, a nimble fox trot, or a deeper understanding of zero balancing. Such explorations in culture or whimsy seem to lighten the Hopkins spirit.

Swirl, sniff, roll, hold...

It seems an unlikely room for a bit of good-natured snobbery.

The battleship gray walls, saggy Formica-topped table, and threadbare chairs of Conference Room A in Homewood's Levering Hall will soon provide a backdrop for one of Intersession's most popular courses: Wine Appreciation.

Bryon Linnehan walks in with four wine glasses clinking.

"I made this awesome pasta sauce the other night," the graduate student tells two female undergrads. He regales them with a recipe featuring 13 blanched tomatoes, capers, olives, grated Parmesan, and fresh parsley. The group exchanges culinary hints about sun-dried tomatoes and green vs. black olives.

Other students stream in, dragging extra chairs from the nearby theater and turning a lectern on its side to accommodate wine glasses of varied sizes and shapes. Some sport pin-striped shirts, others wear faded black Star Wars or Gap T-shirts. All are required to be 21 years old. More than a few are taking the course for a second year. They chatter, they wait, a bit impatiently, for Charles Lawrence: psychologist and wine connoisseur.

A few minutes after 7 p.m., Lawrence arrives, bearing boxes of French bread, wine bottles, and Havarti. "These are your tablecloths," he says, tearing off white Brawny paper towels. Lawrence is well-known to Hopkins students: He has taught wine appreciation courses since the 1970s, when, as an adjunct faculty member in psychiatry, he was asked to offer a class for overworked medical students at the hospital. "It was a non-credit, cultural thing," he explains. He gives his students the wine basics: primarily how to read a label and how to taste wine.

Tonight, opening the first of his four classes in the January 2001 session, he holds up a shot glass and explains the ground rules: "We have to make the wine go around." He shows them how they will measure each taste of wine in the small glass, and then transfer that to the wine goblets they brought. He gives a quick lesson in vintage math and temperance: "We are trying 10 wines tonight. That's 15 ounces, better than half a bottle. For some of you, that will be no problem. Other people should exercise discretion."

He passes out the requisite class hand out. The top sheet is a wine list, the others articles about vines, vintages, and wineries. Tonight, mostly California wines are featured, and among them are the Glen Ellen sauvignon blanc Reserve; the Saintsbury chardonnay, Carneros; and Robert Mondavi's cabernet sauvignon, Napa Valley.

Lawrence proceeds to explain that white wine should be clear, a lemony golden color; red wines often a dark ruby tint. The students learn that while there are essentially four tastes available to the tongue--sweet, sour, bitter, salty--there are a few thousand qualities to the sense of smell. Roll wine on the tongue, and the aroma will go back up through the nose, he tells them. The students practice, swirling wine in the glass to "open it up," sniffing, rolling, holding, and tasting.

A bit of career advice: true wine tasters don't swallow. Says Lawrence: "Professionals who work in the field start tasting wine at 10 in the morning. They wouldn't get through the day." He pauses, looking at the 30 or so students. "We are not professionals here."

But true to form, Hopkins students are inquisitive, and Lawrence does his best to answer their questions. "When you see 'reserve' on the label, is that a better wine?" one student asks. (Usually, but not always.) "Does what they call the wine have any real meaning?" (A merlot from California, for example, can be up to 25 percent another, unnamed grape). "What about Box O' Wine?" asks Chris Stevens, a biology major. "Is vacuum-packed not a good idea for wine?" ("The traditional thing is to have wine in a bottle," Lawrence concludes.)

And they know some of the answers, too. Lawrence fields a question about filtered vs. unfiltered wines by trying to explain another, less-used wine processing method. "What do you call the twirling thing?" he asks, moving his finger in a circle. "Centrifuge!" several Hopkins voices chime.

About four bottles in, the decibel level has spiked in the crowded room. Some students begin to get philosophical. Ken Moriyama, a senior and double major in electrical engineering and math, gazes into his glass: "It's hard to think people make a profession out of such matter."

Yet the group does learn to look for subtle flavors and scents: hints of citrus or pineapple; or of green pepper, asparagus, and other "grassy" tastes sometimes called "tom cat" in the sauvignon blanc. In reds, they try to detect smokiness, or scents of vanilla or cigar box. Is there an overtone of blackberry or does one detect leather or meat? They can only be so serious about such similes. "I detect a taste of old shoes," one student quips. Corrects another: "Actually, it's a vinyl flavor."

At the end, Lawrence unveils the prices of the wines. Some of the students have marked their guesses beside the wines on their lists. Bobby Mondavi's cabernet sauvignon came in at $25 a bottle.

"Oh... I had $18!"

"I had $22!"

One student strikes a particularly plaintive note. "But I liked the Glen Ellen," she wailed. "It's only five bucks."

Side together, tap, step, triple step...

"I'm finally here," says a guy in a black button-down shirt and jeans. "I've been talking about this since, what, my sophomore year?"

Ben Kramer, a graduate student in computer science, beams at Joanne Houlahan, a Hopkins computer science instructor and Intersession dance teacher. At one end of Levering's Great Hall, Houlahan faces Kramer and a varied collection of Hopkins students, many wearing baggy khakis and running shoes. More than a few bear half- smiles and looks of shyness laced with terror.

"Anybody know what West Coast swing is?" asks Houlahan, a slight woman decked out in black-and-white checked pants and suede-soled dance shoes.

No one does. But they're here to learn.

Houlahan explains that West Coast swing is a version of East Coast swing. In revival waves of '30s-era swing dance, most bar dance floors in California proved too crowded for the swingiest moves, so an adaption was created in the mid-1980s to allow dancers to move along a linear track. The steps have been slowed to accompany different genres of music-- blues or even hip-hop.

Houlahan (MS '86, PhD '96) clasps hands with her dance partner, John Alder (MS '99), and the two begin twirling and stepping and pulling close and spinning back out. "See how we never get off a line while we dance?" Houlahan says in breaths between steps. "That's how so many people can fit on a postage stamp-sized dance floor."

But this room seems plenty big, the dance instructor and her partner's dance steps perfectly intimidating. The 15 or so students giggle and fidget. Especially the men. A bunch of them signed up late, and they outnumber the women.

"The lady's hand is like a glass of beer," says Houlahan. "You pour it on her head, and put it back on the table." "Guys, you will learn very specific footwork so you don't get run over by the women," Houlahan tells the group, and then orders them to split up: Boys on one side, girls on the other.

This is college, after all, time for young men and women to meet and mingle and perhaps move on to new partners. Houlahan's advice throughout this Wednesday afternoon class seems timely for the social lessons they will learn on campus over the next few years, or have encountered already.

"Ladies, you have to lean into him a little bit."

"Go straight through the guy if he doesn't get out of the way."

"Guys, you make the moves happen."

"The lady's hand is like a glass of beer," Houlahan says, as she tries to teach the men how to lead their partners through a spinning turn under their clasped hands. "You pour it on her head, and put it back on the table."

But first, Houlahan shows the men and women their steps in this afternoon's dance. The women's template: Walk Walk . . . Run, Run, Run, then Triple Step. The men's first move: Side Together, Tap, Step, Triple Step.

Houlahan's shoes go tap, tap, tap. The students' rubber-soled Nikes: thump, thump, thump.

In the first hour sans music, students make mumbled introductions as they change partners. Attempts at three-step combinations bring clumsy toe crunching, and a chaos of Frankenstein-style head bobs, frontal crashes, and subsequent groans and apologies. "Don't squeeze their hands too tightly," Houlahan tells the men. "The women have to be able to let go if something goes wrong."

Time and again, at each new attempt, voices of young women gently smooth the path: "That's okay," "We're all just learning," and "Don't worry about it." Or, later in the night, as freshman Annette Tardiff greets her partner on a second go-around: "Hi again, are you a little more confident? Just pretend you are confident."

Houlahan points out that in dance, if not life, there needs to be a leader and a follower. She admits that Hopkins women might have a tough time following. Yet the men have to decide which move to make each time. Kramer, the computer science grad student, tries to decide his move based on a random numeral selection: 0, 1, or 2. "The girls know WAY too much about what is going on here," Houlahan says as the women get the hang of things. "Confuse them a little."

About an hour into the class, the student swing dancers become more comfortable in their roles, and Houlahan adds music: George Thorogood's raw-beat special "Bad to the Bone." The steps get cleaner and the laughter more gleeful. "Yes!" one student yells, punching his fist in the air after a particularly good round.

Houlahan fell into dance as a lifelong love when she was a graduate student at Hopkins. A friend who was taking an Intersession ballroom dance class asked her one day if she wanted to try a death drop. "That's the first dance move I ever did," she says. "I told him, 'That's awesome. Teach me everything you know.'"

Inhale, lift, drop and exhale...

Annette Tardiff and Josh Leven dash out of their dance class, hand in hand. Both are Hopkins freshmen--he is majoring in computer science, she in civil engineering. This is their first Intersession, and they're in love.

"We have another class!" they blurt out.

They are running late for their 6 p.m.: "Acupuncture, Qi Gong, and Zero Balancing."

Guy Hollyday (MA '59 PhD '64) greets Tardiff, Leven, and three other students at University One apartment's massage suite, a few blocks from campus. Gently graying and bearded, Hollyday is wearing an orange turtleneck, tan corduroy pants, and blue socks. He and the five students take off their shoes and step onto the shag carpet to practice Qi Gong--a Chinese exercise that incorporates slow movements to relax and heal the mind and body, and to tap hidden energy flows.

"What does this do?" Hollyday asks, holding a finger horizontally above his top lip.

"It stops me from sneezing," one student answers.

He lets them know that it's also useful for easing leg cramps.

After they loosen up, Hollyday gives the students a lesson in one of relaxation's most elemental centering practices: breathing. He takes in a deep drag of air and holds it, slowly counting to eight on his fingers. Then he exhales slowly to the same eight-finger count.

"You can do this at night, when you can't get to sleep," he explains. "I do that when I want to focus. I do it when I'm upset and it helps when I am in pain."

He tells them about an October trip he and his wife took to Uzbekistan to visit friends. He had a toothache for three weeks and no reliable dental care close by. When regular exercising and Tylenol didn't work, he focused on breathing to lessen the pain: "That gave me some control."

To the students, Hollyday is Intersession's resident guru, a man who touts relaxation and the whole person, energy points and Mother Earth, not medical school applications, student loans, and quantum physics. He breathes in again, this time lifting his arms above his head, palms facing downward. The students follow his lead as he drops his hands down, along the sides of his body. "You are bringing energy down from heaven, into your lower belly," he explains. "Feel it go into your legs and then into the center of the earth."

They learn to take other slow, controlled, dancelike movements. Students close their eyes and turn their faces toward the drop ceiling. "The idea is to send the energy into outer space," Hollyday says during one move. The sound of cars speeding down University Parkway and the ticking of a clock grow louder in the silence. A sun-and-moon wind chime in the corner hangs still.

"Is it bad to cut off someone's energy?" ask Marion Ada, a junior public health major, after she and the student next to her almost collide. "My hand went through his. Is that a negative thing?"

"I don't know. I've never done it," Hollyday answers.

"Should my arms have gotten cold?" asks Michael Brown, a freshman majoring in neuroscience. "Should my arms get cold? They got cold."

"What happens, happens," Hollyday replies.

Brown has been voicing his worries about the needles involved in acupuncture, one Eastern approach to the healing arts being covered in the sessions. "Needles scare me," he admits. Hollyday tries to ease the students' doubts. They talk about the rare cases where the nearly hair-thin needles draw blood.

"When was the last time you drew blood?" the students ask Hollyday.

"The last time I drew blood," he says, and pauses, "was two weeks ago."

"Oh," Brown says, with a weak laugh. "I thought you were going to say four years or something."

"Prior to that, I don't remember when," the guru consoles.

Regina Shih ('00) has come to learn more about a familiar practice. Shih, who earned her Hopkins undergraduate degree in neuroscience, is now a research assistant at Johns Hopkins Hospital at work on a study on Alzheimer's disease. Her father introduced her to acupuncture, and she wants to learn more about it. "Tell me about the pathways," she asks the instructor.

For Hopkins students like Shih, Brown, Ada--and others who likely will wind their way into the halls of Western medicine and the habits of America's multi-tasking lifestyle--Hollyday provides another central lesson: "What acupuncture does is remind you of where you are and what you need," he explains. Take, for example, the lure of the cellular phone. "Cell phones are a means of getting you away from where you are," he says. "I've spent the last 10 years trying to focus on just where I am--not last week, next year, or fantasy land."

And while Western physicians often focus on the symptoms, Eastern medicine treats the person, says Hollyday, who practices acupuncture, zero balancing, and other holistic arts for a living: "You are doing something when your back acts up. You are doing something and need to change your way of living."

So, he speaks to the students of antidotes to life's stresses: "What are ways that we can live better?" Hollyday asks, then quietly answers: "Eat well and sleep. Stay away from fat."

"Sleep," Brown says wistfully, "I keep forgetting that one."

Exercise, drink water, exercise some more.

"What not to do?" Hollyday asks.

"Pull all-nighters," Tardiff answers.

"Amen," says Hollyday, the former Hopkins graduate student in German.

Tardiff, whose ankle-length cotton dress is fitting attire for both West Coast swing and Qi Gong, points out that her boyfriend, Josh, has filled up his Intersession with an independent study.

"Not me," she says, shaking her head. "My independent study is relaxing."

Glide, jump, skip, and flam...

For students in the Clipper Room, escape this winter break is not as raucous as the wine tasting or swing dancing classes. Few blurt out embarrassing comments or make ribald jokes. Most are post-college working adults--Hopkins alumni and staff, and people from the community. And though they might be quiet, their escape is sound. They are studying the hammered dulcimer, a subject that could hardly be more removed from the discord of modern life.

It is a chilly Thursday, and six students carry their trapezoid-shaped wooden instruments in canvas cases, straps draped over shoulders, as they walk one by one up Shriver Hall's wide marble steps. In a long room on the second floor, they quietly set up wooden stands, pull out padded mallets, and wait.

World-renowned hammered dulcimer player and teacher Ken Kolodner (PhD '84) starts his second class this session. "When you make mistakes, what are you thinking?" he asks after the students lose the timing on a piece they are learning.

"I'm thinking, 'What's next? What happens next?'" says Toya Koch, who has driven an hour-plus from Williamsport, Maryland, to attend Kolodner's class, and is standing next to her father, Bob Essex, who came all the way from Hedgesville, West Virginia.

Essex has been studying on his own for six years, mostly picking out tunes by ear in his study. His daughter heard about the class through folk music circles in Baltimore, and asked her father to come, too. "It's not your everyday instrument," Essex says. "It's kind of fun, and it sounds beautiful."

The students--a few mothers, a nuclear medicine technologist, an astronomer, and a grad student--gather around Kolodner. As they watch, he gently taps the strings on an instrument most historians date to the palaces of Persia a millennium ago--an instrument likely transported to America by the working class man and popularized in Michigan logging camps as the "lumberjack piano."

Today, with its 70 strings stretched over two bridges (there are many variations in name and design) the dulcimer is a member of the percussion family, Kolodner explains. Yet it's also related to the piano and harpsichord, especially by nature of its rich, reverberating tones. Players can drastically alter the texture of the sound (a damper pedal can make the instrument produce marimba-like tunes). Or they can pluck some strings while playing others with the small wooden hammers.

In this four-session crash course, Kolodner teaches his students a few of the patterns and techniques learned over the centuries. They practice chords, scales, lilting arpeggios, and flams (two tones struck with one hand using a gentle back-hand bounce of the mallet). He emphasizes the aesthetic of a light touch, downplaying the flashy, but often sloppy hammering some may have heard at summer Renaissance festivals.

Kolodner also gives his students a bit of his own music theory: "Playing music is like breathing," he says when explaining the power of spaces within music. "When you talk to someone, you don't talk without breathing."

He offers practical advice, especially on the subject of mistakes. "Don't make a face," he says, as they laugh after one dissonant attempt. "If you are playing at a local church, don't give any recognition that you've made a mistake. You want to smile and look around."

Kolodner learned to play hammered dulcimer music, mostly Appalachian tunes, in his mid-20s while studying for his PhD at Hopkins's School of Public Health. He later branched into Celtic and other music and became a virtuoso, joining the trio Helicon, teaching, and recording CDs. For 10 years, dulcimer was his day job. Now a scientist at Innovative Medical Research outside Baltimore, he takes six weeks off a year to play festivals from the halls of Hamburg, Germany, to the hills of North Carolina.

A concert he gave at Hopkins's Spring Fair got him roped into teaching at Intersession. His students have become hooked too. Judy Evans '81 won a dulcimer in an art fair raffle five years ago. "It's been decorating my living room as a conversation piece," says Evans, who was taking her first class with Kolodner and has signed up for more. "Now I know how it works."

As Kolodner demonstrates the versatility of the instrument this session, his students again gather around to watch his wooden hammers glide, jump, skip, and flam. Under Kolodner's touch, the hammered dulcimer transports his listeners to the mountains of Tennessee or the verdant valleys of Ireland; they hear riffs played in the concert halls of China, Ukraine, Romania, or Greece.

As he plays, the Baltimore Clipper ships on the wall mural in this room also seem to heel more heavily into the wind, cutting the blue-green harbor waters. The entire painted scene, with its tiny sailors clinging to masts or rowing out to the glorious tall ships, seems to rise above the room's scuffed black linoleum.

Helen Hart, a satellite operations astronomer at Hopkins's FUSE, the Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer mission, gazes dreamily into space long after Kolodner has ended one song. He lightly claps his mallets together and looks up into her face: "Hey, you still there?"

She smiles and goes back to her instrument to try again.

Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson ( is a senior writer at Johns Hopkins Magazine.

Return to April 2001 Table of Contents

  The Johns Hopkins Magazine | The Johns Hopkins University | 3003 North Charles Street |
Suite 100 | Baltimore, Maryland 21218 | Phone 410.516.7645 | Fax 410.516.5251