Ideas worth spreading in Shelburne Falls

Ezekiel Heter-Wegscheider was nervously pacing around the back of the auditorium when I ran into him at TEDx Shelburne Falls in early November. He told me he had once beat-boxed in front of about 100 people, but had never spoken to an audience this large. I could understand why he was feeling some last-minute jitters. The Buckland resident was scheduled to talk that afternoon on the topic of fractals, “infinite infinity” and simultaneous opposites. Gulp.

“This could change the world right here,” Heter-Wegscheider said of the event.

Dean Cycon

Dean’s Beans owner Dean Cycon speaks at TEDx Shelburne Falls in November. Photo courtesy of Stacy Kontrabecki.

Heter-Wegscheider’s enthusiasm might have been a tad ambitious for this first-time live TEDx event in Shelburne Falls, but it was in keeping with the spirit of the day’s events. After receiving a license from TED in August, local resident Stacy Kontrabecki organized the event on a shoestring budget of only $275 from the Shelburne Cultural Council. In only a few months time, she lined up 10 speakers from around the area, enlisted the help of 30+ volunteers, and brought a variety of sponsors on board, including Greenfield Television and Falls Cable, which filmed and broadcast the talks. The California-based TED does relatively little to produce these independent gatherings, beyond lending their household name and providing a set of rules local events must follow. One such requirement is that all TEDx talks be made available to the public online. That’s good news for those who missed November’s talks in Shelburne Falls. With one notable exception, you can watch all the talks here:

The size of first-time events is also limited to 100 tickets per session. Kontrabecki and her volunteers were successful in selling almost all of those seats for both the morning and afternoon sessions. The crowd that gathered on a Saturday morning inside Memorial Hall in downtown Shelburne Falls was audibly animated, judging from their spirited applause for the day’s first speakers.

The program featured a diverse range of Valley thinkers, performers and activists, who tried to impart wisdom they had gleaned from decades of experience, with mixed success. Dean Cycon of Dean’s Beans in Orange led off with an earnest plea for socially-mindful business practices, a message that seemed to strike a chord with the attentive audience. When Belchertown’s David Shepherd, who is approaching 90, was assisted to the stage to share some of the improv techniques that made him famous, he prefaced his demonstration by saying “I hope I remember!” With help from a few volunteers, he more-or-less was able to jog his memory and talk his performers through a couple of short skits.

The unexpected highlight of the morning came from soft-spoken dance teacher Daniel Trenner, who made an eloquent pitch for the creation of university programs that would train elementary and high school teachers of “social dance.”

“They will provide a necessary balance to our focus on the mind, reading and math, intellectual rigor, competition,” he said. “This balance seems to be ignored in present school curriculum, where physical education has often been reduced to an elective, and where the skills of social etiquette are a throwaway, taught in the schoolyard by each class of ignorant kids to the class that follows them.”

Trenner, who has been teaching dance for 35 years in 10 different countries, and now teaches at several area colleges, believes that with our culture’s emphasis on dance as performance and on competitive sports, we have lost skills reinforced through social dancing, such as ” body awareness” “boundary keeping” and “relationship building.” He argued that men, in particular, “desperately need these ‘feminine’ experiential physical disciplines. Ones measured in feelings, not scores.”

“These are the fundamental building blocks of empathy, and empathy is a fundamental building block of civilized society, one sorely lacking in our public discourse. Funny that social dancing, moving in physical contact, is where it would be natural to learn such a skill,” Trenner said. “Social dance is a counter trend to the isolation and separation of the individual from family and community by the modern workplace and society. It is an overlooked and underrated skill set for the youth of the modern age, a meeting in action of physical, emotional and intellectual components of a well-rounded citizen.”

Following the talks, a period of time was set aside for the audience to meet the speakers and ask questions. This conversation period, a regular feature of the national TED conferences, worked particularly well at the local level, as audience members had an opportunity to ask virtually anything that was on their minds. An elderly woman cornered Darby Dyar, a professor of astronomy at Mount Holyoke College, who had spoken about her work on the Mars Rover project. The woman first asked Dyar, how could humans could survive on Mars with the planet’s thin atmosphere? Then they discussed manipulating the planet’s magnetic fields. Finally, the woman asked, “do you believe aliens came here and built the pyramids?”

Such was the flavor of the morning’s smorgasbord of ideas. The talks attracted a wide-range of age groups. A pair of Mount Holyoke College students I spoke to called the speakers “interesting,” but didn’t appear particularly inspired by anything they had heard.

Greenfield resident Doug Wight said he had learned something from every one of the talks. “Every time I see something promising, I try to avail myself of it,” he said of his decision to attend.  “You try to stay open to possibility and curiosity … How alive were those people? Totally alive. That’s the way I want to be.”

Kontrabecki said she is hoping to host the event on an annual basis.

TEDx Shelburne Falls had its first brush with internet fame when afternoon speaker Jim Vieira’s talk — which suggested the Smithsonian was covering up archaeological evidence of Native America giants — went viral, eventually collecting more than 118,000 views. But TED fact checkers uncovered numerous inaccuracies in Vieira’s talk, which was subsequently removed from YouTube. You can read Kontrabecki’s letter about the controversy here: It seems that in TED’s estimation, some ideas are not worth spreading.