Spellbinders: Telling tales in Aspen, the valley | AspenTimes.com

Spellbinders: Telling tales in Aspen, the valley

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

Rustin Gudim/ Special to Aspen Times WeeklyJackie Merrill, chairman of the board of directors of the Aspen-based nonprofit organization Spellbinders, volunteering as a Spellbinders storyteller last week in the Aspen Elementary School.

ASPEN – Germaine Dietsch, founder of the locally based storytelling organization Spellbinders, refers to stories as “connectors.”

Now Dietsch, who grew up entranced by the tales her grandmother told, and those of a family friend who had sailed the world with the merchant marine, would never understate the significance of a good narrative well told. But the way she views stories indicates that her interest in storytelling didn’t begin with the stories themselves.

Spellbinders starts instead with Dietsch’s desire to find ways to put communities back together. In the ’80s, living in Denver, she noticed how the city’s 20-year history of school busing had left kids isolated from their neighborhoods. At the same time, Dietsch was also thinking about the elderly. She was watching both her mother and mother-in-law, as they entered their 70s, struggle to find meaningful activity.

Seniors, said Dietsch – who is now a spry, quick-minded 78-year-old Woody Creeker and enthusiastic hiker – “are not given a status of contributing to society, but of having to be taken care of, of being needy, of eroding. That was bad for the health of the older people, bad for the community. The community needed to sense that the whole community, young and old, needs to be involved.”

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The first avenue she explored was theater. In the mid-’80s, Dietsch was working on her master’s, at Denver University, in theater, with an eye towards children’s theater. But a professor had gotten involved in seniors theater, and invited Dietsch into that little-known niche. She was eager; while earning her master’s, she had also earned a certificate in gerontology.

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But soon after, Dietsch read of Opalanga Pugh, a Denverite who had gone to Nigeria to become a griot – a traditional storyteller whose services are a respected aspect of West African culture. “I had never heard of such a thing as professional storytelling,” Dietsch said. Pugh became Dietsch’s mentor, and when Dietsch put together a group of older people, Pugh – along with Cherie Karo Schwartz, who specialized in tales from the Jewish tradition – taught them the art of storytelling.

As Dietsch brought her volunteers into Denver classrooms, she saw that one segment of the community needed to be sold on the value of storytelling: teachers.

“Storytelling was considered entertainment. It didn’t have anything to do with education,” Dietsch said. “The teachers said, What, you don’t have finger puppets? No audio-visual equipment? We said, ‘No, we just have the words of the stories we tell.'”

To Dietsch, that was sufficient. Right away she witnessed what she refers to as “story trance”: steady eye contact, quiet, a hunger in the students to know what happens next.

“Teachers were amazed we could hold the attention of the children,” Dietsch said. “The listener is in tune with the story, imagining it and remembering it. I was amazed at the eye-to-eye contact, even more than the story. The fact I could get the children’s attention, being a stranger in the classroom, was wonderful. We never had to ask the kids to say thank you. They just knew to do it.

“The words come from the teller, then become pictures in the mind of the listener. They are developing in their own heads what is going on, and the storyteller is a window through which the story comes.”

After witnessing that reaction, Dietsch had the name – Spellbinders – for her program. She wasn’t the only one noticing the students’ enchantment; within two years of bringing stories into the classroom, Spellbinders earned recognition from the governor’s office.

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When Dietsch moved to the Roaring Fork Valley, in the mid-’90s, she brought Spellbinders with her, and made it an official nonprofit organization. Since then, Spellbinders has trained 130 volunteers storytellers; last year, the storytellers had an audience of nearly 5,000 students in public elementary schools from Aspen to Glenwood Springs. The sessions are relatively short – 15-20 minutes, during which volunteers might tell “Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock,” from West Africa, or “The Paper Dragon,” of Chinese origin, and recite poetry – but Spellbinders looks to maximize its impact by making six to nine visits a year to the same class.

Appreciation for storytelling generally has grown in the past two decades. Corporations, Dietsch points out, use storytelling as a training technique for executives. She notes that the biologist E.O. Wilson theorized that information is given meaning when it is put into a narrative. “It’s become known that the ancient art of storytelling, the oral tradition, is the way people learn,” she said.

The embrace of oral stories is reflected in the growth of Spellbinders: There are 24 chapters, as distant as Wales and Canada, all following a standard manual and handbook. The group remains based in the Roaring Fork Valley; two Aspenites – board chairman Jackie Merrill and CEO Catherine Johnson – head the national organization.

Spellbinders has been recognized as being part of the growth of storytelling. This summer, Dietsch was given the Oracle award for service and leadership from the National Storytelling Network.

Still, Dietsch finds herself having to explain exactly what the purpose of Spellbinders is. When people hear about stories told in classrooms, the quick assumption is that the purpose is entertainment for little kids, but that’s only part of the story.

Dietsch believes there is vital learning taking place: “It’s teaching words, vocabulary. It’s character education,” she said.

And Spellbinders is as much about giving the volunteers – almost all over 50 – a meaningful experience as it is about the kids. The storytellers are trained in three, three-hour sessions. (The current class comprises a retired veterinarian, a native American and a carpenter from Transylvania recovering from back surgery.) The volunteers are treated like artists – they don’t recite a memorized script, but make the stories their own.

“What’s important is that the story means something to the storyteller,” Dietsch said. “It’s like a musician – the piece has to mean something to them, or you’re not going to tell it very well.”

“People ask, Are you about seniors? About children’s education? About community building? And we say, All three,” Dietsch said, adding that Spellbinders is currently the subject of research on the effects of aging on older volunteers.

To see the ultimate purpose of Spellbinders, you have to look at the three-part interaction between the teller, the listener and the story.

“There’s a bond. The kids see this person as a neighbor,” Dietsch said. “And it doesn’t happen without the storytelling. It’s connecting the generations through the magic of storytelling.”

stewart@aspentimes.com

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