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By David Henry

Folk Dance Demise

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David Henry 2014

12-27-97: Some longish reflections on the early days of folkdance, the demise of folkdance, and low attendance at Balkan music events:

The folkdance scene today is quite different from the scene of 40 years ago. Then, going folkdancing meant that you might do a Balkan dance followed by an Israeli dance followed by a Hungarian dance followed by a Scandinavian dance followed by a Contra. Today, such "international" groups have diminished in number, and part of the reason is that today we have specialized groups doing only Balkan, only Contra, only Hungarian, only Israeli, and only Scandinavian dances. That's great for those who love those kinds of dancing, but it's been terrible for the "international" dance scene. "So?," you ask. Read on.

The group I started dancing with in Philadelphia in the late 1950s was run by Lanie Melamed. Lanie was a recreationist – a true believer – and her mission was to include everybody who walked in the door in every dance. Her husband Andy would bring his accordion and play for folksinging at the end of the dance. We almost always ended up at the Melameds for eating, schmoozing, and more folksinging. ("Was the Internationale really a folksong?" one who remembers that group might ask, but that's another story.) The dancers became a community, and there were communities like that all over the country.

As we learned more, we yearned for more, and our yearnings took us deeper into our favorite nooks and crannies until we became separated from one another, some in the Balkan cranny, some in the Scandi cranny. . . . In short, we Balkanized ourselves. Some groups tried to remain recreational while at the same time building up a specialized repertoire – they died of confusion.

One of Richard Duree's comments in a recent posting contains, I think, the kernel of what's right and what's wrong with today's picture. Richard said: "It is a sad thing to realize how much more we know now and how much more expertise there is – as evidenced on the East European Folklife Center (EEFC) list &150; and there are so many fewer dancers to take advantage of it. When I think of all the "fluff" we got back then . . ."

While it's thrilling to me (and obviously to Richard) to learn more about Balkan dance and music, I would suggest that there are so many fewer dancers today precisely because many groups that did the "fluff" – the stuff of recreation – have been dying off. And while nothing turns me off more than a leader announcing "Here's an easy one – everybody up," and nothing sends me in search of the water cooler quicker than the invitation to get a partner for an "easy Mixer," I also get turned off when I visit a group that does a whole string of complicated dances from its specialized repertoire. I would suggest that the "international" groups that did fluff dances were the very places that many of those who are today the pillars of specialized groups got their start, and that such groups are the natural feeders for the specialized groups. (Richard's newsletter, by the way, Dance Traditions, is a marvel of diversity.) We've produced magnificient fruit, but we're letting the roots wither. It's like trying to run thriving graduate schools while the secondary schools and high schools and colleges are closing.

It seems that while both "international" and specialized folkdancing has declined around the country recently, it remains strong in areas with strong folkdance organizations: Chicago, Boston, St. Louis, California, Florida, Texas. Once upon a time, long, long ago, I tried to get the teachers in the New York City area to band together, but each one was an island – some wouldn't even attend a meeting to DISCUSS organizing, and now the once-thriving folkdance islands of New York City have disappeared. Was it lack of a supporting network that let those islands sink, or global warming? Maybe successive El Niños.

The supporting networks in the areas I mentioned seem to nurture all of their member groups, both the "international" ones and the specialized ones, and they foster, I think, cross-attendance. This list is clearly an important network for Balkan dancers and musicians (and one occasionally hears timid, apologetic voices from those interested in nearby cultures), and LONG MAY IT FLOURISH, but for the overall good of the folkdance and music scene, the specialists have to nurture the generalist groups that can feed them (a little like ants tending aphids except that I guess aphids don't grow up to be ants, do they?).

Could attendance at Balkan music events be boosted if envoys were dispached to generalist dance groups to join in the dancing (even – aaaaaarg! – a Mixer) and then make an announcement? You betcha! Those generalists are the very ones who go on folkdance tours and come back thrilled at having danced at village occasions with live music! The envoys must, naturally, not patronize – they must understand that we are one community with diverse interests and different levels of understanding and achievement.

One way to nurture folkdancing and folk music is to support the National Folk Organization. It has just recently become a superlative network for folkdancers and musicians of every sort, and quite a few contributors to this list are already members (sorry – I don't mean to "out" anybody). Under the vigorous leadership of past-president Ed Austin and the catholic interests of the newsletter's articulate editor Sanna Longden, it has become the model for promotion of our favorite activity. Betz Hanley is a long-time folkdancer of exceptional vigor and can be expected to continue the progress.

An aside – I've long thought that the success of folkdancing in schools and colleges depends on the personality and interests of the teachers. I have experienced far too many college groups taught from a book by teachers who would rather be teaching basketball or swimming. Such classes won't bring young people in – they'll turn kids off forever. Get the teachers hooked in folkdance groups, and they'll take dancing back to their kids with an enthusiasm that will knock the little sweeties socks off.

Let me assure everyone that this IS NOT a plea to dumb down our specialized groups so that everyone who walks in the door can participate – brain surgery isn't for everyone. Nor is it a plea to limit ourselves to little cutsie Balkan dances – how you gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Skopje! But let's face it, dancing a 20-minute Pravo or doing anything in the presence of zournades is, like doing brain surgery, an acquired taste. That taste has been developed by many of us in generalist groups.

This IS a suggestion that we all join to build up the national organization which will in turn nurture all of its members (remember all of those groups in NYC that have sunk like Atlantis!). And it's a plea to cultivate the recreational "international" groups, some of the members of which will blossom into specialists just as many of us did. We've got to tend those aphids because they are our roots . . . well, something like that. Richard's Duree's comment about that gender thing is interesting because two specialty groups, Country (English and New England) and Scottish, both involve couple dances (gender-free couple dancing seems to be growing in some areas) and terrific national/international organizations. I might add that they both dance to live music, at least from time to time.

It's interesting that although southern Balkan "couple" dances (the original gender-free dances?) have been taught, they have not stuck – antikristi, for instance. We all know that the situation is complex and that more than one factor led both to the rise and to the demise.

May I also add that international folk dance, and Balkan dance (and music) in particular, is apparently, from the number of groups listed in their publications, thriving in the United Kingdom, Scandinavia, France, and Germany where there are national organizations. Someone else can perhaps comment on the effect of the national organization in Japan on the vitality of dancing in that country – Yves Moreau and Joe Graziosi have both taught there – and on New Zealand and Australian organizations.

Country Dancing (ECD and NECD) is doing well in Scandinavia and the Low Countries, again with the support of national and international organizations.

–David Henry


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