Folk dance has benefited us in more ways than we can imagine. The physical exercise alone has enhanced and preserved our health and active life style far beyond that of the vast majority of the population. It is not unusual to have active members well into their 80s in our midst, hale, hearty, healthy, happy, and dancing still.
The dance has created and inspired an appreciation for artistic and cultural concerns in a way few activities can. Our fellow dancers have a more understanding view of cultures which are viewed with mistrust and even contempt by less enlightened folk. We have been blessed with a view of the true heritage of cultures behind the posturing of politicians and aristocrats. We travel. We study. We appreciate. We learn.
To give the dance the true depth of understanding it deserves, we need to learn to view the dance as a messenger with a story to tell. That story is about the question: "Why do people dance the way they do?" This question and the quest to answer it will be folk dance's greatest gift.
To more fully realize the potential value of folk dance as both a social and recreational hobby and a field of serious study, its unique make up needs to be understood. Simply, there are four ingredients which combine to create folk dance which do not apply to any other dance form:
- The Ethnology of the Dance: Who danced the dance? Where? When? And why? What role did the dance play in their secular and religious life? Marriage market? Rite of Passage? Easter?
- The Character of the Dance: Often called "styling," now we ask "why do people dance the way they do?" This will be discussed in a moment.
- The Relationship to the Music: Interestingly, there are folk dances that are not accompanied by music and there are other dances that do not have a definite rhythm. In either case, the dance has a powerful control that holds the dance together in spite of the lack of musical rhythm. They are, however, rare exceptions; musical accompaniment is an integral part of the dance event and adherence to the rhythm is consider to be of utmost importance.
- The Choreography: The arrangement of steps, figures, and motifs. Though the least important element of the dance, this is where too many folk dancers focus their attention, neglecting the first three. It should be noted that in some dances it is considered rude and inappropriate to deviate from the prescribed steps, where others have no such limitations and improvised variations are admired and skill at the dance is an enhancement to one's social status. Whichever custom applies should be understood and respected.
Folk/ethnic dance exists for one basic reason and hundreds of directly related ones: It fulfills or satisfies the aesthetic needs and standards of its creators. If those social urges that foster the dance are removed, the dance declines and disappears. Only those of us who love it solely as an art form and recreational hobby and the occasional rare academic are committed to saving it.
What are those aesthetic forces that shape the dance? Why does the dance of Telemark in Norway differ so profoundly from that of Seville in Spain? Or from Radomir in Bulgaria? For that matter, why does the dance of the Šop region differ so much from that of Novo Zagorsko, just a few miles away in Thrace? In Transylvania, why do Romanians delight in nurturing highly complex syncopations in their dance, while the Hungarians living in the next village are perfectly happy with dance rhythms in 4/4? Why are the Hungarian men's dances competitive, while the Romanian men dance together as one? Why do some Balkan chain dances circle clock-wise, while others go counter? (It's been offered that one of them follows the direction of the sun across the sky.)
These are questions that learned ethnologists in many countries spend their entire lives happily exploring for answers. They are questions that can give folk dance the depth that gives this dance more educational value than any other. They are questions that can teach us to "read" the story the dance tells us of people few of us will ever meet.
Let's explore some of the possible answers to "why people dance the way they do.
- Topography: The people's response to the land that they inhabit, particularly in non-technical cultures, determines many things: how they dress, form of shelter, diet, their concept of the horizon. Mountain dwellers have a more stationary and vertical concept of the world than do those riding freely across the steppes. Observation: Poland's Gorale people in the Tatra Mountains dance in place with rapid footwork, displaying prized leg strength and stamina; while the people of nearby Krakow have developed the rapidly-moving "krakowiak" that mimics the view of the horseman.
- Livelihood: How people feed and shelter themselves is determined by what is available to them. To the nomad, mountains are a barrier to be crossed in search of open grazing land for their herds of animals. They may be a horse culture, constantly migrating to follow the seasons and demonstrating a very limited dance repertoire. Those who live in the mountains are more likely to be loggers or miners, developing powerful legs and lung capacity and dancing with sure-footed speed and agility. Lands with fertile soils will be populated with sedentary farmers and may be relatively wealthy compared to nomads and mountain dwellers. Their dance will be earth-bound, frequently gentle like the crops they grow and communal in nature as they are in life.
- Climate: Norwegian winters are not like Spanish winters. Weather changes much more slowly in Scandinavia than in Iberia and the Mediterranean, directly opposite the hot winds of North Africa. Observation: Could the slow change of seasons from winter to summer have some bearing on the typical calm of the Norwegians and Swedes, while the radical difference in day and night temperatures in Spain effect the rapid and intense mood changes of the "hot-tempered" Spaniard? Can the extreme anger and volatility witnessed in Middle Eastern desert countries be caused by the constant irritation of the extreme heat.
- Clothing/Footwear: It is a rare horse culture that does not use boots heavy boots. Working around horses can be hazardous to one's feet and riding through brush endangers the lower leg. Heavy boots are not the best footwear for climbing mountain paths where a sure step is necessary to prevent injury or worse. Stamps and heel-beats are a natural in boots, not so in a lightweight moccasins (opanke) that permit light, rapid steps and flexible gestures. And stamping is rarely applied when the dance surface will resonate. The width and length of women's skirts will affect how they will be used in the dance; either left alone or standing straight out in a spin or to create beautiful images and gestures as in the dances of Vera Cruz and Jalisco in Mexico.
- Foreign Occupation/Cultural Fusion: The world is populated by cultures which have dominated or been dominated by others through armed invasion and conquest or by economic dependence and trade. Dominant cultures impose their values upon the vanquished, frequently attempting to erase their language and culture. People whose behavior is controlled by an unkind conqueror over many generations will tend to tread quietly and carefully; those accustomed to imposing themselves on less aggressive folk will dance with greater force and bravado. Observation: The Macedonian "Lesnoto Oro" gently tests the ground as it shifts weight; the Ukrainian "hopak" does not. Rather, it displays a confidence and aggressiveness born of generations of hard-riding warfare.
What does "U Šest" tell us about the Serbs? Or the "verbunk" of the Hungarians? Can we discern the customary differing relationship between the sexes in "Sevillanas" and "Hambo?"
What might the almost total absence of couple dances in the Balkans tell us about their history? That the Muslim values of 500 years of the Ottoman Empire might have prevented the influence of the Renaissance of Western Europe? That the chain dance form predates that of dancing with a partner? Let your curiosity run wild.
This is what dance ethnology is about the quest for answers. As one enters into the study of the dance, the questions will come with the knowledge. The enrichment comes in the quest for the answers.