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The Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH)

The Search for Folk Dancing in Europe
By Rickey Holden

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Rickey Holden

Every week or so in the summer months, every month or in the winter, some enthusiastic folk dancer starts his journey across Europe. Partly he is one of the increasing numbers of ardent vacationers invading every corner of the Contenent; but because of his special interest he is much more likely to be intrigued with the idea of combining his vacation time with his hobby of international folk dancing.

What an opportunity, he thinks, what a delicious chance to be at the heart of things! Now it must be ridiculously easy to know first hand all about the real, true, genuine folk dance.

Some come from the United States – from the recreational folk dance groups in the big Eastern cities, of the Federation groups in the West, or perhaps from one of the special Balkan line dance groups. Some come from other European countries where international folk dancing (for recreation) is in vogue.

All these travelers journey to revel in folk dancing with the people – revel up to their ears – dance all evening and maybe all night. They all want to:

  1. Participate, see the authentic stuff, learn the absolute single proper style;
  2. Make recordings and take back to their home groups new, new, NEW dances;
  3. Buy a lot of costumes (cheaply, of course);
  4. Take pictures or movies of the dances and costumes.

The enthusiast's idea, before making his journey, is that because Europe is known to be rich in folklore, it must be so easy to find and see all he wants of it.

Alas, it is much harder than that! Most of the travelers come away disalppointed. Here are some of the reasons:

  1. Availability: In some countries there is very little dance material available; in others the people rarely dance their own dances; in others the choreography of performing groups has all but erased the source material of villages. Costumes follow the same pattern – often not available, and highly priced even when they can be found.
  2. Local Attitude: Sometimes it's very complicated to uncover material from people in small towns (where, usually, is found the best folklore). People are apt to be shy, reticent, even suspicious. A top Greek expert, native Athenian, recently spent three days in one village looking for one song which he knew the people there knew; the song is still there, but he did not learn it.
  3. Language: English, though well known, is by no means a universal tongue. Best other general languages are French and German (depending where you are as to which is more helpful), and Russian or some other Slavic language (in the Slavic countries, particularly Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, where the Balkan enthusiasts want to go). Europeans, who speak several languages as a matter of course, have a much less problem here than Americans.
  4. Time: Many travelers whip through each country in a few days, or at most, two to three weeks. Without incredible luck, or complete advance briefing and careful planning, they may hit one festival, or one group, or none.
  5. Season: The majority of travelers come in the summer, when everybody in Europe (especially in July and August) is on holiday and somewhere else besides at home, or when (in Bulgaria, for instance) the peasants are all working on the farms and have not time for dancing.
  6. Knowledge: Many travelers seize upon each morsel of dance as a unique "find," rarely stopping to place it in its proper place, to compare it as a variation, or perhaps twin of a well-known item. It is somewhat presumptuous to bounce into a country and feel yourself capable of doing any sort of a job of research, merely on the basis of your enjoyment of folk dancing as a hobby in your home group in another country far away.
  7. Music: To make any use of material discovered, it is necessary to have the proper music. In the dance situation of many countries this means a good source. The average traveler cannot make commercial recordings, as he has neither the time, nor the money, nor the technical ability. Rarely are the proper recordings available in the country he visits. Almost never does he have the skill, patience, money, time, language facility, or equipment to make recordings in the field.
  8. Attitude: The traveler should really examine his motives for folk dancing in the first place. Usually his primary object at home has been to enjoy a social time in the particular situation of folk dancing (which, for instance, allows men and women to attend as individuals rather than as couples, which are required in most dance and most social occasions). If his aim has been social, he is likely to find difficulty and disappointment in shifting his emphasis to rather tedious research.

Having experienced at least all of the above problems and frustrations in the search for folk dancing in almost every other country in Europe and Asia, the writer sympathizes in the extreme with his fellow enthusiasts, and offers the following general suggestions as to places to search in Europe:

  1. Folklore Particilpation Groups: These groups are dedicated to the keeping alive of the folklore dance for participation recreation. Usually such groups are united in a national, or at least a regional, organization. This is particularly true in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland.
  2. National Musicological of Folklore Institutes: These organizations are particularly found in Athens (Greece), Belgrade (Serbia), Bratislavia (Slovakia), Brno (Moravia), Bucharest (Romania), Budapest (Hungary), Ljublijana (Slovenia), Prague (Bohemia), Sarajevo (Dalmatia), Skopje (Macedonia), Sofia (Bulgaria), Tirana (Albania), and Zagreb (Croatia).
  3. Performing Groups: Professional or amateur groups have rehearsals and performances. Particularly in Bulgaria, Greece, Czechia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Turkey, Yugoslavia, and also to some extent in France, Italy, and Spain.
  4. National Ethnological or Folklore Museums: These organizations are often the best places to find costumes to look at or to photograph.

Letters in advance to these places are of some help, but it is always best to get there in person. Language is a problem in correspondence, and if your letter is in a foreign language, the tendency is to wait a month or two before answering, and then, often, the answer never comes; also people are very busy so much of the time.

Another good source of information is the United States Information Service (USIS), the overseas offices of what in Washington D.C. is called the United States Information Agency (USIA). Talk to the cultural officer, or, especially his "local" (national of that country) assistant. There is a USIS office in every major city in every country; ask at the Embassy or Consulate. Sometimes it is called the "American Library," or the equivalent in the local language. This is particularly true in Athens, Barcelona, Belgrade, The Hague, Helsinki, İstanbul, Madrid, Munich, Oslo, Seville, Stockholm, and Zgreb.


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