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The Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH)

Enrich Your Dance
By Richard Duree, 2009

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Richard Duree

After a lifetime of serious folk dance, I have become increasingly disappointed in the lack of depth in learning about the dance we all love. Of all the dance forms, folk dance has the most to teach us about our world and its many and varied cultures.

Folk dance was an innocent creation which satisfied the aesthetics of those who created it. The dance fulfilled a role and a need and it reflected the values and attitudes of its creators. When we fail to consider the inner truth of the dance, we slight the artistic spark that exists in even the most impoverished and disdained people of our world.

Be aware that the folk dance we all practice is the dance of the impoverished and disdained peoples of their contries, the "hillbillies" if you will. It is here, in the dirt-floored homes and village squares far from the embellished capitals that the folk arts were created and thrived. Our own Square Dance and Clog were created by those whose lives were of hardship and poverty. So it was with the Serbian Kolo and the Hungarian Csárdás and the Tyrolean Schuhplattler. It must also be realized that these laboring folk knew how to use their bodies very efficiently in their hard labor – and their dance.

As students of the dance, we should be concerned with four different elements of the dance; its ethnology, its technique, its music, and its choreography – in that order.

The ethnology of the dance addresses several questions: Who created the dance? Who "owned" it? Why did they dance it? When? For what reason? What role did the dance play in their lives? What effects did other cultures have on the dance? What was the lifestyle of the dance's creators? Sedentary farmers? Nomads? Warlike? Horse culture? Mountain people? Herders? Were they the aggressors or the oppressed. All these different factors and many more affected the form and role of the dance.

The technique – what the folk dancers call "styling" is one of the most important factors to those who claim the dance as their own. This explores such things as energy levels, tempos, gestures, posture, and character. Those whose footwear was a light leather "opanci" moved very differently from that of a booted horseman. Even the style of boot influenced the dance movement; compare the soft dance of the Poles whose boot was traditionally soft leather, to that of the Hungarian, whose boot was of a stiff, heavy military style. The soft leather shoe found throughout the Balkans precluded heavy stamps, but allowed light rapid foot movement impossible with a heavy boot, but only natural to a sure-footed mountain herdsman. What would be considered good dance movement in Thrace, for instance, would not be found in Croatia. Folk dancers are frequently guilty of ignoring this part of the dance and dancing everything the same.

Rhythm is usually provided by the music, though any knowledgeable Balkan dancer knows of several exceptions. Here, again, is one of the most important elements of the dance to the native dancer. Dennis Boxell quoted a folk saying once that indicated one was not so particular about how the friend next to him danced – except when he did not dance to the rhythm, and then he was not a friend. If one undertakes to dance, it is only to be expected that one would learn first, that there is rhythm, and second, how to move to it. Rhythm is nothing more than mathematical dissection of time. Rhythm is integral to the dance and cannot be ignored.

Finally, choreography is the arrangement of steps and figures in the dance. Sadly, the never-ending demand for new dance material in the recreational dance community has resulted in an awesome collection of choreographies created just for sale to the recreational folk dance market. Many are simplified stage choreographies from professional and amateur performing groups; others are fancied-up versions of simpler traditional dances – or simplified versions of more difficult traditional dances.

While this may be a simple study of the dance, limited by demands of space, it serves to illustrate how much of the dance we miss when the choreography is the only concern. Collecting hundreds, even thousands of dances and memorizing the choreographies is a "mile wide and an inch deep" approach to the dance. Folk dance deserves much better treatment than that.

Folk dancers can enrich their dance immeasurably by searching for answers to the questions raised here. I wish you happy dancing and exciting research. You will never find all the answers, but the search for them will fill your life with wonder.


Used with permission of the author.
Printed in Folk Dance Scene, March 2009.

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