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The Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH)

Folk Dance – What the . . . ?
By Ron Houston, 2019

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Ron Houston


Information: What is folk dance? Folk dance is you, doing the dances of other peoples and other times. Let me explain.


Admit it! Other peoples fascinate you (as long as they aren't too "other"). And you aren't alone. The English around 1800 named their ballroom dances Spanish Dance, Écossoise ("Scottish Dance"), Swedish Dance, Circassian Circle, Sicilian Circle, and so on. Russians around 1900 danced Pas d'Espan ("Dance of Spain"), Lezginka (from Georgia), Hiavata ("Hiawatha," from America), Korobushka (from Hungary – SEE BELOW), and so on. They ignored dances from Asia, Africa, Central America, and South America. Such dances were too "other." European immigrants brought their dances to America, and some Americans found those dances to be fascinating and fun. We call those Americans "folk dancers." But American folk dancers still avoid dances that are too "other": dances from American minority groups, the Far East, South and Central America, and Africa.


The phrase "popular antiquities" became "folklore" in 1846. Note that emphasis on ANTIQUITIES, the lore of our ANCESTORS. "Folk-dance" came along in 1906, in Danish and Swedish folk dance books, describing the dances of their own ancestors. Then other countries did the same.


"International" folk dance books started with Elizabeth Burchenal (1908, Folk Dance Music). She described British, European, and North American dances. Not too much "other" in them! But fashions change, and those dances already had been replaced by newer dances. In other words, Burchenal's dances were popular dances of hers and other people's ancestors. So folk dance is the dance of other peoples or other times, or both!

What about dances from the Ballet Folklórico de México, the Philippine Bayanihan, the Serbian Kolo, the Polish Mazowsze, or all those amateur dance groups on YouTube? They dance in costume, right? Well, those costumes are the clothes of their ancestors, and the dances correspond to the clothes. Folk dancers in America dance these dances as the dances of other peoples, usually not aware that the dances also come from other times.

So when someone asks you: "What the . . . is folk dance?" you know what to tell them: Folk dance is the dance of someone ELSE, of other peoples, and other times. Folk dancers find them fascinating and fun, and so will you.


"Korobushka is a "Hungarian" dance. Now don't get mad! I know everyone calls it Russian, but let's face it. No one knows where this dance originated. A true history would have to explain the following:

  1. The music has two parts: a minor-key first phrase, and a minor-key second phrase which is quite similar to the first but a fourth higher. This is similar to the Hungarian pattern of repeating the first phrase a fifth higher.
  2. The melody is similar to a tune from Szék, Hungary.
  3. The phrases are arranged: first, second, second. This is a typical Hungarian pattern.
  4. My earliest dance descriptions accurately describe the dance as composed of two motifs quite common to Hungarian dancing: the csárdás and the bokázó.

So this is a Hungarian dance? Heck no. But based on everything I've read, I believe it was originally a ballroom dance of late 19th century Europe, composed and choreographed in what was thought to be Hungarian style. Like other popular tunes and dances of the time, it was picked up by Russian peasants and brought to America. Here, it spread to Russian and Ukrainian communities where folk dancers seized on it as an "authentic" folk dance. By the folk process, Korobushka lost its ballroom and Hungarian character to become an 'International Folk Dance'."


This page © 2019 by Ron Houston.
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