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The Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH)

Folk Dancers
Part 1

By Don Buskirk

YouTubes illustrating or amplifying the topic discussed are
available on Don's website ( https://folkdancefootnotes.org/ ).

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Horo by Samokov, 1892

Traditional Folk

Three kinds of folk dancers? There are hundreds! But for the purposes of this website, which is intended primarily for recreational folk dancers (3rd type, my type), I have generalized and greatly oversimplified in order to make a point. The point is that a dance performed by the three types of folk dancers – traditional (1st type), performance (2nd type), and recreational (3rd type), is performed in such different circumstances and with such different backgrounds and expectations of the dancers themselves that, even if the footwork is identical, the dance will look and feel different. In other words the same dancer, in three 'sets of shoes' will experience the same dance differently. Of course the odds are that the same dancer won't be in three sets of shoes – most won't even be in two. All the more probable then, that three different types of dancers will do the same foot pattern differently.

A choreography is not a 'thing' that can be plucked from the people and circumstances surrounding its execution, and dropped into an alien culture without altering the energy, look, and even the meaning of the dance.

Traditional folk dancing is mostly (not always) the result of a group gathering together to celebrate something. When we learn the footwork to a dance of, say, Greek villagers from Thessaly in the 1930's, we're learning a dance that was performed only on certain occasions – other occasions would seem wrong, possibly blasphemous. On those particular ocasions, say, a wedding, saint's day celebration, festival associated with the agricultural cycle, christening, dance for the dead or garden-variety Hora, dance would be only a small part of the event.

A wedding may last several days, but dancing was only for a few hours. The event would also include lots of food and drink, a series of toasts, live music, a special ceremony, several ceremonial songs, speeches, rituals, a parade (which might move using dance steps) to one or more special locations, songs, more food, more drink. You were at the event because you were invited as part of the family, a neighbour, a fellow villager. You were there not only to dance, but to share a milestone in the life of the family or village. You stayed because otherwise you'd be working, because you were returning the favor of someone who came to your event, because it was the only diversion in town, but also because you wanted to be part of and see the event to the end – it would be disrespectful otherwise. Dancing was not only demonstrating a skill at a particular choreography, it was a way to stretch your legs, settle your stomach, talk to someone else, and add a different kind of energy to the event. But it was primarily another act in a communal drama – the drama of the life of the community, where you were the actor and audience at the same time. There was no alternative – no television, movies, or theatre.

In return for the free food, drink, and social opportunities, guests were expected to enjoy themselves, show their appreciation, and contribute to the festival atmosphere. Kefi [meaning joy, spirit, passion, happiness, triumph, mojo, excitement, feeling good, having fun, or loving life], and similar attitudes in other cultures, was everyone's responsibility, during dancing as well as at other times.

Some events required special dances, many events had a segment where a special dance was called for, but the dances performed at most events in a particular village were the dances that everyone in that village knew and could perform. A given village didn't have that many dances, maybe fifteen 'everybody' dances and ten more 'special' ones only certain people could do. People were not dancing to show off for an audience, they were dancing to participate and enjoy themselves. They would rather do the same well-known dance to the same song than different barely-known dances to different songs. You enjoyed the music, socializing, or people watching more if you weren't concentrating on the footwork. Because the music was live, it was unpredictable, and there was greater opportunity that the energy of the dancers and the energy of the musicians could spur each other on, ever higher and higher. Or maybe the music would inspire the lead dancer to some new improvisation, or to show he still had "it" in him.

In other words, how a traditional folk dancer performed in a traditional dance event often had very little to do with the choreography. They'd been dancing that all their life. It had much more to do with the mood and expectations of the dancer, and a myriad of social conventions. The execution of the dance was never the same twice. Nor did all the people in the line dance the same way. They did need to move together – shift weight at the same time, not interrupt the flow of the dance, keep the energy flowing down the line. But not everyone had to lift a leg the same height, stomp with the same energy, etc.

Another key distinction to make about traditional folk dancers is that they were dancing their very selves. Traditional dances were learned in the traditional way – by growing up with them. Learning to dance was like learning to talk. One's native language is not taught, it's learned. One hears the sounds of a language in the womb – before one can see. Likewise one hears the songs used for dancing before one can walk. One imitates the sounds and moves and in the process trains the muscles to sound and move the way people move in your family and village sound and move. A villager has seen and heard dances years before he or she actually dances them, but during that time of observation, one has also taken part in all the other activities surrounding the dance. So a traditional dancer was personally invested in his or her dance. It was not just another choreography, it was an expression of all that person has experienced. It didn't matter what outside 'authorities' said about how a dance should be. "Our village does it this way, because we have always done it this way – it is us." Villagers identified with their family and village, and their family and village way of doing things. Whatever its flaws, it was better to be home than in a neighbouring village. To prefer something from the 'outside' was to deny your heritage and denigrate your ancestors. Your main purpose was to provide for and continue your family, to honor the work of your ancestors. Without them you would not be here. It is from your ancestors that you learned all your skills and wisdom – there was no other school. Furthermore, they were probably still observing you from beyond the grave.

A personal story: My wife and I heard about a live Greek band at a local Greek restaurant. We were fairly new to folk dancing, so we knew some Greek dances, as well as a scattering of other international dances. We went, hoping to dance to some live Greek music, but the tunes they played were not familiar to us, and we only knew a dance if it had a particular tune. I figured out that an Armenian dance would work to one of the tunes, and started dancing it, in another room so as not to disturb the show. I was pleased for being so versatile and creative – see how I can bend this culture's dance to that culture's music? The owner accosted us, saying we were not dancing Greek, and we should not dance that way in his establishment. We had offended him by not honoring his heritage in his 'village.'


John Uhlemann

"I had the privilege of attending some weddings in Romania. I was just passing through some villages during wedding season and was invited to join in the proceedings. It was a wonderfully intense experience in all instances. Everyone was having a good time and, as you say, it was all about having fun with friends. I learned some new things, but little that I could bring home to a recreational folk dance group – they were too "easy." In one case in the south, about three a.m., when many had gone to bed, the band played "Ca la ușa cortului" (a nice dance taught in the United States by Eugenia Popescu-Județ and reviewed by Dick Crum). Because I had too much țuică, I started to do that dance. The few folks still up at that hour looked me, puzzled, and said "it looks Bulgarian." I stopped. The dance I knew was from Oltenia. I was in Amara in Muntenia; little difference to us, but a big difference to them."

Folk Dancers – Part 2

From Don Buskirk's website, Folkdance Footnotes.
Used with permission.

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