The Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH)
By Don Buskirk
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In the early 20th century, people who were not of "the folk" (Folk Dancer type 1) learned to appreciate and identify themselves as Folk Dancers. To me they form two large categories Performing (Folk Dancer type 2) and Recreational (Folk Dancer type 3). I maintain that a dance performed by the three types of folk dancers 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, and those differences can be seen by an observer. 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 experience the same foot pattern differently.
Recreational Folk Dancers (RFD's) are a multitude of people worldwide who don't necessarily identify with any particular ethnic group, or who want to experience dance outside their ethnic (or social) group. I'm one of them. We're probably urban (or formerly urban), formally educated, and a product of Western Civilization. We've likely had no first-hand experience living in a tradition-based, clan-centric, subsistence agricultural culture. As the name implies, we are re-creating a scene that we imagine happened in another time, another place, while we re-create ourselves into members of another community, the community of folk dancers. Often we belong to organizations that meet regularly to do dances of many lands, even priding ourselves in learning dances from as many different countries as possible. Many of us believe that we share a common humanity worldwide and we like to feel that we're tapping into that commonality by dancing other people's dances. Many of us RFD's are not necessarily interested in much detail about the cultures from which these dances arose, especially customs or attitudes that differ markedly from our own, because they diminish our sense of shared values.
Unlike traditional dancers, for Recreational Folk Dancers, dances are not part of an event, they are the event. We come primarily to dance, and by that I mean execute memorized choreographies to paired recordings (or mimic a leader doing the same) to 'step outside' our usual surroundings; to identify, however briefly, with something other than our all-too-familiar lives and enter a place of unity and harmony. Other benefits to socialize with like-minded people, get exercise, move to unusual music in unusual rhythms from a wide variety of cultures, improve our dancing skills, and learn about other cultures, are secondary. Each of these benefits can be obtained in other ways. However, the complete package of benefits plus footwork is unique to recreational folk dancing.
The other difference between recreational dancers and traditional dancers (though not performance dancers) is that traditional dancers are dancing from within their own culture. Their dances are a product of their culture's concepts. What is music, dance, rhythm, emotion? Recreational dancers, though they are stepping outside their own culture's understanding of these concepts, are still under the influence of their culture's concepts of music, dance, rhythm, emotion. Like an American learning to speak Chinese, or a Japanese learning to speak English, the basic grammar may be conceptualized, but the brain has to fight it's ingrained tendencies in order to speak 'like a native.' Dancing to a Westerner has many levels of meaning that are only recently introduced to Balkan countries, for instance.
There is among many recreational folk dancers (me, for instance) a naive expectation that by learning the steps of a dance, we are dancing the way they do (or did) in the 'village,' or that by seeing a 'village' dance performed by a professional ensemble and copying their choreography, we will be reproducing a 'village' dance. It's like believing you're cooking foreign foods when you've memorized a lot of recipes. The results usually suffer from not understanding why particular ingredients are used, how they combine with other ingredients to make something greater than the sum of the parts, how they vary in quality from fresh 'there' to a grocery store ethnic shelf 'here' and what to substitute when an ingredient is not available; not to mention the different atmosphere when you eat at your home table with your family 'here' compared to eating at a peasant wedding 'there.' However, if you've never tasted spaghetti home-cooked in your aunt's kitchen in Tuscany, how would you know it's not the same as your grocery-store microwave version? I was raised on Indiana farm cooking, which was pretty bland. To me, canned Franco-American spaghetti was exotic about as exotic as I could handle. Still, the occasional Franco-American spaghetti was preferable to meat and potatoes seven days a week!
To further the analogy, many people I know have a LOT of cookbooks, each containing MANY recipes. Most of those recipes were tried once or twice, then shelved not discarded. Each book may contain one or two recipes that became favorites, used over and over again, and for that reason all the others in the book were kept easier than copying out the few good ones and getting rid of the book. After all, there were a few others in that book that were okay, and you had put some effort into trying them out. Maybe you'll revisit those recipes someday, so best to keep the book. However, you can never have enough cookbooks. Each new book has the potential of being full of GREAT recipes you've heard about the author an expert in that style of cuisine. Everybody's talking about those recipes. So you get another cookbook, and another.
You have a great collection of cookbooks, but have you learned to cook? Can you improvise a meal out of what's in your fridge and garden without referring to a recipe? Most of us can improvise a North-American-syle meal, but can we improvise a Thai-style meal? Or do we rely on pre-packaged sauces?
It's easy for RFD's to get caught up in what I consider the "authenticity trap." Dick Crum (so I'm told) was fond of saying something like "You can never be a Bulgarian don't even try," by which I think he meant "for the average recreational folk dancer, no matter how hard you try to dance 'authentically,' if you haven't been raised in a particular milieu, you'll not be able to reproduce, simply by mimicking or learning a few 'styling rules' what a dancer from that village looks like. For a dance to be 'authentic' it has to be danced from the inside you have to intend what the village dancer is intending, feel what the village dancer is feeling, in order to capture the nuances of the dance. I appreciate that to show respect for the culture that produced a dance, one should try to dance in a way in which the dance is recognizable by a 'native.' But authenticity can only be carried so far.
Not every recreational folk dancer cares about authenticity. While some dancers gain years of knowledge and ever-larger repertoires, other dancers just want to spend an evening enjoying the few dances they know, which bores the more experienced dancers. Over time, those who care the most about "authenticity" have tended to split off into smaller groups who specialize in an ethnicity, or music style, singing, etc. The remaining "international" all-countries groups who try to be all things to all people, are then left with a larger proportion of people more interested in fun than authenticity.
A compromise consensus, never formally stated, appears to have become standard among those groups who still try to exist under a 'big tent.' To satisfy the presumed need for 'authenticity,' dances are introduced to the group wrapped in what I call the 'Cloak of Authenticity.' consisting of:
Most 'authentic' dances, what I categorize as Living or 1st Generation, are not the dances that are popular among most recreational folk dancers today, nor have they been for the 40 years I've been personally involved (and I suspect for much longer). The 'seudances' (short form of pseudodance) RFD's prefer, even though they utilize "authentic' moves and music and are taught by 'authentic' instructors, are creations with features that differ markedly from "authentic," "village," Living and 1stG dances. The three most obvious differences are:
Until recently in the 'old country,' a wedding, the primary occasion for folk dancing, would be unthinkable without live music. The musicians are paid something to show up, the rest they make on tips, which depend on how well they please their audience. If a dancer gives a large tip, he or she gets to dance longer, or the musicians play with more energy or inspiration. A fixed choreography is impossible when you can't predict the duration of the music, a change of key, tempo, or melody. The dancers wouldn't have it any other way. They want to dance according to the spirit and energy of the musicians inspiration not some pre-arranged formula.
When live music starts without announcing the name of a dance, how do traditional dancers know which dance to do? They listen to the music's rhythm pattern, just like we listen in a ballroom to decide if the music is a waltz, polka, foxtrot, tango, samba, salsa, meringue, mambo, jive/swing, etc. Then they apply their personal versions of those dances to the music. A basic step, and variations (if you know some and feel inspired) until the music ends. The music ends when the musicians sense the dancers are ready.
So even though we recreational dancers are wrapping our 'seudances' in a "cloak of authenticity," many, if not most of us, are not seriously interested in being 'authentic' or we would be learning to recognize which rhythms, tempos, and combinations of instruments are appropriate for which dances, dancing to live music with varying arrangements, and internalizing dances so well that improvisation would come 'naturally.' We would be learning far fewer dances, but improvising moves within them. We would have a preference for dances that apply to a wide variety of musical arrangements, so we could dance to whatever music happens to be available. Dances pre-packaged in a "Cloak of Authenticity" are in fact pseudo folk dances because they lack flexibility and that's the way we like it!
How do we know which are the currently most popular dances? As far as I know, there are no centralized databases of folk dance popularity, though I have come across what could serve as a pretty good proxy.
I have just studied the list of possible party dances sent by the Stockton Folk Dance Camp to those registered for the summer 2021 event. Attendees were asked to choose from a of 987 dances. By clicking the top of the far right column (labeled Votes) the dances will be re-arranged from alphabetical order to order by number of votes. Click Votes again and the dance with the most votes will be at the top, and the first page will show the 100 dances that got the most votes. It should look like the following, only it should be live so you can scroll down to see all 100 dances:
I consider the total number of votes cast (8,103) to be a statistically significant indicator of popularity. There were 32 dances (the top 3.2%) got between 30 and 45 votes, 66 dances (the next 6.7%) got between 20 and 29 votes. So 99 dances, 1/10 of the total, tallied 2,744 votes, 1/3 of the all votes cast.
I find it interesting that Valle Pogonishte was the most-requested recreational dance. We know it's the recreational version and not the version popular in Albania because the YouTube displayed when you click Video beside the name shows Yves Moreau's dance, and if you click Notes it shows Moreau's three sections. To me it's a clear example of what I call a 2nd Generation dance, a 'seudance.'
Remember, the main differences between what I call a Living dance and a 2ndG dance ('seudance') is that
Why would recreational folk dancers choose a dance with three different sections, the same music and name as a simpler and "authentic" dance with only one section? Why, when the Living dance is observable simply by Googling it's name, would someone choose to dance a derivative? Is Valle Pogonishte a fluke, or are other more complex seudances (2ndG dances) also more popular than Living and 1stG dances?
I went through the 99 most popular choices in the Stockton survey those that got at least 20 votes. I watched the Videos and looked at what the Notes said, and searched for YouTubes in the country of supposed origin. A few dances were tough to categorize, but most were easy, often because the Notes stated the dance was choreographed (proof that they're 2ndG). My results: Of the 99 most-requested dances, I consider
One may quibble about how I categorized a few dances, but the overall picture is clear. After nearly 70 years of exposure to "authentic" dances from Eastern Europe, we recreational dancers overwhelmingly prefer fabricated dances, 'seudances' that are unknown in the country we attribute them to.
I have often felt that Recreational Folk Dancing has been going in the wrong direction, that we've been moving away from trying to understand traditional folk cultures, and that an ever-larger proportion of our dances are not from the 'old country.' But it wasn't until I saw the results of this survey that I realized just how few 'traditional' dances are in 'folk' dancing. When 86% of our dances are not traditional, how can we consider ourselves 'folk' dancers?
If you'd like to see how I came to my conclusions on the status of a dance, here are 30 of the dances that made the 'Top 99' list:
Here's a list of what I consider Living dances
And my pics for 1stG dances
Other interesting results of the Stockton survey:
Folk dancing in North America started roughly 140 years ago. Its purpose was not at that time to promote the 'authentic' dances of other cultures, but to assist people in those other cultures who had moved to North America to leave their ghettoes and integrate into their new culture, AND to get flabby North Americans to start exercising AND ALSO to offer an alternative to dance halls of ill repute. Beginning in the 1930's, the teaching of folk dances was taken over by a few dynamic immigrants, who began teaching to mainstream, assimilated North Americans the dances they learned from their friends, relatives, and neighbours. Both the assimilated North American learners and the new immigrant teachers came from Western European traditions of music and dance partner-based couple dancing so it was easy for the one to learn 'authentic dances' from the other. At that time, folk dancing was mostly couple dancing, and the dances were mostly 'authentic.' Beginning in the 1950's the dominance of couple-based dances was challenged by choral (non-partner line and circle) dances from Israel and the Balkans. Over time, choral dances replaced couple dances as the predominant form. No longer were people being taught by people who grew up in the tradition, so the question of 'authenticity' began to surface.
Since travel to countries behind the 'iron curtain' was not that easy, and since it was difficult to observe these dances for ourselves, we learned to rely on educated Westerners who went "over there" to bring dances back to "us." Then people who were from behind the 'iron curtain' began to defect and teach in North America, and we assumed that since they were in professional dance troupes 'over there' they must be the most 'authentic' instructors. Little did we know they were merely showing us stage dance routines cooked up by the troupe's choreographers. These were the dances we liked most, because they looked good, and had fixed choreographies that had lots of variety within a short time frame. It's easier to learn a dance when you're told where to place each footstep, instead of being taught a basic pattern and a range of possible 'improvisations."
This overwhelming predominance of 'seudances' (2ndG) is not the fault of our dance instructors. I've been to enough workshops to know that most instructors try to inform us of dance practices as they observed them in "the village" (or a performance or talking to an instructor "over there"). I've also heard (and seen) many occasions where a dance instructor teaches a dance a certain way, then over time the dance spontaneously morphs new variants. I believe Yves Moreau is fully aware that his Valle Pogonishte is not the same as the standard Albanian Valle Pogonishte.
The problem is not what we're taught, but what we want to learn. For decades, instructors have observed which of the dances they teach "catch on." The instructors depend for their income on being asked back, and that is directly tied to whether the dances they teach become popular. Although they're supposedly respected for their expertise, teachers are evaluated mostly for their personalities, how good they are at teaching, and whether their dances are pleasing to their customers. Far more Living and 1stG dances are taught than are learned. The lack of Living and 1stG dances in the Top 99 is the result of our preferences, not what we were taught.
The Western Civilization we live in today is a far cry from the tradition-based, subsistence agriculture, clan-centric, pre-scientific, pre-consumer, pre-literate society that produced the folk dance culture we admire. Understanding such a different mindset in order to experience a dance "authentically" is a stretch most of us are not willing to undertake. Most of us just want to feel good while moving to exotic-but-not-too-exotic music. We expect to have our dances presented with a "cloak of authenticity," because we want to believe we're dancing something 'foreign,' we want to think we've 'discovered' a dance, not that it was created for us, because that feeds our imagined 'stepping outside.' Being a folk dancer is like having our own secret handshake. A bit of a story about a dance helps us remember it. "What was the name of that dance that Romanian women do to honour the midwives?" Joc de Leagane, (2ndG), among the top 20 most requested. Never mind that the dance doesn't exist in that form in Romania. It's wrapped in the "Cloak of Authenticity," and if the story isn't good enough or the dance is too simple or too hard or the music doesn't please us, we'll simply not bother to remember it.
When I say 'we, our, us,' I'm talking from personal experience. I love exotic-but-not-too-exotic music. I prefer listening to a nine-piece Bulgarian band (which didn't exist before Soviet-influenced performing groups created them) rather than listening to a village dauli and zurna. I like music that has a two to four melody structure with a bridge, and alternating lead instruments for variety.
When I discovered folk dancing I loved it because it was "different," but I had pre-conceived notions of what a satisfying song and dance should look and sound like. I was raised on rock 'n' roll, classical music, some jazz, American folk, show tunes, Latin all of which told me that a good danceable song, whether by John Lennon, Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, Cole Porter, Richard Rogers, George M. Cohan, Stephen Foster, Stevie Wonder, or Smokey Robinson, had a verse and chorus structure, often with a bridge to make it more interesting. Two to four sections, repeated. two to four minutes long. My idea of dance was watching Hollywood and Broadway musicals. Constant movement with little repetition. The dances told stories. So did classical ballet.
Southeast European music sounded different, but it took me years to understand why. I just knew it was either pleasantly strange or unpleasantly strange, and I began to realize the pleasantly strange was more similar to what I had grown up hearing in my own culture. Same with dance. Some moves felt pleasant and "natural" and others felt awkward and "unnatural." Doing the same few steps over and over and over was boring. I preferred dances that had or told a story something to fantasize about while moving.
Eventually I learned enough to distinguish 1stG and Living dances from 2ndG, and began inserting more Living dances in the repertoire of my dance group. I assumed others would appreciate being informed of the details of the cultures they were only superficially introduced to. I did research, then gave background talks on each dance we had, explaining its history, cultural significance and category. I taught variations and encouraged others to lead and improvise.
After several years of these improvements, I noticed that when it came time for requests, the people still asked for mostly 2ndG dances, and they were still afraid to lead and improvise. It also slowly dawned on me that I myself preferred the 2ndG dances. I liked the structure, liked doing a step for a few measures, then changing to a new step, following musical cues. I liked being passively zoned out floating along with the music, body moving on automatic pilot to memorized patterns. I liked the idea of a fifteen minute dance doing the same step, but only if it could be danced to live music, and live music wasn't possible on a weekly basis.
I was so busy teaching and researching new dances I hadn't taken the time to practice improvisations and didn't feel comfortable improvising. No matter how much I learned about another culture, I was still an outsider, dancing from the outside, hanging a series of 'styling rules' on my Western Civilized self, wrapping myself in a 'Cloak of Authenticity.'
I suspect that what I discovered about myself can be generalized to much of the recreational folk dance community. Most of us are hobbyists, dabblers. To learn a foreign language well enough to be considered 'like a native' (and folk dancing is a foreign language for the body as well as the mind) one must practice far more than a couple of hours a week, and practice with a native speaker, and practice using our mouth in ways we find difficult, and discover there are concepts in that language that aren't in ours that their mind works differently. Most of those who wanted to take folk dance to another level have moved on joining a performing group or taking college-level ethnology courses, or even moving to another country.
I realize there are some very dedicated people still in the recreational folk dance world. I communicate with some of them, and they aren't dabblers. My analysis of the recreational folk dance scene doesn't apply to them and I appreciate how their expertise has been at the forefront of recreational dance development.
However the fact remains that what I consider the majority of recreational folk dancers, myself included, are just here for a little escape, a little fun, and a little knowledge a break from our culture, but not an immersive embrace of another. And for us, I think the "Authenticity Trap," the need to believe that the dances we like to do are Authentic, has led us to rationalize our choices, to turn a blind eye when they're not Authentic, to wrap them in the "Cloak of Authenticity" while underneath we're still the same old Westerners. Now that we can visit a private party in a foreign country whenever we turn on our computers, the 'Cloak of Authenticity' is looking more like the Emperors New Clothes covering nothing and revealing our self-deceptions.
I believe it's time, not to abandon the concept of Authenticity, but to accept that for most of us Authenticity is not our goal, and to stop pretending that it is. Most of the dances we like to do are not Authentic, though they're wrapped in the 'Cloak of Authenticity'; they're 'seudances.' When we can demonstrate that a dance we claim is from, say, Serbia is or was actually danced there at social events (not on a stage there), we can call it a Serbian folk dance. However if it can be shown that though the dance is taught by a Serbian, uses a Serbian recording, and Serbian-derived footwork, but that Serbians don't recognize the dance as their own, we shouldn't be calling it Serbian, but something else, like SeuSerbian. I'm coining the term 'seudance' not because I think it's all that great a name, but as a placeholder term until something better comes along. As I've stated in "Recreational Folk Dancing's inconvenient Truth," when we call a dance 'Armenian' even though we know it was choreographed by a non-Armenian for the recreational dance market, we're doing more than simply mis-labeling we're guilty of supporting cultural appropriation.
By now we've come to accept that in the United States and Canada, just because someone claims he or she has Native Indian blood doesn't make it true; and if no Native American will accept that person's claim, they can demand that the person prove their claim by finding other Native Americans to back that person up with documentation or at least an oral genealogy. Saying you're part Cherokee doesn't make it so, and can be offensive to those who are. If we put on blackface and sing "Camptown Races, doo-dah, doo-dah," we know enough to keep it private: putting our performance on YouTube is liable to get us in hot water. Why then do we post a performance of ourselves doing Tu Romnie and labeling it as a Romanian Roma dance, when the notes clearly say it was choreographed by Bianca de Jong?
I am proposing a similar process be used in labeling folk dances. It's not up to us recreational folk dancers to label a dance Romanian. If a Romanian instructor wants to call his latest creation a Romanian folk dance, let him or her prove it emerged from a "first folk existence" (1stE). We recreational dancers should stop expecting the dances presented to us to be wrapped in the 'Cloak of Authenticity,' and labeling them as though they are authentic.
For us recreational folk dancers I recommend we reverse the labeling call all our dances with Romanian elements seu-Romanian, or Romanian-style or 2ndG, but not simply Romanian unless they can be proven to be danced socially in Romania or by Romanian expats (and not merely 'from a Romanian').
Those few that can be identified as currently (Living) or formerly (1stG) danced at events in Romania can then be properly called Romanian dances and celebrated as such. The rest should be called something else. Newcomers to folk dancing would then not be deceived about what they're dancing. Should they visit one of the countries in question there will no longer be confusion as they try to square what they see there with what they thought they would see. Should an RFD present a properly-labeled seu-Romanian dance to a Romanian, that Romanian will not have to decide if the presenter is merely ignorant or willfully deceitful. Future generations will no longer be misled when they look at archives of our activities and wonder where all these strange dances came from.
I believe accurate labeling is a true reflection of our preferences.
The problem here is our penchant for giving names to things. If you were to ask a bunch of American teenagers what they call what they are doing to a rock song, they would not give an answer, but just say "dancing." Rarely a name for a step would come along, but most of the time, not. The same is in the Balkans. What gets put on CD/LP labels is what the record producer decides, with some input from the band. American folk dancers want names, so teachers do the best they can. Indiski čoček (the 5-measure dance) comes from Kočani, so outsiders call it Kočanski čoček, or nothing. Another naming issue come up with Sa Sa. This is a dance with a form like the 3-measure Čoček. but without the syncopations. It was taught by Yves Moreau to a piece by Boki Milošević called Niški Sa Sa, so that is what Yves called it. The tune was quite popular, and was imitated by all the new brass bands, but usually in the now more popular syncopated Čoček style, and that is what your first example shows. Most of the examples of Indijski čoček given are too fast for the 5-measure dance Steve Kotansky taught, so folks would do the 3-measure variant. This would not affect naming, since dancers would react to the beat, not an arbitrary name. One sees this all over. I have hundreds of Romanian LPs and CDs and hear the same tunes, but with different names. What we call Hora pe Gheața is rarely seen on Romanian recordings; it is called "Hora lui Buică."
From Don Buskirk's website, Folkdance Footnotes.
Used with permission.
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