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The Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH)

Folk Dancers
Part 4

By Don Buskirk

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

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Question Mark - Red

 Why Part 4? What's the problem?

A few days ago, Terry wrote to me: "I first discovered your blog some time ago, but only recently started delving into it. It explains so much about the history of Recreational IFD [international folk dancing], the perspectives of both prominent teachers and regular dancers, and features of popular dances and songs.

My wife and I started at around age 60 about seven years ago. Even then the numbers of participants were in decline. Since then we've seen very few start and stick with it (actually, I can think of only one). Dancers that we've known are getting too infirm to dance, or have passed on. And it seems IFD will suffer a serious blow from the pandemic.

To my mind, part of the problem is that new Recreational IFD, as now practiced, is darn difficult for the average senior newbie. So many different dances, some requiring difficult coordinations, and so much memorization. Many folks come a few times and give up. As a musician, it's been easier for me, but I often still have to do "homework" to learn a dance.

Younger people (sometimes even the seniors' children or grandchildren) catch on quickly and often times enjoy an evening of IFD, but there's no one near their age to socialize with, so there's no motivation to return.

IFD does seem to me to have some things going for it that make it worth preserving and re-growing:

Perhaps you'd like to address whether there could be a Phase 4.

Note: The "Phase 4" Terry mentions refers to my three-part series of articles "A Subjective History of Recreational (International) Folk Dancing in the USA." 1st Phase: 1880's – 1930's; From the (intellectual) Top, 2nd Phase: 1930's – 1950's, 3rd Phase: 1950's – Today.

" Ron Houston, in his ©2021 "Folk Dance Phone Book and Directory, published six pages of statistics based on 29 years of sampling responses to his surveys of membership in folk dance clubs. A few of his conclusions:

 Folk Dancers Part 4

I began recreational folk dancing in 1980, at its peak of Phase 3 popularity. Soon I began teaching beginner-level classes, and at that time I witnessed the same problems that Ron detailed above, and that Terry so eloquently detailed 'today,' 40 years later.

I continue to teach beginner-level, and agree with Ron and Terry that a room full of seniors is not going to be a place where 'young' people in their teens through 40's will hang around for their social life, no matter how exciting the activity. For folk dancing to take off among the under 40's, leadership needs an under 40's sensibility – multiple generation gaps that require reinvention by influencers of those generations.

For us older types, Terry has nailed the main difficulties – decreasing mobility, energy level, and memory function. And for all age groups, Terry has also nailed what I see is the biggest problem – the giant repertoires of existing folk dance groups.

 Traditional vs recreational folk dance

Let us recall 'the village,' the home of 'traditional' (1st Generation [1stG] and Living) folk dancing, the wellspring from which Balkan folk dances began and all the 'new' 2nd Generation [2ndG] dances were derived. (These villages effectively died out after World War II due to 'modernization.') From numerous sources I've read, the average village in the Balkans contained maybe up to a few hundred individuals divided among a very few patriarchies or clans. A mile or two away would be another village and beyond that another village, and beyond that many in the first village had never traveled. There was no internet, televisiion, or even radio; few could even read.

No one in the village was THE dance teacher, or even THE repository of dance knowledge – it was the common property of the oldest generation, who learned it by watching their elders and expected their juniors to learn by watching them. The total village repertoire varied from 20 to about 50 dances, and didn't change much from generation to generation. Those same dances were used in a variety of situations – it was the context not the footwork that turned a wedding dance into a christening dance. The music was always live and musicians responded to the needs of the crowd in a feedback loop that meant the same musician never played or sang the same music the same way twice. Thus the footwork was often simple and adaptable to a variety of purposes, tempos, even changes in rhythmic structure.

A child began imitating its elders as soon as it could stand and by the time the child was a teenager (marriageable) it had to know the dances if it wanted to be on display with the other marriageable teens in a dance line. Thus it had years to learn just a few dances.

Contrast this with most folk dance groups. The average dancer today has 50 years experience in learning new dances and collecting dances from the group repertoire. Most groups have over 500 dances in their 'collection.' Many have thousands. Each dance was likely taught as a 'one-off' – a dance in isolation from other dances, like separate tunes on the music hit parade. Most touring professional teachers have no incentive to point out the similarities between dances. It's in their interest to make each dance look and sound distinctive, so you will want to attend their workshop and support their 'research.' Over time, the average dancer has learned to recognize that many dances are similar, if for no other reason than that they confuse one dance for another similar one. However, very few dancers have a background in recognizing the simple patterns that are the basis of most dances.

As Terry says, "So many different dances, some requiring difficult coordinations, and so much memorization." This was supposed to be fun!

I have over 600 postings on my website, but I consider these to be critically important for the beginner:

  1. The Basic Uneven Walking dance pattern
  2. The Basic Taproot Dance pattern
  3. The Basic Taproot Dance family
  4. What is a 'real' folk dance?

I started my latest recreational folk dancing group several years ago. It's still a work in progress, but I've learned to focus on three key elements.

 1. Begin With the two basic footwork patterns (above) and always refer back to them

I would venture to say that a majority of those dances considered traditional by the cultures themselves, the 1st Generation [1stG] and Living dances, are based on either Uneven Walking (1 above) or Taproot (2 and 3 above) patterns. It makes sense to start by teaching those patterns. These are not 'steps' like a grapevine or two-step, they're whole dances in themselves. Not just any dance, but dances worth remembering – dances that are still danced in celebrations – should your beginner happen to be invited to a Greek or Serbian or Romanian wedding, for instance.

For those who have never danced before, these patterns cover all the possibilities of movement in a hand-holding line-dance situation. Let's face it, you only have two legs to move to music and express yourself (your hands are busy holding other hands), so once you've lifted a leg you have only two options (1) put the lifted leg down, shifting your weight onto it [walking] or (2) leave the leg in the air (keeping your weight on the first foot) and do something interesting with the lifted leg, like a kick, a tap, a hook, a pause. Uneven Walking covers option 1, the Taproot family covers option 2.

I begin teaching beginners by teaching Uneven Walking, or walking to an uneven rhythm. It's surprisingly difficult for those who have only used their legs and feet for transportation (walking and running). We live in a machine age and tend to think of our bodies as machines and want to move as efficiently as possible, which means developing a steady, maximal rhythm. When one step takes longer than another step, it throws us off our stride – we have to devote attention units to moving in that awkward fashion – it's harder to think of other things, like where the foot is going. Moving to an uneven rhythm without having to think about it requires a lot of mental energy and practice until it becomes 'second nature.'

We tend to have a lead foot and a secondary foot, and always start walking with the lead foot. When you do the most common Uneven Walking step (actually three steps) – Slow, Quick, Quick (S,Q,Q) – if you start on the right foot (R,L,R), the next pattern you have to start on the left foot (L,R,L) – a different lead. This is easy to conceive, but difficult to do, because you're going counter to your 60-plus years of starting every motion with the same lead foot. Aside from re-programming your brain so that either foot becomes a lead foot, the other main advantage to learning Balkan dancing starting with Uneven Walking is you can concentrate on uneven rhythms without the complications of other extraneous movements. You're just walking to uneven rhythms without trying to hop, skip, turn, or kick at the same time. Later you can add the variable of where to place your other foot (in front, behind, beside). Uneven Walking dances don't always move in a straight line. But the idea is to first concentrate on learning the Slow, Quick, Quick rhythm and leading with the proper foot first.

Learn two Slow, Quick, Quick patterns, one starting on the right foot and one on the left, and you have the most common and widespread dance in Greece; known as Syrto, Sta Dio, Pogonissios, Ballos, Sousta, and many other names.

Add two more patterns, adjust the rhythm and you have Kalamatianos. Similar dances are very common in Albania and Bulgaria. Kalamatianos.

Do the Uneven Walking pattern in reverse (Quick, Quick, Slow) and you have Râčenica, one of the most common Bulgarian dances. A popular feature of Bulgarian weddings is when members of the bridal party try to 'steal' cakes from each other while doing a basic Râčenica step.

After practicing and dancing Uneven Walking, I move on to the Taproot Dance – T-6. There are many dances that are entirely made up of this step. Dick Oakes once laid out for me the dance descriptions taught in various workshops for over 60 dances from fourteen countries – all consisting of the Taproot T-6 pattern. Here the difficulties are the same as those in Uneven Walking, plus the added problems of alternating between weight-bearing and non-weight-bearing steps, and what to do with the non-weight-bearing leg/foot.

on the two basic patterns by teaching more examples of those patterns. Some have the same footwork but a different rhythm structure. Some have other elements added to a basic pattern. Some sound different because another culture uses different instruments, or because the music is all-singing or all-instrumental. Each new dance allows the learner to experience the Taproot and Uneven Walking patterns in a different situation, and teaches them to recognize the pattern even when the music, rhythm, culture, or sequence is different. Hard to believe that the stately Macedonian dance Gajda and the lightening-fast Romanian Sârba share the same footwork, but they do.

Thus when an entirely 'new' dance is presented, if the student recognizes a basic pattern, the dance is already half learned – one only has to discover how the dance differs from the basic pattern, instead of treating each dance as an entirely new set of steps.

When teaching a new dance, first look to see what parts of the dance contain elements of the two basic patterns, and teach them first. This gives the student a framework as well as a pre-established brain-file to store and retrieve the dance.

It is surprising how many dances consist almost entirely or are substantially based on these two basic patterns. One could easily fill an entire evening dancing them. Experienced dancers are often bored with the constant repetition of the same pattern that many of these dances contain. For that reason, as folk dancing grew and dancers mastered a simple repertoire, a demand developed for more complex choreography's. Enter the 2nd Generation [2ndG] dances. These dances, originally plucked from the repertoires of State dance ensembles of former Soviet Bloc countries have become the dominant form of recreational folk dance.

Here's an example of a well-known 2ndG dance based on the Slow, Quick, Quick (S,Q,Q) Uneven Walking pattern – Dospatsko Horo. The main difference between a 1stG S,Q,Q dance and a 2ndG S,Q,Q dance, is the 2ndG has many different sections, each with a different foot pattern, each corresponding to a change of music. Dospatsko has four different such changes, yet the S,Q,Q foot pattern remains in all four. This dance would seem bafflingly complex to a raw beginner, but one who has mastered the basic S,Q,Q would already know half the dance.

Another Uneven Walking pattern is Slow, Slow, Quick, Quick, Slow (S,S,Q,Q,S), also known as the Devojačko pattern. The Devojačko dance best-known among recreational folk dancers is probably Šetnja.

Now see one of my favorite 2G dances, Vulpiță. Notice how the first eight bars is the S,S,Q,Q,S Devojačko pattern with arm swings. Bars 17 to 24 are a variation of Devojačko, bars 25 and 26 are a half Devojačko: over half the dance is composed of Devojačko steps. Many years ago, I learned this dance – one step at a time – it took me weeks. I only recently recognized the Devojačko pattern, it became much easier to remember.

 2. Limit the repertoire, but choose it carefully

If 50 dances was good enough for the 'village,' 100 should be good enough for us. Or so I used to think. Experience in my 'new' group says 100 is too many: I currently have about 75. When I want to introduce a 'new' dance, I first have to eliminate an existing one. That way I keep only the 'best,' and am constantly improving the repertoire. On a given night, about a third of the dances are repeats from the previous week, either because they're favorites that people don't seem to tire of, or they're new and need repeating to catch on. My group does an average of 24 dances in a two-hour evening, so about sixteen are not repeats from the week before. That means it takes roughly six weeks to do all the dances in a repertoire of 75 twice. Popular dances will be done more often, which means other dances will be done only once in six weeks. To my mind that is not enough repetitions for us seniors with less than prime memories to learn a dance, but it's a lot less daunting than with a repertoire of 500!

I think we owe it to the folk sources that provided us with this splendid form of recreation that we include some Living dances as the core of our repertoire. After all, if it wasn't for the original folk culture, we wouldn't have all the derivative 2ndG dances we prefer.

Šetnja has an important function as a first dance, because of it's story, as related by Dick Crum as a dance used in Serbia to gather participants in a field to signal the beginning of a Sunday Kolo. Likewise, we always close with Mom Bar.

It helps when the inevitable 2ndG dances are chosen that they contain elements of the two basic patterns – Uneven Walking and the Taproot and their variations. For instance one of our group favorites is Mori Shej. We like the Jimmy Drury version, which is a variation of Taproot T-8, otherwise known as Kolo. Opa ćupa, another favorite, starts with the Taproot T-6.

Of course, there are some dances you must have in your repertoire even though they don't fit into any convenient categories, or do not contain a familiar pattern. We have several, almost all 2ndG. If these don't take up more than a third of your dances, you're less likely to overwhelm and discourage your newcomers.

 3. the possibilities for each dance

The 'village' had live music, making every event unique. We have the same single recording that doesn't vary and quickly becomes boring. Solution: vary the music! The Living dances still used by what's left of the 'folk' are danced to the current popular hits, which are often traditional folk songs dressed up with fancy arrangements and modern instruments. Mix 'traditional' recordings on acoustic instruments with modern recordings of the same song, find several different songs that suit the same dance. An advantage of this method is that dancers also learn that a footwork pattern need not be tied to a recording. You might object that the dance's arrangement won't work with a different recording with a different arrangement. That may be true of 2ndG dances, but not 1stG and Living dances.

Dick Crum was fond of saying, "There's no right way to do a dance." Back in the 'village' each person had their own slightly unique way of dancing, based on who they learned it from, how inspired they are by the musicians, their gender and social status, their state of inebriation, etc. Most dancers in recreational groups dance from the 'outside in' – basically imitating the leader. That's what I consider passive dancing, or 'doing a dance.' When there are 500 dances to remember, it's all you can do to get the basic choreography right. However, with only a few dances repeated often, there's time to know the dance from the 'inside out' – what I consider 'active' dancing, or simply 'dancing.'

Learning a dance from several different directions helps solidify the dance in the memory. Learn the words to a song, learn the translation. Learn what events are suitable for this dance, what time of year it was popular, learn about the culture from which the dance springs. Learn variations that can be done without disturbing others in the line.

I find that just a little extra in a dance helps make it different every night. Each 'live' human element makes a dance vary from the unchanging recording. For instance in Opa ćupa, we all sing 'Lumba lumba lumba laj' at the appropriate time. When we go into the centre of the circle and start step-kicking, we count the five step-kicks in different languages. Which languages you choose will depend on the makeup of your group – we use English, French, Spanish, German, and Japanese. One lad chimed in with Cree. To show off, I added Greek and Turkish, and we should learn Roma and Serbian.

Although the song Ajde Jano has a well-known 2ndG Anatol Joukowsky choreography associated with it, Serbs don't have a specific dance for it. Instead when they sing the song and feel like moving, they do a simple Taproot T-6. Many in our group have learned the Serbian lyrics – after all, three verses and a chorus contain a total of only nine words!

Ajde Jano, kolo da igramo.
/ Ajde Jano, 'ajde dušo, kolo da igramo. /
Ajde Jano, konja da podramo.
/ Ajde Jano, 'ajde dušo, konja da prodamo. /
Ajde Jano, kuću da prodamo.
/ Ajde Jano, 'ajde dušo, kuću da prodamo. /
Da prodamo, samo da igramo.
/ Da prodamo, Jano dušo, samo da igramo. /
      Come on, Jana, let's dance the kolo.
Come on, Jana, let's sell the horse.
Come on, Jana, let's sell the house.
We'll sell them just so we can dance.
Fun is what we need in our lives
To have fun, and no cares
To have fun, and no cares
Fun is what we need in our lives

Same for Jovano Jovanke, Makedonsko Devojče, Što mi e milo, and hundreds of other 'dances' that are really songs to which an outsider has added a choreography. You can do what the locals do – sing while dancing the Taproot T-6. Simpler yet, just 'la la la' along. When you're singing, you don't need a complex dance.

Even if you can't learn all the lyrics, a dance is really perked up if we all sing just a few words. Lerikos, for instance has a chorus consisting of two lines, sung A,B,B,A, – eleven words:

Glendi i zoi mas theli.
Na glendas ke mi se meli.
Na glendas ke mi se meli.
Glendi i zoi mas theli.
      Fun is what we need in our lives.
To have fun, and no cares.
To have fun, and no cares.
Fun is what we need in our lives.

If that's too difficult, make up your own English translation that scans with the melody.

Even a simple OOOOPA ĆUPA shouted along with the singer turns a 'passive' dance into an 'active' one.

Whoops, hollers, ululations – any exclamation adds to the group energy level (and gives your lungs an extra workout).

Romanians are famous for their strigături (rhythmic shouts in verses). There are thousands you could learn, but why not make up your own in English? Here's a few of my 'creations.'

Make some noise, some sound and fury,
Dancing needs your Strigaturi.

On your left then on your right,
Onwards to your heart's delight!

Of my dancing I'm not proud,
But at least I'm good and loud!

Those who do not whoop and holler
Have to pay the group a dollar!

Romanian dances often featured battles between the local wits during a dance.

Use your imagination. Become an 'active' dancer. Dance over and over until you're dancing from the inside. And, especially you teachers, allow others to catch up with you. Encourage others to lead. I believe you don't 'know' a dance until you can lead it.

One final word. Terry said "I often still have to do "homework" to learn a dance." So do I. Always have, always will. Those who come to folk dancing expecting to learn everything in class are like those who come to a language class or take up a musical instrument and expect to learn without practicing at home. This is a foreign language for your body. If you want to dance from the 'inside' you have to train your mind and body. Otherwise you'll be a mimic, just like in other exercise classes.


John Uhlemann

I am delighted that you mentioned using alternative music. I danced with a group many years ago that did not do Tsamiko at all. When I asked for it, they humored my by putting their only recording – a ghastly, scratchy thing that no Greek would want to dance to, either. Generally, as you say, if a dance has no alternative music, then it may be just a choreography. However, there are village dances that have two parts and can only be done to one melody. Kalendara and čiro, for example.

Music, for me, is part of the problem for many people. A dance may be not that hard, but if all you know is American music, some styles can be off-putting. One woman in our group told me some years ago that she really didn't like the music to any of the dances we did, she just liked the exercise. Even on a less extreme level, I never liked Pontic Greek dances until about twelve years ago, mainly because of the music. Now I collect the music, and love the dances. Not every group has access to better-recorded and performed versions. Also, some older groups actually prefer the old scratchy versions, just like some people have a pair of worn out old shoes they won't part with. In that case, keep trying. I could never get Dick Crum's Hora Boiereasca going until I finally landed on a group of four or five recordings that folks liked. Vlainja (or Stara Vlainja) is a great, important dance still done in east Serbia – by young folks at weddings. I can guarantee that the old folk dancer tune that was used 50 years ago is in the collection, justly unused, of nearly every folk dance group of any age. The versions they use among the Vlachs in East Serbia now, and over the last 50 years, are bright and fun.

Nancy Walker

Hello! I read with great interest your latest email on the present demise of folk dancing. I thought I might brighten your day (???) with relating what my husband and I will be teaching next year at a Montessori school [in] Pennsylvania and a middle school near where we live.

We are Rostered Artists for the State of Pennsylvania (dance and fiber arts) and for several years we have been EXTREMELY fortunate to be asked to come back to the same two schools each year.

We are scheduled to teach third and fourth graders (approx. 60+ students) at Montessori and 7th graders (approximately 120 students) at the middle school, a programme we have developed entitled "Folk Dance & Fairy Tales." For ten sessions we introduce them to ten different countries, starting their journey like a tourist – where they will be flying into, what their currency looks like, different food, have them try some simple language phrases, etc. We read a fairy tale from each country (which they love!), and then teach them a folk dance. (Also explaining the different holidays/events these dances may be danced at, traditional clothing, etc.)

Finally, we will get the students to learn traditional embroidery and they choose an image of a country of their choice to embroider during the ten sessions. The teachers also give them time to embroider when we are not there during their "quiet time." We have taught this unit many times in these two schools, plus several others and local libraries, and I must say, it is always a big hit with the kids.

In this scary political world climate of today, my husband and I think it is imperative that young children learn of these cultures and not be wary of anyone or anything that appears "different" to them.

I hope this lifts your spirits a bit about the future of folk dancing. I'm not saying all of these kids are going to go out there and continue to be folk dancers, but at least they have been exposed to the art and hopefully thru folk dancing have a more open mind about the world.

We have been busy all summer teaching a children and adult summer workshop on basic weaving via zoom, plus we taught for eight weeks at a senior centre (outside under a big tree!) where they learned about the social side of the American civil war era and made Civil war era soft dolls which was a lot of fun!

Thankfully, I have been asked to teach again... my History of Dance course (YAY!) for the theatre dept. I LOVE teaching this course, so I need to get my act together and put all my lecture notes together soon! I am hoping that the college continues its policy that all students need to be vaccinated before they let them in!

Well, this email has become A LOT longer than I originally intended.

Please continue your WONDERFUL research! I read every article with GREAT interest and always learn many new things!

Sending a Big Folk Dance Hug,

Sarah Bustin

As a twenty year old emerging RIFD leader, I am acutely aware of these challenges. I am pioneering a folk dance group at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. I will be using many of these ideas, including varying my music and including a mix of dances for beginners and intermediate dancers. Thank you for your insights and keep the blog posts coming! By the way, my group also uses the L, 1, 2, S designations when we program.

Lorraine Cohn

I started folk dancing with my parents, who brought me to the family-day dances that were held at Folk Dance House for children. Mary Ann Herman combined folk dancing and craft activities so that everyone was involved. The dances were specially chosen or designed to be easy for parents to learn and do along with a child. When I was finally a teen, I was admitted into the teen group, without my parents present. The dances were taught each week, until we developed a full repertoire. When I grew to an adult, I went on weekend workshops to learn dances from choreographers, who researched the dances from other countries and recorded the music to fit on records, tapes, and then on CD's. I have them all. It is overwhelming. Engineers from universities finally transferred the music to computers, so no more record boxes or tapes to carry.

While I was in grade school, Dr. Richard Kraus was the Dean of Recreation for the New York City Board of Education [and] we were introduced to square and folk dancing in gym class. Now it is gone from the curriculum of most schools. We were taught to appreciate dance from varied cultures. I worked four years ago, as a therapist in a middle school, that brought in Mexican dance teachers to teach the students and make a performance. They opened rehearsals to parents in the Latin community. Another school hosted an Asian dance performance. Folk and square dancing teaches social grace and etiquette similar to ballroom dance. Actually, my college had two folk dance clubs that had large groups until the mid 1970's. After school I would grab a snack and travel to Columbia University twice a week for the Israeli and International folk dance groups. Now some colleges have ballroom dance teams. One of my sons became pretty proficient in ballroom at Carnegie Mellon University. The younger generation does not identify with the old recorded music. Many of the dances have been re-recorded to be more up to date.

A few months before the COVID shut down, I began teaching beginners in senior groups in Delaware. Of course, the groups were small since they only met once a month. Then I began teaching weekly International and Israeli dance on Zoom. Well there were many difficulties with the technology at first but it has been working for me and other leaders to hold us through the pandemic. We thought we were over the hump and could resume our in-person groups by now, but now the Delta Variant is keeping dancers home again. Yet some are willing to meet in-person with masks. I try to keep up with all the new dances, but find it impossible. These recreational dances are like Latin Line routines, that have become very popular around the world. No one touches anyone. Everyone social distances from others. The dances are perfect for zoom classes since no circle or partner is needed, only a small space and four walls.

In conclusion I find that folk dancing needs to be introduced to school-aged children if we want to get younger people involved. I was once a participant in a folk dance event in Central Park, Manhattan, that was sponsored by Pepsi Cola, to have each neighborhood playground perform a folk dance and then come together to all do the same dance or two, as a finale. In Israel the young children have annual dance festivals that are mainly interpretive choreographies, that are very different from folk dancing. The kibbutzim and colleges have large dance groups, attended by middle aged adults with a few younger people sprinkled in. In South America there are Israeli leaders teaching Israeli dance to young people who are searching for a way to socialize in a safe environment, with similar people.

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

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