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The Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH)

Folk vs. Ethnic:
What is the difference?

By Richard Duree

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Richard Duree 2002

Dance scholars, just as many other scholar-types, seem to try for job security by eternally seeking to describe their discipline and never being satisfied with it.

Try describing "dance" and you'll see the supposed problem as you attempt to be all-inclusive, as any description must be, without including something that isn't dance. If dance is defined as "expressive movement," you include a threatening raised hand; if you try "movement to rhythm," you eliminate some Macedonian dances (and probably others) in which the musicians follow the lead dancer and there is no rhythm. Music is not always necessary, as many forms of both folk and theatrical dance do very well without it.

The most commonly accepted definition of dance is "movement for its own sake," but that would appear to include simple walking just to be walking. Perhaps we should amend: "extraordinary movement for its own sake" – movement outside the normal movements of life.

Moving on, there are different ideas about what constitutes "folk" and "ethnic" dance, much of it obviously adopted to further a political agenda. It's fallacy is in being unable to stand up to its own definition.

"Ethnic" does not mean "non-white." "Folk" does not mean "rural." "Ethnic dance" is any dance form which can be identified as originating with an ethnic culture and expressing the movement aesthetics of that culture. It includes all ethnic cultures, whether European, American, African, Polynesian, Asian, Middle Eastern – all of them. It includes village folk dance, urban popular dance (Swing, Tango), classic dance (Kathak, Bharat Natyam), tribal dance, tap dance and many more. It does not include the classic theatrical forms of ballet, jazz and modern dance, but notice that ethnic dance does include some forms of theatrical dance. The primary criteria is simply identification with an ethnic culture of origin.

Ethnic dance includes several sub-categories: "folk," "theatrical," "religious," "tribal," "social" and so on. Our major concern is with the first two, but we'll take a quick look at the others.

"Folk" dance requires not only an ethnic identification, but a "participatory" and aesthetic tradition. It is dance which is an integral and anticipated behavior in the culture and defined by the aesthetics of that culture (whether rural or urban); thus the traditional village dances of Europe, the Hawai'ian Hula, the American Clog the Mexican Jarabe Tapatío, and the Argentine Tango are equal members of the "folk" tradition. A strong case can be made for including American Swing – consider the criteria.

An interesting thought: other countries have adopted American Swing and rock dance and music, but they consider it to be an "American" form of music and dance, read: "ethnic."

"Theatrical" forms of ethnic dance are well-known, primarily in Asia, where professional dancers train a life-time to perform dances which are prescribed by tradition and do not change. Their function is to entertain a specific class of people, whether the populace or the aristocracy or women or men. They are found in India, Japan, and throughout Southeast Asia; highly developed dances with extraordinary costume, make up, props and sets, usually telling an ancient fable for the entertainment of their select audience.

"Tribal" dance generally originates in a "pre-industrial" culture, created in a subsistence environment and functioning as an integral part of life. It is communication with the supernatural, a rite of passage, a courage builder for battle, a celebration victory, or a mourning ritual in defeat. It is serious and rarely performed as recreation.

Ballet, jazz, and other forms of theatrical dance fall outside the umbrella of "ethnic" dance," because they are cross-cultural and have lost any ethnic identity they may have had. They do not express any ethnic identity or aesthetic, nor is that their intent; rather the focus in on ever-more difficult and fantastic technical performance.

So the next time some one refers to "ethnic" dance, question them. Make them a little uncomfortable by asking why they don't include the Ukrainian Hopak (that's one they're probably familiar with) or the Hungarian Csárdás, or the Argentine Tango? How do they make the distinction between "ethnic" and "non-ethnic" dance. Make 'em squirm. A Dane or a Greek or a Hungarian or a Spaniard is as much of an "ethnic" as is a Hawai'ian, an African, an Asian, or anyone else and the sooner we recognize that, the more equal we'll all be.


Used with permission of the author.

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