The Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH)
Looking for "The Source"
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For many of us interested in the folk tradition, there is the recurring (and ultimate) dream of happening upon a remote village where a festival or wedding is in progress and suddenly, there we are a part of the scene. Sometimes this really happens but it is not the only way in which we can indulge in our "need to know."
When we travel for the purpose of seeing other nations present their heritage of folk music, dance, and dress, we are likely to find it in many different forms, all of them valid for our purposes. The serious researcher has different needs to be met, but for the person with limited time and a strong focus, this is an overview of the many ways a group can have access to areas of interest.
First is the major festival a Zagreb opening day parade hundreds of people in their village dress with variety so intense that it can be difficult to accept that all these people represent Croatia. In Strážnice, Chechoslovakia, there are two festival stages, both representing dance ensembles, tableaux, narrative and pantomimed scene, and often with foreign groups invited. Bulgaria has its annual major international folk festival by the Black Sea, in Bourgos, and once every five years an all-Bulgarian festival takes place in Koprivšstica. For Bulgaria's 1300th anniversary, in 1981, there were eight stages scattered over the hills above the town and a mind-boggling array of musicians, performers, dress, and directors. National festivals are sponsored by the government to promote and sustain awareness and appreciation of the ethnic tradition. Usually, well-run, major festovals offer an opportunity to get an overview of the tremendous variation of music and dance among areas in the same country. Beyond that is the possibility to get on a "one-on-one" basis with the participants who are happy to tell you about their dress or instruments, or pose for close-up photography.
There still are small festivals, harder to find because the dates and times are usually of a local matter, and zeroing in on these is a challenge. Last summer, just outside Skopje, the Rom community of many areas in Macedonia were gathered in celebration of a saint's day. There were perhaps a thousand people in a mob-scene of activity, singing, dancing, playing zurnas and drums. Americans were welcomed to the lines of dance, taken to family encampments for a "once-over," and offered food and drink. The fair in Tismana, Romania, had many stalls around the open field, with food, drink, and utilitarian objects for sale. There was a donkey-drawn merry-go-round for the kids and a "program" of song and dance on a small stage. Arrival was largely by horse-drawn carts that were parked among the trees, and all through these woods were Romani musicians and "locals" doing the dances of that area. There also was a lot of talking and shouting and picnicking. There was no pretense of costumes, just Western dress (circa 1930), except for the young performers on the stage.
Market days offer another opportunity to see the life-style in a small town, and Višegrad, in Bosnia-Herzegovina provided a colorful scene. The woman who bought a goat at the animal fair had not brought a rope, so she tied one sleeve of her sweater around the animal's neck, and with the other sleeve, led him down the main street, her "shalvare" (full, long trousers which Moslem women traditionally wear) billowing in the breeze. Most of the women in the town wore this version of the Turkish harem pants.
And then the weddings. While many of the accoutrements are now Western, occasionally you will find local traditions still prevail. In Drăguș, Romania, the wedding procession from the church was preceded by family and friends carrying the hope chest contents of elaborately embroidered linens and bedding. Musicians played "Crihalma" and other tunes along the way to the local hall where the wedding party was seated on the stage for all to see. Dancing was both indoors and out, on a very casual basis, moving to the music, but talking and visiting was the main interest.
The reason for traveling away from the villages and to a major city is to see the National Ensemble. These young people have had many years of training and have been hired by the State as performers. Teachers, researchers, and directors, all contribute to this "product," which is usually excellent. Staging, lighting, and choreography are at a high level, as long as one realizes that this "folk ballet" is neither folk nor ballet. It is entirely a professional production to be enjoyed for what it is not condemned for what it is not.
On the amateur level, many groups exist in and around towns, sometimes tied with university activities or studies. Occasionally it is a competitive "team" belonging to a factory group in much the same way that a chess team or soccer team belongs. With advanced planning, these groups can be brought into a hotel for a private performance, and, given a good group of travelers, a fair amount of interaction can be expected. In the cities, however, these fresh-faced, beautifully costumed, accomplished dancers will change back into their jeans and T-shirts and, lighting up their ciggies, go on their way. It's marvelous. Be accepting. Arrangements also can be made for a group to visit a "House of Culture" in some of the Eastern Bloc countries. Here, amateur groups will perform suites of local dances, and receptions with food and drink are not uncommon. There is always an element of curiosity about Americans who will travel 6,000 miles or more to go to a small town and watch an amateur group perform. They are pleased; they are flattered; they are puzzled.
Folk taverns are another setting for music and dance. Here, while sampling national foods and wines, performers direct their various routines at the "tourist trade." The costumes are colorful, the dancing usually quite good (if somewhat frenetic), and the quarters the antithesis of fresh air and open fields. Occasionally, some evenings are handled with a little more class and take place in castle dining rooms or large halls. Here we gain some insight as to what the nationals consider entertainment for themselves such as puppet shows, party games, and contests. If there are different national groups in the room, there is an opportunity to drink and to dance together, and given a command of a common language, a lot of conversation.
Another opportunity for involvement with communities is the "Sunday in the Park" or the evening in the taverna, where the locals may be dancing purely for personal pleasure. Most often, you will be "signaled" to join in, but be sensitive to their expectations of you as a visitor to their "home." This "The Source."
Printed in Folk Dance Scene, March 1982.
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