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The Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH)

Recreational Folk Dancing's
Inconvenient Truth

By Don Buskirk

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

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Tanec 2022

Imagine you are a Black American traveling in, say, Serbia. You see a notice advertising American folk dance classes, and decide to satisfy your curiosity. The instructor turns out to be a white Serbian, who learned his American dancing by watching concerts in Belgrade given by Elvis Presley, Fred Astaire, Billie Holiday, Sammy Davis Junior, and Michael Jackson (most known by him to be brilliant American dancers), and from the leaders of several Serbian dance troupes (who learned from brief visits in the United States). This teacher then went on to create his own version of 'American' dances, using American music, though adapted to the preferences of his Serbian students. This teacher's favorite 'American' creations are called Hound Dog, The Continental, Strange Fruit, The Candy Man, Beat It, Camptown Races, Old Man River, and Sweet Home Alabama. All of his students have eagerly attended his classes, several of them are in a performing group demonstrating his American dances to schools, folk festivals, and senior centres.

Do you as a Black American attempt to explain to this teacher or his students that no one in the USA has done dances with these names, even if they know music with that title? Do you attempt to explain the many shades of cultural conflict embedded in the music and lyrics? Or do you politely nod, leave, and tell your friends back home what a weird notion of American dance you found being taught in Serbia? Would it have made a difference if the teacher had listed separately some actual American dances, had demonstrated a basic knowledge of American dance history, and then demonstrated his American dance 'creations'?

Not all folk dances are alike. Some folk dances are (or were) actually danced in the geographical location attributed to them (Bulgaria, for instance). Others are 'creations' by dance instructors using, say, Bulgarian music and/or steps. No one in Bulgaria has even heard of these dances, let alone danced them. They are 'created' (choreographed is the polite term) for the recreational folk dance market, and new dances are being 'created' weekly. This process of 'creation' has been going on since the beginning of recreational folk dancing in the late 1800's. It has recently become common practice for instructors to acknowledge which dances they teach are 'creations' and which were actually observed in the 'village,' but in the past that was not often the case. Even dances that were observed in the village may have been observed at a performance by a village dance troupe; dances considered part of their heritage but no longer 'living'; dances 'arranged' for the stage in a way that makes them more appealing to tourists and judges in folk dance competitions.

The average recreational folk dance group has hundreds of dances in its repertoire. I know of no group that has attempted to identify what proportion of these dances can be considered Living – still danced in the country of origin, or even 1st Generation [1stGen] – danced there in the past. I suspect that if such a survey was attempted, the result would be – shockingly few. The repertoire of most recreational groups consists primarily of 'creations'; what I call 2nd Generation [2ndGen] folk dances.

So what? Does it matter if no one in North Macedonia has danced the 'creation' called Bavno oro; no Turk Ali Paşa; no Slovak Horehronsky Čardáš; no Romanian Cimpoi? I maintain that to the average recreational folk dancer (myself included) it matters very little. I don't really care whether in Albania they do Çobankat – I like it! I LOVE the music. It's the kind of music I don't hear outside of folk dance circles – exotic but not too exotic. Hearing it helps distance me from party politics, health issues, financial problems, relationship problems. The dance steps change with the music phrases, providing clues to the changes and variety to the dance. The steps are somewhat unusual; I have to concentrate, which also helps me leave my daily life behind. It's not too strenuous, but I'm getting exercise in a pleasant way. I'm among like-minded individuals and I find moving together in unison very satisfying, reminding me that, for all our differences, different people can co-exist. All of this matters to me more than the 'authenticity' of a dance.

However, we recreational folk dancers like to imagine ourselves as ambassadors of tolerance and co-existence – many cultures dancing harmoniously under one roof. At the same time we're mis-representing the very cultures we presume to admire. Most of the 'creations' we seem to prefer dancing to have a fixed format choreographed to fit a particular recording. The format includes two or three different footwork patterns timed to fit changes in the music. Put on a recording of the same song with verses or choruses of a different length and the dance no longer 'fits.' Dancers in the 'old country' dance to live music using simpler patterns that may or may not fit the music format – it doesn't matter to them. Their village repertoire consists of 20 to 40 dances that suffice for all occasions – ours have hundreds yet we still want to learn more.

That suits us fine, and I wouldn't quibble except 'we' presume to represent 'them.' I consider it a form of Cultural Appropriation – where we blithely label dances as belonging to a culture that has never seen them, let alone approved of their creation. Then we go around our neighbourhoods and the world teaching 'their' dances! Let us at the very least alert our dancers to the difference between a dance created by 'the folk' in their own culture and a dance created in a studio (theirs or ours). The Balkans have taught many of us the finest lessons in dance and culture we have ever experienced. Let us show our respect by acknowledging we know the difference between their dances and imitations created for us. We should be taking the trouble to point out these differences to our membership, correcting past mistakes, and being ESPECIALLY careful when performing dances in public to label them correctly.

It wasn't until the 1950's, after more than 50 years of recreational folk dancing, that 'authenticity' became an issue. That's when the exotic stuff from the Balkans began emerging – when we began dancing in lines instead of couples. Hardly anyone knew anything about the Balkans – it was behind the 'Iron Curtain' – visiting was difficult, reliable information was scarce, the way of life celebrated in folk dance was rapidly disappearing. We clutched at ANYONE who presumed to know anything about dance over there, and only later were we able to separate fact from fantasy. Much of the fantasy was presented to us in the form of visiting performing groups, beginning in 1955 with Tanec from Macedonia, climaxing in 1958 with the Moiseyev troupe from Russia. They presented sanitized, romanticized, choreographed propaganda as peasant dance and we fell for it so hard that it became our benchmark of what peasant dance should be. When members of those performing groups began teaching their choreographies to us, we assumed they were the real thing, preferring them to the 'simple' dances of our immigrant neighbours. What we thought to be 'authentic' was in fact 2ndGen 'arranged folklore'; footwork arranged to a recording which, because it was from the Balkans, was assumed to be 'authentic' folklore even if it was Balkan pop. That style of 'arrangement' became our preferred type of dancing. And even after we began to understand that what we were dancing was not the 'real thing,' we continued to add more 2ndGen 'creations,' because that's what we preferred.

By now recreational folk dancing contains such a preponderance of 'creations' that most dancers assume they're the 'standard' format in the Balkans, and can't tell the difference between a Living dance and a 2ndGen 'creation.' Most recreational dance leaders have not made a point of telling their beginners that there is a difference. What to me is worse is that we continue to make that distinction difficult by lumping all, say, Greek dances together – the ancient, clearly traditional, Living Kalamatiano with the modern, clearly 'created' 2ndGen Syrtaki; calling them both simply 'Greek.' No matter how much detail of a dance's history and context is presented during teaching or included in the notes, the only piece of information concerning a dance that gets repeated week after week is its name on a list with its country of origin.

What if there was a simple addition to each dance name that would identify whether it was

I propose such a system, as seen in an example in the table below: Under the simplest system, after each dance name is an L, 1, 2, (or S). They stand for Living, 1st Generation, 2nd Generation, and Song. L, 1, 2, have already been explained, Song (for instance Ajde Jano) is a song well-known in the Balkans that most people in the Balkans dance to a simple, generic foot pattern like the Taproot dance (T-6). There is also the Joukowsky choreography, which I consider 2ndGen. Another example of Song would be Što mi e milo.

The advantage of such a system is that anytime someone looks at the dance list, they are reminded which dances are Living and which are 'creations.' One could even list the dances alphabetically under each category – all the Living together, all the 2ndGen, etc, which is how I've listed them on my website.

The example below has an added feature. In the middle of each line is a simple reminder of some distinguishing feature – its rhythm, or form. Leave it out if you will, to me the important thing is the L, 1, 2, S designations.

Recreational Chart

Categorizing the hundreds of dances in your groups' repertoire is a daunting and controversial task. I have labeled a few hundred on my website, which you may use as a guide. I find that in most recently taught dances labeling is pretty obvious, as the instructor has named the source of his or her dance. Start the list with what you know – a partial list is better than none – it gets the conversation started in your group.


Jim Gold

Fantastic article. A "must read" for folk dancers, Don. With this Inconvenient Truth article you have nailed the issue totally. And masterfully. I love it. Congratulations!

Don replies: Golly, Jim, thanks!

Leslie Levy

Bravo, Don! And yes, Jim, required reading indeed! I actually lived Don's imaginary scenario in Israel: In English class my childhood friends regularly sang "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean" (okay...) and "The Black Hills Of Dakota" (huh?) and, I believe "Old Black Joe" (cringe!). Fast forward to recent history – I was gobsmacked by the American dances, none of which I'd ever heard of, that are so popular at International Folk Dance sessions in Israel. And conversely, I've been outraged by what is sold as "Israeli music" in the United States – either albums all containing the same dozen oldies, or klezmer, but not one popular singer – not even an old one! (I've actually used a variety of Don's scenarios to illustrate the inexplicable folly of carrying no Big Names – Yehoram Gaon, Chava Alberstein, Ilanit, Arik Einstein, Shlomo Artzi, etc. "Suppose," I'd say, "you're living in Paris and deeply homesick and all you can find is 'My Darling Clementine?" Yes, the Big Danger does lie in stereotyping and the smugness of "a little knowledge." [Quick – do you know who "Bonnie" is in that song? According to my English cousin, it was Bonnie Prince Charlie, so the song's roots are political. The hypocrisy is that for years international dancers sneered at Israeli dance for having choreographers – yet it is danced, widely and popularly, by Israeli folk.]

Jerry Duke

Hi Jim, I am fascinated with this article and agree with your comments. Thanks for forwarding it. Don makes this perspective very clear. I often spoke to these ideas in my dance ethnology lectures at San Francisco State University, but did not approach the subject as thoroughly as Don does. I am impressed. Would you do me the favor of forwarding this note to him?
–Jerry Duke, Professor Emeritus, Dance Ethnology, SFSU.

Joe Freedman

Thanks for sharing the Folkdance Foototes. I wasn't familiar with the website. The article about "inconvenient truth" was fascinating. I'm reminded of a comment attributed to Pete Seeger (sorry I don't have the source). He was asked what makes a folk song a folk song (apparently challenged by the fact that people like Seeger were writing their own songs and they weren't "ethnic" songs...). He replied: "Well, if folks sing 'em, then they're folk songs." I love that quote. I think it applies to folk dances that have been choreographed (do you know anyone who does that?). If "folks" dance them – then they're folk dances! (Though I was crushed that Bavno oro was never danced in Bulgaria...)[I originally wrote Bavno was a Bulgarian dance but I later corrected myself – North Macedonian –DB]. Re Israeli dances – the Hora, with it's basic steps, was brought from Romania (and the vicinity). The importing is attributed to Baruch Agadati. It was widely danced by people from kibbutzniks to Haredim (ultra-orthodox). At age ten I learned the basic step in my synagogue youth group. Along came Rivka Sturman who created dances that became classics, like Kuma Echa and Harmonica...and everything snowballed after that. Being a die hard Zionist and Israeli, it still bothers me that people create Israeli dances from where they live in North America. But it doesn't stop me from enjoying dancing them! So ... keep creating.
–Joe Freedman, Ed.D. Educator and Licensed Israeli Tour Guide

Don replies: Joe's right about Israeli dance. For more details, see https://folkdancefootnotes.org/dance/dance-information/israel-early-israeli-dance/

Holly Gundolfi

That was a VERY GOOD READ! Living in Oakland, California, one is often challenged, questioned and "schooled" on such topics. I have wrestled with this often as a person who found a multi-cultural niche in teaching dance, music, and storytelling. I try to give credit to my teachers and sources.

Lorraine Cohn

Thank you for your long detailed explanation about recreational folk dancing. I was introduced to folk dancing at Folk Dance House, as a young child. I thought, at that time, that the dances were actual dances done in the countries where the music originated. Today bands experiment and borrow music, so styles of music and dance are shuffled and confusing in their origins. People who decided to dedicate their lives to promoting recreational folk dancing, had to do research so they could choreograph dances to teach and sell them at camps and workshop groups. It has become a form of recreation that is non-strenuous, yet aerobic activity and healthy for mind and body. Folk dancing is appropriate for all age groups so people can enjoy the variety of styles and intensities of dances throughout their lifespan. The dance leaders just need to choose appropriate dances that suit the participants and leave them wanting more.

John Uhlemann

This latest reiteration of an old theme is quite nice, although a more nuanced terminology on the part of some of those you quote would be nice. Some dances whose origins were choreographies became traditional. A good example would be the Hungarian dance Golya (the stork). It is a couple dance done in Varsovienne position, and was choregraphed in the 19th century for urban Hungarians so they could feel Hungarian, but maintain their dignity. It was done to a tune resembling the Battle Hymn of the Republic (there is a common source for this – I had a long discussion with Dick Crum over it). The dance became popular among the peasantry in Northeastern Hungary and among the the mountain Hungarians of the Eastern Carpathians (the instrumentation is very local and a bit jarring to hear). It is now a "real dance" for them for over 140 years, much as the Táncház crowd would like to disown it. On a less obscure front, there are all those Russian ballroom folk dances that were created in the 19th century by dancing masters with the same motives as our current teachers, yet Karapyet, Kohanochka, etc. were eventually embraced by Russians outside of classrooms and brought here. But why get so exotic; sometimes the tradition IS to create new dances – American Contra Dancing is not fake – there are certain regular figures, but it is traditional for a caller to make new arrangements. I would argue that that is the Israeli tradition now. Where I certainly found myself in total agreement is calling a choreography totally out of character for the country the music comes from as being from that country. Cultural appropriation is the term for it, as you said.

P.S.: By the way, Brenna MacCrimmon, one of the singers on the Çobankat recording, is Canadian; I am not sure she gave permission for the dissemination of that recording. I have the Kalan label original – it is a great disc.

Don replies: "I agree "Ayde More" is a great CD, it also has the music for Roberto Bagnoli's choreography for Kerem Eyle on it.

It's true many choreographed ballroom dances have become folk dance standards in their home country, and/or expats abroad: Serbia, for instance, as written up in my article on Ballroom Kolos. It seems all of those mentioned by you and me were created for the middle and upper classes and filtered "down." I don't know of any created out of country that filtered "over," do you?

I'm not saying dances can't be 'created,' I just don't know of one 'created' outside of the culture (with a 'recreational' fixed format) that has been accepted inside, where dances commonly don't have fixed formats. If Çobankat becomes a dance that Albanians consider their own, I'll be happy to call it an 'authentic' Albanian dance.

I'm already regretting that last sentence – I was being glib – it was ill-considered. Çobankat may well be accepted in Albania, but not because Albanians recognize a good imitation – it's a fixed format dance dependent on a particular record. Those formats may have been pioneered by Eastern European state dance companies (based on Moyseyev), but the traditional folk of their day considered them fakes, not 'authentic' and rejected them. If they're accepted now it's because the original culture on which 'arranged folklore' was based is gone and the urban 'peasants' which it evolved into live a different life with different values. They look at the internet and travel just like us – the world is one big cultural soup. If we continue to call it all folklore, considering it just 'progress', then we risk losing the memory of our past – like losing the memory of life before the holocaust deprives us of the understanding of what was lost. It devalues our ancestors.

John Semmlow

Rating the ethnic purity of folkdances sticks me as a ridiculous and needless complication. Why don't we just call recreational folk dancing, "ethnically inspired dancing," and leave it at that. We can leave the issues of ethnic purity to the sociologists! That said, I think most folk dancers realize that their dances have been choreographed for the pleasure of the recreational dancer. Dick Crum had a wonderful role play he would do to show how ethnic dances evolved to some of the things we do.

Don replies: It's possible that by now 'most folk dancers realize that their dances have been choreographed for the pleasure of the recreational dancer. Or at least they recognize that many of the more recent ones have. I'm still surprised by the many dancers I know who DON'T know they're choreographed. Many also assume that the dances they learned in their youth were "authentic," it's only the recent dances that are choreographed. And most dancers I know don't know the difference. We could just call recreational folk dancing "ethnically inspired dancing" and leave it at that. However, that negates the fact that we recreational dancers still have many dances in our repertoire that are Living examples of traditional dance still being danced in the 'old country,' among immigrants and their descendants in our own country AND recreational folk dancers. In addition we have other 1stGen dances that originated 'over there, back then' but are no longer Living.

My plea that we differentiate between 1stGen and 2ndGenen is not mere pedantic, nit-picking, 'needless complication' – they're two different kinds of dances evolved to fulfill two different functions in two different cultures. The 1stGen dances, which author Loui Tucker calls "foundation dances," the seeds from which choreographed dances are grown. With some exceptions, certain characteristics are shared:

I say these characteristics have evolved for several reasons:

Most recreational folk dancers have lost the ability to improvise, if they ever had it. With so many different cultures in the repertoire, it's difficult to know which improvisations are appropriate for which culture (a major limitation of International folk dancing), so we opt out altogether. Living and 1stGen dances were the product of a single culture, where improvisation and styling were learned with the dances, and you only had one set to learn. Many recreational dancers can not match a rhythm and tempo they hear to an appropriate dance, or even an inappropriate one. If they're not familiar with the recording, they can't dance, even if they know the music was arbitrarily paired with a choreography by a teacher. Living dancers are constantly improvising – as long as the rhythm is right, they don't need to know the song. They don't listen to music to hear the next dance cue, they listen for inspiration. Living dancers are expected to contribute to the spirit and energy of the occasion. Romanians make a lot of noise, shout strigaturi. Greeks have the concept of kefi – each has a responsibility to contribute to the mood of the whole. Many dancers sing along, because they know the songs, and reflect on their meaning. Recreational dancers are in their heads trying to remember if the dance they're doing goes this way or that way next. They don't want to distract their neighbor's concentration. Their eyes are on the leader's feet.

Thus if a 1stGen or Living dance is placed beside a 2ndGen dance it will seem simple, like an empty jar compared to a jar full of multicolored stones. The jar full of stones has a beautiful pattern already in place, but it can't be changed without destroying the pattern. The full jar is a one-trick pony. The empty jar has infinite possibilities. It can be filled and refilled differently every time, but only if you have a personal collection of items of beauty to put in it.

So we have a choice to

Patrick McMonagle

Wonderful Inconvenient Truth – about time this was written. I define "Folk Music" and "Folk Dance" as being what my parents believed was "Folk Music" or "Folk Dance." They grew up with it as part of life and did not hear from my grandparents that it was anything new. So it pretty much has to satisfy three generations that it is "Folk."

I'm apparently the only person teaching the Zwiefacher online right now, dealing with differences between the "Folk" in music and in dance. Records show the Zwiefacher was known in the late 1700's by that name in arrest records – it was immoral for partners to dance face to face in public. Tunes date to before Columbus failed his around the world boat trip, but less clearly, since written score standards have changed so many times since then. More tunes are probably being written by trapped at home Zwiefacher musicians as I type this, their imagination is still free. There are recent YouTube recordings for newly proclaimed Zwiefachers. Just about every part of the Zwiefacher has changed in the last 400 years, including the name "Zwiefacher."

My point: "Folk" is many parts of an action called "Folk Dance." Pieces include; steps, step styling, music and more. We dance in a ballroom, a dance may need other "Folk" environments to do properly: soft grass? dry sand? damp sand? footwear? costume? underwear? even on horseback?

Possible critical differences change with time. Changes can be slow enough that, in three generations, no one objects to a change as non-folk. Perhaps the changes replaced slippers with shoes, later moved from soft grass to an indoor floor, even later replaced the signal for a step change. A loud slap on the thigh became a louder heel stomp on the wood floor. Numbers of spins are adjusted due to the friction of the floor or the age of the dancers who prefer this dance. The dance signal changes again. Rubber soles on concrete don't make much noise. The leader now waves, a caller has a microphone or the step changes are fixed to a riff in the music. Preferred music went from bagpipe, to accordion, to electric guitar, at different times than these other changes. If all those changes happened at once, this might be a whole new dance, until a future researcher discovers the "new" in the dance is also an Inconvenient Truth.

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

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