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The Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH)

What is Folklore
and What Purpose Does it Serve?

By Lucile Armstrong, 1974

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The Peasants’ Wedding, 1637-1638, painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger

There are several answers to these questions. One answer is, as Miss Theo Brown (a folklorist of Devon, southern England) put it: "All folklore is conditioned by inner myth patterns and outward circumstances. The first (the inner myth patterns) does not change, but may develop and appear in disguised forms. The second, (the outward circumstances) does change, according to the variations forced on society by invasion, catastrophes and many other factors. That is, history. This means that folklore is NOT fossilised, except in very cut-off isolated tribes. It is a living element in all human life and therefore does change subtly over the years." So much then for one person's idea of folklore.

But folklore comprises many aspects of human activity, and the ones I am chiefly concerned with are folk dance, folk music, and folk costume or what I prefer to call "regional costume." I shall refer to these separately. At the moment I shall confine my remarks to folk dance, how to appreciate its values, how to study folk dance, and why it should be preserved.

A short definition of folk dance presents problems. We may recognise that the term covers dances in the life of a community as practised by a people of a particular region, for a particular and fundamental purpose, at a given period in time and because they believe in its message. This is so whether they are people in the mountains or in the plains, a maritime community or a pastoral one; whether in a hunting district or in an agricultural community; be it in a cold climate or a hot country. I mean by this that each type of economy required a style and content of dance adapted to its needs, right back in archaic times. For instance, a fishing economy required dances that would assure a good catch of fish; a hunting community needed a plentiful supply of game, birds or wild animals; the shepherd or herdsman of pastoral times evolved dances that would ensure large herds and the regular cycle of reappearance of sun and moon for the increase of pasture for the animals he depended on for sustenance for himself and his family. When agriculture was introduced, man created (or adapted) dances that would bring forth good crops. In short, we could say that a folk dance was created by the leaders of the community with the collaboration of many for the well-being of all, for all believed in the power and the necessity of the dance. In other words, folk dance of the ritual type is the fixing in movement, rhythm and figures of the needs and beliefs of man at a particular period of his evolution. A folk dance is therefore part of the religion of a community, of every member of that community.

But there are various types of folk dance. I mentioned this often, but will repeat it, if you will bear with me, for the sake of clarification.

There were seasonal ritual folk dances to preserve and promote the cycle of the year, thus ensuring its food supply. There were gymnastic or practice dances for young men to keep agile for the hunt or for the defence of the tribe (these are often referred to as Pyrrhic dances). There were therapeutic dances to cure the sick; teaching dances for the initiation of the young into the practices and beliefs of the tribe; courting dances to give youth an opportunity of meeting and obtaining a mate; and community dances in which all took part, and these were (and still are) most important, for they brought together every member of the community and united them into a conglomerate whole, or entity.

Archaic man was observant – far more than we are – and he knew that a good cure for psychological disturbances was dancing, either through ecstasy dances, through constant rhythm or religious dances. [There] were also folk dances during the performance of which many disturbing spirits were able to regain their normal equanimity. Feuds and resentments also disappeared.

These, then, are some of the different kinds of folk dances that were evolved and some still exist.

But whatever definition we give to folk dance, it remains a "living whole" if we keep to the constituent parts. These parts are meaning, context and form. They are not really separate; they blend into a "whole" that shows the authenticity of the dance.

For example the context is the occasion on which a dance is performed, that which gives it the propriety. Prescribed occasions for example are; rites of passage, carnival (I mean here the old spring rites), thanksgiving, preparation for the hunt, fishing, gathering, grape or wine gathering or making, the changes of season, the rotation for crops, for the well- being of the herds, and for the community, the healing of the sick, the teaching of the young, celebrating occasions like weddings and events such as births, or important visits, and not least for the liberation from natural catastrophes. The context, then, is the occasion on which it is performed. The meaning is the purpose for which the dance was created: ritual, social, etc.

The third fact is form. The form is the arrangement of the important elements of the dance which symbolically show the purpose. The underlying meaning of the dance, performed within the appropriate context, is conveyed to participants and onlookers alike. The form comprises the resources, the realization, and the accompaniment.

By resources I mean the dress and props (sticks, swords, maypole, masks, hobby horse, etc.), the dividing into groups by number, by sex, or age-group, or by all of these. By realization I mean the shape: that is the steps and figures. The third element is the accompaniment. The accompaniment is provided by music, vocal or instrumental, by percussion,clappingofhands,orthedancers'ownfeet. Allthesebelong to the realization of a folk dance, for they provide the "atmosphere" that is, the feeling, or emotion engendered by the dance. Accompaniment and dance belong together. The steps and figures symbolize the origin, the meaning or purpose of the dance

There a problem arises: How does one learn about folklore?

There are several ways , complementary to one another. One that I would recommend is by looking around one's own surroundings, noting any seasonal festivals or feasts, finding out from books and by asking the performers or participants, why they exist, who started them, what they represent, what the beliefs are connected with these festivals. Also whether a particular costume is used and why. Noting everything however irrelevant it may appear is all important. There will be different answers but all must be noted until experience tells you which are the likely explanations and which may be discarded. In studying folklore one must be prepared to discard a lot and not take assertions for granted. Reading will help here. But at first, note down everything then sift data through commonsense and through the logic exercised by the mentality of the performers.

When the experience is gained it will become imperative to compare with other regions, other countries, other continents, because otherwise it will not be possible to understand customs fully unless balanced by information from other regions and other periods. By studying comparative anthropology, pre-history, beliefs, dances, music, costume and religions, we can better understand our own past and the meaning and purpose of our folk dances.

What is the purpose of preserving folk dances as they were handed down to us? And what purpose does folklore serve?

When you build a house you must have foundations. When you plant a tree you must know the soil it requires, the size it is likely to attain, what habitat is favourable to its development. So with man. Man needs to refresh his psyche and get inspiration from his own past. Not only from written history but from his (at times) forgotten customs. Man needs sound foundations to refresh the spring of his inspiration. Perspective is as necessary in studies as it is in life, and in inspiration for the future course of action. Without perspective man has no roots. Folklore is one way of providing a sound foundation for the future. In other words, when you study, study for future generations as well as for yourself. Preserve folk dances as you learnt them because they serve a useful purpose in more ways than one. They show you how early man solved his problems. This may help to solve some of the future.

Wherever we search, we find that dance has been part of man's ritual for his aspirations and his religion. Dance has been part of his life as a means of teaching, of curing and of conveying his wishes to the forces of nature, as well as a means of endeavouring to control these forces for his own benefit. For example, the Emperor of China, until the beginning of this century, danced at the New Year festival with his court. Without these sacred dances they believed the New Year might not come. He also ploughed the first furrow.

From what we have seen so far, ritual dance was an integral part of the beliefs of man. Religion was evolved through the necessity of ensuring food and general prosperity of a community. Many thousands of years have elapsed since those remote times so man has learnt a great deal. He has become more sophisticated with easier living conditions. Material progress has helped him to get "outside himself" and given him leisure to study his own past and that of his world. But we must not forget that hard-earned experience of man through the millennia. He learned to consider the cosmos, or all this earth, the planets and stars, as one creation by one God, whatever name was given to this creator. Ancient man understood the importance of dance in its many aspects, and of religion as a vital necessity for his own well-being. Our religion has changed, but in spite of that we must not forget that nearly everything we have today, we owe to the past, for what we have now was founded on past experience. Therefore, we should preserve what we have inherited in the way of folk dance, folk music and customs, folk tales and sayings, for these facets of folk memory are at the heart of our traditional culture. We must not alter the dances. We must note and photograph what we can of the dances still preserved to pass on our knowledge to future generations. They will need this information for guidelines to shape their future. I am convinced that folk dances and the symbols they contain are a key to the human psyche. The modern intellect cannot invent symbols which are connected only with the conscious mind. Symbols become active in releasing psychic forces only when the unconscious has accepted them and made them its own.

So my message is: "Don't invent folk dances. Keep the ones we have, faithfully. If new dances are invented they will be "community dances," or "social dances" or "stage dances," but they cannot be "folk dances," for these are folk only when they are accepted by all, as part of the life of the community."

From a talk given at San Sebastian, Spain in September 1974 before the International Folklore Conference.
Printed in Folk Dancer Online, Volume 48 Number 1, February 2017.
Reprinted, in part, from Ontario Folkdancer Newsletter, Volume 6, Number 5, May 1975.
Used with permission.

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