History of recreational folk dancing in the USA – a Summary

I am indebted to Marjana Laušević, whose book Balkan Fascination [Oxford University Press, 2007] is the foundation of the historical references in this post. I have borrowed extensively from her writings. However, it should be assumed that opinions expressed regarding developments outlined here are not those of Laušević, but those arising from my personal experience.

I describe three rather distinct phases in the development of what we now call recreational or international folk dancing. In each phase ‘we’, the settled Americans driving the phase, had a different idea of who ‘they’, the ‘folk’ were, and therefore why ‘we’ wanted to dance ‘their’ dances. For let’s be clear – folk dancing is not, among recreational folk dancers anyway, dancing BY the ‘folk’, it’s US dancing our IDEA of the ‘folk’. It’s one culture selectively imagining another for its own purposes. What those purposes are helps define what we imagine the ‘folk’ to be, and how we conceptualize and dance ‘their’ dances.

Summary of Phase 1 [the Top-Down Phase]: 1880’s -1930’s

What are ‘we’ going to do about ‘them’ in our midst? Making ‘them’ more like ‘us’.

Various liberal-minded social workers, educators, physical education enthusiasts, and dance instructors – all trying to establish new fields of expertise in a new country busy inventing itself – coalesced around the idea that ‘folk dancing’ was good for whatever they thought needed improving. Some were moralists, believing the ‘old’ ways were superior to the newfangled, some wanted to blend and harmonize disparate cultures, some wanted an easy, fun way to get people moving, some saw a business opportunity; many were a combination of these inclinations. What all of these people had in common was a desire to adapt elements of a relatively static, self-contained, rural culture’s social expressions to the perceived needs of an increasingly dynamic urban culture.

As Marjana Laušević, author of Balkan Fascination [Oxford University Press, 2007] writes: “Interestingly, this sentiment is prevalent in the Balkan scene nearly a century later. What Tomko (1999: 213) says for Hinman and Burchenal is just as applicable today to many participants in the Balkan music and dance scene. They “keenly felt the absence of comparable traditions and roots for modern America, and creatively tried to fashion a past from other (European) traditions. This fashioning was in every way re-constitutive; it selected, arranged, and appropriated for its own ends rather than attempting to re-install European originals.”

Dances, costumes, music were means to an end, and the end was not an understanding of the source culture, but rather the creation of a new stew where no ingredient dominated: a blending of cultures where each was equally interesting and valid, activity without resorting to sordid ‘commercial’ pleasures (like jazz!), exercise without hard work, ‘wholesome’ socialization for the young.

By the 1930’s, the efforts of these and many other pioneers were firmly established in schools, settlement houses, urban recreation centers, and dance academies. The intellectual framework and top-down leadership was in place, and many people had a rudimentary, often 3rd-hand knowledge of folk dance principles, steps, and their execution. What was missing was an enthusiastic response from the general population. Folk dance was a ‘should do’, not ‘the bees knees’.

For a much more detailed full posting, click: https://folkdancefootnotes.org/dance/dance-information/a-subjective-history-of-recreational-international-folk-dancing-in-the-usa-1/

Summary of the 2nd (Immigrant) Phase: 1930’s – 1950’s

‘They’ (in our midst) are like ‘us’ and help ‘us’ have fun.

The second phase of the history of Recreational Folk Dancing was definitely a grassroots movement. Ordinary Americans, often recent immigrants, began teaching the dances of their culture, and dancing the dances of other cultures, for their own pleasure. Their enjoyment and enthusiasm was witnessed first-hand by ‘settled’ Americans, who wanted to join in the fun. Many leaders of ‘top-down’ institutions – schools, physical education departments, recreation departments – began to stress enjoyment as the prime motivator for folk dance – dancing from the inside out.

The broader appeal of ethnic and native folk dancing for fun was increased by a questioning of the USA’s values during the Depression, and an interest in other cultures, sparked by visits to World’s Fairs where many engaged in ‘virtual tourism’ when they saw folk dancing for the first time. Because the new breed of immigrant dance leaders were teaching from their personal experience of immigrant communities, they were better able to convey the positive social aspects of folk dance to ‘outsiders’, turning exercise into fun. When Americanized immigrants became the teachers, their new-found authority helped turn ‘they’ into ‘we’ – people who can talk to us and have something we want.

Three first- or second-generation immigrants were especially important to the explosion of interest in recreational ethnic dance in this period – Vyts Beliajus, Michael Herman, and Song Chang.

Vyts Beliajus, based in Chicago, toured the country teaching a wide repertoire of dances picked up from various immigrant groups. His monthly magazine, Viltis, combined dance instruction and information [of sometimes dubious value] with “information and trivia from the private lives of folk dancers….engendering a feeling of community, continuity, and cohesion among people who were not regularly in touch or may never even have met.”

Michael Herman created the recreational folk dance movement on the East Coast. His multiple skills – musician, dance annotator, authoritative, clear teacher who emphasized fun, visionary who developed a permanent ‘home’ for folk dance, magazine publisher, and folk dance record producer – were unmatched anywhere. However, by skillfully creating and filling a market for ‘authentic’ folk dance records, he unwittingly helped transform the nature of folk dance.

Interestingly, San Francisco native Song Chang matured ‘outside’ the Scandinavian community from which he learned most ethnic dances, and ‘inside’ a network of artists, actors, & intellectuals. Was it this ‘artist-outsider’ status that influenced him to pursue folk dancing through perfecting and performing dances (doing dances), rather than as a venue for socialization (dancing)? Chang planted the seeds of many performing groups – soon to become a major genre within the recreational dance movement, especially in the West.

Chang’s pursuit of perfection also influenced another innovation. By the late 1930’s, especially in Chang’s California, an interest developed in a form of ‘top-down’ quality control – certifying dances ‘authentic’. This meant determining which was the ‘pure’ form of a dance, discouraging teachers from adding their own ‘enhancements’. It was an attempt to ensure a dancer could move from one group to another and expect to do the same dance in the same way at each place. An unintended consequence of this ‘homogenization’ of the dance experience was the shifting of personal focus from ‘dancing’ (self-expression) – to ‘doing dances’ (correct performance as determined by an authority) from being a creative individual dancer, an individual in a group of similar individuals, to being a conduit of a little-understood ethnic heritage; ‘active’ to ‘passive’ involvement – the return of Top Down dancing.

The Immigrant Period began with folk dance a specialty niche among social workers, educators, and phys ed teachers, accompanied by live music, and ended as a growing ‘craze’ with its own continent-wide network of clubs, summer camps, publications, record labels, and professional teachers, accompanied by pre-recorded music.

For the much more detailed full posting, click: https://folkdancefootnotes.org/dance/dance-information/a-subjective-history-of-recreational-international-folk-dancing-in-the-usa-2/

Summary of the 3rd Phase: 1950’s – Today.

Non-partner dancing, “Kolomania”, Performing Groups, and Fragmentation.

‘We’ want to dance like ‘them”over there’.

Changing trends in ‘traditional’ folk dancing reflected changing social mores. A move by youth away from couple dancing propelled Israeli and, especially, Balkan dancing to popularity, eventually leading to non-partner dances becoming more popular than couple dances. As Baby Boomers came of age, disillusionment with the ‘establishment’ led to a search for alternate forms of living. The ‘mystery’ of the Balkans proved very attractive for some, made more attractive by the dearth of information available, enabling fantasies about the ‘purity’ of Balkan culture to take hold. The arrival of performing groups from behind the Iron Curtain demonstrated a thrilling level of professionalism in traditional dance and song, even as they presented an idealized version of a peasantry that was officially being ‘re-educated’. They inspired dancers to form their own performing groups, and led to a desire to learn more sophisticated choreographies.

The dearth of knowledge about the truly different Balkan cultures produced a new type of folk dance instructor, the teacher-ethnographer, exemplified by Dick Crum. He, and many who followed him, visited Balkan countries to see dancing first-hand, or else they came from there, exuding a (sometimes false) air of ‘authenticity’. Some taught not only the footwork of dances, but attempted to explain the cultural context surrounding the event.

Begin with a lack of understanding of the cultural milieu of a ‘village’ dance event, couple it with a reliance on recordings due to a lack of trained musicians, add the distorted versions of dances presented by performing groups, blend with a materialistic American collector mentality, and the result is a demand for MORE dances rather than a better understanding of dance culture. Young dancers began traveling to Eastern Europe, especially Yugoslavia, where their taking part in ‘village’ events made some disillusioned with the folk dance scene at home. Others became more determined to dig deeper into Balkan culture, redirecting energy formerly devoted to learning MORE dances towards perfecting singing and instrumental skills. However not all folk dancers were swept up in the Balkan craze, many preferred the ‘one world’ vision of universal harmony and cultural equivalence developed by Vyts Beliajus and Michael Herman. Eventually a separate Balkan scene devoted to Balkan arts other than dancing, combined with similar specialized groups representing other cultures, (and possibly the shifting tastes of subsequent generations) led to the fragmentation and decline of the all-encompassing folk dance movement.

Finally the wars following the breakup of the former Yugoslavia led many to recognize how little they understood of the culture of the ‘other’, and how much of what ‘we’ thought was dancing ‘their’ culture was in fact ‘us’ dancing according to ‘our’ needs and fantasies.

For the much more detailed full posting, click https://folkdancefootnotes.org/2021/03/21/a-subjective-history-of-recreational-international-folk-dancing-in-the-usa-3/

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