Recreational Folk Dancing’s Inconvenient Truth

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 USA). 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. (for details, see my histories here, here, and here). 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. (For more details, see how-balkan-folk-dances-are-made-arranged-folklore/)

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 – 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 folk dances.

So what? Does it matter if no one in North Macedonia has danced the ‘creation’ called Bavno oro; no Turk Ali Pasa; 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 ÇobankatI 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 2 or 3 different footwork patterns timed to fit changes in the music. Put on music 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 20-40 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. An excellent article on these differences can be found here. 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 2ndGarranged 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 2ndG ‘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 2ndG ‘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’ 2G 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. Çobankat – Albania; or Albanian..[……]..[ Çobankat ]..[……]..

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

  • presently being danced in traditional ways in the ‘old country’; also known as Living,
  • an ‘authentic’ dance that is no longer danced but is considered part of the heritage and worth preserving by performing groups a.k.a. 1st Generation, or

I propose such a system, as seen in an example in the table below: Under the simplest system, after each dance name is a L, 1, 2, (or rarely 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 2ndG, which our group doesn’t do. 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 2ndG, 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 designation.

Categorizing the hundreds of dances in your groups’ repertoire is a daunting and controversial task. I have labeled a couple of 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. Email me at dondancing@gmail.com if you have any questions – I’d love to help get this going!

COMMENTS:

Jim Gold Wrote: “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: “Golly, Jim, thanks!”

Leslie Levy wrote: 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” (ok…) 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 Folkdance sessions in Israel. And conversely, I’ve been outraged by what is sold as “Israeli music” in the US – 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 scenario 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 wrote: 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 U, 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 wrote: 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 10 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: Joe’s right about Israeli dance. For more details, see https://folkdancefootnotes.org/dance/dance-information/israel-early-israeli-dance/

Holly Gundolfi wrote: That was a VERY GOOD READ! Living in Oakland CA 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 wrote: 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 wrote: “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.
-John
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: “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 Moyiseyev), 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 wrote: 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 1stG dances that originated ‘over there, back then’ but are no longer Living.

My plea that we differentiate between 1stG & 2ndG 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. An excerpt on the best article I know on the subject https://socalfolkdance.org/articles/why_they_are_choreographed_tucker.htm outlines some of the differences. 1stG, which author Loui Tucker calls “foundation dances, the seeds from which choreographed dances are grown. With some exceptions, certain characteristics are shared:

  • They have a basic figure or pattern that is done over and over, with a few ornaments, embellishments, or variations permitted, frequently allowing the dancers to converse while dancing.
  • They are relatively simple dances that have been around for many decades, if not centuries, are easy to learn, easy to remember, and easy to pass down to the next generation.
  • They can be danced to many different melodies, but require a specific rhythm.
  • At dance events, bands play music for these dances, often for 10-20 minutes for one dance.
  • They usually have a one-word name such as čoček, sa, syrtos, čačak, halay, hambo, kolo, horo, pravo, csárdás.”

I say these characteristics have evolved for several reasons:

  • 1G dances were not taught, but learned. No one in a traditional society was designated ‘dance instructor’ of the village; people were expected to pick up dances on their own by observing others. Same as learning to talk. Children grew into them and by the time they were considered old enough to join a village dance (teenagers), they were expected to know the repertoire. Thus, the basic figure or pattern was simple. One didn’t have time to learn many patterns – a few for each rhythm, some more suitable for faster or slower dances. A few for special occasions. A village’s active repertoire might consist of 20-40 dances total, with a few more in the memory banks of elders. They learned from relatives or others they admired, a bit here and a bit there, so styles varied. People learned the same pattern, but differences in styling, footwork, or energy level were acceptable as long as they didn’t interrupt the ‘flow’.
  • The complexities came from individual ’embellishments’ which happened according to the mood, skill level and social standing of the dancer. These ‘variations’ were spontaneous, not in a fixed point in the dance, a fixed number of repetitions, or a fixed change in the music. If the dancer happened to be in the middle of a line or circle, their ’embellishment’ should not interfere with the flow of the dance or dancers on either side. Multiple people could do multiple variations at the same time; there was no ‘right’ way to dance.
  • People spent most of their time tending their plots of land (men) or house and children (women). Dancing was one of the few occasions when people saw others outside their family. There were no sports, no TV, no Sunday drives. A lot of time at dance events was spent catching up on gossip and observing others. Parents especially watched other children to see which might make suitable mates for their children (or who to keep their children away from) – all while dancing.
  • The dances were also relatively simple because they often served multiple purposes. The same dance could be used to celebrate a Saint’s day, a christening, or a harvest. It could be a wedding procession where the husband-to-be came to pick up his bride, or a dance of remembrance where friends and relatives danced for a dead person to keep them happy in the afterlife. It was not the footwork that marked the difference, it was the cultural significance attached to the event.
  • Often a dance went on for a long time because it was expected that a range of dancers would rotate leadership: for instance, the mother of the bride and her relatives. Leadership was not based on dancing ability but social status, gender, age – the more important people got more time. Younger people were further down the line from leadership.
  • Music varied according to how much the band was tipped. Bands often showed up for a small fee, and worked like a live jukebox where people would stick cash on their foreheads or in their instruments and make requests. Social status was gained by being a big tipper. The choice of music reflected the taste of the donor. OR, further back in time, there was no cash, no band – people provided their own music from the repertoire of songs the women sung or instruments the men played. The well of folk music was deep – there were far more songs and melodies than dance patterns. Dances had to accommodate many different styles and levels of musicianship.
  • A particular piece of music was not necessarily reserved for a particular dance. I’ve seen YouTubes of a band playing and 2 or 3 different dance patterns going on in different lines at the same time, sometimes circling around each other

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 1G 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 1G or Living dance is placed beside a 2G 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

  • ignore these 1G and Living dances because they’re simple and boring because we don’t know how to fill the jar;
  • eliminate them and ‘just call recreational folk dancing, “ethnically inspired dancing,” and leave it at that.‘ That would mean dropping “čoček, sa, syrtos, čačak, halay, hambo, kolo, horo, pravo, csárdás.” the best-known and most-performed dances (by natives) of Serbia, Greece, Turkey, Sweden, Bulgaria, Hungary, etc;
  • honor them as the foundation, “the seeds from which choreographed dances are grown;” the “real” folk dances done by the “real” folk. And maybe, just maybe, learn about filling jars with our personal contributions, in addition to collecting still more jars with patterns arranged for us

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