Village, Performance, and Recreational Dances

Village, Performance, and Recreational Dances in the Balkans, Anatolia and Levant.

I personally take the position that ‘village’ dances, that is, dances ‘learned’ informally by growing up in a relatively isolated rural community with little awareness of other ways of dancing – ‘learned’ (not formally taught) by imitating others in your village, bit-by-bit, as one grew up; dances that were danced as but one part of a social occasion, where you’re there to celebrate with others of your kin or neighbourhood, where you’re free to express yourself through your style of dancing, which varies according to inspiration from the musicians – these ‘village‘ dances are different from performance or recreational dances.

In a ‘village‘ dance, you as a dancer have a part to play in a village drama, but you are a ‘free agent’ – free to participate with as much energy, creativity and enthusiasm as you feel like – subject to your social standing in the community at that moment. Nothing is rehearsed. You’ve been dancing the same few dances all your life, you know them well, they’re part of your identity, you know what liberties you can take – what extra footwork you can insert without disrupting the flow of the line or offending village sensibilities. It’s about a cohesive social group gathering together to collectively enact a ritual, to mark a significant event in the seasonal cycle, to mark a rite of passage of an individual. Food, ritualistic formulas, gifts, singing, dancing, witnessing – all have an equal part to play. A ‘village’ dance is not about the footwork, it’s about your participation and its contribution to community spirit.

Some recreational folk dancers believe ‘village‘ dancing died out with the destruction of villages by the various Communist and other regimes intent on turning independent peasant farmers into dependent factory workers. However many ‘village‘ dances are still ‘Living‘ as part of weddings, baptisms, funerals, Saint’s day and other village celebrations, (even if the ‘village’ consists of neighbours in an urban housing project), as can be easily seen in YouTubes on this website.

Performance dances are created with an audience in mind, and with the awareness that the dance is to be repeated in exactly the same way over many occasions. Music and footwork are ‘arranged’ by a choreographer to produce the same results upon each performance. The arrangement is then ‘taught’ to musicians and dancers, who are aware that they are not playing and dancing for themselves or each other, but to represent the vision of the choreographer, to act as idealized representatives of their state or ethnic group, and to entertain an audience. Whereas ‘village’ dances can be ‘learned’ from many sources, thus having many ‘variations’, a performance dance must be taught from same source or dancers will not be in sync. With performance dances, it’s definitely about the footwork.

Both ‘village’ and ‘performance’ dances are equally ‘authentic’ in my view, because each is a pure manifestation of its intended function. Watching a ‘village’ dance, which might last an hour, on a stage could be a boring, even confusing experience for an audience; the inclusion of a troupe of highly trained, disciplined dancers in a village wedding dance would drive the average relative from the line. However, I consider it VERY important to distinguish between the two equally ‘authentic’ dance types. “Village’ dances are the source material – their footwork and songs are the basis for ‘performance’ dances, but performance dance ‘arrangers’ condense several basic steps and/or variations, combine unrelated steps, add bridges, fix sequences that in the ‘village’ change with the moods of dancers and musicians, change the form (circle to line facing the audience, line to several short lines), blend previously separated genders, expand instrumental soloists or combos into orchestras, introduce non-native harmonies or singing practices and employ many other tricks of the trade to enhance the entertainment value of the ‘message’ of the dance – a ‘message’ of a homogeneous regional or national identity, a vigorous, athletic, youthful, innocent, disciplined, optimistic peasantry working together in harmony for the glory of the region or state.

And what about recreational dances? By definition, they are re-creations of something. A dance, whether from a ‘village‘ or a ‘performance‘, is placed in a different context, performed by people from another culture who may have only a limited ability to execute the footwork, and even less of an understanding of its cultural significance. Because we are in the midst of our own culture, we cannot learn a Balkan dance by growing up observing relatives at family events; we must be taught by an instructor we have selected to do the job. We are in the same position as members of a performance group in the ‘old country’ – many of whom were raised in urban environments and were first exposed to ballet and other forms of dance before becoming ‘folk’ dancers. Because we’re not familiar with the social milieu, in which ‘village’ dances performed to live music are expected to go on until everyone is satisfied, every social role fulfilled, because we don’t have an internalized repertoire of moves appropriate to the particular dance or social occasion, we tend to repeat exactly what we were taught – the footwork only, and simple footwork at that, and to a record at that. Though recreational dancers while dancing may be fantasizing about being in a ‘village’, their method of learning dances produce results that look more like a performance. Though in theory it could be about either, in practice recreational dancing is mostly about the footwork. For more on recreational dance, click: https://folkdancefootnotes.org/begin/history-of-recreational-folk-dancing-in-the-usa-a-summary/

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