Only 100 years ago, most people on the planet lived outside of a money economy. They did not have jobs, clocks, mass communications, representative government, science, transport systems, or public education. They did have taxes, usually in the form of produce, but they seldom knew where the proceeds went, even more seldom did any benefit return to them.
The people of Southeast Europe and the Middle East were no exception. They spent most of their time trying to make enough food, clothing and shelter to get them through the coming winter, and raising enough children to keep the family going for another generation. They dreamed of a better life, but had no expectation of it. Almost everything they needed, they made themselves, including entertainment.
Society was organized along family lines. An extended family of up to 4 generations lived under the same roof, with the oldest male usually, but not always, being the leader. Everyone, including children, was expected contribute to the welfare of the family as a whole. Each had their assigned role – there was little choice, nor was there agonizing over a career path. Men and women ate and slept under the same roof, but most of the time worked separately.
The men worked outside the house plowing, herding and butchering livestock, cutting lumber & firewood, making and maintaining tools, building shelters, hunting or fending off livestock predators, traveling to town to buy, sell or barter supplies, or traveling to participate in work bees or temporary employment.
Women bore, nursed and raised children and did whatever they could while keeping children safely nearby. They raised and tended gardens, fields, and poultry, spun thread, wove fabrics, made and embellished clothes, washed clothes, cleaned the house and courtyard, preserved food, ground flour, prepared meals, gathered kindling, helped with the planting and harvest, and attended work bees with other women.
Entertainment was often something you did to pass the time while working. For men it was making and learning to play a musical instrument while minding a flock, or while walking to a town, forest, or field. The most common instruments were drums. Wooden flutes and shawms were simple to make, and sometimes to play. A step up in sophistication was a bagpipe – a goatskin bag with a hole to blow it up, and a hole with reeds and pipes attached to play notes. More sophisticated yet were bowed or plucked string instruments. As each made their own instrument, little thought was given as to whether his notes were in the same pitch as someone else’s instrument, so usually a “band” could only consist of a drum and something else.
For women, whose hands were always busy, (they spun thread while walking and carrying a baby), entertainment took the form of singing. Women sang while doing most tasks, and sang while working together. Their repertoire was vast – a woman might know a hundred songs, each with many verses. Songs would tell of family legends, of tragedies, funny events, secret loves, morality tales, family tensions, magic potions, unjust deeds, separation from a lover, heroic deeds, martyrs, suffering in a foreign land, encounters with fairies, devils, and other supernatural beings, etc. Each woman had a different repertoire, learned from her relatives or friends.
Once a week the people would gather to attend a church service. After church they would assemble at a nearby open space and pool their talents to create an afternoon social, which included food, exchange of gossip, bartering, and especially dance. A musician would know some tunes, and everyone would dance to those tunes. A woman would sing a song all could dance to. Women could sing & dance at the same time. A Romani band might show up to play for tips.
The village and its surrounding family units had a collective repertoire of 20 or more dances. Most were of a ‘generic’ type, similar to our waltz, swing, salsa. A particular rhythm and tempo was needed to execute a dance (like a waltz requires ¾ time, medium tempo). Each musician had their own collection of tunes or songs, and these were set to specific dance formulas. The people listened to a rhythm & tempo, recognized it as, say a pajduško, and started dancing a basic pajduško, with maybe some fancy variations to spice it up.
See also Hora – Romania
There were many other occasions throughout the year that featured dancing – See Special Occasions under Culture. Dancing was usually something to do as part of a larger event. One danced at a wedding as a way of being in unison with the group while hearing special songs, of witnessing the goings on, of getting some exercise after sitting, of joining two families who may not know each other well. In other words the footwork was often incidental to the greater purposes of the event.
World War 2 devastated most of Southeast Europe and the Middle East, including the rural way of life. Many countries came under the control of Communist governments, who sent rural people to work in factories; remaining country people were reorganized into industrial-scale collective farmers. Recognizing its propaganda value, governments began taking control of folk culture by organizing professional touring folk dance performance groups, schools to train performers and musicians, academic departments to study folk culture, and then setting standards of performance, determining which dances fit into the government’s idea of the image it wanted to project to the world.
After the fall of Communism, people associated folk dancing with other failed government policies, and seized upon Western dance styles to imitate. Now that Capitalism has not been the success the people hoped for, people are reviving interest in their folk traditions.
Meanwhile, over the centuries, people left their native lands, emigrating to Western Europe, North & South America, Australia, etc, setting up immigrant communities that held on to their traditions. In some cases, such as the Jews, Armenians, & Assyrians, the expat communities are more numerous and have more financial clout than their homeland.
So today, few cultures represented by “folk” dances are living the “folk” lifestyle. Yet for millions, folk dance is cherished as a way of affirming oneself in a dehumanizing world, and as a source of community pride. Dancing your culture’s dances is showing the world the essence of your heritage, like speaking in your native tongue, only with your body as well as your mind.