3. A “real” folk dance – what is it?

 A “REAL” FOLK DANCE, WHAT IS IT?  (1stE, 1st Existence)

As a folk dance beginner I believed the dances I was taught in our local club were exactly what was danced in villages “there”. I fantasized going “there” someday, walking into a village, joining a dance line, and being congratulated by villagers astounded at my knowledge of their dance. I have since learned that though my fantasy is possible, most dances practiced in North America have never been danced in a village “there”.

To understand how this came about, lets trace how dances got from “there” to “here”. Anthony Shay, in his book Choreographic Politics, credits Joann Kealiinohomoku with distinguishing two kinds of folk dance, differing in how and by whom they are learned. She used the phrases “dance in its first existence” and “dance in its second existence”.

From Shay’s summary of Kealiihonomoku’s idea, a dance in its “first existence(1stE) stems from a “society in which dancing constitutes part of the living tradition” and individuals in that society “learn dances primarily in a one-on-one situation similar to the way in which games and language are acquired – that is, generally, but not always, in informal situations in a trial-and-error fashion. The dance repertoire that such individuals acquired usually consisted of a body of choreographic and movement material and styles that was in vogue at the time in the region in which they lived, or was learned by immigrant groups from older generations.”

That same dance in its “second existence” is learned by those outside the “first existence” situation. For instance, “the folk dance hobbyist from the USA….” or “…the typical professional folk dancer in a state dance company is, with some exceptions an urban-born individual who….learn their repertoire from a teacher in a conscious fashion in studio/classroom environments. Their “native” form, if they have one, is often classical ballet or some form of social dance.”

In other words, you either learn your village’s dance by watching a neighbor, or you live in a different culture and an intermediary teaches that village’s dance to you.

In the early days of folk dancing in North America, say, until the mid-1950’s, most of what was danced here were “first existence” dances taught through intermediaries.

However, much was lost in the translation. Whereas “1stE” dancers had live music and were content to perform the same steps for half an hour, North American “2ndE” dancers used 3-minute recordings that didn’t vary and soon became boring. Also, 2ndE dancers are conditioned by their society to expect novelty, and to consume culture instead of create it.

Soon North American 2ndE dancers began demanding more and/or more complex dances. At the same time it was becoming apparent that there was a living to be made by those willing to go on the road teaching folk dances to 2ndE enthusiasts. Some of these instructors were North Americans who travelled “there” to gather “new” dances, others were members of various state dance companies “there” (Tanec, Kolo, Lado, Stratou, etc) who brought dances with them.

Although some of these people observed first-hand 1stE dance events, most of what was brought back was 2ndE creations by choreographers from state dance companies. In order for an instructor to justify his particular workshops, he had to create a repertoire of dances exclusive to him. Thus, very similar dances were given different names and recordings to distinguish them from other instructors’ creations.

In time even this reservoir of dances was exhausted, and instructors resorted to choreographing their own dances, based on traditional steps; a time-honored tradition among state dance troupes “there”.

To sum up, most of the repertoire of North American folk dancers is the result of 2ndE instructors utilizing 2ndE methods. Are these dances less “real” if they use “real” music and steps and are created by an instructor seeped in “real” culture?

Rather than use that loaded term, I prefer to call dances 1st Generation and 2nd Generation. We may never be in a 1stE situation, but we can learn a 1stG dance, either from a 2ndE instructor, or by watching 1stE events on the internet. Living dances are 1stG dances, as are other traditional dances no longer living.

An excellent, more detailed discussion of “real” folk dances can be found here under the title “Why, Some of My Favorite Dances are Choreographed!” by Loui Tucker.

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