The First Folk Dancers

The first folk dancers were aristocrats and city slickers. To understand this seeming contradiction, we must first understand what we mean when we say ‘folk’ dancer. I have written of what I call ‘traditional’ folk dancers. See: However the phrase Traditional Folk Dancer is misleading, as these dancers themselves didn’t consider what they’re doing as ‘folk’ dancing – they just danced in the only way they knew how – in the way their ancestors danced, which is the way they grew up dancing. They were not taught these dances, they learned them in the same way they learned to speak – by imitating their elders, gradually expanding their skills. There was only one kind of dancing in a village where most had never been more than a few miles away, where there were no schools, little literacy, no radio, TV, movies, internet – no way of knowing that people in other places danced differently from them, let alone what those differences were. (I’m using the past tense, as the conditions that produced ‘traditional’ dancing were disappearing in the 1930’s, and were destroyed in most of the world during WW2 and its aftermath.)

So for traditional dancers there was no need to categorize dances as ‘folk’ or any other name. One had to be in a culture that was aware of itself as a part of a wider world where people did things differently, and to have had enough contact with the wider world to understand what some of the differences were – like a different way of dancing. Until, say the early 1800’s, most people in the world lived tribally or in self-contained tribal or family units. Only a small portion of the world’s population had regular contact with the outside world – those who had the money and leisure time to travel, or buy and read books, or who had large homes that could host foreign guests, or who lived in cities plus had the lesiure time and desire to explore them.

Among those few who were aware of the cultural differences that resulted in culturally differentiated ways of dancing, most were only interested in the dances of their equals or betters. Until the early 1800’s social status was determined by the ‘purity’ and ‘quality’ of your bloodline – few could afford to marry beneath their station. To demonstrate your ‘quality’ you had to act like ‘quality’, including dancing like the aristocrats you aspired to become, not the peasants you were trying to distance yourself from.

The first people to be interested in other cultures and their customs and to write about them were, of course, the ancient Greeks, because they were the first to write with a complete alphabet. This under-appreciated innovation led to writing that everyone could understand, and which could express inner thoughts, not just trade transactions and celestial calculations. Writing led to a greatly expanded curiosity about the world. The Romans inherited this system of writing, learning and curiosity, and during the Roman Empire, with relatively secure borders, travel, and trade across thousands of miles, there was much cultural exchange.

All that came to an end in western Europe during the ‘dark ages’, when ‘barbarians’ not interested ‘civilization’ overpowered the Western Roman Empire and destroyed, or neglected until ruination, its institutions of learning. The emerging Christians, with their emphasis on the afterlife, also couldn’t see the point of being interested in cultural differences, when the One True Way had been revealed to them. The Eastern Roman Empire (which evolved into Byzantium) became cut off from the West by barbarian invasions, a split with Western Christianity and, later, the invasions of Islam.

Thus while the Greco-Romans may have been the first to be interested in other cultures and their ways of dancing, the 1000-year disappearance of Greco-Roman civilization effectively wiped the slate clean.

By the time things started recovering, say the 1300’s, society Europe-wide consisted of a few cities and multitudes of country estates, which featured powerful families dominating multitudes of serfs, slaves or indentured peasants. There were two major classes – rulers and the multitudes they ruled (with a minority of outliers like clerics, guilded craftsmen and merchants). The rulers kept in touch by travelling to each others’ palaces and castles, by sending emissaries, and through various itinerant artists and entertainers, who spread cultural trends in literature, painting, music, and dance. Court jesters entertained by performing dances, but equally important were dancing masters, who travelled from court to court, residing long enough to teach the ladies and gentlemen all the latest dances gathered on his travels. Court balls were all the rage – one of the few diversions enjoyed equally by both sexes – a chance to mix, gossip, flirt, exercize, and show off one’s costly clothing – and the demand for new dances was constant.

And where did the dancing masters get all these dances and dance moves? Court culture was conservative and demanding. Only a few cultural centres, like Florence or Paris, determined what was considered proper deportment, so innovation outside a restricted range was rare. ‘Proper’ deportment meant many moves considered ‘energetic’ today would be seen back then as vulgar. So dancing masters observed the more spontaneous moves in peasant dances, ‘refined’ them to court tastes, and attributed their origins to more acceptable sources. Thus aristocrats were doing peasant-based ‘folk’ dances without knowing it or wanting to know it.

Fast-forward a few hundred years to the early 1800’s. New ideas of equality and rule by the people were fuelled by printing presses producing mass-marketed information. The French had a peasant revolution, beheading the monarchy and discrediting its excess wealth. Napoleon brought order to the chaotic government, formed an army and swept across Europe, promising to free oppressed peoples, only to have peoples’ hopes dashed by his megalomania and ultimate defeat. Meanwhile industrialization was transforming land-based serfs into city-based factory slaves, and idyllic rural countryside into ugly polluted cities. A new middle class was rising, with some wealth and some power, who aspired to culture but not necessarily royalty. Subject peoples, including their native aristocracy, aspired to self-rule, or at least semi-autonomy within their overlord empires.

With the rise of cities and industrialization came a disillusionment with its supposed virtues. Those comfortably ensconsed in the middle class, as well as struggling artists and intellectuals, came to see the vanishing countryside and its robust-seeming peasants as the ‘good’ life, the repository of virtues lost by greedy capitalsits and their downtrodden factory slaves. Thus, for the first time, higher classes looked to lower ones for inspiritation. Those looking for self-rule justified themselves as the natural leaders of the masses of people tied to the land – the ‘folk’. These middle and upper-class urbanites wanted to demonstrate their solidarity with and inspiration from the ‘folk’ by adopting various symbols, like ‘folk’ costumes and dances, to differntiate themselves from others in their empire’s boundaries who were loyal to the monarchy. (They were not about to abandon their middle-class standards of living or social ambitions, however).

Within this ferment, dancing masters were still plying their trade. In Greece, Hungary, Poland, various German principalities, Russia, Italy, and later Serbia, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Croatia, Montenegro, Slovakia, Albania and Bulgaria, second-tier aristocratic families, as well as merchants, soldiers, artists, teachers and clergy were identifying as much with their own hoped-for ethnic boundaries as with the royal court in the empire’s capital, be it Istanbul, St. Petersburg, Berlin, or Vienna. All wanted dances that helped them identify with their peasants without sacrificing their own ideas of proper deportment. So dancing masters observed peasant weddings, etc, smoothed out the edges, and adjusted melodies to suit court orchestras; the result being ‘folk’ dances suitable for the ballroom.

In the case of Serbia, for instance, the ‘national’ dance of the peasants was considered the Kolo, so a dancing master contrived a ‘kolo’ utilizing the elements of a kolo (circle, back & forth sideways movement around the edge of the circle) combined for variety with a movement of dubious authenticity (in & out of the circle), and one of little peasant usage but pleasing to the ‘customers’ (circle around your partner), all performed to music preferred by the court, in a style familiar to the court, with no attempt at correct ‘folk’ styling. The result is a kolo in name only. Below is such a kolo, ca.1900, as performed in the Serbian court in Belgrade. “Kolo kraljice Obrenović” means the kolo named after queen Draga Obrenović.

The above may be an extreme example, but I find a striking similarity between “ballroom” kolos and the recreational folk dance movement in North America. Many dancers here are enticed into folk dancing with the promise of easy, fun dancing, not-too-strenuous exercise, simple conviviality, and, if you care to, a chance to learn about ‘other cultures’ – MANY other cultures. Often that learning consists of the name of the country the dance supposedly originates from. When there are sooo many dances, and sooo many countries, just keeping that simple fact straight can be difficult. Why International Folk Dancing and not, say Country Line Dancing? Many people, myself included, like stepping outside my own culture, going on a virtual travelog without leaving the comforts of home. We like identifying ourselves as citizens of the world, like spending some time in a different culture with different musical tastes – but not enough to move to that place, or to give up our creature comforts.

As any dance teacher or director will tell you, whether a ‘new’ dance catches on depends upon the music and whether it suits the taste of the group. Also, if the movements of the dance are easily grasped and within the movement preferences of the group, so much the better. Oh, and Recreational Folk Dancers, myself included, prefer our dances to have 2 or 3 ‘variations’ – not the same thing over & over. Oh, and the if the variations match changes in the music, that just seems more satisfying to our taste.

Recreational Folk Dance instructors are in a similar position to the dancing masters of old. They make their living by serving their ‘court’. They travel, bringing the ‘latest’ dances, supposedly from the cultural source. However, they know they won’t be asked back unless they bring dances with pleasing music and not-too-simple-but-not-too-difficult steps. Of course many instructors are diligent in their disseminating of factual information and in labeling the provenance of dances. But for some, whether the dances are ‘authentic’ is less important than whether they please their customers, and some clubs are not too careful in distinguishing the diligent from the crowd-pleasers.

I know that there are many dancers in recreational groups who are dedicated to ‘authenticity’, and that ‘authenticity’ can take on many forms and many levels of expertise. I know of some groups that have split into smaller sub-groups over this very issue, and that it’s very difficult to have a large group inclusive of all tastes, and that even in ‘the village’ there are some people who take their dancing more seriously than others do.

My concern is not to ensure every dance is ‘authentic’. Recreational Folk Dance groups do not promote themselves as ethnochoreographic societies, people are invited to enjoy themselves first and foremost, and on their own terms. However, those in a recreational group who know the difference between a traditional village dance and a concocted choreography owe it to the cultures represented to make that distinction clear to those without such knowledge, so no one is under the illusion that they’re dancing ‘just like the folk’ when they’re doing no such thing. I believe those courtiers in Belgrade knew the difference, so should we.

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