Village repertoire – How many dances?

Lawrence Kirkendall form Bergen, Norway writes: “I just discovered your website, what a resource!….

A question for you. I see that you write that smallish villages usually had 20 to 50 dances in their repertoire. This really surprised me. Would you have a source for that? Really that many different dances, or could it be that many different tunes (fewer different dances)? Just curious.”

Answer: My opinion is based on verbal accounts from many instructors, as well as readings from many sources over many years.  Although I have lots of books about the folk dances of particular countries, very few of them discuss the topic of repertoire – particular dances, regional dances, dance occasions, but not the size and composition of a village’s repertoire.  I have two reputable written sources for the topic of repertoire at my fingertips – first from A Nest of Gold by Yvonne Hunt, to my mind one of the best authorities in English on Greek dance, published by the Center for the Study of Traditional Dance “Kyklos” in Thessaloniki, 2014. This particular book covers only the dances of the Serres Prefecture of Greece (in red, pop.175,000) where she spent many years researching the dances of about 82 villages and towns, documenting about 330 dances.

By documenting I mean witnessing them in person when possible, combing through archives, interviewing people who could no longer dance but recalled the dances of their youth, and recording the names of dances, even when the name was the only information an informant could supply.  At this late date so many dances have died without any documentation that she figures she’s racing against time just to preserve a name.  Beside each name she records the name and location of each village where she encountered the dance, and any other information she might have (sometimes running to a page worth).  Karsilamas was recorded in 48 villages, for example, while several dances have no particular location.  She devotes 4 pages to the topic of repertoire.  Here’s an excerpt (pp.271-273). “The dance repertoire of the Serres Prefecture was at one time quite vast and varied.  In comparison with some other regions today, not only of Greece but also of other countries, it remains so. However as shall be seen from this study much has already been lost.  The occasions for dancing were basically the same in the past as they are today: engagement, wedding, baptism, saints’ days, national holidays, Easter and other yearly celebrations.  Additionally, however, in many villages of the region dancing took place in the main square every Sunday. The Sunday dances have now long disappeared…….The immensity of the repertoires, as first recounted by informants, initially gave me cause for doubt. Could there really have been so many dances in each village?  Repertoires consisting of fifteen, twenty, even twenty-five dances were unheard of in my limited experience.  Nevertheless, the more I investigated the more I found the information corroborated by other informants and in an ever increasing number of villages.  Perhaps the most amazing fact is that those presented here, while certainly no small amount, are probably only a fraction of the former repertoires.”

A more comprehensive discussion of repertoire can be found in Romanian Traditional Dance by Anca Giurchescu with Sunni Bloland, Wild Flower Press, Mill Valley CA, @1992. To my mind, it is the definitive work on Romanian dance, as it incorporates 30 years of fieldwork from Romania’s Institute of Ethnology and Folklore.  pp.65-66 “All of the dances known by the inhabitants of a locale, be it a village or a zone, comprise its total repertoire.  A traditional repertoire is the collection of dances handed down from one generation to the next over an extended period of time.  The fundamental dance stock of preceding generations is transmitted along with modifications introduced by each subsequent generation.  The dances of the traditional repertoire are not necessarily those most frequently performed but they are usually of considerable importance in the dance life of a given locale.  They may be used to open a dance cycle, to close the village HORA, or to carry out ritual and ceremonial functions in a given social context.  Within the traditional repertoire are also dances bound to specific rituals.  These dances are generally not compatible with other social contexts and hence are performed less frequently than dances not ritually bound. The term ritual repertoire applies to these. 

To limit the concept of repertoire to the realm of tradition, however, would result in a truncated view of folkloric reality.  In truth a current repertoire belonging to each generation exists side-by-side with the traditional material.  A current repertoire may also include dances from outside zones as well as contemporary ballroom dances.  Occasionally folk dances from other areas are incorporated into the traditional repertoire by a process of assimilation, however some of these remain active for a single generation only.  The term homogeneous repertoire refers to a collection of village repertoires within a given area that are similar enough that a given person from any one of the villages could join in the dancing of any other villages in this area.

A repertoire can be characterized by its numerous components.  When making comparisons on a regional or national scale, choreologists refer to ‘small’ repertoires and ‘large’ repertoires in a relative as well as an absolute sense.  A large repertoire from a village in Oltenia, Muntenia, central Moldavia, or the southern part of Banat may embody from 30 to 60 dances while a small repertoire from the villages of central and northern Transylvania may embody 10 dances or fewer.  Small repertoires tend to expand gradually by integrating outside dances into their basic fund; a large repertoire tends to contract due to the discontinuance of some of its dances.  This phenomenon is partially a by-product of the varying tastes of the younger generation at a given period of time.  The youth may selectively popularize dances for any number of reasons, such as tempo, degree of complexity, the fact that they are couple dances, or because they are seen as fashionable or modern.  In addition some dances become popular because they do not require a leader or a specific number of participants, either of which may not always be available.  As a result of this process of selection, some dances are rarely performed and eventually disappear from the active (current) repertoire.  Of the 15 or 20 dances still known today in some villages of the sub-Carpathians and Oltenia, only two, Hora and Sârba, are commonly performed.  In this way some dances develop an exaggerated level of importance.

By itself, the sheer number of dances in a repertoire is not an indication of its quality or ‘richness’.  The richness of the dances making up a repertoire is judged on the basis of their kinetic complexity, rhythm and form, the degree of improvisation, and the relationship between their choreographic and musical structures.  Hence a repertoire consisting of only a few highly developed dances, each representing a different type, may be considered as rich as a repertoire of a large number of dances but representing only a few different types.  The dance repertoires of the northern and western areas of Transylvania, for example, are are small compared to those of the Danubian and, to a degree, the eastern areas of Romania.  This may be the result of two different kinds of creative processes: a proliferous mode, in which a single single conceptual model or type is expressed in a large number of different variants of dances having relatively simple structures, and a discrete mode, in which each dance in the repertoire is a type unto itself.  Thus viewed, the above mentioned repertoire of Transylvania, though small, is nonetheless rich in content because the dances are highly improvised and have complex structures.

The dance fund in the village of Conțești in judets Teleorman, Muntenia, (2011 population, 3,479) provided an example with which to examine further the structure of a repertoire and the concept of frequency.  Of the 39 dances in the village repertoire, eight were exclusively ritual dances.  Fifteen of the  remaining 31 dances were frequently performed at the Village HORA. From a social point of view, then, these 15 dances, the current repertoire of the village, represented the artistic preferences of the people of Conțești at the time this survey was taken (June1965).  Of the 16 dances less frequently seen, eight were known and performed only by the elders; the young considered these dances to be outmoded.  Hence, as members in the older generation would cease to be active in the Village HORA, their dances would no longer be performed; and so they would become part of the latent repertoire, existing only in the memory of these elder dancers.  Eventually, if not revived or passed down, the dances would be relegated to the obsolete fund.  In Conțești this fund contained five dances.  The remaining three dances were those that were incompletely assimilated because they had been introduced into the village so recently that there had not been time for them to become fully accepted.  Among these newly introduced dances, still recognized by the dancers as being ‘foreign,’ some might have become fully integrated into the traditional repertoire while others might have become assimilated only ephemerally into the current repertoire as the result of a passing trend…..Although this pattern is very common, the movement of dances into and out of the current repertoire may flow in the opposite direction as well with some dances being discontinued while others from the obsolete fund are rediscovered by the young generation and established once again as the popular mode.

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