An Introduction to Folk Dance

“The impulse to move is the raw material that cultures shape into evocative sequences of physical activity that we call dance.”  Gerald Jonas

Dance is ancient and modern; constantly evolving while still clinging to older forms. Dance holds the magic of communication, inspiration, transformation and illumination.

Dance is as old as the human race; perhaps even older, if we count the courtship rituals of various animal species. For humans dance probably first began as a ritual movement form, or in the first wild leap of joy. We can safely assume dance may have been thought to be an important element in magic, as a means to call forth or celebrate spring, to ensure or give thanks for a good harvest, to celebrate important moments in life such as weddings, birth days, funerals and other special times. Dance was and remains a powerful force for the expression of human emotion and culture.

Like language, it is found in every society, every culture, and every ethnic group.  Each culture shapes dance to itself, and in so doing, gives the viewer a window to itself. But the power of dance is even greater, because in presenting itself to a viewer, it compels the viewer, through his own interpretation of what he sees, to reveal much about his own values, perspectives or belief.

Dance has adapted itself to many functions. From court dances to courting dances, wedding dances to funeral dances, storytelling dances to dances of religious expression, dance has been part of the human experience.

In most countries, everybody learns to dance. Dance is not only a social event but serves other purposes, since dance requires strength and coordination, balance and grace…in most countries, dance has a long, rich history that should not be forgotten nor abandoned. Young people learn to dance by watching the adults around them dance, joining in the circles and lines as they feel ready. “Doing it right” is not as important the first few years- what is important is that they learn to dance. As years pass and generations dance, the steps and patterns change, but always belong to the people.

Understanding folk dances is one way to develop awareness of how different cultures interpret movement, express their character and tell their own stories. For a teacher to neglect folk dance as “not glamorous” or “not important” is for a teacher to deny her students the full flavor of a culture and to promote misguided stereotyping of dance forms. In studying folk dances, we are able to see how cross-cultural movements impacted societies; we are also able to see how human movement can be an expression of the hopes and experiences of a people, and how dance can be an expression of our common humanity.

National Dance versus Folk Dance

Remember that national dance and folk dance are two different things. While “national dance” and “folk dance” used to be defined by the class of people performing them, this definition is growing less common. Because of the past association with class descriptors, many people confuse the two, thinking they are the same. But with national dance, there is a set, distinct way of performing a dance, often with a specific costume, for a specific function, at a specific time with a function particular to the people of a certain city, region or country doing it, and with an emotional essence unique to the people in a closed community of a village or region.

It can be difficult to pinpoint when and where a national dance first began, since dance is rooted in human movement. It is likely that dance originated in any or all of the following:

  •  ritual movements to communicate an idea or celebrate or mark an important event
  •  ritual movement to express a feeling such as anger or joy
  •  ritual movement to achieve communion with the gods or achieve a trance state wherein this communication could take place.

From these humble beginnings, many dances went on to become so familiar to an entire people that everyone from peasant to royalty knew a dance and performed it, often forgetting why the dance began in the first place. These were called national dances.

Defining Folk Dance

Folk dance is nothing more than the national dances of a people, or “folk”, well-researched and performed with understanding, either formally or informally, by those who have learned the dance from a qualified instructor who has an academic and cultural understanding of the movements and steps of the dance.  It is a more expanded form of national dance, especially when performed as a stage performance, and, as such, is often revised to fit the stage, a particular set or theme, or revised to serve as a specific signature piece for a dance company.

The instructor should discuss with students the difference between a dance as villagers perform it, including the fact that it has an emotional element the trained stage performer may or may not understand, and dance as it us performed by a trained dancer and as it is often re-designed for stage. This also allows students to become aware of how stage constraints often affect “authentic” presentations of folk and folkloric dances. In all cases, the instructor should ensure that students know the difference between, and can perform, both the traditional form and the stage version, and that this difference is noted during public performances as “designed for stage” dances.

Folk dance is fascinating due to its cultural identifications, history and costuming. The names of dances are often associated with specific areas: for example, syrtos and hasapikos are always associated with Greece. Other dances that are familiar to many people include jigs, reels, horas and other line and circle dances. American contra dances originated in the English, Welsh and Scottish dances of old. The numbers of folk dances are vast and offer a never-ending journey through human expression.

Folk dance is also interesting because it allows a student to explore how dances have crossed over boundaries as time passed, to explore similarities in rhythm, movement and music and to examine how dance styles differ based on culture and social values. This in turn can aid the student in understanding why some dances can be defined by cultural standards and limitations and, in doing so, cannot be “re-invented’ or “re-shaped’ into a new form without losing their essential, identifying attributes and characteristics as a specific dance form.

Folk dance is also challenging in that the art of the dance relies on its appearance of relative simplicity while in reality the movement execution and cultural expression must be precisely performed.

When learning and performing folk dances, it is important to remember that you are presenting dances that represent or belong to a specific group of people or a specific country. All effort should be made to present the dances properly, in appropriate clothing.

Throughout the Folk Dance category, I will be presenting notations for the folk dances as I learned them and whenever possible, will show you variations I have been taught depending on the teacher presenting. Some of you may have learned variations of these dances. Please remember that folk dance is not static, that it changes person by person, town by town. I will also include variations that were developed for specific stage performances.

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