The Society of Folk Dance Historians


What is Folk Dance?

Virtually all of the dances mentioned in this article have been described in the Folk Dance Problem Solver series.


This most thorny of questions both unites and divides our folk dance community. Fear not! No answers here! But I will provide definitions and examples and let you decide. After all, it doesn't really matter what you do, as long as you know.

Folkloric Dances:

This narrowest of categories includes those dances originally performed for metaphysical purposes, involving elaborate context such as special costumes and accoutrements, speeches and songs, secrecy, and ritual behavior.

Examples include wedding dances (Minka, Hora Miresii, Lakodalmi Tanc), farewell dances (Mom Bar), dances legitimizing physical contact (Polster Tanc), dances appeasing spirits such as old age (Viejitos) or ancestors (This is July), worship dances (Arkan, Bolonch�n), pre-Lenten dances (Carnavalito), fertility rituals (Gathering Peascods), guild dances (Hasapiko, Culebra, Tanko Bushi), tool dances (Machetes) or those with lost purpose (L�ngdans, Sardana).

Obviously (to those who know them), some dances serve multiple purposes: many wedding dances are farewell dances, Bolonch�n serves worship and courtship, and Machetes combines tools and courtship.

Less obviously, some dances justify their placement in this category with fake-lore, rather than folklore! For instance, no basis exists for believing that the initial swaying of the Israeli Hora represents "the plight of the Jew in places where they were persecuted," [Jane A. Harris, Anne Pittman, and Marlys S. Waller, Dance a While, 3rd ed., Minneapolis, Minn.: Burgess, 1964, p.199] making the dance a recreation rather than a commemoration.

Folky Dances:

Add to Folkloric Dances the recreational dances of pre-industrial, usually agrarian societies to compile this category. Yes, some folky dances evolved from folkloric dances, and research can transfer dances between these two categories unpredictably. In other words, if you forget the story of a Folkloric Dance, it becomes a folky dance. If you rediscover the story and again do the dance for its original purpose, it becomes a Folkloric Dance again. If you rediscover the story without doing the dance, you become a folk dance historian!

Examples include the true German Volkstanz [folk dance] (Linzerpolka, Jaegermarsch), ballroom and sequence dances (Korobushka, Hesitation Waltz, Gay Gordons), set dances (quadrilles and country dances), pre-1939 line and circle dances (Hora), play party games (Brown-Eyed Mary), and children's games (Looby Lou).

Many folk dancers envision our recreational, international folk dance movement as based on Folky Dances, and some choreographers pretend that their creations abide here in order to create taxable fiefdoms of expertise.

Popular, Elite, and Mass Dances:

Let me assuage the erudite by discussing here a non-distinction and a distinction. Some distinguish Popular Dance (the dance of the populace or lower classes) from Elite Dance (the dance of the upper classes). For the purposes of international folk dancing, both Popular and Elite Dance fit neatly under Recreational Dance and provide a dimension to our enjoyment rather than a demarcation. Please don't, however, confuse pre-industrial, usually agrarian Recreational Popular and Elite Dance (spread by contagion) with Mass Dance (possibly from a folk origin but spread by a point source such as the news media or a publishing house). Such confusion occurs in: [Z. Barbu, "Popular culture," in Approaches to Popular Culture, ed. C.W.E. Bigsby, London, 1976]

Examples of Elite Dance include pre-1951 Scottish Country Dancing (SCD) due to the allegation that SCD derived from 18th century court dance and thus cannot be folk. Examples of Mass Dance include Hokey Pokey, Limbo, the Bird Dance, Lambada, and Macarena.

Note that Mass Dance certainly qualifies as recreational and does appeal to the populace. Its "top-down" promulgation from a few to the masses lacks that indefinable soul that most of us require from our folk dancing. Both the lack of soul and mercantile nature of mass culture result in Mass Dance frequently failing the "Test of Time."

Art Dances:

These dances require special training and musculature, belong not to the folk but to trained cadres, and possess graded levels of advancement based on skill. Some dancers feel that folk dance does not include these "professional" dances, where "professional" refers to the motive for either performance (paid dancing) or transmission (paid teaching). Others, on the basis that all Art Dance derived from folk origins, qualify Art Dance as folk dance.

Examples include British step dances (Highland Fling), Andalusian dances (Flamenco), and classical theater dance such as that found in Japan and Bali. We can include here the less obvious ballet character dances (Hopak), modern dance with its derivative Israeli folk dances (Kuma Echa), tap dance with its clog dance derivatives, and jazz dance with its novelty dance derivatives (Alley Cat).

Traditional Dances:

Here we include all the above: Folkloric, Folky, and Art Dances, excepting only Mass Dances. Why do we call this group "traditional?" Because "tradition" in this sense means "that's the way we've always done it" rather than "that's the best way." For example, many folk dance groups end their evenings with an exclusionist waltz rather than a simple circle dance because "that's the way we've always ended our evenings," not because "that's the best dance to end with" or because "that dance was next."

As with Folky Dances, some dancers envision our folk dance movement as based on Traditional Dances, especially if those dancers possess the skill or youth necessary to perform Art Dances! Obviously, those who feel that folk dance means Non-Professional Dance would not agree.

Another problem occurs with "traditional." Let's discuss here the distinction between fixed and evolving traditional dances.

Fixed traditional dances:

North Europe documented many of its evolving Folky Dances in the 19th century, fixing them in form at a particular point in time. Additionally, most Art Dance disciplines developed codes centuries ago, codes followed religiously today. Each performance of a Fixed Dance attempts to duplicate its prototype or follow a code, even if the performance consists of an improvisational sequence of prototypical motifs. For example, performances of Sauerlaender Quadrille No. 5 compete against the original document, and successful performance of Highland Fling follows the code set forth by the Board of Highland Dancing. Modifications occur, but they seldom become canonic and may even be regarded as decadent. For example, you may whoop at a certain point during the Fling, but that whoop will remain your individualistic variation. When performed in different ethnic communities, ethnically unique versions do not exist except as temporary modifications. For example, Sauerlaender Quadrille No. 5 will remain a German dance, even when performed by Texans.

Evolving traditional dances:

Some Traditional Dances remain undocumented and require years of study under a master (Tai Chi) while others may exist in a culture that has lost catastrophically its teachers and documents (Armenian dance). Evolving Dances survive through memory and imitation, with each performance duplicating the previous performance to a greater or lesser extent. Modifications accumulate, resulting in the "folk process" and in ethnically unique versions of a common antecedent. For example, the original, undocumented Swedish Blekinge evolved across the western world. Ethnically unique documented versions now occur in Mexico (La Raspa), Germany (Herr Schmidt), and many other countries.

Traditional points to ponder:

Some people confuse Evolving Dances with anonymous dances. True, many undocumented dances lack a known choreographer, but so do some documented dances. This "anonymous" parameter, while interesting to dance historians, serves poorly the dance taxonomist.

Tradition is a moving target! Non-traditional dances we do today will become traditional in the future, if they survive.

We not only may have, but frequently have, both Fixed and Evolving versions of the same dance, especially in cultures where a memory traveled but a document or teacher did not. For example, compare English country dances with their derivative Australian bush dances (Galopede). Eventually, however, all surviving dances will trace back to a Fixed prototype. Why? Because eventually, a student will find no living teacher and have to imitate a document. That student will then become the teacher of a (probably) Fixed Dance movement. For examples of this, see Revival Dances, below.

Revival Dances:

The 20th century has seen many dance revivals, perhaps in subconscious opposition to the dehumanizing effects of mechanization and urbanization or perhaps to give second-rate prima donnas a new chance at the stage and second-rate demigods a new populace to rule. Each revival inevitably shifted from revived dances to devised dances.

Revived Dances:

Old books and manuscripts provide the material from which old dances revive, occasionally spurred by the memories of very old people. Initially, choreographers provide well-researched and well-constructed revisions, priding themselves on accurate interpretation.

Devised Dances:

As the original corpus of material yields its treasures and adherents clamor for novelty, hordes of choreographers, too commercial or ignorant or lazy or egotistical to master the literature, devise swarms of new dances "in the traditional style." While some new dances augment the repertoire, hundreds of others turn dance into no more than an exercise in memory.

Some examples include North European Gemeinschaftstanz (community dance), Modern Western Square Dance, Contra Dance, and Scottish Country Dance. In these cases and others, new material supplants the old, frequently replacing that indefinable folklore of life and experience with the shallow fake-lore of contrived effects and transitory, topical motifs.

Other examples occur in populations of displaced persons such as Jews and Armenians. In the Jewish example, insufficient documents and memory survived the diaspora, so Israel created a folk dance tradition originally based on Modern Dance. Armenia's diaspora, however, occurred recently enough that displaced Armenians could build a new folk dance tradition somewhat resembling the old and influenced by (are you ready for this?) international folk dancing! (The many variations of Armenian Hop provide a good example of this).

"So if they can create folk dances, why can't I?" You can! Just ignore completely the tens of thousands of traditional dances already in existence, ignore the fact that you will never know the culture like a native, ignore the sad truth that your students will ignore your disclaimers, and be sure to label your creation for what it is: non-ethnic devised dance based on your interpretation of ethnic motifs and set to music that you feel to be appropriate. Oh yes, be sure to ignore your conscience, too!

National Dances:

All the above categories contain dances invented or altered to serve political purposes. Aside from promulgating fake-lore, many National Dances erroneously equate political or geographical or (sometimes) linguistic with ethnographic demarcations.

Examples include potpourri dances signifying national unity (Jarabe Tapat�o, Czech Beseda, Venezuelan Llanero, Serbian Srpkinja), court dance signifying folk roots of nobility (Serbian Srpkinja, Hungarian Cs�rd�s), stage dance signifying innate peasant fortitude (Tsamiko, Hopak, Partalos), and thanksgiving dances signifying divine favor (Mayim, Jefferson and Liberty).

Character Dances occur in classical ballet and represent National Dance molded to conform to classical technique. The Nutcracker Ballet contains several classic examples (Russian Dance, Scottish Dance, Spanish Dance, Arabian Dance, Chinese Dance) while Anatol Joukowski enabled folk dancers who couldn't execute a pli� to dance Grand Ballet (Horehronsky Czardash, Jablochko).

Most nations today fund Folk Ballet or Folkl�rico Dances to demonstrate the inherent artistry of their populace, inventing or altering Traditional Dances to satisfy the artistic sensibilities of choreographers rather than the scholarly inquiry of ethnographers. Examples include potpourri suites (Serbian Medley), ancient lineage suites (Aztec nonsense), and peasant strength dances (Shopska Petorka).

To inculcate children in a national mythology, some countries mandate Curriculum Dances for their public schools. Examples include Romania (Alunelul) and Bulgaria (Tr�gnala Rumyana).

Following the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the formation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, modern Turkey aimed, on the one hand, at suppressing or even erasing its Muslim-Ottoman identity from the collective memory of its population, with a rapid secularization and westernization reform program. On the other hand, the Turkish State also started a research program to revive the Central Asian roots of the Turks. [�] Turkish nationalism, like all other nationalisms, needed to construct its national cultural symbols and disseminate them within the popular strata.
[Arzu �zturkmen, "Folk Dance and Nationalism in Turkey," in 17th Symposium of the study group on ethnochoreology 1992 proceedings, Peloponnesian Folklore Foundation, Nafplion 1994, p.83-6]

From 1932 to 1950, the Turkish Republican People's Party supported the collection and practice of rural Folkloric and Folky Dances by adults at localized, urban "People's Houses." In 1950, the Turkish Demokrat Parti closed the People's Houses, and large-scale urbanization carried the dances to population centers. Directors standardized as "Turkish" the formerly local dances, costumes, and instrumentation. Students, aged 8 to 25, became the primary practitioners of the new repertoire. Examples include Karsilama and Ermeni Bar (now called Atabari).

Festival Dances, for lack of better terminology, occur as elders dance like children (Seven Jumps, Pepper Dance), while on the next stage children perform adult fertility rituals (Maypole Dance). Why would people do such a thing? I wonder, too! Perhaps it's the eternal lure of make-believe. Perhaps it's the medals awarded by festival judges. Whatever, this "Festival" bias destroys tradition more than other forms of National dance because it eludes discovery more effectively. (Hey, you hadn't thought of it, had you?)

New Names For Old!

As people realized in the 1970s how commercially devised and spiritually empty folk dancing had become, they left the movement to its cadre of self-styled experts and flocked to the revivals of Contra, Hungarian, Scandinavian, and other dance forms. In desperation, Folk Dance became Ethnic or World Dance. Contra then evolved into devised dances and became "Traditional Dance," confusing people endlessly. No name change, however, will hide the substantive shift away from significant folk context, and we're due now for a new revival of folk dancing.


Dance what you enjoy, but please know what you're dancing and call it what it is!


"When you steal from one, it's plagiarism. When you steal from many, it's research!"
The inspiration and much of the data for this article came from the incomparable Hugh Thurston, writing in the 1950s. To legitimize the endeavor, I have borrowed from others as well!

-- Ron