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folk dance | Definition, Music, History, Types, & Facts

Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Peasant Dance

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folk dance, generally, a type of dance that is a vernacular, usually recreational, expression of a past or present culture. The term folk dance was accepted until the mid-20th century. Then this and other categories of dance were questioned and their distinctions became subject to debate.

For the purposes of this article, the designation folk dance will be used for convenience, without the extended discussion of terms that a more scholarly treatment would require. It is important, however, to examine other ways to write and think about the types of dances that might be characterized as traditional. It is also essential to note that people in many non-Western cultures do not themselves describe any activity as dance in the way that English speakers do. This article examines possible ways to look at and define folk dance, how various groups might conceive of their dances, and how the study of folk dance was born and developed. See also dance, for a general treatment of dance as an art form. For further treatment of the folk arts, see folk music; folklore; folk literature; folk art.

Defining folk dance

What makes a dance a folk dance?

Logically speaking, the adjective folk should modify the noun dance to indicate a certain kind of dance and dancing and perhaps the style or some other distinguishing feature of the dance or performance. It should also imply who the performers are. However, the term folk dance, which has been in common use since the late 19th century, along with its parent term folklore, which was coined in 1846, is not as descriptive or uncontroversial as it might seem. Much of the problem lies in the attitudes and purposes of early scholars and their audience.

Usually, the designation folk was used by those who did not consider themselves to belong to the folk and were confident that they knew which other people were the folk. Some of these observers described folk communities with condescension as peasants, simple or quaint people who were illiterate and unselfconscious, carrying on supposedly unsophisticated and ancient traditions. Such writers concluded that “true” folk dances were created anonymously and transmitted from person to person. Many scholars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries postulated a sort of Darwinian social evolution that passed from imagined beginnings through existing folk dances to arrive at modern recreational dances. This attitude, which fell out of favour by the 1930s, was part of a larger worldview that sometimes went so far as to place certain other groups of people farther down the human evolutionary tree from themselves and their peers.

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Not surprisingly, a backlash developed, and since the middle of the 20th century the word folk has often been avoided because of the condescending attitude its use is thought to represent. Many cultural groups around the world demanded that their performing arts not be characterized by the term. Thus, some archives and organizations found it expedient to change the word folk to traditional in their names. For example, in the 1960s the Folk Music Archives at Indiana University was renamed Archives of Traditional Music. Similarly, in 1980 the International Folk Music Council, a nonprofit organization supported by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), changed its name to International Council for Traditional Music. Its study section on dance broadened in scope from folk dance to ethnochoreology, the study of all dance forms in a culture.

Although many academics in the 21st century avoid any use of the word folk because of its past misuse and possible offensiveness, those who do accept the term often mean “traditional,” “authentic,” or “from olden times.” Those who want to avoid implying that culture is static may refuse to use any such categorical term.

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The descriptors traditional and authentic are problematic too when applied to folk dances that are self-consciously developed, revived, and restaged for public display in order to reinforce a national identity, to attract tourists, or both. Examples include dances performed by the Bayanihan Philippine National Folk Dance Company and the numerous folklórico groups from Mexico. Neither does the word traditional comfortably identify dances that are transplanted from one context to another, such as the European folk dances performed by the Matachines Society of the Yaqui Indians of southern Arizona in the United States and Sonora, Mexico. Nor do these terms include the fusions of folk dances from two or more cultures into new forms that represent newly established communities, such as the multicultural Israeli folk dances and the fused traditions of the Métis of Canada. These are discussed below.

Operational definitions

Of major significance, a point that is critical to the understanding of folk dance is the following fact: folk dance is not a universal genre of dance. When folk dances are compared from one culture to another, they have in common no universal movement, figure, form, style, or function. Neither does a specific movement, figure, form, style, or function identify a dance as a folk dance. The simplest approach to definition might be to say that folk dances are those dances identified with and performed by folk dancers. By the same reasoning, folk dancers are those persons who perform folk dances.

Yet these circular definitions are inadequate. Some persons who perform what outsiders define as folk dances do not themselves identify their dances as folk dances. And some persons who perform such dances do not identity themselves as folk dancers. Others reject the word folk entirely, as having nothing to do with who they are or what dances they do.

The matachines dances are a good example of how fluid the definitions of folk dance and folk dancers are. The Yaqui Indian Matachines Society is a group in northern Mexico and southern Arizona whose members continue to observe a sacred vow to dance their devotions for the Virgin Mary with medieval European folk dances taught to them after 1617 by Jesuit padres. These Yaqui do not think of their dances as folk dances, nor do they think of themselves as folk dancers, although persons from the outside readily make those assignments. Although the origins of the matachines dances of other parts of the Americas are similar, the dances themselves are different. To complicate matters further, in parts of Europe there are matachines folk dance groups that have nothing in common with the Yaqui society or the other American groups. What the dances are, who performs them, and what insiders and outsiders call the dances and the dancers—all these designations vary, although the dances are known by the same name.

European Destinations by Dance Styles

While there are some dance fads that fade over the years – fingers crossed we never see the end of Gangnam Style – there are others that remain timeless. These are the ones that are typically steeped in tradition, that see dancers clad in elegant costumes and moving with emotion. Don’t get us wrong, we’re all for Switzerland’s chicken dance, but there are others that just embody a country’s vibes, like Spanish coolness or Turkey’s sultry side.

You probably won’t find these kinds of dances taking place on club dance floors, but they’re worth seeking out if only to attune yourself with the local culture. Plus, they’re pretty mesmerising to watch. To get your toes tapping, here are some traditional dances you can expect to see when visiting these European destinations.

Spain – Flamenco

Think back to that little dancer emoji on your phone – the woman in the red, floaty dress with her hands mid-clap. She’s wearing the traditional garment you might see on a flamenco dancer. Flamenco dancing is native to regions in Spain, accompanied by singing, clapping and snapping and some soulful guitars. Where flamenco is concerned, you can’t have one without the other.

Flamenco dancing is characterised by its strong, emotional movements. Dancers carry themselves proudly, waving their arms and stomping their feet in time to the beat. It’s an incredibly technical dance style that’s taken very seriously and studied in dance schools across the world.

Greece – Greek dancing

Dancing has always been a critical part of Greek culture, used by the locals to express themselves. Historically, dances were held at everything from religious celebrations and weddings to preparations for war. They’re still a key part of Greek’s modern culture, so much so you’ll even find them at neighbourhood tavernas on popular ‘Greek nights’, accompanied by plate smashing and live music.

Each region of Greece has its own unique spin on traditional Greek dancing, so depending on where you go, you’ll see slight variations in sharpness and pace. In general, dancers will assemble into a circle, holding onto one another by hand or on the shoulders, and step or leap in a counter-clockwise direction. What order you stand in can depend on age or social status within the community, and it’s best not to disrupt these traditions if you aren’t sure where to go.

France – Can-can

Odds are the traditional can-can song has already sprung into your head. That’s because this popular French dance is incredibly iconic, marked by its sky high energy and even higher leg kicks.

The can-can is traditionally performed in music halls by a chorus line of women, though it was often a dance for men in the 18th century. These days, many recognise it from its repeated appearance at the famous Moulin Rouge in Paris. Women dancing the can-can will almost always be wearing blustery skirts that billow upwards when dancers kick their legs – the dance used to be considered quite scandalous, but nowadays, isn’t complete without a few cartwheels and splits.

Italy – Tarantella

In Italy, traditional dances are generally hard to come by, though one has seemed to prevail over thousands of years – it’s known as the ‘tarantella’ kept alive mostly in southern Italy. Its beginnings are incredibly strange, coming about as a result of tarantula bites. When given the right music, the inflicted were supposed to snap out of their hysteria and begin dancing what is now known as the tarantella.

The tarantella is marked by its fast pace lead by a tambourine. It is generally performed by couples that skip and quick step around one another, turning and sweeping their arms. If you do stumble across locals performing this traditional dance, you can rest assured that they probably weren’t bitten by spiders in preparation.

Turkey – Belly dancing

Belly dancing is traditional across many Middle Eastern countries, referred to sometimes as ‘Oryantal Dans’ in Turkey. Turkish belly dancing stands out from other traditional forms in that it’s known for being very up tempo and energetic. Dancers will rhythmically jut out their hips while moving their arms and stomachs in a fluid motion. Each move must be carefully layered, so to be a great belly dancer, athleticism is key.

Turkish belly dancers will often stand in a line, blocking one another, so that their arm movements are all that can be seen. The dance is also punctuated by the use of finger cymbals chiming to the beat of the music. Today, coming across belly dancers in Turkey isn’t hard to do – you’ll find the traditional dance performed in restaurants and dance halls.

Germany – Polka

The polka actually began in what is now the Czech Republic, though this dance craze soon swept across Europe and has even become a popular genre within the United States. In Germany, it’s closely associated with oom-pah music, usually made with brass instruments and an accordion. In Germany, polka dances become especially popular around Oktoberfest.

The dance is traditionally upbeat, done in pairs or alone. Moving in tempo, dancers will hop and kick, adding in steps as they choose and keeping in time with the lively music. The polka is a loose dance that’s meant to be fun and hike up the energy in what were historically stodgy ballrooms.

Try the Flamenco on a sunny Spanish break…

Could not fetch deal.

Europe is dancing - Ogonyok No. 35 (5011) dated 09/02/2007

25 3 min. ...

Russia will be represented at the new Eurovision by Vesti host Maria Sittel


The first International Dance Contest Eurovision 2007 will take place on 1 September in London. It will be broadcast live by the BBC. In Russia, the TV channel "Russia" will show. 16 countries that were invited by the European Broadcasting Union participate in the competition: Austria, Great Britain, Germany, Greece, Denmark, Ireland, Spain, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Ukraine, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland. In the TV show, which will last two hours and fifteen minutes, each dance couple will be given the opportunity to demonstrate two ballroom dances: in Latin American and free style with desirable elements of national color. As in the Eurovision Song Contest, the participants will be judged by viewers, and it will be possible to vote not only by phone, but also via SMS. The vast majority of the contestants are professional dancers. Russia will be represented by the winners of the Dancing with the Stars TV project: 31-year-old Maria Sittel, host of the Vesti program on the Rossiya channel (pictured), and her partner, professional dancer, 25-year-old Vladislav Borodinov. Anastasia Zavorotnyuk and Stanislav Popov will host the broadcast of the competition in Russia. Ogonyok asked its executive director Tal Barnea to tell about the conditions of the Eurovision 2007 dance competition.

- The invited countries themselves choose the dancers who will represent them in the competition. However, we insisted that all dancers be approved by the International Dance and Sport Federation, because we want to be sure of their qualifications. We want the first Eurovision Dance Contest to reflect the best in contemporary ballroom dancing in Europe. And one more of the conditions for participation in the competition: the participating countries are required to name two TV broadcasters in their country in advance. At the same time, one of them must be an expert in the field of ballroom dancing, able to explain to the audience the technique and style of dance. The second presenter should be a popular television personality that can emphasize the spectacular nature of what is happening on the screen.

— Why London was chosen to host the contest?

— An offer to Eurovision to host a ballroom dance contest came from two British companies — Splash Media and Sunset and Vine, which host the very popular dance contest Strictly Come Dancing in Britain. Together with the International Dance and Sports Federation, they developed the competition program. They also agreed to broadcast the competition with the BBC, which turned out to be a great idea. So the primary impulse came from Britain. In addition, Britain is the birthplace of many outstanding dancers, especially in the Latin American style. And professional ballroom dancing itself originated in this country.

The main favorite of the upcoming Eurovision 2007 dance competition, many experts consider the British couple of professional dancers Camilla Dallerup and Brendan Cole, multiple winners of international dance competitions.

In the organization of the Eurovision Dance Contest, the composition of participants is rather narrow compared to the song contest - 16 countries. Here's how Tal Barnea explains it:

- We decided to invite participants to the first dance competition ourselves - leave the choice of countries to ourselves. In doing so, we were guided by two considerations. The invitation of these countries should give the competition the necessary high professional level. And secondly, participating countries must be able to provide funding for the competition. So for the first competition, we selected 16 members of the European Broadcasting Union (Eurovision is an affiliated organization). In the future, we intend to expand the list of participants.

However, Tal Barnea is obviously disingenuous. The decision to make the contest closed, that is, to invite the participating countries ourselves, was probably caused by sharp criticism in Western European countries of the voting system at the Eurovision Song Contest. According to many European commentators, this voting system has turned the competition into political and nationalist games of several blocs of countries - primarily Eastern European, Balkan and Baltic. Judging by the countries that were invited by the organizers of the dance competition, they clearly wanted to avoid the formation of "geographical blocks". Critics of the Eurovision Song Contest believe that the current voting system allows viewers to ignore the quality of the performance and vote for blood, neighbors, or other non-musical considerations. The so-called "big four" - France, Germany, Britain, Spain, which accounts for the lion's share of funding for competitions, even putting up top-class singers and ensembles, invariably loses under the onslaught of "bloc" voting for mediocre, but "their own" participants. In Britain, voices are heard demanding, following the example of Italy, to refuse to participate in Eurovision. This problem was even discussed in the British Parliament, where MPs called for changing the voting system at Eurovision or not participating in its competition.

Photo of State TV and Radio Company "Rossiya"

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