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Folk Dance Federation of California, South, Inc.

Cultivating and Sustaining
Future Generations of
International Folk Dancers

Identifying Opportunities and Barriers
By Andrew Carnie and Paul Collins, 2024

Paul Collins Andrew Carnie


On July 8, 2023, at the Hybrid 2023 Door County Folk Festival, Andrew Carnie and Paul Collins led a discussion forum on the topic of "Cultivating and Sustaining Future Generations of International Folk Dancers." We started with a challenge to the attendees: "Given the undeniable aging demographic of the international folk dance (IFD)community, how do we pass on our passion to the next generation?"

The discussion began with the two of us discussing our own experiences transmitting dances to new generations. Paul has run a series of programs in the schools and with parks and recreation departments, including residency programs in schools to help students prepare for international festivals, multicultural fairs, and diversity days. Andrew (along with Nancy Bannister and Shirley Hauck) teaches a successful general education course in IFD at the University of Arizona that meets a breadth requirement in the arts for first-year students. Each semester has about 40 students, and students are encouraged to enroll in subsequent years as preceptors, where they are trained to teach dancing and lead dances.

After presenting our personal experiences, we split the audience into two groups: An online discussion group led by Andrew and an in-person group led by Paul. Each group was charged with identifying any issues not discussed in the presentation. They were also charged with identifying at least one major action item. We asked the audience to address three themes:

  1. Repertoire and Music;
  2. Recruitment, Cohorting, and Leadership development;
  3. Folk Dancing in Education Programs, including recreation programs, schools, and higher education.

What follows is a summary of the findings reported in Andrew and Paul's presentations and in the discussion that followed.

Theme 1: Repertoire and Music

One of the most important things to consider when trying to get younger dancers to participate is in choosing a repertoire appropriate to the community you are working with, and supporting that with musical accompaniment that is accessible.

It's extremely important to keep in mind that what has worked with your IFD group for the past 50 years may not be appropriate to younger beginning dancers. Obvious things such as age appropriateness, skill level, ethnic specialization, and energy level all have to be taken into account. This may not, however, align with your expectations based on your existing clubs. Andrew's evening recreational club (the Shala Folk Dance Club) caters to your typical community of people who range in age from midlife to seniors. The material that works for that community is often the slow and pretty stuff, and material with older familiar music from LPs. The repertoire that works with his university class is completely different. With that class, he can easily program two and a half hours of fast, energetic dances. The students in that class are capable of dancing full-steam for the entire time. They enjoy the adrenaline rush. Many international folk dancers gravitate to circle and line dances. The students, especially at the university level, actually seem to prefer couple dances, with a twist. Andrew doesn't teach them with traditional gender roles (which are seen with disfavor by many young progressives) and instead teaches the dances with the "Lark" and "Robin" terminology familiar from English and contra contexts. Students report in their end-of-semester evaluations that this was critical to their enjoyment in the class. Finally, one should be careful about rhythmic choices early on. Experienced dancers love the feel of Sandansko or Levendikos, but when working with new dancers, introducing those rhythms should be done gradually, after exposure to more familiar meters.

The discussion participants came up with a number of suggestions for choosing and evaluating repertoire:

The connection of the dance to great music is also an obvious factor in making the experience fun and addictive. One challenge many of us experienced dancers have is that we love our old recordings from LPs, cassettes, and 45s. They evoke happy memories and warm feelings, and we want to share that with new participants. But these recordings are not necessarily the best to use with new dancers.

Scratchy recordings can be off-putting. Instrumentation with zurnas may not be the best choice until the students become more acclimated to unusual rhythms and musical scales. So the careful choice of recordings can make a big difference in whether new dancers come back to do more.

The attendees at the workshop had some excellent suggestions for improving the accessibility of our musical choices:

Theme 2: Recruitment, cohorting, mentorship, and leadership development

One of the largest challenges to having a new generation of folk dancers is the recruitment of dancers into already well-established groups. When a community of dancers has been dancing together every week for 40 years, it is often hard for new people to join. They don't know the harder dances that everyone has done since time immemorial. Often, experienced dancers are unwilling to take time away from their own recreational dancing to teach these dances. We have observed many occasions when new dancers arrive at an established group and no accommodations are made for them. Or worse, experienced dancers complain about the amount of teaching being done, thus making the new dancer feel unwelcome. We have observed cases where new dancers come, they do one dance, sit out ten dances, then leave, never to be seen again. Then the members of these experienced groups are surprised that they never get any new dancers and the groups are shrinking. This is combined with the fact that not every young person is equipped or interested in doing intergenerational socializing. When they walk in and see a bunch of dancers with graying hair, they assume that they are not the target audience of the group – that IFD is something for their parents or grandparents. In many clubs, they would not be wrong about this assumption.

While not true of everyone, most younger dancers want to dance with people in their own age cohorts. One big challenge for IFD groups is creating cohorts and communities of younger dancers who can be transitioned into older IFD communities (or replace older IFD communities, in some cases). The solutions involve work and effort:

The transmission of dances to the next generation entails that we foster environments where new dance leaders and teachers can thrive. This also requires extra work. But the return on investment is high. Students who have completed Andrew's class are invited to return as preceptors, enrolling for extra units. These preceptors now teach about 50&37; of the class and lead nearly all circles and line dances. The brainstorming groups highlighted the following ideas:

Theme 3: Folk dancing in the schools and higher education

Schools, recreation programs, and higher education (universities and colleges) provide ready-made cohorts of potential dancers. So, we asked the question, "How do you connect with these organizations?" The first step is advocating for IFD in school and university physical education, music, and cultural curriculums. IFD can also supplement classes in history, sociology, literature, and languages. The curricula should use IFD as a tool to address other learning goals (e.g., teaching diversity and inclusion, teaching physicality and music appreciation, teaching world cultures, math, history, etc). Typically, this goes beyond teaching dances to connecting the dances to larger ideas.

We cannot expect teachers to know what IFD can do to enrich their existing curricula, so it is up to us to provide them with ready-made curricula that they can use. Often, these teachers and school administrators are already overwhelmed by the learning goals and outcomes that are imposed on them by school boards and state education requirements, so it's our responsibility to provide them with material that they can advocate for integrating into their school or district teaching curricula. These materials must be consistent with educational learning outcomes and standards of the relevant regulatory authority.

The same holds true of higher education. IFD classes are an excellent mechanism for integrating into the General Education curricula that are so common at the college level. IFD can be an avenue for teaching about the values of diversity, about cultural theory (e.g., notions of what it means to do cultural appropriation), about history and geography, about musicality and math. Many universities and colleges are now advocating for new styles of learning, and IFD provides an accessible way to integrate kinesthetic learning into the curriculum.

Among the ideas suggested by the workshop participants:

The workshop participants left the hour-long event feeling like they had only scratched the surface of these issues, so on their behalf we hope that this report will stimulate further discussion and action. The ideas proposed at this workshop come at the cost of our communities' time, and sometimes money. However, we expect that if we want our beloved IFD to continue well into the 21st century, these are the kinds of efforts that must be made.

Andrew and Paul are happy to share with anyone who wants to see our materials. Please email Andrew Carnie or Paul Collins.

This article first appeared in the May 2024 issue of the NFO News
by Andrew Carnie, Tucson, Arizona, and Paul Collins, Chicago, Illinois.
Used with permission of the authors and of NFO News.