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Folk Dance Federation of California, South, Inc.

Decline and Resurrection
of Recreational International Folk Dance (RIFD)

Compiled by Dick Oakes, 2023

Dick Oakes 2007


Why the Decline in Recreational International Folk Dance?

Down Arrow It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Recreational International Folk Dance is in a decline. The debate comes in as to whether it is dying or just in a natural trough and in whether the cause lies in the inevitable rise and fall of dance popularities or in the behavior of the participants.

Song Chang Song Chang said in 1948 that if the movement is to succeed in the right channel, we would have to make it easier for people to join and stay in folk dancing. The general impression today is that prospective folk dancers are afraid even to come in and try to learn to dance. Curiously enough, dancing itself has been one of the may barriers. Many who have come in have been finding it difficult to keep up due to the too large repertoire of dances. The whole scheme challenges their courage, abilities, stamina, and patience. They feel thay have been burdened with the problem of forever learning. How then should we keep from getting discouraged to a point of quitting?

Sarah Gertrude Knott Sarah Gerturde Knott mourned in 1955 that there's not a state in the Union where folk songs, dances, legends, and other folklore of the inherited kinds are not passing. A new way of life is sounding the death knell in spite of the widespread interest in the newly learned, standardized folk dances and songs recently taken from books. Those who look beneath the surface can see the influence of three kinds of present-day teachers. All are important, but we believe that one is more important then the other two as far as the future is concerned. These three kinds of teachers are:

Graham Hempel Graham Hempel said in 1988, "I see the graying of folk dance clubs. The median age is getting older and older and I am fearful folk dance is dying out. In this 'ME generation', all the folk art forms are falling by the wayside."

Sanna Longden Sanna Longden states that there has been a big decline in RIFD in general all over the world – it is a subject that all endlessly debate.

RIFD groups are having a tough time surviving in the 1990s. If these grass roots organizations wither and die, the health of our performing ensembles, international festivals, academic programs, regional camps, and ethnic workshops is also endangered: Recreational dancers are the audience, the participators, the target market, the membership – the foundation – of most other folk dance activities.

A basic reason for the decline in interest and attendance is that many recreational groups have continued to carry on in the same ways they did during the golden years of folk dance, in spite of changes in society and people's leisure needs. Most other social dance forms are a better fit for our contemporary culture, particularly for younger people – quickly learned patterns, familiar rhythms, do-you-own-thing choreographies, continuous partner changing, and often great live music. The idea of working for weeks to learn a seven-part, uneven-meter Balkan dance choreography done to a scratchy recording does not attract people who just want to do some dancing, especially if the only part of another person they get to hold is the belt!

It is clear that change is necessary if recreational groups are going to regain any vitality.

Nelda Drury Nelda Drury implicates the loss of college folk dance courses resulting from budget cuts. Without that influx of young people, the recreational International Folk Dance movement is aging, repelling yet more young people.

Lou Pechi Lou Pechi notes that some folk dance teachers and choreographers in order to make dances interesting and challenging, keep adding different step patterns into a single dance. One or two patterns to a dance are okay, but six or seven? Who can remember them all, let alone the order they are supposed to be executed. Unless there is a leader, who calls out the required pattern; Lou can handle no more than two step patterns per dance.

Richard Duree Richard Duree says no wonder RIFD has lost its bloom. It aged without maturing. It placed quantity ahead of quality. It placed choreography ahead of ethnology. It placed memorization ahead of technique. It placed regurgitation ahead of improvisation.

Barry Glass Barry Glass says that when he started RIFD, one could look at the repertoire of international dances and reasonably hope to have the majority under control within a year. Then came the many years of professional teachers who were pushed to create new dances by the score to satisfy the guidelines of various festivals, clubs, and especially folk dance camps. A fallout of this process is to have created a vast repertoire of dances where only a computer can retain them all. "If I came to visit a folk dance club as a beginner today, I would last two seconds before I left the 'hostile' environment for the relaxation and fun of the contra dance."

Laurie Allen Wolf 2019 Laurie Allen Wolf 2019 Mitch and Laurie Allen in 1984 say pinpointing the problem is not difficult. There are fewer people dancing now than there were a decade ago. They are older – many will soon be too old or ill to actively participate. The only existing structure in Southern California, the Folk Dance Federation of California South, includes less than half of the people who actually folk dance on a regular basis. Many dance clubs, classes, or groups are isolated from the general folk dance community. Folk dancing is a remarkably poor activity, with no cash reserves for improving equipment or purchase equipment, records, publicity, costumes, or a permanent home.

As an activity of primarily volunteers, there is a dearth of manpower to keep the activity growing. Even the few who try to make a living at it need to work elsewhere to supplement their income. There is an absence of new blood, particularly young new blood, to re-infuse the movement. Folk dancing is turning into a dinosaur.

Ron Houston Ron Houston said that in the late 1970s folk dancing began a decline, splintering into movements such as Clog, Contra, Balkan, Scandi, Hungarian, Vintage, and others. Reasons abound:

  1. International folk dancing developed such a large and sophisticated repertoire that it broke under its own weight to satisfy the need in many dancers for personal excellence in smaller fields.
  2. Folk dancing preserves restrictive cultural values: "Why shouldn't women dance men's dances?" "Why shouldn't men wear dresses?"
  3. Burchenal, Farwell, Beliajus, the Hermans: the great leaders died, leaving good teachers but not great leaders in their place. Folk dancers, for the most part a timid but libidinous lot, seem to need strong moral examples to follow.
  4. Folk dance lacks musical relevance. With few exceptions, international folk dance music resembles music of the 1930s and before. For the increasing proportion of musical illiterates in our society, this era represents the domestication of the phonograph record; the "oldest" music to which they have access.
  5. The split between academia and ordinary folk dancers increases even as we speak. Proponents of Labanotation and other cryptic systems insist that mere words cannot describe dance, but ordinary folk dancers refuse to learn systems or even to read, now insisting on videos. Lost in the argument are crucial issues such as individual variation in dance performance and transcription and technological advances in the recording of moving images.
  6. In spite of Burchenal's warnings, promoters lure dancers from the floor to the stage via performance. "The true richness of folklore always runs the risk of being reduced to glossy banality whenever traditional forms are used in modern choreography."

All the above have validity but distill to a more fundamental cause of international folk dancing's decline: the shift from a humanitarian movement of outwardly-directed tolerance and understanding to a movement of inwardly-directed personal gratification. For example:

  1. National organizations meet, but they discuss revenue, rather than engage in dance.
  2. Local groups cover lack of research with the isolationist "We dance it differently in our village."
  3. Local leaders isolate their groups from the larger RIFD world, seeking to protect their share of the dwindling attendance.
  4. Local musicians strive to be more authentic than native musicians, an example of Umberto Eco's 'hyper-reality' (Travels in Hyperreality, 1986).
  5. Beginning dancers seek multiculturalism but find (and must join) cliques.
  6. Second-year dancers seek recognition on the stage.
  7. Third-year dancers seek recognition as teachers.
  8. Fourth-year dancers seek recognition as master teachers!

David Henry David Henry in 1997 revealed that the recreational International Folk Dance scene today is quite different from the scene of 40 years ago. Then, going folk dancing meant that you might do a Balkan dance followed by an Israeli dance followed by a Hungarian dance followed by a Scandinavian dance followed by a Contra. Today, such "international" groups have diminished in number, and part of the reason is that today we have specialized groups doing only Balkan, only Contra, only Hungarian, only Israeli, and only Scandinavian dances. That's great for those who love those kinds of dancing, but it's been terrible for the "international" dance scene.

Yves Moreau - 2016 Yves Moreau remembers that people are still in the stage of collecting dances. The first thing on their minds are to come and ask him, 'What are you going to teach?' And they only go to camp to bring back a hundred new dances. It's unfortunate. A lot of people are into this: everyone has their own little ego trips, because when people go home, they're the ones. People there don't know Yves Moreau; to them it's John Doe who's the expert. So many dances have been taught. Somebody doesn't even have time to digest the dances he's learned, and he finds himself at an institute with ANOTHER syllabus under his arm, trying to figure out twenty more. And I feel partly guilty, because when teaching a workshop, I'm adding more to the list. I think there's something like 6,000 dances that have been taught in North America. 6,000! including all the camps and workshops everywhere. How many do we know? and how many can we possibly keep? Unfortunately, a lot of dances have been taught strictly so teachers could make a living; they have to keep introducing new material.

Loui Tucker Loui Tucker relates that one drawback today that didn't exist 40-plus years ago is the age difference between the young people potentially joining existing adult dance groups and the age of the folks already in those groups. For example, when I joined at 21, there were plenty of other young people and the experienced dancers were in their 30s and 40s – a gap of 10 or 20 years. As it stands now, if a young dancer just out of college, who was used to dancing with dancers about the same age, wanders into an adult folk dance group, the age gap is going to be more like 30 to 50 years and there will be few if any other young people.

Here are Some More Reasons

Check List Reasons for the decline have generally included the following:

  1. Relocation out of the dance location
  2. Work demands
  3. Family demands
  4. Aging and physical decline
  5. Competition from specialty dance groups
  6. Other leisure activities
  7. Male to female ratio (or lack of dance partners)
  8. No real friends at dancing
  9. Hard to master an increasing, constantly changing repertoire.
  10. Rising costs of insurance.
  11. Rising lack of dance venues.


Chris Kermiet Chris Kermiet calls out to try to introduce every new person you meet to two of your friends. They'll soon know everyone. He also wishes that every dancer, just once during the evening, would make a special effort to dance with someone they've never danced with before. He always tries to get wallflowers involved. He goes on to say, "How will our community grow if we don't involve these new people?" He also asks are we coming just to swing with our favorite partners, or are we coming for the sense of community feeling, the natural high that comes from the combination of compelling music and graceful movement?

Jim Kahan Jim Kahn calls out to promote 'generic' dancing – simple basic dances that actually look and feel as if they were done by the 'folk'. These 'classic' dances have the advantage that they are easily done by the beginning dancer, but have room within themselves for the subtlety of style and movement that gives internal satisfaction to the experienced dancer. By promoting, I mean that these dances should be a part of the beginner teaching series, reinforced by inclusion as a significant part of any evening's dance program.

Sanna Longden Sanna Longden says it doesn't matter how hard we work to attract newcomers, keep regular dancers, and bring back old-timers if the dance evenings themselves are not fun. We try to make everyone happy, at least part of each night, by programming with an eye on the changing crowd, asking different people to lead, welcoming returning friends, remembering birthdays, encouraging those sitting out too long, and introducing out-of-towners. All this, of course, is in addition to pulling records and tapes, teaching and calling, even dancing. Fortunately, Mars and I enjoy this part of managing a group.

Reaching out to others, having their comfort take priority, is essential if recreational folk dancing is to thrive. Our activity can no longer afford the luxury of leaders who are socially uncomfortable or who use their groups as personal power bases. Those who are not at ease with the human part of group management might designate some friendly people to be their social committee. This personal attention helps create the community feeling that is one of the main reasons to support recreational folk dancing.

Laurie Allen Wolf 2019 Laurie Allen Wolf 2019 Mitch and Laurie Allen say that a prime task would be to focus on the media, attempt to place folk dance into the public consciousness, and generally inform the world as to what our activity has to offer. But that won't come without some changes in what we do. A monthly festival is nice, but not much of interest for the evening news. A big splash event would be different. Each year in Los Angeles there are several such events – Street Scene, Mask Festival, Cinco de Mayo celebrations – all of which entail a good deal of community involvement and which get substantial media coverage. No activity survives without the people involved donating money heavily to its success. And there is the money to support the activity if we can mobilize it. The same dancers who object to paying $3.00 at a coffeehouse will often take $3,000.00 tours to Romania and Yugoslavia, or spend $300.00 on a summer folk dance camp. If only a small fraction of the money spent on folk dance related activities went into a development fund, there would be ample money down the road to help build folk dancing. Bequeathals could also be an important source of future stability.

David Henry David Henry states that one way to nurture recreational International Folk Dance and folk music is to support the National Folk Organization. It has become a superlative network for folkdancers and musicians of every sort, and quite a few contributors to this site are already members.

Let me assure everyone that this IS NOT a plea to dumb down our specialized groups so that everyone who walks in the door can participate – brain surgery isn't for everyone. Nor is it a plea to limit ourselves to little cutsie Balkan dances – how you gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Skopje! But let's face it, dancing a 20-minute Pravo or doing anything in the presence of Zournades is, like doing brain surgery, an acquired taste. That taste has been developed by many of us in generalist groups.

Andrew Carnie 2019 Andrew Carnie says to avoid the words "folk dancing" at all costs. We use "international dance club." For some reason the term "folk dancing" has very negative associations for many people. One thing that seems to attract younger people is the possibliity of performance. If you tie participating in the recreational dancing to being an integral part of a performance troupe (but not vice versa, of course), it can really help. Couple and set dances tend to have fallen out of favor in most international folk dance (IFD) communities, but they really are a draw to the under-thirty crowd. Play the music two settings louder than you personally like it. It makes a big difference in the energy.

Ron Houston Ron Houston concludes that neither the removal of the Iron Curtain and resultant stampede of professional ethnic dance "masters" to America nor the resurgence of ethnic identities around the world have revived folk dancing in the face of self-centered dancers, teachers, and organizations. Friends, even the literal resurrections of Gulick, Burchenal, and Beliajus wouldn't revive folk dancing! It's up to you, and you alone.

Loui Tucker Loui Tucker wonders if we don't have doorways into our recreational International Folk Dance world, how can we expect to cultivate a new crop of dancers? I'm talking about dance classes designed specifically and exclusively for new dancers.

Teaching does not have to be a lifetime commitment. Find out if your local community center will let you teach an "Introduction to International Folk Dance" (or whatever fancy title you like) for 90 minutes a week for 8 weeks. Just 8 evenings out of your life could bring enthusiastic new dancers to our dance halls. See how it goes. If your class is a success and you enjoy doing it, then you can think about the long term.

Can you be a teacher for a new crop of beginning dancers? Can you set aside your passion for 5-part Bulgarian kopanicas for eight evenings, and instead channel your passion into teaching basic dances like Zemer Atik and Alunelul and Makedonka and Cumberland Square to some novices?

Some of the teachers teaching today were encouraged by their fellow dancers. "You're a good dancer and you'd be a great teacher! Why don't you start a class? If you do, we will come dance with you." If you can't take on the responsibility yourself, look around you and see if there is someone in your dance class who'd be a good candidate – and encourage THEM.

Don't Give Up

IFDC Challenges Declinging Numbers The IFDC of Toronto tells about one of the first ideas to be implemented was a Facebook page. They created an IFDC Meetup Group and an online social networking site that advertises many different groups of diverse interests, and encourages people to join a group's activities. The attendance has trended from what was averaging six to eight people per night in the previous winter and spring to upwards of twenty people, many of them new dancers of varying ages.

The advice of Loui Tucker, a United States teacher who's had success in rehabilitating folk dance groups and who shares her experience freely, is to use a multi-pronged approach and keep the efforts ongoing. They intend to follow her advice.

Jan Rayman Jan Rayman comments: I enter our group in many different online listings, so, when it was suggested we join Meetup, I quickly set up a Meetup site before dashing off on a short ski vacation. When I returned, to my thrill and horror, I discovered we had 32 Meetup members, all new people! We were not prepared for this. To make things worse, because I had explicitly stated that people did not need to RSVP, our group did not know how many people to expect that night. Was it going to be 2 or 32? I alerted our group, we brought extra food, and hoped for the best. Only two new people showed up. The next week, much to our surprise, we had about eight new people, all beginners, so our teacher altered his teaching plans on the spot to accommodate them.

Preston Ashbourne Preston Ashbourne, In 1994, and his "Revitalization Committee" that included Steve Davis, Richard Duree, Ted Martin, Richard Unciano, and Marvin Smith, produced a report on reviving of folk dancing for the Folk Dance Federation of California, South, Inc. It can have import for any folk dance organization or even folk dance groups.

Austin International Folk Dancers logo Austin International Folk Dancers membership dropped in the late 1960s from up to 100 dancers to 25 in 2007. In 2012, these are some of the things the group's board has suggested as a way to increase attendance:

  1. Incorporate more sociable couple dances into the repertoire.
  2. Incorporate more live music into the dance evenings.
  3. Greet new attendees and visit with them.
  4. Encourage veteran dancers, especially "couch potatoes," to get up and dance.
  5. Encourage suitable experienced dancers to ask new women or men to dance.
  6. Help new dancers learn dances to accelerate their inclusion as regular members.
  7. Encourage newcomers to do the beginning and intermediate dances.
  8. Be a programmer and do dances that encourage participation.
  9. Have only one or two requests per dancer so that one person doesn't hog the list.
  10. Request dances to be played that most of the people present can do.
  11. Organize more non-dance activities such as after parties.
  12. Encourage new attendees to come to these events.
  13. Attend those events and build personal relationships with new attendees.
  14. Call persons who haven't been attending regularly to find out why.
  15. Ask what the group could do for non-attendees to resume attending regularly.
  16. Contact newcomers regularly and encourage them to come again.
  17. Plan special events around holidays or ethnicity or anything else.
  18. Have folk dance instruction from acknowledged local or imported instructors.
  19. Have live music by local folk dance musicians.
  20. Establish a monthly theme to highlight a particular ethnicity or country.
  21. Have specialty food parties, such as, chocolate, desserts, or an ethnic theme.
  22. Teach dances introduced in prior years at a Golden Oldies party.
  23. Be aware of how many people are not dancing and try to minimize that number.
  24. Have a list of "sure-fire winners" to play.
  25. If special guests are present, play a dance that they enjoy watching or dancing.
  26. Every dance played doesn't have to be on the request list.
  27. Be creative and include your own "requests" to maintain the energy level.
  28. Celebrate a holiday, anniversary, or other special day.
  29. Feature a theme, such as, a particular country or type of dance.
  30. Ensure that teaching of all easier dances focuses on basic steps.
  31. Be very selective on which dances are taught – do they reinforce the repertoire?
  32. Have dances taught for three consecutive weeks to ensure people learn it well.
  33. Ensure that dances taught are played for several weeks after teaching.
  34. Use "watch, then follow me" walkthroughs of 1 to 2 minutes with minimal question and answer period.
  35. Schedule the last meeting of the month as a non-teaching night and with a special theme to maximize dance time for everyone and to provide a break from teaching.

Question Mark Don't give up simply because folk dance attendance is down. It will pick up again when young folks tire of their other recreational, dance, and music outlets and find recreational international dancing once more. We need to develop our dance leaders even more than we develop our teachers. The recreational international dance leadership must consciously promote 'generic' dancing – simple basic dances that actually look and feel as if they were done by the folk – the classics. Our future leaders are the ones who are going to be instrumental in the comeback of recreational International Dance.
–Dick Oakes

Used with permission of the author.