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Dick Crum Folk Dance Federation of California, South, Inc.

Folk Dance Categories and Their Problems
By Dick Crum


It isn't very often that you are able to follow along with the traditions that go through history. About a month ago, however, I felt very proud of myself one morning. I have followed the tradition that was begun by Coleridge, I think it was Coleridge or Khubla Khan, who woke up at three in the morning after this nightmare, and quickly jotted the whole poem down, went back to bed and when he woke up the next morning, there it was, this masterpiece that we all read in college and high school literature books. Then, following in his footsteps twenty years later, they tell the anecdote about the woman who woke up at two o'clock in the morning and wrote what she felt at the time she was writing was certainly to have been the love poem to end all love poems. She woke up the next morning and hurried over to the desk to see what she had written, what great Coleridgesque production had come out of this, and there on this little piece of scrap paper was written, "Down the gorge with George."

Well, something in a sense like this happened to me and I said, "That's it, that's it, that's the whole secret to all." Two months ago I woke up at two in the morning. I got up, I lived right near the Tamburitzans office, and I ran in and opened the door, sat down, and typed three pages, single-spaced, on this world-shaking subject. Then I went back to bed and later woke up, the way we used to do on Christmas morning you know, and went out to see what I had written. Well, there was just a bunch of mish-mash. It held less meaning for me at the time than you can possibly imagine. But there was one little thread of thought which I came to the conclusion was what had prompted the whole thing, and this is a point which I must confess bothers me at least once a day, when I'm in a folk dance situation, or folklore situation, or a folk music situation, or a recreational folk situation, or these things that we're always getting ourselves into every year.

And this is the point that I can't put into a few words. I think that the closest thing that I could possibly come to would be to say that it has to do with our consciousness here as folk dancers, people involved in folklore, and folk dance, whether it be for recreation or whether it be for stage; whether it be for any of the other innumerable uses that we use folklore, in that often times we get too far away from realizing that these things are not specifically American productions. In other words, that Europe exists. There's dirt in Europe, there are trees in Europe, there are lakes in Europe, there are people in Europe, and there have been for many years.

They dance and they sing and they speak all those languages. They have great artists and music. And I think the way to bring this whole point down to a simple example would be this: Think to yourself, for example, when someone says, "Well now, this next dance is going to be a German dance," if you were to take a word-association test right now, and someone said that the next dance was going to be a German dance, what would your first reaction be? Some people would immediately think of Hofbräuhaus with a stein or two somewhere. Others would immediately think of those castles that they had seen in Bavaria, or pictures of them. But I've come to the conclusion that a lot of us, and I may be wrong, don't realize the flesh and blood bond that actually exists between Europe and the United States when we do these dances. Why do I think this? Well, that is a rather rhetorical question that I will now proceed to answer.

I think our leaders themselves, and I don't think I'm going out on a limb here, have to do a little self-examination into backgrounds on these dances – and I'm talking about Europe now. I'm not going to try to cover the whole world in just twenty-five minutes. I think there's a lack on the part of our leaders, not an intentional one, in really identifying and feeling what these dances mean, or meant, to the people who originated them. This has many results. For example, you can do a program, an hour of folk dancing, and never once think of what really produced this dancing. Where is this dance from? People say, well, this is a Yugoslav dance, and as every incoming freshman class in the Duquesne University Tamburitzans prove to me each year, nobody ever stops to think where Yugoslavia is and I'll bet there's a good fifty percent of people who are interested in Kolos who couldn't describe the countries that are around Yugoslavia. But, more than geography, that there are a couple of very important abstract things that I think – I'm convinced – lie at the bottom of these so-called little dissensions among the leaders that prompt this austere word authenticity that we banter around, and that accounts for a multitude of sins.

I would like to, today, very briefly, take a look at a map of Europe and share with you some of the things, that I realized on these three trips that I was fortunate enough to make to Europe, in the manner in which the folk dance movement differs there and here. I find that in most cases, people are very surprised at the actual differences that do exist. Now in Europe, take the word "Folkdance;" you have to be very careful when you use it, because it doesn't mean the same thing as it means here. Just as when you say "bread," it doesn't mean the same thing to an American as it does to a European.

I would like to categorize folk dancing in four different ways, in the way it's approached in Europe, and if you'll pay close attention to me, I think I can give some ideas that might give you some thought. They sure provoked plenty of thought in me. And the way I'd like to categorize this is the level at which people dance in Europe and I made an arbitrary selection of these four categories.


The first category is what I have termed (just for today – this is not going down into history as a term) the "original village peasant dances." These dances are the anonymous and spontaneous creation of the people. They're the ones you read about but very seldom see. They are the ones that express the heroism, that express the longings, that express the topographical character of the country. They're the dances that are, for the most part, very simple, or if not very simple, are complicated for very specific reasons that can be easily interpreted in the psychological set-up, the national character that everyone talks about. These are the dances that you go to the village and see done spontaneously without a leader, without records, without a syllabus, under one of the trees on a Sunday afternoon. The people have danced it since they were young and don't remember when they learned it, who taught it, and don't care, and don't know how many steps they are doing. They just do it, and so beautifully, and we go over there and spend two days trying to learn it and can't.


The second classification – we're going up now and heading toward formality – are the "dances of the formal village group." This is a new phenomenon for many countries in Europe, but an old one in others and here is why I want you to really think about the dances you know and see if this doesn't describe a lot of them. There began in Europe as far back, well as far back as 1850 in many of the countries, especially the northern countries of Europe, a movement based on a feeling of nationalism among these countries to formalize these dances, and people went out into, say, the Ziller Valley and watched people doing the Ländler that is so familiar over there in Zillertal. People were doing various figures that no one was doing outside the valley or if they did similar figures they did them in a different way. And there was a given time somewhere between 1850 and now when Zillertaller Ländler was danced, that all these specific steps were put together into a sort of set sequence and the people of the Zillertal began to do this at various programs throughout the year which had patriotic significance, and this dance then became sort of solidified. It was no longer a dance the first category mentioned. It was no longer the village dance that somebody would do without a syllabus, and without a director, and didn't have to practice. Now it had already been set in a pattern, and this dance has come down to you, today. Of course, a hundred years do a lot of things to these dances, but they have been fixed. In other countries, nobody ever thought to standardizing any of these dances until as much as maybe ten years ago [1948]. Some didn't get started until after World War II taking all these village dances with all their improvisation and so forth, and putting them into a set pattern. When I refer to these "formal dance groups," they are those dance groups formed in a village where a conscious attempt was made to take all these basic dances done in a village and do them in one way, so that they would be good for exhibition by the village folk.


The third category is the "stylized type dances," and these dances are the type, well, for those of you who saw Moiseyev, I think that would be the best example of this stylized business, wherein the actual footwork is not considered. In other words, the wole character of the people, the style of their music, their costuming, and so forth, is presented in a way that is lifted onto sort of an international basis in accordance with world-wide taste. In other words, they do not "photograph" the dance, as Moiseyev says, but they present movements, moods, music, and these things, in a way which is unmistakably belonging to this natonality, although the dance was never done that way in any village. These three main categories you find all over Europe.


Now what happens in the United States? Well, various research people go over to Europe, or many people during the past fifty years have come over to the United States, and bring dances of all three categories. Some people have brought over the dances of the village. An example of this I think of right now are the Banat orchestra people in New York City who do some of these things such as Veliko kolo and Malo kolo. Nothing has been done to these dances; they're done exactly as done in the village. Other people have brought over these set dances, and we're very fortunate to get them, in which a lot of variations of dances from the villages were put together in a way that was adaptable and easily done, and such things as there are a lot of figure dances. I wouldn't want to try to go into all of them. And then, you have such dances as the stylized dances which we don't have too many of. We see Moiseyev. We see various ballet troupes interpreting dances such as various mazurkas, and so forth, that you see in the ballet. A lot of these dances come to the United States, they are all presented to the folk dancer and are called folk dances by us. Now, some of the problems that are involved here that people don't often realize, is what I think is very important. All three types of European dance are very important and are valid as art forms, each in their own particular category, but they get here and the general folk dance movement is not so much, really, interested in this and in most cases doesn't realize the background, and you can't, of course, expect a beginning folk dancer to read books on dance theory. So, in numerous occasions, we find that someone will say, "Well, that isn't the way it was done in the village." And you see that right away there is a little electric shock that goes between the two people engaged in that conversation, and the idea is, of course, that it isn't. It belongs to the second category. You can always say this the next time you get into one of these involvements, "Oh, that's a 'second category' dance."

By the way, just to make anybody that's in doubt feel a little bit better, I'm going to slip in an anecdote here.

When I was in Yugoslavia, in either 1952 or 1954, I was speaking with a Madame Maletić who is a very fine choreographer in Yugoslavia (Zagreb, Croatia). I was fortunate enough to be invited to her home. She was comparing notes about research she had done in the field.

She was telling me, "Yes, one time I went down to Kosmet-Metohija." This is one of the most primitive areas. Ajde Jano and some other dances Anatol Joukkowsky has introduced are from down that general area. Very rugged and primitive Albanian minorities live down there. And she said, "I was determined that I was going to be the first one to get down in there and get at this folklore." Well, she wasn't the first, but she did go down and she went to the most out-of-the-way places you can imagine. Somewhere up in the mountains she found a Romani tribe near the town of Priština. She was sitting around the campfire and there were spangles and they were hitting tambourines to impress her, I imagine.

All of a sudden, four girls got up an started to do the most wild Rom dance you can ever imagine or ever seen. She was captivated by it, and she said, "This I must take back to Zagreb with me, take the elements and stage it and present this beautiful pearl, this terrific moment." And she said, "I must learn this." And they said, "Oh, you couldn't, oh don't even mention it. You couldn't possibly learn it." She said, "No, I'm determined." Of course, they didn't realize her professional background for she certainly was capable of it. It was in one of these rhythms that we sometimes scare people with, one of these terrible things with 13/16 rhythm with a double hold on the 17th and 18th count, etcetera.

So she sat by candle light writing out a sketch of this thing. Here she practiced on it for a week, every day. The four girls did it surprisingly uniformly, but the figures! It would take, oh, it would take twelve pages in a syllabus. It was really great! She mastered it after a week! She was so naive, and proud, and genuine wonderful people had shown it to her. They said, "Oh you must do this for the whole crowd." Okay, so they were going to have what they called a farewell dinner in Serbian. They got out and the drummer started beating out the rhythm for her. The musicians started this intriguing melody, and she said she got up a little nervous. And she did it, and they applauded after she finished the sixth figure. The applause was so deafening that she really felt proud. She finished off the dance.

One old lady came up to her and said, "Oh, you do that dance better than Schéhérazade." Madame Maletić said, "Schéhérazade! Wow, there's something more here, this isolated mountain village here in Kosmet is familiar with the Arabian Nights. I wonder if . . . ." And she thought of all those people in Zagreb who would love to find some of these folk versions of the old Arabic tales. She inquired further, "Schéhérazade, what do you mean Schéhérazade?" It turned out that this Romani tribe had been living in this valley for a short time. Previous to then they had wandered around some of the larger towns and on one occasion they had all gone to see a Rita Hayworth movie that was in the town of Peć. It was shown with subtitles for those who wanted to read them and Rita Hayworth had done this Schéhérazde dance. I don't recall the movie myself [Salomé, "Dance of the Seven Veils"], but I have since talked with people who do. The women went and saw her dance this every time they showed the movie. They just thought she was the most magnificent dancer they had ever seen, and they imitated their version of the Rita Hayworth dance in this movie.

Well, the significance of this goes right back to what what I was saying before. Don't be too hasty to judge when a dance is, as all of us Serbs say, "Izvornos." It's the original, the real earthy, the real McCoy, you can't go any farther down, and so forth, and even such a great dance person as Madame Molytić is admitted to have gotten fouled up. You just can't do anything about such a thing. It was really a stylized dance that someone in California, probably in Hollywood, put together, one of the gentle Arabesque type things, got over to Peć, and an obscure Romani tribe was doing it.

As far as the way folk dances are handled or the way they're done right now in Europe, I really don't like to speak with great confidence or try to pretend to cover Europe. My experience is limited I admit, mostly to the Balkans, but I think there are a couple of interesting points that I can bring up in that regard. One of them is this business of style. I don't know how many of you have gone, although I'm sure that some of you old-timers here and some of the people who have done a great deal of research probably know much more about this than I do, but I think that maybe some of the average folk dancers would be interested in a few pointers. For example: If you talk about Europe, say from the Northern area, take in the British Isles, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Belgium, Netherlands, France, and Spain. All of these countries, excepting those who were predominantly under the Turkish or the Ottoman Empire, at a very early period way back as far as 1850 and some before, set their dances. They took typical figures that were done in a particular place and set them to music, much as Anatol Joukowsky has done with Bunjevačko Kolo, variations of the Slovenian Waltz (which I have put together), and this type of thing; setting dances goes on all the time.

This was done very early in Austria and all these Trachtenverein [costume clubs], and these Schuhplattler groups have been in existence in Austria with tight rules and regulations. Dave Rosenberg can tell you how they can't dance outside of a circle. Nobody knows when this circle was drawn and when these competitions started, but it has been going on for longer than any of us have been alive. There are fixed rules. If you want to do a Schuhplattler, there's somebody who knows the rule, how stiff your hand is, how you slap, and all this and that. The thing is more formalized up in Germany, Norway, and Sweden. Maybe you can think back, how many of these dances are developments of the quadrille, and so forth, that are very complicated and dances which are hard to believe that natives can all of a sudden get up on a Sunday afternoon and just jump into without proper training. Which is actually what has happened in your Northern European area. You have your Scottish exhibition dancing. Always a rule, always a rule someplace. If you want to find it, and it's there, it has the same discipline almost that ballet does. English dances, such as those done by Cecil Sharp, have now been set, and this is it. There's very little new stuff being found, because enough time has gone by that all these dances have now been set. These were the dances that were the earliest and the most important dances, the beginning of our own United States dance movement, and you only have to refer back to the old books. For example, Elizabeth Burchenal was the grand matron of folk dance publication. You take a look at the countries that were presented in her books or Mary Wood Hinman's, and some of these people. Predominantly the dances were from where there were rules, always rules.

What's happening since World War II is that dances have been coming from out of these other countries where there never were any rules, because nobody got there early enough to set them. I think particularly, naturally, of Yugoslavia where the first research in folk dance wasn't done until 1934. This is a surprising thing. It would be an interesting encyclopedia item, that if it weren't for the fact, if you stop and think about how many arguments – how many friendships are strained in the folk dance world between leaders and folk dancers over the question, "Well what's the right way?," and if you're speaking about a dance from Northern Europe you're most likely to find the right way than if you're doing a dance from Southern Europe where rules haven't been formulated yet. By this, I don't mean that you have carte blanche and can do anything, but there's a distinct difference between the dances of Southern Europe, where no formalism was ever introduced into the dances, and Northern Europe, where they say "Well, you'd better have your foot two inches away from the instep of the other one or else." This is a very important thing, I think, and maybe it doesn't appear that way to you now, but think about it for a while. How often controversies arrive in the folk dance world over what is correct or what isn't correct. And I think that a lot of that would be eased and a lot more tolerance would develop between leaders, dancers, publications, and everything else if they bore in mind the fact that these things are not >American products, these things are over there in Europe and there are lots of different backgrounds behind every single dance. And if you realize the categorization, how some of them are spontaneous type dances from the villages, others are formalized, or others are completely stylized, and if we take them for their face value for what they are, you can be much happier.

I remember a California woman who came to Yugoslavia last summer. I happened to have gotten there before her, and I was very happy to see her in Zagreb. The first question she asked me was, "Well, when's the next folk dance?" Well, now to us that sounds okay, that's a normal question, but that is really a very strange question pertaining to Europe because there isn't any over there in that sense of the word. Nobody, but nobody, dances folk dance like we do here, just nobody. What we term "recreation" means, instead of going bowling, we go folk dancing, or instead of going to the movies, we go folk dancing, or instead of watching television, we go folk dancing, or, in other words, this is our interpretation a lot of times of what we do with our leisure time. Well, over there, if you are talking about what they on a Sunday afternoon, after services in church, and so forth, spontaneous type of recreation, then yes, it is recreation. Because in the villages, even today you can find this type of recreational dance, but there are no syllabi, nobody's been teaching it, there's no person who knows more than anybody else. They're all there together and they think nothing of it. And there is no such thing there as a folk dance group that gets together a couple of times a month or once a week to dance. There is nothing like that.

The folk dance groups in that area, at least in the area with which I am most familiar, dance exclusively for exhibition. They would be closer to some of the exhibition groups that we have in our own country who meet to dance some regular choreography, to buy costumes and so forth, and to present these exhibition dances eventually for being viewed by other people. But to suggest that they get together on a Saturday night, and who's going to bring the records, and who's got a good public address system; you can't realize it. And I think that Alice Reisch can back me up on this and a lot of these points, because I know we were discussing it, how so different our recreational folk dance movement is here. First of all, they never dance to records over there. If anything, they have an orchestra, so this means that every time they want to get together, they have to have an orchestra. This isn't true now in Germany, they are coming out with, and are using, a lot of records. Secondly, they can't imagine doing the dances, the folk dances of their own country, without getting into their regional costumes. Somehow, this is such an inseparable part of it that they invision that if you were to do a Hambo, everyone would have to run and get their Swedish costumes and then run out, and then you'd put on your Gae Gordons, an you'd all run out an put on kilts, and then run back again. This is naturally exaggerated, but the idea does cross their minds.

Here's how the thing works. There's usually one or two people in any city who are engaged with the folklore institute and these people go out into the field – Alice Reisch did some of that work in Hungary, and Anatol Joukowsky did some of that – picking up these dances, and they will bring back whatever dances they have been able to pick up to film and tape, and they will then announce, "I have just returned from Pirot." And then the leaders from various groups will come, and learn these dances and then everyone rushes home and makes up his own choreography of the Pirot dances, and then begin exhibiting them. But for anyone to get together and do Pirot dances just for the fun of it? Never. I think you'll agree with me that they're losing a good bet, but on the other hand you can't criticize them for it because they've never known anything like this.

I'll never forget Jane Farwell's statement that when she was there in Germany and Switzerland, she had to teach them how to have a good time. I'm sure I am quoting her correctly; I was very impressed by the fact that she was running into that problem. They just don't know the meaning of folk dancing as a recreation in the city. People in the villages, of course, still do it.

May I just review a couple of points I wanted to get across? First of all, it's like a librarian that I once knew. She was a friend of our family and I remember we were talking one time and I asked her to tell me about working in the library. She said, "Well, the worst thing is when somebody calls you up on the phone and says, 'Hello! Hey, a buddy of mine and I have got a bet on and I'm wondering if nnah-nnah-nah'" He had some political questions about a revolution in Guatemala, so she went and looked it all up in detail all that she could find and she brought these books, and called him back and said that the date of that was 1907 or some such date, and she started to say that there was so much more information that she wanted to give him because she was that kind of person. "Oh, that was all I wanted to know," he said, and hung up. So later she realized that this was perhaps a little unwise of him and of herself also, because it wasn't long before she got another phone call from the other guy, saying, "Say, a buddy of mine and I, we had a bet, and this guy, he called you and you said this was so and I know darned well it isn't that way." And she said, "Well, actually I was going to tell him before he hung up that such and such was the case." I guess that it happened on December 31st or something, so he hung up and pretty soon these two guys were arguing, so she said, "Why don't you just come down and look at this, the books are here, the beautiful books at the library, and you could save a lot of these hard feelings, if you'd just come down and look at them." No, they kept up this argument through this poor woman who kept asking them why they didn't take the book out and read up on it. They were both right, they're both talking about the same thing, but they just didn't understand the background of the thing.

I think that is a pretty good comparison of a lot of things that happen in our folk dancing that needn't at all, because it's a matter of knowing lots morre about the individual dances than we do, and I am all for maybe babbling a little too long during an instruction session to set some of these dances in some of the people's minds so that to them it isn't just a bunch of footwork with a tag on it, such as, "German," which means nothing more to a lot of people than if you had "Del Monte" on a can, or another brand name. I think that is a big point that people are losing a lot of the specific feel of the various nationality dances. We, all of us, are guilty of that. We grind out our dances, we present our material in a rush in order to meet this demand that's always present, but I think that in the haste sometimes, we lose sight of the real importance knowing where these dances come from. It would not only avoid a lot of arguments, but you would develop a bit of tolerance and you don't worry so much about style points and so forth.

I hope I've been successful in getting a couple of these points across. I just want to say that this all stems from these three pages that I wrote that one night, that I'm not sure that I've found a wise way of looking at this, but I do know, and I'm confident that all of us as folk leaders and folk dancers should take into consideration more in our dancing. Instead of looking at these dances as numbers and mathematical formulas and groups of people making pretty figures on the floor, a little more consciousness of the background is essential.