Folk Dance Revival
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The following may be centered on the Los Angeles area and the Folk Dance Federation of California, South, Inc. in particular, but the ideas here have a much broader point of view for all recreational international folk dancing.
TACKLING A LONG-TERM PROBLEM
How would we "tackle the long-term problem" of keeping recreational folk dancing alive for the next ten or twenty years? Many of the ideas to follow may have been debated before. But because this is the ultimate question (if one assumes general agreement on the idea that folk dancing deserves to survive), we want to present a fremework that can be used as a starting point for future discussion.
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.
Where do we start to solve all these problems?
Let's start internally first and call the first part of the solution "networking." If one assumes there is strength and vitality in numbers, then any organization of folk dancers should include as much of the folk dance community as humanly possible. A true folk dance federation should include performing groups, college groups, ethnic groups centered at local churches, community centers, classes at the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), the high schools, the universities, specialty groups that practice only dances of a single nationality, coffeehouses, and as many related fringe groups as possible.
The folk dance community needs to open up to all of its adherents. Where do we find all these groups? Through local embassies, churches, schools, and YMCA catalogs. It is possible to do. Irwin Parnes has been digging out different community groups for his International Folk Dance Festival for almost forty years. The Olympics Organizing Committee identified groups from forty nations to march in the Opening Ceremonies 2,000 people who are active folk dancers based in Southern California, and most of whom have no idea that there is an international folk dance community. There are groups of people in Southern California that actively do clogging, square dance, Scottish country dance, belly dance, Polynesian dance, and Spanish dance. They need to be identified and contacted, all to widen the pool of people who folk dance and might be interested in sharing "the movement." A good example of how this an work is the organization of the folk dance community in San Diego, the International Dance Association of San Diego County, a unique non-profit organization supported by the San Diego Park and Recreation Department.
RESTRUCTURING THE FOLK DANCE FEDERATION
Having identified a large pool of people, we feel the next task would be "restructuring the Folk Dance Federation." The Federation is set up for international recreational clubs that meet once a week. Given the restrictive rules of the organization, it is unlikely to grow significantly. A different structure is required for a more-inclusive Federation. The emphasis needs to be on acceptance of diversity, flexibility, and outreach to related groups for the structure to succeed. While the current leadership of the Federation has evinced a strong commitment to these goals, no major changes will take place without the complete restructuring of the organization to include many of the groups listed above. This need not seriously affect the once-a-week international club that comprises most of the Federation now. In an expanded Federation they can still carry on as they always have as an autonomous sub-Federation, provided it is understood that their type of dancing is but a small part of the larger community.
All the talk about networking and building a much larger Federation means lots of work, work that is now done by a relatively small cadre of volunteers. How could we add any more work to the load? By hiring "professional management." A full-time or part-time director whose mission is the management of the folk dance community and who is responsible for its growth will solidify the organization and provide the people-power to do a good deal of the work. Where does the money come from to hire this person? Grants are awarded each year by the city, county, state, and Federal government for community-based organizations just like the Folk Dance Federation. Many grants are given annually just for the purpose of improving or creating management. Many of the groups that receive this money have not been active as long, are as large, or have as good a track record as the Federation does. Similarly, large private corporations (many of whom have folk dancers as employees or managers) can be approached for help in this area. Professionalizing folk dance operations can be begun with outside money and sustained in future years by the activities of the manager.
Where does this manager work? Another crying need is for a physical symbol of the folk dance community, a "building" that would house administrative offices and have rooms set up for local dance groups to use for their meetings, parties, or rehearsals. [Boulder Colorado has done just this they have a building called The Avalon that has a ballroom and several rooms for dancing and meetings. Ed.] It would also provide a regular location for folk dance activities, festivals, and a nexus of information on all kinds of folk dancing for dancers. This is another expense, a larger and more long-term one, but necessary for the movement's survival. Substantial fund raising will be required to sustain a folk dance center. But, with substantial renovation of an older building in the downtown area, a fixer-upper folk dance center could be found for a reasonable price.
Having built the necessary structure, the next step is to give it some visibility. Southern California, more than perhaps any other community, runs on "media exposure". 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.
A bigger, broader Federation would be an ideal instrument to put on such an event or take over cosponsorship of an existing one. With all the ethnic communities in Los Angeles participating, an ethnic festival of some sort sponsored by the folk dance community would attract a good deal of attention to other folk dance activities. The Culver City "Olympics Festival" that the Federation put on is a good example of the concept we propose. Other cities have citywide folk festivals such a Toronto, Chicago, and Milwaukee that happen annually. It would require an enormous amount of effort on the part of the folk dance community to put it on, but the results not only in media coverage, but in new folk dancers, community integration, and just general fun would be worth the effort.
This becomes the first element of another key to success, "outreach.' By going beyond the existing community of dancers, you make it larger. Crucial to success here are the schools. Many different avenues to our next generation exists through the school system. Many districts have volunteer programs for seniors that can be used to introduce folk dance. A performing arts high school has been developed for Los Angeles that should include ethnic dance as part of the curriculum. Rather than reserving folk dance camp scholarships for Federation members, perhaps several should be targeted for promising young people who are not exposed to the Federation to introduce them to folk dancing.
A similar form of encouragement could help support a couple of students in the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Dance Ethnology department. And, in another five to ten years, the people who grew up doing Balkan dance in the late 1960s, who are now starting families of their own, could introduce their kids to folk dance. After-school folk dance groups for these kids and their friends, run by parents who are experienced folk dancers, is the ideal way of training a new generation.
At least a dozen of Mitch's friends from Esther Pearlman's Interteens group of fifteen years ago still populate the folk dance landscape in Southern California and elsewhere. A dozen similar groups could provide a solid core of committed dancers in the 21st century.
A lot of this school activity won't happen though, without "advocacy." Everything from budgets to curricula are largely determined by who speaks with the loudest and most persistent voice. The folk dance community is a large one, loudness and persistence should pay off in getting dancing on the agenda of educators. After all, it is at least as fun an educational tool in teaching world culture. And the precedent is there. A host of groups perform in the schools each year. But they are generally simple shows and have no followup.
Advocacy is important also in the cultural arena. How much will the state spend on culture next year as opposed to agricultural subsidies? We can help influence that by our action.
Another key to success is you guessed it "money." No activity survives without the people involved donating heavily to its success. All the suggestions above will require cash a building, manager, publicist, lobbyist. 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 (as Frank Howe of Westwood Co-op did) could also be an important source of future stability. Not all the money needs to come from folk dancers either. Government agencies, private foundations, corporations, and private citizens give billions of dollars away each year. A development operation could help tap some of that into the folk dance community to help the movement grow.
With money should come another important ingredient, "sophistication." Why do younger folk go to Westwood discotheques rather than a folk dance coffeehouse? Part of it has to do with the quality of the sound system, lighting, floor, and decor. Why do other entertainment events get better coverage and better attendance than folk dance events? Part of it is due to the nature and quality of the public relations and advertising done by other organizations.
Note your own reaction to the mixed quality of advertisements in Folk Dance Scene, for example. Can you really say you look as closely and as favorably on a sloppily hand-written advertisement as to a slickly and attractively prepared one? If the two events were of equal interest to you, would you not be more likely to attend the "slick" one on the assumption that the skill in advertising would likely be matched by the quality of the event?
Sophistication in advertising, self promotion, fund raising, image building, all those are things that folk dancing needs desperately to counter the the frumpiness that the term "folk dancing" connotes. No youth movement will work without that sophistication.
The final piece of the puzzle is the hardest. In order for anything to succeed, it needs a group of "committed people" running it, a group willing to put in a substantial amount of work and invest a considerable part of themselves to making the organization, "the movement," the idea succeed. In this, folk dancing has been fortunate. The group of people who are extremely active in the Folk Dance Federation, many whom have been so for thirty years or more, have created and built an organization to be proud of. Their level of commitment to the group, and to the activity, has never flagged. They have taken it to the point where a new generation with equal commitment can take over to build folk dancing even further. And, it will take this new generation to pick up the ball now and show the same level of commitment that our predecessors did.
The signs of it are there. More and more Federation officers, committee chairpeople, etc. have come out of the thirty and forty year old age groups. Many of the dance activities taking place now are being initiated and sponsored by this cohort. That sense of commitment is everywhere, now it is just a matter of channeling it in away that benefits folk dancing.
THE FINAL WORD
So, as our "final word," we want to express our optimism that survival is possible, even likely, and that there are signs of a promising future ahead.
Used with permission of the authors.
Printed in Folk Dance Scene, October 1984.