Folk Dancing's Third Dimension
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WHY DO PEOPLE DANCE THE WAY THEY DO?
Folk dancers have benefited from the dance in more ways then we can know.
The physical exercise alone has enhanced and preserved our health and active life style far beyond that of the vast majority of the population. It is no longer unusual to have active members well into their 80s in our midst, hale, hearty, and happy.
The dance has created and inspired an appreciation for artistic and cultural concerns in a way few activities can. Our fellow dancers have a kinder and more understanding view of cultures which are viewed with mistrust and even contempt by less enlightened folk. We have been blessed with a view of of the true heritage of cultures behind the posturing of politicians and aristocrats. We travel. We study. We appreciate. We learn.
To give the dance the true depth of understanding it deserves, we need to learn to view the dance as a messenger with a story to tell. That story is about the question, "Why do people dance the way they do?" This question, and the quest to answer it, will be folk dancing's greatest gift.
Folk/ethnic dance exists for one basic reason, and hundreds of directly related ones: It fulfills or satisfies the aesthetic needs and standards of its creators. If those social urges that foster the dance are removed, the dance declines and disappears. Only those of us who love it solely as an art form are committed to saving it.
What are those aesthetic forces that shape the dance? Why does the dance of Telemark in Norway differ so profoundly from that of Seville in Spain? Or from Radomir in Bulgaria? For that matter, why does the dance of Radomir in Šop differ so much from that of Novo Zagorsko, just miles away in Thrace?
In Transylvania, why do Romanians delight in nurturing highly complex syncopations in their dance, while Hungarians living in the next village are perfectly happy with dance rhythms in 4/4 meter? Why are the Hungarian men's dances competitive, while the Romanians dance together as one?
Why do some Balkan chain dances circle clockwise, while others go counterclockwise? (It's been offered that one of them follows the direction of the sun across the sky.)
These are questions that learned ethnologists in many countries spend their entire lives happily exploring for answers. They are questions that gives this dance more educational value than any other. They are questions that can teach us to "read" the story the dance tells us of people with whom few of us will ever meet.
Let's explore some of the possible answers to "why people dance the way they do."
The people's response to the land which they inhabit, particularly in non-technical cultures, determines many things: how they dress, form of shelter, diet, their concept of the horizon. Mountain dwellers have a more stationary and vertical concept of the world than do those riding freely across the steppes.
Observation: Poland's Gorale people in the Tatra Mountains dance in place with rapid footwork, displaying prized leg strength and stamina; while the people of nearby Karkow have developed the rapidly-moving Krakowiak that mimics the view of the horsemen.
How people feed and shelter themselves is determined by what is available to them. To the nomad, mountains are a barrier to be crossed in search of open grazing land for their herds of animals. Those who live in mountains are more likely to be loggers or miners.
Norwegian winters are not like Spanish winters. Weather changes much more slowly in Scandinavia than in Iberia.
Observation: Could the slow change from winter to summer have some bearing on the typical calm of the Norwegians and Swedes, while the radical difference in day and night temperatures in Spain effect the mood changes of the "hot-tempered" Spaniard?
CLOTHING AND FOOTWEAR
It's a rare horse culture that does not use boots. Heavy boots. Being around horses can be hazardous to one's feet and lower leg. Heavy boots are not the best footwear for climbing mountain paths where a sure step is necessary to prevent injury or worse. Stamps and heel-beats are a natural in boots; not so in a lightweight moccasin (such as opanke) that permit rapid and flexible steps and gestures. The width and length of women's skirts will effect how they will be used in the dance; either left alone or standing straight out in a spin or used to create beautiful images and gestures.
FOREIGN OCCUPATION AND CULTURAL FUSION
The world is populated by cultures that have dominated or been dominated by others, usually through armed conquest. Dominant cultures impose their values upon the vanquished, frequently attempting to erase their language and culture. People whose behavior is controlled by an unkind conqueror over many generations will tend to tread quietly and carefully; those accustomed to imposing themselves on less aggressive folk will dance with greater force and bravado.
Observation: The Macedonian Lesnoto Oro gently tests the ground as it shifts weight; the Ukrainian Hopak does not, rather, it displays a confidence and ageressiveness born of generations of hard-riding warfare.
This could go on forever, but hopefully, this gives us an indication of what and how we can learn from the dance. What does U Šest Koraka tell us about the Serbs? Or the Verbunk the Hungarians? Can we discern the relationship between the sexes in Sevillanas and Hambo?
What might the almost total absence of couple dances in the Balkans tell us about their history? That the Muslim values of 500 years of Ottoman Empire might have prevented the influence of the Renaissance of western Europe? That the chain dance form predates that of dancing with a partner? Let your curiosity run wild!
This is what dance ethnology is about the quest for answers. You don't need all the answers; you just need to ask the questions. The question, after all, is more important than the answer.
Used with permission of the author.
Printed in Folk Dance Scene, June 2002.