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Folk Dance Federation of California, South, Inc.

What is Authenticity
in Folk Dance

By Dr. Anthony Shay, 1972

Dr. Anthony Shay


Over the past few years a growing concern for authenticity, especially among younger dancers, has given rise to many misunderstandings regarding what is "authentic" in dance and dance research. Often a folk dancer will go to Europe or Mexico to a village or town from which his or her favorite dance is supposed to have originated and returns disappointed because the inhabitants have either never seen or heard of the dance, or it is done in such a way as to be unrecognizable to the person who has learned it in the United States in a recreation or performing group. Their faith in the dance instructor becomes badly shaken and acrimonious questions and insinuations concerning the validity of the instructor's material are flung about.

How do these misunderstandings arise?

In order to answer this many-faceted question, we should first inquire into the nature of dance in its native setting.

Some basic concepts regarding how dances are conceived of in the native setting should be understood. The first point is that of the role of improvisation. A close scrutiny of dance in different societies all over the world will show that improvisation is an extremely widespread phenomenon. I would venture to state that improvisation is one of the most important elements in the traditional dances of most societies, particularly in dances preformed in non-ritual contexts. By improvisation in traditional dance (and all dance, including Classical European ballet, is traditional to its practitioners), I mean the phenomenon by which a person dances extemporized movements from within a definite framework characteristic of his or her specific tradition of dance movements. There is an implication that the person dancing has a more or less full knowledge of that movement repertoire in much the same way that a jazz musician has command of his instrument and musical idiom.

Dance can be likened to language. Each society, each ethnographic unit, each village, and even each individual has a limited vocabulary in his native language. There is a range of variation in size and use of this vocabulary or inventory of words that depends on the speaker's education, intelligence, and other factors. Dance may be conceived of as having a vocabulary or inventory of movements that are particular to each society, and the dancer draws appropriate ones from this inventory for a particular instance. Which movements he or she selects (and this may be conscious or unconscious) is cued by the type of dance, the music, and his or her emotional and psychological state, physical condition, etc., just as a speaker pulls from his inventory of words as necessity and will arise. Naturally, people who live in close proximity tend to speak similarly, but never exactly the same, and dance similarly, but never exactly alike. There is a variable here. The values of some societies are such that moving alike in the dance as nearly as possible is a positive value. Such dance forms as Classical European ballet, Cambodian Court dances, or Pueblo Indian dances performed during ritual events are examples of this. In other societies an opposite picture obtains:

In a Samoan dance, the whole usual order of society is reversed, the individual is important, and no two individuals are conceived as dancing alike. Every dance is believed to be idio-syncratic within a series of known patterns, and uniformity or mimicry of others; styles are never recognized. (Meae, Margaret, "The Samoans," in Vayda, A., ed. Peoples and Cultures of the Pacific. P. 273. New York, Natural History Press, 1968.)

In dances such as those employing ZAPATEADO figures in Mexico, U ŠEST KORAKA in Serbia, Banat dances, crouching movements in Russian and Ukrainian dances, RĂČENICAS from Bulgaria, and polkas from many countries, we find a few examples known to most folk dancers in which improvisation by especially fine dancers in new and inventive ways, within that traditional framework, is culturally valued.

In those societies in which individuality may be stressed in dance, each dancer, pulling from a culturally-valued set of movements (that is, movements that are considered right and beautiful in the native environment), orders the movements in his own individual way; that is, he improvises. This is so natural to him that he does it almost unconsciously. Again, it should be stressed that improvisation permeates most dance traditions beyond the imagination of most American fok dancers.

What does this mean to the person in the United States involved in folk dance?

It means that in order to dance like a native, he would have to have the same entire movement inventory at his command and conceive of it and use it in the same way the native dancer does, and then he would be able to improvise in a similar way. But to be AUTHENTIC, he could not exactly copy the conditions in which dances are usually learned in the United States. Also, because most groups have dances from many different ethnic groups in their programs, and each dance tradition has its own specific inventory, a folk dancer would have to command 15 to 20 movement vocabularies. This would be equivalent to learning 15 to 20 languages well enough to speak like a native. In addition, because movement is a culturally determined phenomenon, the native people move in non-dance activities as well, such as normal walking, specific work movements, and gestures accompanying conversation.

A second point to be understood is that of cultural change. In a society in which the traditional dances are still viable and are part of a living tradition, and not a relic or fossil, as is the case with much of the dance found in Western Europe, change is a continual process, and it matches the changes of taste and philosophy of the native person. This means dance changes – old ones fade, new dances or movements are adopted, etc. Change is a phenomenon of all human cultural systems and dance is no exception. The rate of change is variable and in each society at each point in history.

The dance instructor (and for the purposes of this article I mean the person who originates, introduces, composes, or arranges a dance) generally realizes that an entire movement inventory cannot be taught to a large group on short-term basis and that change is inevitable. There are several approaches open to the dance instructor, the result of which we may find in the programs and repertories of most of the recreational and performance groups in the United States today.

The first category or source of folk dance done today is national character dance. In the 17th and 18th centuries, there developed a branch of ballet to teach and train in non-classical movements and styles and it was called character dance. In the 19th and 20th centures, there developed a very Rousseau-like nostalgia for the village life (as seen by the Romantic period intelligentsia), and this was reflected in classical ballet and music. In ballet, this took the form of glorifying the peasant dance and music forms. What was created by the ballet master was national character dances INSPIRED by folk form. There was never any intent on the part of those who created these dances to recreate or in any way reproduce the dances as they were performed in their native environment, but rather to give the Romantic ideal of happy, robust, hearty, sexless, clean-cut, eternally singing and dancing peasantry as found in SONG OF NORWAY and Viennese operaettas. The "folk" dances of SWAN LAKE and COPELIA present vivid examples of character dance. In fact, the authentic peasant dances would have been revolting to the aesthetic sensibilities of that time, just as knowledge of the actual life of a villager would have been unpleasant to contemplate by the urban elite. But character dance is the origin of several selections from every recreational dance program. A JÁ ZO ŠARIŠA, VOROS BORT ITTAM (In My Garden), and VO SADU are only a few examples of dances that have never been seen in any village.

A second group of dances derives from revived, reconstituted, or created-in-the-manner-of dances long dead. These are generally ground out as a result of strong patriotic emotions, and they are created within the choreographer's frame of reference to look and feel like he thinks the "pure" folk ought to dance.

Germany was the scene of such a revival in the 1930s and such old favorites as KREUZ KOENIG and DAS FENSTER are products of such a choreographic mill and were performed by clubs and organizations devoted to returning true German values. Israel is the scene of such "folk" dance production today.

The third category are dances made up to popular or appealing pieces of music. New square dances, round dances, mixers, and more recently some of the line dances from Yugoslavia, Armenia, Israel, and Romania fall into this category. These dances are tailored by the instructor to satisfy folk dancers' taste, as the instructor conceives it. MISERLOU, ZAJKO KOKORAJKO, HOT CHEESE, PATA PATA, and JERUSALEM OF GOLD will give a mere taste of a truly long list of such dances.

The last category is one that is being increasingly adopted by responsible instructors. From a range of movements, figures, and steps that are possible, the teacher selects and combines those that are typical and fitting, and, most importantly, are culturally valued in the native environment. It is this last approach that is the most "authentic" in that a serious effort is made to move as closely in the native manner as possible. This approach, too, is a compromise. The dance becomes standardized in the United States while it changes or is dropped from its native setting. American folk dancers further change it, but for dealing with large groups of people in short time spans, with records that last from three to five minutes, it is possibly the only practical approach for teaching.

The point of this article is not to criticize specific dances or types of dances or their sources, but rather to clarify those sources. The perspective of each folk dancer is different and he or she may like dances from one or all of these categories, but the dancer has the right to know the source of the dance if he is interested. What should be done on the part of the instructor, is to state to the best of his or her knowledge, where the dance is from, and how it was acquired. Each instructor owes to his learners to tell them this information so that no possibility for misunderstanding exists. An instructor should never be so ashamed of the source of his or her material that it cannot be honestly divulged.

Used with permission of the author.
From Viltis Magazine, November, 1972
V. F. Beliajus, Editor.