Folk Dance

I. Introduction

Folk Dance, recreational or ceremonial dance performed usually by members of the community to which the dance is traditional. Varying criteria have been used to differentiate folk dance from other kinds of dance: For example, the dancers are said to belong to a certain economic level or come from certain locales; the steps are simple and repeated, so that any member of the community can participate; the dances require no audience; and they are passed down through many generations. Each of these criteria can be contradicted by dances that are indisputably folk dances, and in each of these criteria, folk dance overlaps with other kinds of dance.

II. The Dancers

Folk dance is sometimes defined as dance performed by agricultural peoples who live in close-knit communities–a definition that reflects the division of preindustrial Europe into a peasant class and an aristocracy. People in modern industrialized cities, however, participate regularly in what are called folk dances, which were brought to the city by immigrants from rural areas or, sometimes, from other nations. Although the dances of rural Europe are called folk dances, in Africa–which has no peasant-aristocracy division comparable to that of 18th-century Europe–rural dances that in function and complexity are comparable to European folk dances are instead often called tribal dances; confusingly and inconsistently, African traditional stories are often called folktales.

III. Spectators

Folk dance is usually viewed as being strictly for the pleasure of the participants, as not requiring an audience, and, despite the dancers' enjoyment, as often being of little interest to spectators. If participant pleasure is the only criterion, folk dance overlaps somewhat with much tribal dance and with modern social dance, for example, the waltz and the twist. Paradoxically, some traditional ritual and ceremonial dances, such as the English morris dance and the Romanian calusari, have for generations attracted local informal audiences. On the other hand, when a traditional recreational dance is performed onstage in a formal concert, its origin, steps, and patterns may be those of folk dance, but it has been removed from the context of folk culture.

IV. Level of Complexity

Folk dances are usually thought to be simple dances composed of repetitive, easy-to-learn steps. Many folk dances, however, are highly complex and may even be performed as solo virtuosic pieces, an example being the Highland fling of Scotland. Although folk dancing may be considered a nonprofessional activity, some people make their living by performing staged adaptations of folk dances.

V. Tradition

Folk dances are defined as being passed from generation to generation, with no known choreographer. Folk dances continue to be invented, however, and in many cases the composer of the dance is known; most Israeli folk dances, for example, were created in the 20th century. At the same time, the choreographers of popular social dances (such as the jitterbug) are usually anonymous; but because these dances remain popular only for a brief time and do not gradually become part of tradition, they are generally not considered folk dances (see also  Popular and Social Dance). The many forms of folk, popular, court, and theatrical dance, however, may be closely related. The waltz, for example, originated in Alpine folk dances, was popular for more than a century as an urban social dance, and persisted in folk tradition after its popularity had otherwise lapsed.

VI. Context

To clarify the contradictions that occur in defining folk dance, it is helpful to divide this body of dance into two major categories: folk dance in its first existence and folk dance in its second existence.

Folk dance in its first existence is an integral part of community activities. The dances are learned by individuals as they grow up in the society. Each dance is a living form that changes over time. Folk dance in its second existence refers to dances that have been removed from their original context. No longer performed as part of communal life, they are danced in other contexts, either for recreation (perhaps in folk dance clubs in cities or in foreign countries) or as stage adaptations to entertain an audience. Not learned by the dancers as they grow up, the dances must often be taught through formal instruction. At this point in their existence, they may cease to change or develop variations–unlike the folk dances that flourish within a community.

VII. Role in Society

As long as folk dances exist as an integral part of community life, they are sometimes linked to specific occasions, and they may be associated with specific groups of people.

A. Eligibility to Participate

Most folk dances are open to everyone in the community. In some dances, however, participation is limited by age, sex, skill, or status. Certain dances, for example, are meant only for children; dances of this category may overlap with games such as ring-around-a-rosy. Other dances may be reserved for older members of a community or for specific groups, such as unmarried girls, as in the Balinese rejang. Separate dances for men and women are common. Some dances may be limited to people who have attained given levels of social or ritual status. Dance clubs, fraternities, or secret societies–such as the Mexican Concheros or the Pueblo Kachina societies–may possess exclusive rights to certain dances, or, as with morris dancers in the late 19th century, they may compete with other groups in perfecting a shared repertoire of dances.

B. Occasions for Dancing

Holidays and other annual festivals, as well as the events of a person's life cycle, may be marked by dancing. Folk dance may also accompany the celebrations of special organizations such as craft guilds, religious or social societies, family groups, and societies based on sex or age roles. Examples include the stave dances of the working-class women's friendly societies of 19th-century England and dances of the Hasidim, a Jewish religious group.

Folk dancing may be sacred or secular, although in many cultures this distinction is difficult to make because religion pervades all the society's activities. Almost all ritual dances, however, have a social element, and many dances formerly performed for ritual reasons are today danced simply for recreation.

1. Seasonal Dances

Dances celebrating the cyclical events of the year are usually related to the economic life of the community, marking, for example, the stages of the agricultural year or the hunting and fishing seasons. Other reasons for dancing may include changes in seasons, the phases of the moon, and political and religious holidays.

Dances related to the events of the agricultural cycle–from clearing the land to harvesting–are extremely common. Dances at planting time may involve symbolism related to fertility. Springtime rituals celebrate the first fruits and the resurgence of life, and the dances may take the form of symbolic combats between winter and summer, as in the many ceremonial dances based on the battles between Moors and Christians in the Balkans and in Latin America. Carnivals often occur in the spring, and they may be accompanied by ritual dances or secular versions of such dances. Rituals of reversal may take place, with clowns and mummers reversing the rules of society by engaging in disorderly and satirical behavior. Late spring festivals such as May Day celebrate the rebirth of spring, and fertility symbols such as maypoles and greenery abound. The other frequent occasions for dancing are harvest festivals.

Societies that depend on hunting, with or without agriculture, often have a yearly cycle related to animals and their seasonal habits. Animal-impersonation dances, for magic or for entertainment, are common.

2. Rites of Passage

The events of an individual's life, such as birth, initiation, marriage, succession to office, and death, constitute the other major category of events celebrated by folk dance. Weddings are one of the most common occasions for dancing. The bride and the groom may perform separate dances–the bride's reel of northern England, for example, is danced by the bride and her attendants–and their dances may have some religious function. Almost always, however, weddings include recreational dances.

Funeral dances are less common. Depending on the society's attitude toward death, such dances may be solemn, as among the Toraja of Sulawesi, or joyous, as at a Balinese cremation. Initiation dances are generally not considered folk dances, probably because they occur in tribal societies and have a ritual function. In the case of succession to office, the person receiving the new status may perform a solo dance of power or humility, as does the king of Swaziland, or the community may dance in honor of the individual, as Americans do at inaugural balls.

C. Functions

Although folk dances may have, or may once have had, ritual purposes linked to the agricultural year or the stages of a person's life, such dances today are usually performed for secular purposes such as recreation, courtship, self-expression, and competition. Of these, recreation is perhaps the major function.

Folk dances sometimes develop around work activities. Rhythmical movement, as in the Japanese rice-planting dances, can make the work more pleasant. Some recreational dances are also based on the movements of certain tasks; an example is the Swedish renningen, a weaving dance.

Most folk dancing also functions to create or promote a sense of community. Even when other nonrecreational functions have ceased to be viable (as when immigrants bring an agricultural dance to the city), folk dance can continue to make dancers feel part of a national or regional group and help them establish ties with their heritage.

VIII. Movement, Music, and Accessories

Because folk dancing is found throughout the world, and because it can be so broadly defined, it occurs with great variations in style and with many different floor patterns. Costumes and accessories also create various effects in the dances, and dancers sometimes contribute to their own musical accompaniment. In this diversity, some generalizations can be made, and every generalization probably has exceptions.

A. Body Movement

Because most folk dances are meant for general participation, they tend to contain fairly simple movements composed of short phrases or patterns that are repeated many times. The dances of most societies, however, range from the simple to the highly complex. In European and European-derived dances in the western hemisphere and elsewhere, step patterns are emphasized, with little special movement given to the upper body. In Asia, Africa, and Oceania, dance movements involve more parts of the body or, sometimes, mainly the arms. Men's and women's movements are usually different: Men may stamp vigorously and execute spectacular leaps, as in the Norwegian halling and the Caucasian lezghinka. Women's styles are generally less energetic, calling for graceful movement, with smaller steps, and with fewer (and lower) jumps and kicks. Sometimes, however, as in American square dancing, men and women dance in the same style.

B. Floor Patterns

Group folk dances vary in their spatial formations and spatial progressions. Many of the geometric designs in folk dance have, or formerly had, symbolic meanings. A circle–possibly the most common dance formation–promotes feelings of unity among the dancers. Originally, circular dances may have symbolized the apparent motion of the sun or moon; the dancers may also surround a symbolic object, as in maypole dances. Examples of circular dances include the Serbian kolo and the Romanian hora. Chain dances usually have a leader, and they may involve serpentine or spiral formations as well as straight-line patterns. The dancers may be aligned side by side, or they may follow one another, and they may or may not touch one another. If they touch, the contact can be made in various ways–holding hands, encircling waists or shoulders, grasping one another's belts (as in many Greek dances), or linking arms.

Longways dances, those performed in two parallel lines, are less common than circle and line dances; but they are particularly characteristic of the country dances from the British Isles. In these dances, lines of men and women face one another, and the dancers perform complicated patterns of interweaving and exchanging places. See  Country Dance. Brought to America by early colonists, longways dances developed into a form known as contra dances. The Virginia reel is an example of a contra dance. In other dances, especially in Oceania, the participants align themselves in many parallel lines and dance in unison in one spot, not interacting with one another. Both same-sex and mixed-sex dances are performed this way.

Couple dances take many forms. Group formations such as the quadrille, square dance, and longways country dance involve couples and characteristically promote the exchange of partners. In other couple dances–as in most ballroom dances–partners do not change.

Group formations of couples sometimes keep within a given spatial pattern–often a circle or, in square dances, a square. The spatial pattern may change several times during the course of a dance; couples might first progress around in a circle, then hook up with other couples to form a pinwheel or star, and then drop partners to form either one big circle or two or more concentric circles. In other dances the spatial design relating couple to couple may be minimal: Waltzing couples may all follow a general circular pattern, for example, and in contemporary disco dances the individual couples maintain no fixed floor pattern in relation to one another. Finally, in couple dances the partners may or may not touch each other. See also  Czardas; Mazurka; Polka; Tarantella.

Solo dances may involve many individuals dancing at the same time or one dancer performing alone. Solo dances tend to be more difficult than group and couple dances, and they often present an opportunity to display the dancer's skill. One such virtuosic solo form is the Scottish sword dance Gillie Callum, in which a male dancer executes complex steps over a sword and scabbard lying on the ground. Another example is tap dance. As more and more skill is required, solo dances of this kind easily evolve into theatrical forms. See also  Hornpipe; Sword Dance.

C. Dramatic Vestiges

References to a story or plot are generally absent from folk dances; exceptions include the Hawaiian hula, the Maori action songs, and certain Indonesian dances (see  Indonesian Dance), in all of which the dancers' movements illustrate the stories being sung. Certain dances, such as the hilt-and-point sword dances of Western Europe, involve folk plays, ritual actions, or character types. Combat dances, clown dances, and hobbyhorse and animal dances are found in many parts of the world. Some of these dances have spread from one country to another; the moros y cristianos dances of Native American Latin America, for example, have European antecedents. In other instances the dances seem to have developed independent of any external influences, as in the stick-combat dances of Egypt, New Zealand, and Britain.

D. Musical Accompaniment

Although not every folk dance requires aural accompaniment, music is nearly always extremely important. Many dances are intimately related to musical forms and, in particular, to musical meter and rhythm. The waltz and mazurka, for example, both have musical and step patterns in three beats; in the mazurka, both the music and the steps emphasize the second beat. Many European dances, especially those of the Balkan countries, contain complex rhythms and syncopations.

A specific dance often calls for a specific tune or song. Just as frequently, however, a given piece of music can be used for a whole category of dances, and a particular dance can be executed to different tunes.

Self-accompaniment is often important in folk dancing. The dancers may carry instruments such as rattles or castanets, or sound makers–such as the rustling skirts of hula dancers or the bells on the legs of morris dancers–may be attached to the dancer's body or costume. Frequently, the dancer's shoes are important sound makers, emphasizing rhythms and accents; the sounds of wooden shoes, tap shoes, and boots may go beyond merely accompanying the dance and may become its main focus (as in tap dancing and clog dancing).

Dancers may clap, snap their fingers, slap their bodies (as in the Bavarian Schuhplattler), or stamp their feet. Sword dancers and stick dancers click their weapons, thereby accentuating the rhythm of the dance. Dancers often sing or chant; they may punctuate their movements with vocal sounds such as yells, yips, and yodels.

E. Costume

The clothing worn by dancers may affect the nature of their movements. Japanese women, for example, are restricted by the tightness of their kimonos. On the other hand, some elements of costume, such as full skirts, handkerchiefs, and capes, can be manipulated by the dancers, as is done in the cueca, a couple dance of Chile. The visual appeal of a dance may be enhanced by brightly colored national costumes. Dress styles today have become fairly uniform worldwide, and people wear their everyday clothes when they dance, or for special occasions, perhaps don fancier versions of the same styles. Revived forms of folk dance, however, may be executed in traditional clothes, emphasizing the national origin of the dance; some dances, therefore, are recognized almost as much by their costumes as by their movements.

IX. 20th-Century Trends

During the last few centuries many trends have affected folk dancing. As the spread of industrialization brought rural people into the growing cities, dances related to agricultural activities or to communal rituals gradually lost their meaning. In the changing circumstances of urban life, new dances evolved. Colonization also affected dances–frequently, indigenous forms fused with dances of the colonial powers. In the Philippines, for example, new dances developed when dancers of traditional native forms were influenced by Spanish and Islamic dance forms and styles.

Throughout history dances have been transmitted from one country to another. In the 20th century, with the tremendous expansion of travel and mass media, this process has accelerated. Some areas of the world, North America in particular, are populated by immigrant groups, who brought their dances with them. Although some dances are usually lost, others are preserved. New forms result when dances transplanted from one country combine with those brought from another. Square dancing, for example, evolved from the dances of several immigrant groups. Tap dancing, too, probably developed from a combination of national dances–the clog and solo jig dances of the British Isles (see  Jig), together with styles and movements from West African dancing. The last hundred years have also been characterized by the revival of folk dances, both in their native countries and in their new homes in foreign countries; national pride and group identity continued to be asserted and displayed in folk dance.

Contributed By:

Suzanne Youngerman, M.A., Ph.D.

Executive Director, Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies. Editorial Board, International Encyclopedia of Dance. Contributor to Essays in Dance Research and Illuminating Dance.


"Folk Dance," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000 © 1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.