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Adam Blatner

December 17, 2006

One of my goals is to encourage people to re-own their participation in the arts, in drama, singing, the visual arts, poetry, various kinds of dancing and movement, all in a spirit of play. These are powerful vehicles for vitality and authentic self-expression. Ballroom dancing (learning cool steps!), square dancing (also called "friendship put to music"), round dancing (a kind of ballroom dancing  in which the steps are called as in square dancing), line dancing, and so forth, all are wonderful.

ternational folk dancing has been a particularly rich recreational form I’ve been privileged to enjoy for over fifty years. There are groups all over. An evening involves the delightful simplicity of a group of people meeting in a large dance hall–it should be at least about 700 square feet–and they play a series of dances from the Balkan countries (Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Macedonia, Croatia, Greece, etc.), Israel, Turkey, Armenia, Hungary, Russia, Germany, Sweden, and so forth. Those are the countries most frequently represented, but occasionally we do dances from France, Taiwan, South Africa, England, Poland,  the United States, etc.

                 The Austin Independent Folk Dancers, around October, 2004.

Depending on the group, there is a variable mixture of couple dances and group dances. (There are even a few “trio” dances, generally, a man and two women, but when the mix is off, sometimes a woman will have two men. There’s a delightful informality and willingness to improvise in the service of a spirit of “it doesn’t matter all that much, let’s just have fun!”)

The couple dances are fun, sometimes elegant, involving waltz-like steps, or polka-like steps. It’s not close or sexy, and people frequently or mostly dance with a wide range of members of the opposite sex, rather than pairing up and sticking together. There’s a slight shade of man-woman romantic tension, but it’s very gentle, and directed to the enjoyment of the gracefulness and the rhythm of the dancer. For me, dancing with a good dancer is itself an especially rich experience.

The group I’m most acquainted with offers about two or three line or circle dances to one couple dance, and about three of these cycles is interspersed with a “mixer,” in which each fellow dances with a gal for about thirty to forty seconds and then there’s an exchange of partners.

There are also some small group dances, often from Scotland or northern Europe, with some rotating patterns–just a little like square dancing. In our group, we also often have a “contra” dance once an evening, in which men and women partners are in a long line–it’s related to a Virginia reel, and dance to generally country-Eastern melodies. The movements are often similar to steps in square dancing.  (Some groups devoted mainly to contra dances meet on other nights!)

In larger towns, there may be specialty folk dance sessions, evenings devoted to Scandinavian dancing, Clogging, Contra Dancing, and so forth. Our group also has a core of dancers who do exhibitions–mainly Balkan and Hungarian dances. They occasionally wear their outfits on special occasions, and some have a number of different ethnic outfits.

Those more involved in the hobby learn the words to the songs, learn the dances well enough to be guest teachers, may take up a musical instrument. Sometimes we have “live music” as part of the evening, when those who play an instrument might join together to accompany several dances in the middle of the evening. We are blessed with some folks who play accordion, clarinet, violin, dumbek (a middle-eastern clay drum), Macedonian flat drum or base drum, and so forth.  On special occasions, the entire dance session will be mainly with live musicians.

The music used to be on records, then cassette tapes, with a different dance on each small tape. In the last few years, we’ve begun to transfer these over to computers, so that the process is easier, but occasional glitches lead us to set up both systems at this time.

Another nice touch is the practice of writing the list of dances done and dances to be done on a large white-board.. Sometimes it’s hard for the programmer to keep up, but usually they’re able to note about three to five dances or more ahead, so we can anticipate them. We may see that a certain dance is coming up that we don’t enjoy that much, and so that’s when we plan to take our break, maybe go to the rest room.  Or I might see a waltz, a swing (jitterbug), or hambo (sort of a Swedish waltz) is coming up, and I have certain ladies that I especially enjoy doing these dances with, because they’re better dancers. However, I’ll also make an effort to dance couple dances, especially the easier ones, with newcomers and others who are just beginning, and my impression is that this is an unspoken norm.

There is a nice sense of inclusion in these groups. First, the evening begins with instructions at the beginner’s level, for about 45 minutes. Then these dances are repeated as the difficulty of dances is gradually increased. There are dances that are relatively simple, and others a bit more complex, and others that are more “advanced.”

Some of the beginner and intermediate dancers can be picked up by just standing behind the line or circle for a while and imitating the steps. After a while, one can enter the line. In some dances, losing which direction to turn can be a bit disruptive, but in many dancers, it’s surprising how klutzy one can be and still generally move with the flow of the dance.

I’ve found folk dancing to be a delightfully forgiving activity. You’re really free to make a million mistakes. As I said, a few dances, the more tightly organized and difficult ones, are inhibited by people who don’t know the steps. Most of the dances, though, are structured so that a mis-step is no big deal. On average, I’d say that at least half of the dances can and do tolerate a wide range of skill, so that looking around the line, one will often find people “groping” with their feet to find the step–and it’s okay!

In spite of this, there is a range of a number of variables that may be noted:
– skill, innate talent: Some newcomers are naturally able to pick up dance steps and the feel for a dance more quickly than others.  I estimate this talent to be distributed on a bell-shaped curve, most folks in-between, occasionally naturally gifted ones, occasionally those for whom the challenge of learning the steps seems especially difficult.
  – persistence. There’s a process of self-selection, here, so that those with little talent for learning dance steps tend to filter themselves out and don’t come back. However, those with only moderate talent may stay and the group activity is structured so as to be quite tolerant of and even encouraging of this level. Thus beginners can gradually make progress.
  – participation: My impression in our group in Austin is that about 20% of the people sit out as much as 40-50% of the dances, and half of them seem to sit out over 70% of the dances. Most group members will sit out at least 20% of the dances, and a few die-hards are up there over 90% of the time.
   – attendance: My impression is that there is a “core” group who attend at least 80% of the time, a larger number who attend 60-80%, another fairly large number of people who come between 40-60%, and then another large number who come and go, showing up for less than a third of the dances.

The people don’t dress particularly sexily, with rare exceptions–and those tend to be visitors who don’t stay much. The cost is nominal–it’s recently been raised to $5 for an evening that goes from 7:30 to 10:50 PM–mainly because the community center demands  a high rental fee for use of the hall.

After a while, many of these dances become like old friends, an opportunity to re-encounter the movements, melody, sometimes the words to the songs sung, and the way of enjoying them, with some particular flavor or style. This one is a bit more elegant, as if we were aristocrats at a ball. That one is down-home and funky.

The dance music is evocative, generates in me certain types of energy, and there are those that really deeply resonate in my soul. I’ve even had the intuition that my sense of enjoyment of certain types of melodies might be evidence of reincarnation, it’s so uncanny. There are certain types of music and dance styles that I prefer more than others, and I get the impression that the profile might differ with each individual. I especially like Macedonian, Bulgarian, Israeli, and have a bit less preference for some Scandinavian, Croatian and Hungarian dances. Most are in-between. Also, there are exceptions, so that I really like a few dances in a genre that I may not in general prefer.

I’ve noticed that some of my fellow-dancers have their preferences and also the dances they really don’t want to do. Some of us, for example, avoid dances that invite deeper knee bends–protecting our limbs.

I sometimes feel somewhat draggy when I go in, but invariably, the warming-up process has me feeling “high” half-way through the evening, and by the end, a bit tired, but also strangely refreshed.

(Elsewhere on this website, I also witness to the benefits of singing!).

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