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Generally, a type of dance that is a vernacular, usually recreational,

expression of a past or present culture. The term folk dancewas
accepted until the mid-20th century, when this and other categories of
dance were questioned and their distinctions became subject to debate.

Defining Folk Dance

What makes a dance a folk dance?

Logically speaking, the adjective folk should modify the noun dance to
indicate a certain kind of dance and dancing and perhaps the style or
some other distinguishing feature of the dance or performance. It should
also imply who the performers are. However, the term folk dance, which
has been in common use since the late 19th century, along with its parent
term folklore, which was coined in 1846, is not as descriptive or
uncontroversial as it might seem. Much of the problem lies in the
attitudes and purposes of early scholars and their audience.

Usually, the designation folk was used by those who did not consider
themselves to belong to the folk and were confident that they knew
which other people were the folk. Some of these observers described
folk communities with condescension as peasants, simple or quaint people
who were illiterate and unselfconscious, carrying on supposedly
“primitive” and ancient traditions. such writers concluded that “true”
folk dances were created anonymously and transmitted from person to
person. Many scholars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries
postulated a sort of Darwinian social evolution that passed from
imagined beginnings through existing folk dances to arrive at modern
recreational dances. This attitude was part of a larger worldview
that sometimes went so far as to place certain other groups of people
farther down the human evolutionary tree from themselves and their
Not surprisingly, a backlash developed, and since the middle of the 20th
century the word folk has often been avoided because of
the condescending attitude its use is thought to represent. Many
cultural groups around the world demanded that their performing arts
not be characterized by the term. Thus, some archives and organizations
found it expedient to change the word folk to traditional in their names.
For example, in the 1960s the Folk Music Archives at Indiana
University was renamed Archives of Traditional Music. Similarly, in 1980
the International Folk Music Council, a nonprofit
organization supported by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific
and Cultural Organization), changed its name to International Council
for Traditional Music. Its study section on dance broadened in scope from
folk dance to ethnochoreology, the study of all dance forms in a

Although many academics in the 21st century avoid any use of the
word folk because of its past misuse and possible offensiveness, those
who do accept the term often mean “traditional,” “authentic,” or “from
olden times.” those who want to avoid implying that culture is static may
refuse to use any such categorical term.

The descriptors traditional and authentic are problematic too when

applied to folk dances that are self-consciously developed, revived, and
restaged for public display in order to reinforce a national identity, to
attract tourists, or both. Examples include dances performed by the
Bayanihan Philippine National Folk Dance Company and the
numerous folklórico groups from Mexico. Neither does the
word traditionalcomfortably identify dances that are transplanted
from one context to another, such as the European folk dances
performed by the Matachines Society of the Yaqui Indians of southern
Arizona in the United States and Sonora, Mex. Nor do these terms include
the fusions of folk dances from two or more cultures into new forms
that represent newly established communities, such as the
multicultural Israeli folk dances and the fused traditions of the Métis
of Canada. These are discussed below.

Operational definitions

Of major significance, a point that is critical to the understanding of

folk dance is the following fact: folk dance is not a universal genre of
dance. When folk dances are compared from one culture to another,
they have in common no universal movement, figure, form, style, or
function. Neither does a specific movement, figure, form, style, or
function identify a dance as a folk dance. The simplest approach to
definition might be to say that folk dances are those dances identified
with and performed by folk dancers. By the same reasoning, folk

dancers are those persons who perform folk dances.

Yet these circular definitions are inadequate. Some persons who perform
what outsiders define as folk dances do not themselves identify their
dances as folk dances. And some persons who perform such dances do not
identity themselves as folk dancers. Others reject the
word folk entirely, as having nothing to do with who they are or what
dances they do.

The matachines dances are a good example of how fluid the definitions
of folk dance and folk dancers are. The Yaqui Indian Matachines Society
is a group in northern Mexico and southern Arizona whose members
continue to observe a sacred vow to dance their devotions for the Virgin
Mary with medieval European folk dances taught to them after 1617 by
Jesuit padres. These Yaqui do not think of their dances as folk dances,
nor do they think of themselves as folk dancers, although persons from
the outside readily make those assignments. Although the origins of
the matachines dances of other parts of the Americas are similar, the
dances themselves are different. To complicate matters further, in
parts of Europe there are matachines folk dance groups that have
nothing in common with the Yaqui society or the other American groups.
What the dances are, who performs them, and what insiders and
outsiders call the dances and the dancers—all these designations vary,
although the dances are known by the same name.

Categorizing dances

Within any given society, there may or may not be multiple

classifications of dance. If the performers and the observers
characterize any dances as folk dances, then they are likely to
identify other types of dance as well. If there is only one category of
dance, it is unlikely to be labeled as folk dance or in any other
particular way. European cultures have dances that are identity
markers. Some examples include the Schuhplattler (“slap dance”)
of Germany and Austria, the jota of Spain, the jig of Ireland,
the tarantella of Italy, and the hopak (or gopak) of Ukraine. These
dances are secular, recreational, and celebratory, and they are used
as national identifiers. Such dances are effective in arousing national
pride and sentiment.

The Druzhba amateur dance ensemble performing the

Ukrainian hopak.Novosti/Sovfoto
Complex societies make distinctions between activities on the basis of
their functions. Typically, anthropologists identify theological,
aristocratic, educational, and economic institutions, often referred to
as the temple, the court, the academy, and the market. Dances may be
associated with each of these, and they influence the folk dances of a
society. a common movement “vocabulary” often characterizes a
culture as a whole, and a culture’s dances may have distinctive
features. Even so, the dances will differ in style and function. As
illustrations, the following paragraphs examine some of these aspects
in hawaiian dances, Korean dances, and european “character” dances.

Hawaiian dance

Hawaiian society has long had both formal classical dances and folk
dances. Both categories include certain common characteristics—
primarily the use of hand gestures that illustrate a song or chants and
the flexed-knee stepping that gives the appearance of swaying hips. In
pre-European days the dedicated hula dancer was trained in a
sacred venue (hula halau). After a graduation ceremony (uniki) that
authorized the dancer to move from the temple to the court, he or she
was allowed to perform for the aristocracy.

European influences nearly destroyed the hula, but it was saved from
extinction when it was redefined. The hula survived by association with
the market and the academy. It thrived primarily as a tourist
attraction in the first half of the 20th century. Then, with the so-called
Hawaiian Renaissance, hula blossomed as an art form in the second half
of the 20th century. Dances that are learned in the hula halau are not
considered to be folk dances. Hawaiian folk dances are the casual,
informal dances performed, often improvisationally, at a family
gathering or other informal event. But all Hawaiian dances use
characteristic movements that are associated worldwide with Hawaiian
Korean dance

In modern Korea there are at least six different kinds of dance: court,
folk, shamanistic, Confucian, Buddhist, and modern concert dance. Today
these classifications usually refer to the style of dance rather than
the occupation, class, or religion of the dancers. Korea has national
dance academies that teach these forms. The dances and dance styles
formerly restricted to royal audiences (the court) have become the
Korean classical dances, and they are performed regularly in public
concerts (the market). In conversation, Koreans classify their dances
into four types: court, folk, sacred, and modern concert dance.

Many uniquely Korean gestures and body movements characterize all

Korean dances (except for modern concert dance), regardless of
classification. These characteristics include the sliding of each foot
forward on the floor to end in an upturning of the toes (echoing the
shape of the dancers’ slippers), the lifting and lowering of the
shoulders, and the frequent use of triple metres in the music. Korean
dance classifications are distinguished by style and content. Korean
classical court dances tend to be slow in tempo, dignified and refined.
Korean folk dances, on the other hand, are lively and earthy. They are
performed for festivals and celebrations. One favourite folk dance is
the farmers’ dance. it is performed by a group of men who circle the
dance space in single file, carrying drums and lifting each knee high as
they locomote. They wear the loose pajama-type clothing associated
with rural Koreans, with a helmetlike hat to which is affixed long
streamers. At a certain point in the dance, the dancers vigorously
rotate their heads so the streamers fly out like whirligigs.
european “character” dance

Character dancing is a selected borrowing of folk dance movements and

styles to provide divertissements for story ballets. It is a
specialization taught as part of the classical ballet curriculum. Along
with their rigorous training in ballet academies, dancers are trained to
perform so-called character dances that use stereotyped gestures and
styles selected to portray the idea of a particular nationality,
occupation, or personage. This is exemplified by the Chinese, Spanish, and
Arabian divertissements in Pyotr Ilyich
Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet. When, say, a Polish mazurkais
performed by a formally trained classical ballet dancer, that
character dance is not considered to be an authentic folk dance by
either the dancer or the audience.

Members of the New York City Ballet dance the tarantella

from Napoli, choreographed by August Bournonville in 1842.© Martha
The Itik-Itik Dance Steps

Have fun with this dance. The Itik-Itik is sometimes described as humans
making the motions of a duck, so feel free to improvise along with these
basic steps.

1. Step to your left and raise your left arm up in a flowing motion.
2. Step to your right and raise your right arm up in a flowing motion.
3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 seven times.
4. Step forward and bring your hands into your chest, bending your
elbows and making sure to point your hands inward. Repeat seven
5. Step in a circle as you sway your arms to the right, then to the left.
6. Raise your arm and step hop to the left.
7. Raise your arm and step hop to the right.
8. Repeat steps 6 and 7 five times.
9. Sway to the right, then to the left. Repeat six times.
10. Repeat all steps three times.