by Loui Tucker
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This article appeared originally in the April 2011 issue of Let's Dance!
The vital question is: Are we having too many dances? For all practical purposes, the writer would emphatically say, "Yes!". . . Let us say that we have, to date, at the minimum, 150 dances in the Federation repertoire. One hundred already compiled into the four volumes of Folk Dance Near and Far and the other fifty in the process of compiling. These do not include the pet dances done by different clubs. . . .
... First, out of the 150 Federation dances excluding all those used by individual clubs, a yearly repertoire is to be made up of say 75 well-selected dances. . . . Uninteresting and tiring dances should be and must be discarded and the "made up ones" made unacceptable.
. . . If we could only include two or three of the most interesting and popularly known authentic folk dances to represent each country in the world, we would have something to crow about. . .
– excerpts from an article entitled What's Wrong with Our Folk Dancing? written by Song Chang, founder of Chang's International Folk Dancers, printed in October 1948 issue of Let's Dance! magazine.
I was looking through some old (very old!) Let's Dance! magazines in search of dance notations when I noticed the article that contained the excerpts printed above. Did you notice the date? 1948! In his article, Chang lobbied for reducing both the number and type of dances, and severely limiting new dances. 150 dances should be winnowed down to 75? What would Mr. Chang think of a current repertoire in my own Thursday night dance group of over 400 dances? As the saying goes: the more things change, the more they stay the same! Sixty years later, we're still hearing complaints about too many dances and too many "made up" dances.
Permit me another walk down memory lane or, in this case, the food aisle.
Back in the 50s and 60s (when I was growing up), typical meals for us were meatloaf, fried chicken, mashed potatoes loaded with butter or gravy, macaroni and cheese, and tuna casserole. We ate salads based on iceberg lettuce, a lot of canned soups, fruit (remember fruit cocktail?), and vegetables, and pie topped with Cool Whip. Dining out meant the exotic fare in Italian and Mexican restaurants. Chinese restaurants served little more than chop suey and eggroll. I didn't eat a raw mushroom or an avocado until I came to California in the 70s.
Times changed, didn't they? Beef and fried food are now frowned upon and fish is favored. Salad bars and grocery stores feature at least four kinds of lettuce. We haunt farmers' markets in search of fresh vegetables and fruits. There are low-fat, low-salt, sugar-free and gluten-free alternative for nearly everything. We don't eat noodles, we eat pasta (and polenta!). Desserts include fruit sorbets, puff pastry and flan. Restaurants now offer everything from naan to tempura to falafel, dishes from Thailand, Ethopia, and Guatemala.
Could we imagine in the 1960s that we'd be eating the foods we are eating today? Would we have wanted to restrict our food choices, limit our diets to what we were eating then? Permit the introduction of only a specific number of new foods per year? Certainly not!
I think our dance history is astonishingly similar. In the early days of the international folk dance movement, 90% of the dances were couple dances. The repertoire included dozens of dances from Mexico, plus many more from Austria and Germany. The Let's Dance! magazine published in November 1972 contained a list of approximately 420 dances that had been published as of that date. While this list doesn't comprise all the dances being done at that time, it is certainly a representative subset. Besides the 24 (!) Mexican dances, there are multiple dances from the Philippines, Estonia, Lithuania, Portugal and the Netherlands - countries from which I will bet the bulk of today's dancers know NO dances. In the list, I counted a grand total of sixteen dances labeled Serbian, twelve labeled Macedonian, and seven Bulgarian dances. Albanian dances? Zip! At that time, the concept of an evening of dance devoted to dances from the Balkans was like imagining dining on raw fish served on lumps of sticky rice (and paying a lot for the privilege!). Would YOU be dancing today if the international folk dance movement had stopped growing and had cemented itself in place in 1948 or 1972?
In the early years of our international folk dance movement we danced to music recorded on vinyl. Live music was rare, and musical instruments were pretty much limited to what we had in the United States (Kaval? Gaida?) I would draw a parallel between the aficionados of live music for folk dancing to those who today reject almost anything that comes in a package or a can, and plan their meals around organic, locally-grown, in-season produce. Just as buying and cooking organic food takes more money, time, and effort (and some will say produce a superior result), others have neither the time nor the patience for it, and are content with what they can buy at the local Safeway (dancing to recorded music).
Today we have the luxury of attending classes devoted to a specific dance type – Hungarian, Scandinavian, Israeli, Scottish, contras – just as we have many more specific restaurant choices (a new Peruvian restaurant just opened nearby). We still have many who love eating at all-you-can-eat international buffets and for late night after-dancing snacks we head for a 24-hour diner like Carrow's where you can get anything from prime rib to pancakes – the gastronomic equivalent of a full-range international folk dance class.
My point (and don't I always have one?) is this: with time, our world changes, our perspective changes, our options change. We evolve and we grow. We are complex creatures capable of adapting, multi-tasking, and learning and retaining vast amounts of data. We are capable of planning for the future while treasuring our past. Shouldn't our dance world be a reflection this reality?
Whether you're talking about food or folk dance, some (no, not all) of what appealed to us in our youth, bores us today. While we may seek out whatever is new in the way of food, technology, fashion, and music, we would feel just fine sending a text while sitting on a piece of antique furniture, or indulging in a dish of strawberry Jello while watching a video we downloaded from the internet on our big-screen TV. We should be able to enjoy dancing both Vrtielka (1956) and Vidinsko Horo (1998), and Dospatsko Horo (1971) as well as Dana (2004).
Just as our diets have changed over the past 60 years – shouldn't our taste in music and dance evolve as well? We might believe that a healthy diet includes less fat and less salt and more fresh fruits and vegetables, but we're not likely to police someone else's dinner plate. Few of us would criticize another person's diet or food choices. Why then does anyone feel the need to comment on or limit someone else's dance choices?
Our dance classes and parties and workshops and camps represent an enormous banquet, a buffet table laden with the richest music and movement. Get out there and eat your fill of whatever your heart desires! And life is short - so dance often!