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Christopher Copeman

Children learning to dance.

Copeman, Christopher: "Children learning to dance", 16th International Congress on Dance Research, Corfu, Greece, 30/10-3/11, 2002.

This paper is divided into two parts. The material is based on more than ten years' study, mostly in villages on the Greek island of Lesvos. The first part is the result of interviews with older villagers who are, or were, regarded as good dancers in the village. The second part is based on observation, supported by the use of a video camera, of the behaviour of children at panegyria and other dancing events, looking at the ways in which they learn to dance without a teacher.

1. Introduction

In his "Manifesto for a new breed of folk dance teachers", Professor Raftis makes a distinction between "Traditional" and "Folkloric" folk dances, and contrasts the ways in which they are learnt. "The traditional mode is through the master/apprentice relationship, while the modern mode is through the teacher/pupil relationship. These two modes differ radically and determine not only the context but also the content of the knowledge transmitted."

Most of the older dancers learned to dance in the traditional mode. Fifty years ago, there was no need for dancing teachers. Dance was a part of village life, and the children learnt it naturally, as they learnt to talk. Today many children attend dance classes in school or club, where they are taught in the modern mode. But in villages where there are still communal dance events (such as panegyria) it is possible to see children learning in the traditional way.

2. Old people's memories

Old people in the village who were regarded as good dancers (even though some of them may no longer dance) were interviewed and asked about their early memories of dancing, and how and where they learned to dance. None of the older villagers had attended classes or had lessons at school. Fifty years ago, such teaching was almost unknown. "Nowadays the children do dancing and art at school, but in the old days we worked hard at grammar and arithmetic, and there was no time for such things." None of the men interviewed said that they had learnt dancing in lessons. Some of the women, who were younger, said that they had learnt dance at school, but further questioning revealed that this was often learning dances from other parts of Greece, which they then performed in a display for their parents. "We learned Kalamatianos, Syrtos, Tsamiko and Pentozali, and gave a display for our parents." Neither Tsamiko nor Pentozali are normally danced in Lesvos. These women are good dancers, and most of their dance seems much beyond what they are likely to have been taught in formal lessons.

Many of the people I spoke to were a little contemptuous about formal lessons. "Dance is inborn, not taught," said one old lady. "Lessons teach only the steps … those who are naturally good dancers may get something from lessons, but for those who are not they are simply physical exercises." Another advised, "Listen to the music, and move your body. The steps will come." Asked how they learned to dance, most said that they had taught themselves. "Our eyes taught us: we saw it and we did it." They often supported this with stories about their dancing when they were children. In those days, of course, girls were rarely allowed out of their houses, and would never go to tavernas or cafenions or meet boys. They spent most of their time working in the house, sewing and making clothes, but sometimes the girls would get together in one of the bigger houses, or in the yard, and dance. The boys would dance separately. "When I was a boy we lived in Athens. We were poor, but a friend of mine had a pick-up (record player), and we would dance to that. We boys used to go to places (magazia) where the men danced, to watch them, and then went home to dance ourselves." "My father had a cafenion," one woman said. "I used to watch the men dancing, and sometimes I danced myself."

Several men said they had learnt dancing from their fathers, but this was not formal instruction; they had learnt simply by dancing with their fathers and other members of their family. Others had learnt by dancing with their friends. "Whenever there is a panegyri or festival in the square, Yannis and Nicos and I dance together," said one man in his seventies. "We have danced together since we were boys." The introduction of the gramophone was a major event in village dancing. "My husband was one of the first people in the village to have a gramophone," one old lady told me proudly. Before that, the girls had to make their own music. "One girl who knew the songs (lalema) used to sing and play the tarbouka (hand drum), and the others would dance."

Nowadays, of course, there is no shortage of music - but very little of it is traditional. But fifty years ago music was hard to come by, and traditional folk musicians were more highly regarded. "There was an oudi player and a santouri player from Asia Minor," one old man recalled. The music was one reason why the panegyria were so important to people fifty years ago. "There were musicians, and crowds of people - you could hardly move!" These occasions were opportunities for engaged couples and newly-weds to dance together, as well as for more general family dancing. When the older villagers were asked where they learnt to dance, the almost universal reply was, "At panegyria."

3. Children at panegyria and other dancing events

3.1. General

At panegyria, children learn to dance in what Professor Raftis describes as the traditional way. There are no teachers, no formal lessons. "Traditional dance is not taught, it is shown." The children see the dances being done in their proper context, and learn them by imitation and by doing them. Friends and relations who are dancing accept them into the dance as "apprentices", and so their learning continues.

Not all dancing events are suitable for children. Sometimes they are held after children have gone to bed; sometimes there may not be room for the children to dance safely among the adults; sometimes there may be other dangers - traffic, horses, or breaking glass. A dance display may be an interesting spectacle for children, but there are few opportunities for them to participate. The best dancing events are those family and community occasions where everybody participates, and children are encouraged to do their own dances and to join in with their family and friends.

3.2. The learning process

"Dancing is inborn; it is not taught." Certainly children are born with some inborn talents. But in their earliest years they are exposed to many influences that lead them towards dance. The association of music and rhythmic movement, for instance, is introduced by the singing of lullabies as babies are rocked in cradles and arms, and nursery rhymes involving physical actions and gesture. A baby's first steps may be accompanied by the chanting of "Strata, stratoula". At panegyria, babies and toddlers are carried by dancing adults, and they are "danced" to the music. Clapping, tapping, and other rhythmic movements reinforce children's sense of rhythm. Their first hesitant dancing steps are applauded and encouraged. At a crowded panegyri, it may not be easy to see signs of learning taking place. There is certainly nothing resembling a formal dancing lesson. It is clear, however, that there are three stages in their learning to dance: 1. Observation; 2. Imitation; 3. Practice

These are not clearly separated. Children continue to observe as they imitate and practice. When they dance, one can see what they are imitating, and their imitation shows what they have noticed in their observation. Observation, imitation and practice go hand in hand as the children learn the dances of their community.

3.3. Children watching the dancers

A Panegyri is an exciting event for children, and whenever there is dancing at a village event, there are almost always children watching, often remarkably intently. At a panegyri, a wedding or other family occasion, they see dance in its proper context. They do not only see the different dances and how they are done: they also see their context, their purpose, their meaning. They see when and where the dancing occurs, how it matches the music, who does it, who dances with whom, what they wear, and the customs and etiquette associated with the dancing. They see friends and relations dancing, ordinary villagers, young people and old people, and see that dance is not just a performance and spectacle, but an expressive and creative traditional activity that these people think is worthwhile, satisfying, and enjoyable.

Of course, they can learn movements and steps from displays given by dance groups too, but these are different; the dancers are performing to entertain those watching, who are spectators rather than potential participants. Children may get the impression that dancing is only for such "dancers", for trained "experts", and so may feel that dancing is not for them. But at communal and family occasions in the Square or in tavernas or at home, where the dancers are dancing for their own purposes, it is clear that dance is for anybody and everybody.

3.4. Wanting to dance

If children are to learn, they must first want to dance. Then they will want to learn. "If children WANT to dance, they “will” dance!" said one older villager. But unless they see dancing as worthwhile, and something they are keen to do themselves, they are hardly likely to learn. For many children the atmosphere, excitement and music of a panegyri are enough to make them want to dance.

But not all children dance. Some are shy. Others feel that they are no good at dancing, and do not wish to look foolish. Often this is the result of negative early experiences, lack of encouragement, and being compared unfavourably with other dancers. Adolescents are particularly sensitive, and one thoughtless comment can put them off dancing for the rest of their lives.

There are several other negative factors. Dancing tends to be regarded as an activity for girls, and so boys may feel that it is not for them. In schools, where it is usually taught by sports teachers, it is sometimes seen as an alternative sporting activity for girls when the boys are playing football or basketball. Because it is taught to younger children, some young people regard it as "childish", and give it up in their teens, in favour of something more "adult" or more modern. Paradoxically, teenagers may also dismiss folk dance as an old people's activity.

3.5. Putting it into practice

Young children see dancing as a game, and join in with other children in much the same way that they join in other games. The importance of play in children's learning is well known, and indeed "children playing at dancing" is difficult to distinguish from "children dancing". A few dance by themselves, imitating other dancers, but most want to dance with their friends, or bring other friends to join them, and the choice of others to dance next to is clearly very important to them. From the start, they see the social aspect of dancing, as a way of making and confirming relationships. At this age, it is not surprising that girls usually dance with girls, and boys with boys.

The children learn from each other, the better dancers showing the others by dancing with them, and leading them into new figures and variations. Their sense of rhythm and movement influences the whole group.

Children may regard dancing as a game, but they regard it as “their” game, “their” dance, and do not always welcome outside interference, even from well-intentioned adults, keen to teach them the "right way" to do the dance. Though their dance is clearly imitative, and develops by imitation, it is important that they still feel that they are doing “their” dance, rather than merely doing someone else's dance. They need to make the dance their own.

3.6. Imitation

Children learn to dance by imitation. In their dancing they imitate other dancers and are influenced by those they are dancing with. Deliberate imitation may be simple mimicry, or imitation with a real intention to learn. "It is important to have a good model," said one old dancer. At a panegyri there are plenty of good models for them to imitate. The imitation is not slavish copying. Learning to dance seems to be an evolutionary process, the children modifying their dance as they dance, in imitation of other dancers around them.

Dancing with others, children try to match what the others are doing. Sometimes they look at another dancer, consciously imitating. At first it is the most obvious features and the general impression that they notice, and only later do they give their attention to details. Thus they learn the movements of the arms and body before those of the feet. The "steps", which are often taught first by teachers, are among the last details that children learn on their own. When children are dancing in a close circle or other group, it is difficult for them not to be influenced by the movement of those near to them. It is in this way that they pick up the rhythm and steps of the dance.

3.7. Practice, experiment and improvisation

Children learn by imitation, but not by imitation alone. It is by experiment and practice that they make the dance their own. To the casual observer, children's first attempts at dancing often look chaotic, in comparison with the ordered regimentation of a teacher's formal lesson. Without a video, it is very difficult to analyse what is happening: there are so many people, and it is difficult to follow the moves of individual children in the confusion. But the children are learning, and one can see signs of progress, even in the course of a few dances. Without a teacher they are free to try things out for themselves, to experiment, to make mistakes and to learn from them. All of this is taking place within a traditional framework, and so the children discover what is acceptable within this tradition. It is a slow process, but it is sure, and the end product is likely to be dancing which is both true to tradition and also dancing which they can regard as their own.

Perhaps the best way of learning to dance is by dancing with better dancers. In Lesvos, where many dances are traditionally done in pairs (usually boy/boy, girl/girl), one can often see good dancers "teaching" less experienced partners, simply by dancing with them, leading them, encouraging them, introducing them to new steps and figures. This is most successful, of course, when the two dancers are not too different in size or age. Even when the dancers are experienced they can still learn from dancing together, experimenting, collaborating (and sometimes competing) in new figures and improvisations.

3.8. Children dancing with adults

When children see their mothers or other adult members of their family dancing, it is natural that they should want to dance too, and the adults usually let them join in. Children are often included in family groups. For children, dancing with older people is one of the best ways of learning to dance, but children are smaller than adults, and their legs are shorter, so it is sometimes difficult for them to match the adults' strides. Faced with this problem, parents sometimes pick small children up and carry them in their arms or on their shoulders, when the dance permits, or they put a small child between two other children who are dancing.

3.9. Formal dancing lessons

Today many children attend dancing lessons at school, where they are taught folk dances from all over Greece, which the teachers have learned in university or college. Some villages have cultural societies, dedicated to preserving local traditions, and these too often organise classes for children. Good dance teachers can inspire children with a real love of dance, and are trained to teach large groups of children.

There are, however, some advantages in the traditional mode of learning:

a) At communal dancing events, children see dancing in its true context, and they generally join in themselves because they want to, not because they have been told or timetabled to do so.

b) At such events, they can usually find an abundant variety of good models for them to imitate in their own dancing, and can see the different possible variations of a particular dance, rather than being limited to one particular sequence of steps and figures.

c) Learning without a teacher, they are able to try out what they have seen other people doing, to experiment, to improvise, to make mistakes and learn from them. In other words, they can "make the dance their own".

Teachers are often under considerable pressure from parents and head teachers to produce "results". In schools, dance tends to be thought of as a sports activity, and teachers are expected to involve their classes in displays, championships and competitions. The dances that are suitable for these, however, and the way of teaching them, will not necessarily be the best for the children themselves. Generally, it is better if children are first taught dances that they can dance with their families and friends at local community events and celebrations. Many teachers realise this, and try to find ways of introducing some elements of traditional learning into their lessons, though in practice the class situation makes this almost impossible. Some of the best dancing is done by children lucky enough to have experience of communal dancing outside school, and also a sensitive encouraging teacher who can build on these foundations.

4. Conclusion

Even in the ten years covered by this study there has been a marked decline in communal folk dancing. Most adults no longer dance in public, and it has become harder and harder to find traditional music or dance in the villages. The traditional dances may still live on in the memories of the older villagers, and they sometimes dance them at private events, but unless they dance in public, they will no longer be a source of inspiration to the younger generations. Folk dance will no longer be regarded as worth doing, and many teenagers, though they may show real talent as folk dancers, will be lured away to what to them seems a more meaningful kind of dance - at the disco.

Christopher Copeman


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