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Dragoslav Dzadzevic

Folk dances and the problem of their preservation.

Dzadzevic, Dragoslav: Folk dances and the problem of their preservation", 16th International Congress on Dance Research, Corfu, Greece, 30/10-3/11, 2002.


This thesis on the folk dances is the result of extensive anthropological study. The information was compiled in situ from literature, observations, interviews, audio and videotapes, as well as from information received from a questionnaire sent to different places in the world. The thesis consists of four parts: 1. History of people's dances. 2. Folk dances, their characteristics, classification and mutual relations of cultural elements in the development process. 3. Anthropological analysis of folk dances, functional and structural analysis. 4. The problem of saving and revitalization of folk dances.

The first part is based on written documents as well as on paintings and sculptures from the past. The characteristics and classifications are explained in the second part, based on traditional dances. The functions of folk dances have been analyzed in the third part, illuminating their integrative and psychological roles in the communities. In the last part, attention has been given to the problem of the saving and revitalization of folk dances, emphasizing the social importance of their secondary life. Keywords: integrative, communitas, archetype, interaction, structure, function, revitalization, reconstruction.

1. A short history of the development of human dance

Historically speaking, dance is one of the first human activities not directly serving mere survival. Starting with instinctive movements, as a reaction to physical or psychic situations, via the first shaped and repeated rhythmic movements, men started to experience dance as a possible means of expression of individual and collective feelings and as an instrument which could influence the natural forces. The existence of dance in the early periods of human existence is indicated only by pictorial representations, carved by the hands of primitive people on the walls of the caves, the only dwellings of men at that time. The steadiness of the movements that depicted the forms of humans and animals shows that the pictures were created in a phase of human development when humans had already achieved a certain degree of cultural development. The first form of dance was a circular, unorganized, spontaneous dance of individuals. Men did not achieve that form by coincidence; they achieved it by looking at the circular movements of celestial bodies.

During the gradual development of humanity, there evolved the idea that survival is made easier by association; in that way, men became parts of broader communities and their activities were regulated by social needs. The individual dance ceded its place to organized dance, subordinated to the needs of the community. The civilization of ancient Egypt left numerous data about the life of the privileged class, and about the dance of probably professional dancers and musicians as the most frequent entertainment of the pharaohs. As concerns the identification of the dance, there is no doubt about the sculpture that represents four naked women in a closed circle found in Knossos (Crete, 1450 BC). In the description of the anointment of Saul as the Emperor of Israel, (1040), one can identify the way of dancing, individual, with expressive motions of arms, which brings the dancers into an ecstatic state.

After the appearance of Greece, a country of highest cultural achievements, dance gained much importance as a cultivated form of expression of the emotions. The dances performed in the antique stages were a highly spiritual form of artistic dancing. Many descriptions and names of dances were left to us from Greece, and many sculptures may represent elements of dances. The statue of Menade, near Tetovo (6th century) is a work of Greek archaic art. The figure of the woman is shown at a moment of dancer's ecstasy, with a characteristic motion of the arms. If we compare the position of Menade's arms with the position of Nike from Delos, we see an astounding similarity. Even the position of the leg corresponds to that type of dance. Even more astounding is the similarity to the figure of Gorgon in Athena's temple on Corfu. It is represented by similar, but much more expressive movements, as if the artists wanted to underline, by the dynamic and unbridled dance, the dangerous and uncontrollable power of the figure which protects the temple.

The early Mediaeval Age left few traces of dance. This was because of the new understanding of life. Some small remnants of dance survived in the christianized rituals. In the Decani monastery (1335), there are some fresco paintings that quite distinctly show folk dances, as does the fresco painting in the Lesnovo monastery (1349). The darkness of the Medieval Age gained some light with the movement called the Renaissance, which started with the painter Giotto from Florence. The painters used scenes from everyday life to illustrate religious subjects. In his painting "Giudicio Universale", Fra Angelico shows the dance of angels in an open circle. Dances in circles of linked dancers and later on in open circles, quite popular in Central Europe, were called "Ring Tanze". Ambrogio Lorenzetti's painting "The act of God's will" shows a mixed ring dance, and the fresco painting "Zum Loch" shows a folk dance in an open ring. The pantomime dance, well known in ancient Rome, was renovated, the pantomime dancers adding juggling and music to their dance. A special type of dancers, entertainers, was created: Spielman in Germany, Joculator in Italy, Joglar in Provence, later called Minnesingers or Troubadours. With the creation of social classes, dance started differentiating. Folk dance remained unrestrained, while the upper classes moderated and refined the dances.

The name of the first choreographed dance was the "Ballet comique de Reyne". At the time when the Rococo flourished, a dance that had existed, before that time, in the lower classes was absorbed by the elite at the court and adapted to the behavior of the aristocracy. This was the minuet, which had been danced, in the popular version, in quite a joyful way; when it reached the court, it took the form of a slow, elegant dance. The difference was immortalized by the French painter Jean Antoine Watteau in his paintings "The pleasure of the ball" and "The shepherds". The first shows the atmosphere of a ball at the court, a calm and elegant minuet, while the other shows the same movements and positions of the dancers who are full of freshness and dynamics. One of the rare dances that originated in folk dances and was adopted by all classes was the waltz, demonized at the beginning because of the indecent holding of the pairs. The form of the dance and the dancing itself obviously contributed a great deal to the success of the dance. The Minuet had a social meaning as well as being a status symbol, while the waltz underlines equality and individual expression, and often brings the dancers into an ecstatic state. Another dance, born as a folk dance, overwhelmed the world thanks to its temperament and to the possibility of expression of individual feelings. This was the Polka, which appeared in the Thirties of the 19th century, as an expression of the feelings and pleasure of the servant Ana Slezakowa.

The majority of the present modern dances originates in the traditional folk dances of the past. The Tango is a dance of the Argentinean gauchos; the Charleston was born in the town of Savannah, in the South of the USA, based on elements of old Negro exhibition dances. The Foxtrot is a mixture of the tango and the heritage of African slaves, while the Samba and Rumba were born in Latin America, as a mixture of three cultures - Spanish, Indian and the tradition of African slaves. The African influence is especially strong in the modern disco dances, where there are no rules for the movements and everything is left to the individual improvisation, which brings the dancers to a state of ecstasy. This short review of the development of human dance is a contribution to the better knowledge of the substance of folk dances.

2. Folk dances, their characteristics, their classification and the mutual relations of cultural elements in the development process

Folk dances change with the changes in the conditions of life. These changes are the result of external and internal factors. With the creation of new or changed ideas, and with the accumulated efforts of individuals who bring new ideas, the tradition assumes new forms.  Generally speaking, the changes due to internal factors are slow and there is always some continuity. The external factors, which can dramatically change the tradition, are, most often, cultural contacts with other groups, due to diffusion or to migrations. The degree of change is determined by the quantity and quality of the likeness with other dances. The degree of acculturation of folk dances depends on the vitality of the competitive culture, of the degree of adherence to traditional forms, and on the differences between the values and aspects of comparative cultures.

It is almost impossible to explain the substance of folk dances, to give a succinct definition, because of the multitude of its meanings and its functions in the society, and in individuals as well. While the notion of dance, according to the understanding of the dancers, is nearer to the individual expression of feelings and prone to aesthetic analysis, socioanthropologists consider dances as a social action. In spite of the obvious difficulties in the precise definition of folk dances, I will try to give my own opinion about the human activity called dance, as the basis of the identification of various aspects of dances. "Dance is a shaped form which is created by rhythmic movements of the body, and represents the incarnation of the contents, created by the internal experiences of human spirit which contains, in its conscious, or, more frequently, its subconscious, the sublimated collective experience of the community." The picture created by dance is the mirror of the internal life and of the primeval experience; therefore it has both its individual and collective meaning. It discovers the power and the traditional strength of the subconscious, which contains the traditional forms; it expresses, by dance, the broad array of personal experiences and feelings. The collective component of the subconscious is situated in the spheres of the human being that are deeper than the spheres of the individual component, and its reflexion is seen in different behaviors of people. This unconscious expression of the traditional human norms is frequently called the archetype. It is discovered in the movements of the dancers by the metaphoric significance of its symbols. The expression of the internal psychic mechanism, shaped in a certain form by the movements of the dancer exists also in the personal conscious knowledge of the dancer, in the broadened functions of the dancer's creative ego, i.e. in the center of the conscious, and at the level of collective subconscious, as the emanation of the general experience. The spiritual state, transformed into kinesthetic energy, may discover the entire structure of the psyche, the conflicts and tensions, stresses, the alienated fear and similar emotions.

Since human beings frequently suppress certain instincts in the depths of the collective subconscious, they may appear, without any rational reason, in dance, in the form of dancing patterns, style, and of general behavior. Dance has its practical use, real or imagined. Dance appeased the unknown natural forces and supernatural beings, it determined the status of individuals, the expression of collective protests, it marked important events in the life of individuals, and strengthened the integrity of groups. The motive is the most universal element of the dance, but there are motives that are specific for different cultures. It forces people to dance, and participate frequently in the shaping of the dance. The general human instincts may be divided into two groups. The first one, based on the basic instincts of survival and preservation of the kind, and the other one, on a mental basis, being the striving for imagination, creativity and expression of the spiritual feelings of men. The most important form of imitative dance was the ritual dance. A ritual is a certain form of religious behavior, by which people want to directly influence the supernatural forces, and dance was the basic instrument and mediator with supernatural forces. This kind of dance resisted changes for a long time. Even when the basic idea of ritual was not present any more in the conscience of the participants, the ritual dances stayed as a habit. Another important element of the dance is the form, i.e. the way in which the dancers are connected together in a collective dance, and the forms shaped during the dance. The oldest form of dance is the circular movement of unconnected participants, which evolved into the connected ring, and finally into an open semicircle. The individual dance or the dance in pairs is a reminiscence of the prehistoric dance and gives better possibilities for the expression of feelings.

The third important element of the dance is the style, internal or external. The internal component of the style is the way of expression of feelings through dance, which corresponds to the cultural tradition and mentality of the group, while the external component is the formal presentation of the dance, the most stable and most characteristic element of every culture.

3. The anthropological analysis of folk dances - functional and structural analysis

3.1. Dance as an organ of social control

3.1.1. The integrative role of folk dance

The integrative role is usually deeply hidden, far away from the eyes of the participants. By participation in a collective dance, an individual shows his or her belonging to the group, becomes unconsciously a participant in the collective social action, whose aim is to bring individuals together and to keep the integrity of the group. The firm attitude of the dancers in the ring strengthens the sense of community. The most expressive integrative role of the dance is seen in the ritual dances, an important part of the ritual ceremonies. That role is, contrary to the visible, the pragmatic part of magic religious ritual actions, inaccessible to the conscience of the participants. Even when the ritual dance is devoted to the problems or to the happiness of individuals, its integrative function is reflected in the participation of other members of the group. Places and dates of dances were mainly determined by the community. Various prohibitions of dances, due to collective mourning or for political reasons, show that dance is an organ of social control and that it creates the sense of togetherness.

3.1.2. Dance as a non-verbal system of communication - interaction between dance and expression of feelings

The first way of communication among primeval people was the gesture. Out of spontaneous gestures, which resulted from the internal experience, the repetition of the same movements to express the same feelings created the non-verbal system of communication, often accompanied by the production of certain sounds. Along that newly discovered level of subconscious, by linking movement and sound, the first rudiment of dance was created. Men understood gestures and reacted to them, thus creating a certain rhythm in mutual interaction. Dance may be treated as a link between non-verbal and verbal communication. It often fills the gaps in human knowledge which could not be acquired by other means. The meaning of dance itself, the expression of feelings by dance, the musical and dance communication can not be translated into other forms of explanation. "If I could explain what dance is, there would be no need to dance" (Isadora Duncan). In anthropology, dance is a theme that concerns the subjective activities of individuals in the compound of expression of collective feelings and understandings, and not just the analysis of the behavior which is considered. There is a coherent structural language which represents the substance of the experience of dance.

3.1.3. The element of competition and of opposition in dance - the theory of limited self-insistence

The wish of self-assertion, the endeavor to achieve domination in all realms of life, is deeply rooted in human nature. Competition is born in the conflict of conflicting wishes. One of the forms of competition, the most innocent at first glance, is dance. Individuals may compete by dance, or by stepping out of the normal rules of dance. Dance may also be used in the opposition between groups, social, ethnic, age, or sex. In the case of group competition, dance includes elements of social change, which is partially resolved by dance, but sometimes degenerates into open confrontation. The competition frequently imposes innovation, and it is present in the creation of new elements in the cultural tradition.

3.1.4. The educational role of dance

Dance, as one of the basic elements of the popular culture, frequently participates in the formation of opinions and in the behavior of the young generations and directs them to the respect of the tradition of the group. Folk dance uses the traditional standards of upbringing and transmits beliefs, customs and taboos. We may consider that educational function at two different levels: the conscious, pragmatic, intentionally created dance with certain elements of visible educational purpose, and the unconscious instinctive acceptance of the traditional culture in the integration of music and rhythm in the human body. In some dances, in those that were used as help in the performance of some works, the educational and pragmatic roles of dance are intermingled.

3.1.5. Dance as religious-magic and political action

Dance was unavoidable and one of the most important instruments of religions, if we adopt that term as the synonym for all beliefs of humans. Dance was also a magic activity whose objective was to stimulate and direct the supernatural forces to act in favor of individuals or of a community. Although their formal procedures have often some similarities, there is a substantial difference between the religious-sacral and magic rituals, including dances, based on the internal attitude of primitive men towards natural and supernatural powers. The religious dances emphasize the worship of the supreme beings, the gods who rule nature, and men want to appease them, to prove their devotion, to ask them to help them in their survival. In magic dances, men take the initiative, they want to rule, by their actions, quite frequently irrational, over the forces and the laws of nature. The means they use for that are quite suggestive and strongly emotional. In magic dances, the objective of the elements of the dances is to force the supernatural forces to do something in favor of the community. Most often, they have the characteristics of imitative magic. Dance may be a transmitter of political messages, via its formal characteristics, and may also be, by its appearance and substance, an important factor of the political life in a community. Dance mobilizes the mental and physical forces of individuals, and the collective being of a group as well, and it may become a driving agent of social changes. Quite often, the participants in such dances are not conscious of the fact that they represent an instrument for the achievement of political goals. A typical example of such dances was the partisan dances in Yugoslavia.

3.1.6. The theory of community "Communities" and of antistructure

In all societies, there exist inequalities which divide people at the basis of some traditional structural premises, but there is also an internal force which unites people, regardless of status and other differences. That force called "communitas" acts as antistructure; it tries to overcome the existing divisions. The structural aspect dominates in usual circumstances, while "communities" acts in the situation of destruction of the normal, routine order. Dance is a socially equalizing activity which separates the dancers from the routine structure and introduces them in the realm of timeless ecstasies.

3.2. Dance as expression of the feelings

3.2.1. The theory of catharsis

Dance may have a therapeutic effect as well, in the cases of psychic stresses; it existed as such since the first appearance of the real epidemic of dance in the Mediaeval Ages, as a means which liberates the physical and psychic efforts of the pressures exerted by external unfavorable circumstances. Closed emotions, which may be considered as a form of nervous energy, become stronger when their natural outflow is prevented, so that they must liberate themselves in other ways. A good way for that is dance, which is a synchronized action of the muscles and of the psyche, and may be considered as a kind of safety valve. Such an approach to dance preceded, in a certain sense, Freud's concept of libido.

Generally speaking, the question may be asked: to what degree does dance really represent the expression of the internal feelings and experience, and how much does it represent just their symbolic expression? The latter is especially valid for artistic dancing, and partially for ritual dancing. Regarding the artistically formed, choreographed dance, e.g. ballet, the dance creates the illusion of emotion, which is not completely experienced in reality. It is impossible for a dancer, even the best one, to experience, in the dance, night after night, the strong feelings of love, fear, even death with the same intensity. Such behavior is dictated by the libretto and by the stage director.

3.2.2. The theory of self-creation and of feedback

The cause of a certain phenomenon may become a multiplier of that same phenomenon, and increase it immeasurably. The feelings introduced at the beginning of a dance, self-breed themselves in its blazing, and bring the participants to ecstasies. Those emanations and transformations of internal energy, expressed by dance, are responsible for the creation of an alternative conscience of the participants in the dance, which represents an integral part of the experience of the dancers. The mutual influence of the dancers strengthens the expression of feelings, while the central participant, the dance leader, acts efficiently, by his skill, in interaction with other dancers, whose feelings are intensified, as internal reactions. If a dancer successfully transmits his or her emotions to the audience, and the mass of spectators reacts accordingly, the feedback loop brings the culmination of the dance. The multiplication of the emotions by feedback may result in the culmination of enthusiasm, and consequently in a successful dance; however, in the case of negative experience, it may completely suffocate the dance.

3.2.3. Love and sexual motives as agitators and factors in the creation of a dance

In his lack of knowledge of the laws of the nature, prehistoric man linked his own sexual life and multiplication to the fertility of the environment. In such an identification with the nature, we find the reasons for the creation of dances with sexual motives, either with symbolic gestures or with the use of accessories. The scale of expression of sexual instinct is unlimited, ranging from refined, spiritualized movements to the vulgar presentation of the sexual act. The love element is obvious in all dances of pairs.

4. The problem of preservation and revitalization of folk dances

Folk dances represent a very important segment of the entire creativity of the people, called folklore. It is a system of cultural values of a community, which includes beliefs, customs, oral literature, artifacts, dance and music. That system is not petrified, it is prone to changes, as a living part of the national culture. In order to analyze it correctly, one must determine the trends of the changes, establish the reasons for changes, and evaluate the quantity of changes. Beside the acculturation, caused by contacts between different cultures, folk dance was very much influenced by technological development, which changes the conditions of work, and by the urbanization. The direct consequences of the changes in the way of life are primarily reflected in the decrease of the number of dances, and then in the globalization of dances and the acceptance of foreign elements, until the complete disappearance. The disappearance of folk dances during the last century provoked actions aimed at their preservation. There are two basic directions, which may be convergent - preservation and revitalization. Preservation means the preservation of the continuity of the existing dances, while revitalization is the reconstruction of dances that have already disappeared, and their return to their natural environment where they can continue their second life. Analyzing past attempts to stop negative trends in the development of dances, we may determine several ways of solving that problem.

4.1. Scientific approach consisting of analyses and recordings of folk dances

One of the very important approaches to the solution of that problem is the anthropological analysis of authentic folk dances and the identification of factors that negatively influence the folk dances. Another approach consists of detailed recording and recordings by audio and visual devices. In Yugoslavia, unfortunately, there are no scientific institutions involved in the study of folk or artistic dances. We also feel the lack of professional literature, original or translated. The difficulty in the analysis of dances, especially of the dances of the past, lies in the fact that the records of the dances were mainly descriptive (The Brussels Code, 16th century), via Raul de Feuillet, Weawer, Stepanova, until Rudolf Laban, who succeeded in recording details of movements by the system of kinetography. In Yugoslavia, the sisters Jankovic contributed very much, by their books, to the knowledge of our folk dances, and their descriptive system of recording, although rather imprecise, was adopted by the majority of experts. The recording of a dance is the most correct objective record, but one must take into account the environment of the dance. Although there now exist many video records of folk dances, there are no institutions where that rich material could be systematized and processed. The only way would be to organize, within the framework of the CID Committee for Yugoslavia, a video library with accompanying material, where the existing documents would be preserved and used for the education of professionals.

4.2. Establishment of permanent or temporary dancers' groups

The first dancing group established with the aim of preserving and presenting folk dances was a group in Sweden. Its founder was Artur Hazelius, and it was called "Svenska Folkdansas Vaner". Since authentic dances had already disappeared in that region, they were reconstructed on the basis of verbal descriptions and musical and pictorial records. That trend was continued in the 20th century, and in Yugoslavia after the Second World War. These groups flourish especially at times of exuberation of national feelings, and of the need to prove the identity of ethnic communities. Although they were established in an authentic environment, the very objective of their creation changed the substance of the dance. Dance ceased to be a social action and the expression of collective experience acquired by tradition. The sincerity of experience of the dancers was replaced by good training, and the important psychological component was lost. The basic functions of dance disappeared, including the expression of internal feelings of the participants, who became stage artists. Beside authentic peasants' groups, folk dance groups were established in the second half of the 20th century, whose emphasis was on the artistic shaping and adaptation to the conditions of the stage. Such groups frequently include foreign dancing elements in order to make their programmes more attractive.

4.3. Organization of shows of folk creativity and of festivals of folk dances

Festivals, often competitive, are organized for the popularization of folk dances. These competitions try to please the audiences and the juries, thus degrading the folk dance. The influence of festivals on group dancing is mainly negative. In Yugoslavia, festivals of original and choreographed dances are separated. Besides many local festivals, republican shows of people's creativity are organized every year, with many participants and many peasants' groups.

4.4. Reconstruction and revitalization of folk dances

Experts try to reconstruct and possibly revitalize lost folk dances. The reconstruction brings about a great deal of uncertainty regarding the correctness of technical elements, because of the lack of correct information and because of relying on incorrect records from the past, but even more because of the lack of knowledge of the psychological elements at a given moment. Dance is a product of the total ambiance, it is created in the framework of a cultural milieu, and it reflects sensitive social circumstances. The difficulties in the reconstruction stem also from the lack of knowledge of the structure of the dance. The mutual relations between various elements are revealed by the "code" of the composition of the creator of the dance. Successively analysing the elements, the "code" and the frequency of repetitions - the formula of the dance - one can partially discover the meaning of a dance for a given group, at a given time, in a given place. Still, if one takes into consideration the harmony of all components of a dance, chronological, ethnic and regional, the reconstruction may give a partial picture of the lost dance. In the attempts at revitalization, the problems are bigger.

In spite of the large number of peasants' groups which have successfully reconstructed the folk dances of their respective regions, such dances have not transcended the limits of the group, nor have they become integral parts of the dance treasury of the community. Those dances do not have for them the same meaning they had in the past. It is impossible to bring back and revitalize just one element, by changing almost all elements of the traditional culture and of the way of life. In spite of all difficulties, the work on the reconstruction and revitalization of folk dances is very important.

The author

Dragoslav Dzadzevic, PhD, choreographer from Belgrade, graduated at the Electrical Engineering Faculty in 1959, at the Faculty of History of Art in 1971, and at the Faculty of Ethnology in 1976. He gained his M.A. degree at the Department of Ethnology with the thesis "Folk Dances in Northeastern Serbia", and his PhD at the Department of Anthropology, with the thesis "Folk Dances and the Problem of their Preservation". During many years member of the Board for Popular Creativity of the League of Amateurs of Serbia, and of the Association of Cultural and Artistic Societies of Belgrade.

Dragoslav Dzadzevic


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