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Margaret Allenby Jaffe

Folk dance in education.

Allenby Jaffé, Margaret: "Folk dance in education", 17th International Congress on Dance Research, Naxos, 22-26/10, 2003.

This title in actual fact immediately poses two questions: What exactly do we mean by ‘Education’ and what by ‘Folk Dance’? - and then, how do the two parts complement each other?

The meaning of education for us today is a fairly straightforward proposition. It is basically the tool that we use to launch our next generation into the world, furnishing them with the basic skills needed to make their way in life. In our present day and age, this usually constitutes a knowledge of: reading, writing, mathematics, and then all the extras - history, geography, the sciences, languages, art, music etc. Gone from the western world are the survival skills taught by our ancestors, although, in some parts of the world, such knowledge is vital to survival, and lessons learnt from Nature and the importance of being in harmony with Mother Earth are still the cardinal values of primitive education. Each itinerary is relevant to the community that it serves. Higher mathematics would be of little use to the children of hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers, while today’s children would have little or no access to the materials required for survival in a primitive society. In that primitive society, however, Dance has already raised its head, and will walk alongside Man mirroring his every development, until in the fullness of time, it will be ready to join the mainstream of Dance as we recognize it today. And the meaning of Folk Dancing? We shall come to this very soon.

So, looking at our own vision of Education and Folk Dance, how are they compatible in furthering the education of our young people today?

The question takes me back over 40 years to when I was a director of a combined Theatre, Arts and Educational school. I well remember one of the regular inspections carried out by the Ministry of Education. For two weeks, a team of high-powered educationalists watched over our every move, attending lessons, examining text books, and scrutinizing the children’s work. One thing began to worry me. The last period of each day was given over to my folk-dance class, and, starting from day 1, my audience grew, until by the end of the second week, I had a complete row of observers, intent on all our work, from our dancing in circles, chains and couples, to the children sitting on the floor discussing the origins of folk culture, costumes, music – the ‘whys’ and ‘wherefores’ of the dances. Eventually even our ‘audience’ began to join in with a few tentative questions, usually reflecting their own academic field, and paying grave attention to the children’s comments. When they finally departed, I summoned enough courage to enquire of these die-hard educationalists, what had brought them into our little world of folk dance. "Little", the chief inspector replied, "was a total misnomer". What they had witnessed was one of the greatest forces in education that they had ever witnessed. Each member of the team had seen us learning about their special subject – history, geography, religion, economics, art, music, languages, and all through a simple medium with which the children easily identified, and clearly loved. They could not wait to discuss the possibilities afforded by this fascinating subject – folk dance in education.

Over the intervening years, I have never forgotten that comment, and, throughout a lifetime of learning, have never ceased to value the doors that have opened to me through the Folk Dance. What I had previously done intuitively became an integral part of my teaching and of those who have joined me over the years. Now, a dance is not just an enjoyable physical experience, but rather, another book of knowledge waiting to be opened. So – let us start to bring the two parts together, and consider how they can bring a richness to a child’s education.

One of the questions posed by those visitors of long ago, came from the historian of the group. It arose when we moved from our local English dances to a Balkan Circle. The question was: "Is this one a traditional dance?" This gave rise to considerable thought and discussion amongst the children, and the answer given, in a basically childish form, proved to me yet again that children, at any stage of their development have a native wisdom and an in-built concept of the many facets of dance. The carefully thought-out answer was, "No." "This is a folk dance because we are learning it in a folk-dance class at school. If, however, we lived in the village from which the dance originated, and learned it from our parents and grandparents, you could call it traditional, as it was handed down to us without any thought of technique and performance." Someone else volunteered the information that it might even be the only dance that they knew, as they had never been to a dancing class, and so could only dance what they knew. A third voice interpolated that it might not even have a name in the village, just something which they danced to a particular tune or song. And this surely gives us the answer to our question as to what is the meaning of Folk Dance.

So, lesson No.1 had been assimilated, and these twelve-year-olds were already aware that people dance for different reasons, and behind the folk dance of today lies a vast reservoir of traditional dance, a form of dance which springs from the very roots of the people, as natural to them as living and breathing, and as old as the moment when Man first stood up on two legs, and became the father of our race. And this first lesson opens the door to an educated look at the dance, even as folk dancers, if the dance has to have any meaning other than the physical satisfaction of the movement, must surely know something of the culture from which it comes, the ‘raison d’etre’ for any particular dance. The immediate question is that of style, and why people, unhampered by the decrees of a dancing master, move in a certain way. In fact, what shapes a people into a particular mould.

Popular opinion today would place most of the emphasis on environment. So, let us take out our maps, open our geography books, and the education has already begun. Children are always interested in how their contemporaries in other countries live, and find no problem in the concept, for example, that living in a flat, lush green country, can be very different from being in a rocky, mountainous region, or a hot and dusty area, where farming is hard and unrewarding. Now, the exciting part begins: the search for and discovery of examples and, through individual research, the development of these examples into project work and its many ramifications. Mankind has certainly not lost its hunting instincts, and children are natural hunter-gatherers. Snippets of information, the discovery of a picture, a story, a map, a piece of fabric, scrap of lace, even a recipe for a local speciality, all are grist for their mill, and each one opens up yet another avenue for their enquiry, another trail to follow. And follow it they will. One fourteen-year-old sleuth, on hearing that the pretty evening bag, bought by her mother from an antique shop in Copenhagen, was, in fact, made from a nineteenth-century Danish bonnet, spent many happy hours looking for bonnets in books, museums and among folk dancers, until she had compiled a dossier on Danish bonnets, which was outstanding in both its conception and detail. She was adamant that her best source of information came from a folk-dance group, the members of which were cognisant with every detail of their costume, from whence it had originated, to how to reproduce it today. During her research, she had also managed to learn several Danish dances, a folk song in the language and acquire a Danish pen-friend. All-in-all, one might say, a useful contribution to her education.

An example which always appeals to English children is the tuneful music and easy-going dances of the Netherlands. They find no difficulty in relating these to the character of the people and the geography of the country. Given art-materials and a large table, I have seen a veritable map of the Netherlands appear before me, as the children created winding canals carrying fleets of miniature barges, cardboard windmills, rows of multicoloured bulb-fields, farmhouses surrounded by models of sturdy black-and-white cows, and delightful cardboard houses, reflecting the wide variety of Dutch architecture. All these things, so much fun for children to create, initiate thought processes which in turn give rise to considered opinions in even the youngest children. For example, the varied silhouettes of the older houses brought a comment from a ten year-old that, as the Dutch did not have any hills or mountains, they ‘landscaped’ their houses to make the scenery more interesting. Could this observation give rise to a future interest in architecture? So, from the pleasure of learning some simple Dutch dances, children who have not yet ventured abroad, can visualize and appreciate the lives of the people who created the dances. Geography has never seemed more pleasurable.

History came upon the scene when, teaching dances from our own region, I threw the ball once more into the children’s court. What could they find out about when and where we used to dance. Suddenly, the children became aware of the fact that their grandparents could prove to be a mine of information. Rummaging amongst old photographs, newspaper cuttings, and tattered copies of sheet-music, the grandparents were able to furnish the required information. And, of course, it did not stop there. Great-grandfather didn’t have a car (a thought-provoking point – nobody at that time had a car), so how did he take great-grandma to the dance in the next village? So, horses and traps now appeared on the scene and country road-conditions discussed. Did they have refreshments at the dance, and if so what? Ancient family recipe books now came under scrutiny for information regarding long-forgotten cakes, and, even more exciting, the brewing of nettle-beer. Another point of interest arose when the fact that most of the dancers had to be home in time for the morning’s milking pointed to a situation when cows were milked by hand, milk deliveries made by horse-power and farms operated efficiently without electricity. Suddenly, we were learning about our own local history.

Music is a most obvious sphere of learning, and ‘sound equals style’ is well understood. The quality of sound and rhythm are easily recognized by children as giving each ethnic dance its own particular flavour. Young musicians are always eager to perform, and it becomes obvious that as much pleasure may be had in accompanying the dance as in actually performing it. The question of who the musicians are in the traditional situation and the continued use of the old folk instruments in many countries is always of absorbing interest. For most of their formative years, children continue to learn by hearing and observation.

Throughout Europe the remnants of many ancient work-dances speak to us of past lives and conditions, and children relate to these very easily and with an understanding of what people used to do. I have been intrigued by a group of youngsters who were inspired to invent their own work-dances reflecting today’s occupations – a thought which pointed to the fact that centuries ago someone had come up with the same idea.

And so it continues, this fascinating study of the world through dance, each individual dance supplying yet another piece of information, so that, like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle in 3D, we begin to build the picture of a people’s history, music, art and religion, and the geography, climate and economics of their country. Surely with this evidence before us we can believe that there is no surer way of creeping up on our pupils and administering a good dose of education, happily accepted in the form of folk dance.

Now in my own country at long last, these values have been recognized, and English dance appears in the National Curriculum, where it has been given comprehensive coverage, both from an educational, physical and social point of view. In the handbook for primary school teachers issued by the Sports Council and the English Folk Dance and Song Society, full details are given regarding dance vocabulary, teaching methodology, creative use, historical background, simple music for children to play and, of special interest to us here, links to other subjects, particularly listing: English (reading and writing), Mathematics, Science, History, Geography, Art and Music. In each case, comprehensive guidance is given on linking the dance with other programmes of study within the National Curriculum.

So we can perhaps now safely say that our proposition of folk dance in education has been fully accepted and that these two vital forces can now move hand in hand, gracefully into the future, even as another generation of children join hands and come together in the dance.

Ms. Margaret Allenby Jaffe



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