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Nigel Allenby Jaffe

The dilemma: Fidelity to historical truth or novelty?

Allenby Jaffe, Nigel: "The dilemma: Fidelity to historical truth or novelty", 17th International Congress on Dance Research, Naxos, 22-26/10, 2003.

The dilemma: Fidelity to historical truth or novelty?

I have chosen this subject because it is something that has occupied my attention often during the course of my research into folk dance. But before I attempt to answer these questions, I must add two of my own: How old does a dance have to be, to be considered ‘faithful to historical truth’, and ‘How new does a dance have to be, to be considered ‘novelty’?

Let me go back to what we suppose was the oldest communal dance, the circle. I stress the word ‘communal’ because there may well have been still older individual dances, where early man copied the movements of animals and birds as he sought, by sympathetic magic, to enhance his good fortune in the hunt. I will return to these later in this paper.

So, we believe (I think that there is general agreement on this) that the community first held hands in a circle and moved rhythmically around some central focus: perhaps a sacred fire, tree or altar. Years passed and nothing changed; life moved at a slow pace. Then, perhaps suddenly, the circle was broken and a chain was formed. From the equality of the dancers when they danced in a circle, there emerged a leader, a more important member of the community, who led the chain in the direction he wanted to take them. We have a new dance - do you see where I am leading you? Was this chain dance ‘faithful to historical truth’ or was it ‘novelty’? Some would argue that this was a new dance, and was thus a ‘novelty’. But what if the steps taken by the new chain dance were those of the old circle? Are we not now looking at ‘historical truth?

As early history unfolded we observe another development; let us suppose that our little community danced both circle and chain dances. The next step was for the dancers to divide into couples, not performing anything resembling couple dances as were to be performed many, many years later (for example a Csardas) but the way circle dances are still performed in Portugal, where the individual couples face each other, but still in a circle. Is this not also ‘novelty’? And so, at every stage in the history and development of dance over a vast time span, we encounter at each stage ‘novelty’. Thus ‘novelty’ can be very old. However, to see the reverse side of the coin, it is apparent that dance developed and changed very slowly, giving the chance for children to watch their parents and grandparents dance, to learn as they watched and then for them to join in. In turn they would teach their children and grandchildren these very same dances. Generation would succeed generation without any discernable changes. Is this not then ‘faithful to historical truth’?

Each country develops its own language, music, rituals and, of course, dance. It is apparent that just in the way a country can be recognised from its language, its folk dance is also individual, unique to its self. It possesses its very own ethos. One does not need to be an expert to recognize whether a dance is, let us say, Spanish or Norwegian, English or Bulgarian. Each nation’s dances (I will not use the misleading term national dance) is recognizable as belonging to a particular country - is this not the very essence of faithfulness to historical truth? I will give further examples of this in a moment. Yet the couple dance is not the same as the country dance, and the country dance is not the same as a chain dance. Do we not encounter ‘novelty' at every turn?

Now, I have a problem with defining folk dance. Is all folk dance, by its very nature, traditional, that is, ‘faithful to historical truth’? Just think of the innumerable differences there are between the dances of one country and another. Do we not encounter ‘novelty’ time and time again? And then I must ask: Should folk dance, in our modern society, cease to evolve? Should we keep it as a museum piece, to be frozen in time? And if so, what should we think about the young ‘folk’ today (or even yesterday) with their rock-and-roll, disco and street dancing? These are ‘folk’ dancing after all. No, don’t take me too seriously! If ever such things are included in a history of folk dance, I will crawl into a dark little hole somewhere and refuse to come out.

It is fascinating to study the folk dance of all the different countries. Next to language, folk dance has the potential of being able to express the whole ethos and character of a country i.e. it is ‘faithful to historical truth’. However, in the wrong hands, it becomes destructive. Dance becomes a harlot, painted up to show her profession, and this can only be passed off as ‘novelty’. First let me show you the positive side of folk dance. Here are some examples: In Greece (and here Greece is unique and quite exceptional) folk dance has remained little changed for millenniums, not just centuries, Greek dance remains the most faithful to historical truth of any country in Europe, and probably of the world, though my research has been mainly confined to Europe and I am not really in a position to express opinions beyond these confines. Dance has always had an integral part to play in Greek life. Greeks dance for any and every reason they can: I have been privileged to watch, as the wedding guests emerged from the church, and with the priest honouring the chain with his dignified presence, the two families of bride and groom being united in a chain dance. What a happy (and traditional) scene!

Two more experiences I must mention briefly because they supply the definitive expression of one’s unfathomable love for one’s country and heritage, and nothing can be described better as being faithful to historical truth. You remember I spoke of dances even older than the circle, as man looked for good fortune in the hunt? These two examples, different and yet the same, were an expression of the single dancer’s very soul. On the deck of a ship taking us from Italy to Greece, I had the unique experience of seeing a dancer pouring out his long pent-up emotions. I suppose he had not seen his beloved homeland for a long, long time. At the first light of dawn, as the first black silhouette of land, Greek land, came into sight, the man turned on a tape recorder, obviously his proudest possession, and began to dance. He was totally unaware that he was being watched, otherwise, I suppose the magic would have been broken. No, I should not describe this as ‘magic’ because it was more, much more than that – it was a religious experience. His emotions flowed from his body, as the tears ran down his cheeks. He danced for himself and for his Mother Goddess who had returned him to his home at last. Was this not Odyseos, his very self? With tears in my eyes too, I withdrew and left him to his prayers. How else could one describe this as other than faithfulness to historical truth? This solo dance harked back to ancient times indeed, even to before the circle dance. The other occasion was emotional also: Several years had elapsed before I returned to one of the Greek islands. My friend ran the local taverna. As soon as he saw me he ran to the juke box and as the music started to play he handed me one end of the handkerchief, and, grasping hold of the other end, he began to dance. There could not have been a better way to express his happiness in seeing me again than in the dance. This was another occasion for tears of joy. This was ‘truth’ if ever there was one.

The last occasion I will tell you about was another emotional time when joy and sadness were equally mixed. During and after the Second World War a great many refugees came to the city where I lived in England. They represented many nationalities, but the greatest number of them came from Poland. After the war, not wishing to return to live under a communist regime, they stayed on in England. They were still there in 1962 when a Polish Folk-Dance Company came to perform. It was a subliminal experience to feel the power that music and dance could give. For this is what traditional dance (folk dance) is all about. There were more Poles than English in that audience. The raw emotions broke before even one dance step had been taken. The orchestra played the OLD national anthem not the new. The audience stood and burst into song – only a Welsh crowd at a rugby match could have expressed such emotions. Tears poured down everybody’s cheeks and the mood was set. And then, the unforgettable: at the end of the first dance, beautifully performed, in gorgeous costumes, and to the music of traditional instruments, there was total silence! You could have heard a pin drop. And then, all at once, came deafening applause which went on and on. How the audience could see the dancing through their tears I do not know. Eventually the dancers were able to complete their programme, but that was not the end as far as the audience was concerned; the encores and applause went on for an hour after the final curtain had dropped. Would you like me to say that this was ‘novelty’? No, this was the ultimate expression of nationhood through music and dance.

Sadly, I must now show you the other side of the coin, to countries which have not been allowed, for political ends, to preserve their ethnographic arts in all their purity, where novelty is ‘king’. I must stress before I seek to describe them, that this only applies to a few countries which were left behind ‘the Iron Curtain’ and not to them all. But now we are in the realm of folk dance which is no longer faithful to historical truth, but which is presented as such. Many communist governments after the war used various means to seek to impress the West that their system was best, and to encourage people to aspire to similar ends through various means: life under the Red Banner was everybody’s dream of happiness! They used such occasions as the Olympic Games to show their superiority to the West (especially America). Their athletes, gymnasts, swimmers and ice hockey players were there to win gold medals, lots of them. But the contest was uneven. These athletes did not have to earn a living (if they were old enough); they were given ‘jobs’ in factories, but in fact all they did all day and every day was train for international competition and medals. Why am I telling you all this? Because these same governments used the ethnographic arts in the same way, as propaganda tools in the cause of international communism. In some countries, I do not think you need me to tell you which ones, music and dance became ever more breathtaking, brilliant. Music required the musicians to be virtuosi on their instruments, as they accompanied the dancers whose steps were so fast and intricate that only someone trained for a long time in dance school could hope to cope with them. Costumes became ever more scintillating as the girls’ skirts became ever shorter. And above all, they all looked so deliriously happy, with huge smiles frozen across their faces. There were those groups which excelled in feats of brilliance: fast turns on the spot or round the stage, jumping back and forth over a stick or handkerchief gripped in both hands etc. etc. They were highly trained athletes (I will not say dancers). No villager could have, nor have wished, to emulate such ‘professionalism’. Audiences loved it! I hated it, for here was the ultimate spectacle of ‘novelty’ and to hell with ‘historical truth’.

I have already stressed that this criticism applies only to certain countries; many, even most, have preserved their ethnographic arts intact, but see for yourselves! Go to any international folk dance festival and decide for yourselves if what you are seeing is ‘truthful’ or not!

Finally, let me just say that folk dancing for me is ‘folk’, village folk, dancing for their own amusement. They are not, nor have they ever been, trained or schooled to dance. They have all learned to dance by watching, as children, the adults dancing, until they could pass on their knowledge to succeeding generations. Dancing, music and language are the three greatest expressions of man’s ethos, one’s very being. They are to be protected and cherished as we wish to cherish our identity. These things have been bequeathed to us by the Great Mother Goddess herself, and we must not fail her. Let us turn away from ‘novelty’ and remain faithful to historical novelty.

Nigel Allenby Jaffe



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