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Animated Edition - Autumn 2007
Folk dance: an alternative life style (or Wizards and Muggles)
Diana Campbell Jewitt, freelance traditional dance teacher
I have been asked to suggest what is important about participating in folk dance and whether it has any underpinning values. What happens to people who participate and are there any benefits? How do you recognise successful participation? It would seem the more I thought about it the more I came back to the idea of a 'dance community' which seems appropriate for a magazine devoted to community dance. It seems that perhaps it is not the dance itself that is the important thing although we would all say it is, including me, until asked to write this article.

At a basic human level folk dance is like any other dance. It is a whole body activity that is driven and motivated by music. The physical activity produces endorphins in the brain that can make it addictive like any exercise. The one different thing about it is that to participate in the social dance you need a partner and you need to be with a group of other dancers to be able to dance. You also need at least one musician or a sound system with a large collection of music resources, and this applies to all traditional social dance forms. Folk dance means just that, you need to be part of a dance community and be with other folk. In the British Isles there are two historical strands that have given us the tradition as it is today. First there are the archive collections dating from the 1660's, begun by the publisher John Playford. Secondly there is the wealth of form and rhythm that followed the blossoming of dance styles like the quadrille, waltz and polka from early in the 19th century. By the beginning of the 20th century when Cecil Sharp and others were collecting dances the tradition was a rich patchwork that had been stirred by time and is still being added to with newly created dances by teachers from around the globe. Folk dance in its social form is a living tradition, continually evolving, whether there are exam boards and structured organisations trying to shape and channel its progress or not.

Folk dancers are mostly friendly, tolerant, encouraging, enthusiastic and sweaty. They help new comers to learn because the sooner they are proficient then the sooner we all get to have more fun. We practice special steps in privacy but we can't hone them without practicing with a partner or at a social function. We can be mildly competitive but only in a friendly way and we are generally happy to teach whatever we know to others, particularly the younger generation. We learn a specialist vocabulary that includes words and phrases like basket, swing, rant, hey, longways, give weight and strip the willow but a clever caller can teach all these things without ever using the words. The specialist vocabulary is a shorthand way to communicate, and like any specialist vocabulary it can delineate a group or it can separate you from those who don't understand the terminology. In fact I think that the folk world and the wider world are a bit like the Wizards and the 'Muggles' in Harry Potter. A folk dancer (a bit like a Wizard) might live next door and be a great neighbour. They might play a musical instrument, sing and teach folk dance as well as be a dancer but the neighbour might not know. The dancer will have a day job, and a life just like anyone else but they will also have an alternative reality and know where the next Saturday dance is to be held, they probably attend regular weekly classes, spend their holidays at a summer folk festival like Sidmouth or Broadstairs, or at a folk camp under canvas or in a caravan and their best friends will be folk dancers.

In my experience folk dancers in the British Isles and the USA create something akin to a village community, of a few hundred people, that might be scattered across the globe. We travel miles to dance, celebrate birthdays and Christmases together and we do brilliant funerals with all the music, singing and dancing. Even in great cities like London and New York there are dance communities that are held together by a love of folk music and dance that make us all feel more human and more of a special individual, valued for our inherent qualities rather than what we do or how much money we earn. Status in the folk world ensues from our innate ability to enthuse others or for our dancing or singing skills - so someone in a low paid job who is a tradition bearer might not have much status in the wider world but be hugely respected in the folk world. We are valued for our individuality within the community. At a Saturday social dance you might see expensive specialist dance shoes or flip flops; shorts, jeans or worsted breeches; hand knits, silk shirts or boob tubes. We don't give a damn about fashion. We wear comfortable clothes that are easy to dance in. Many women still wear skirts because we like the swirl of soft fabric as we dance and swing, and the movement of colours. We are thought of as old-fashioned; if being courteous and polite, the old values of the ballroom of course, then we are old fashioned. And this is what makes folk dance a very valuable educational tool, though this is a whole other article.

So for me folk dance is about a passion for a patterned dance form that leads to feeling valued as part of a very special group of people who are not interested in what I do, my religion, sexual orientation or my political affiliations. The benefits include belonging to a civilised and caring community that makes me feel supported in an impersonal and individualistic society. In a world where geographical mobility means constant change our dance skills give us an instant entrée into a folk dance club anywhere in the world, like economic migrants who find people from their own country when travelling to a foreign land.

Diana Campbell Jewitt can be contacted on

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Animated: Autumn 2007