Involving Youth in Folk Dance

At almost every event I attend, I get asked by dancers, “How do we get young people like you involved in this activity?” By “young,” for the purpose of this discussion, let’s consider people 40 and under. Yet, it should be noted that even people in their 50s and 60s have been known to say, “I’m not old enough to square dance. That’s something I’ll do later.”

It is easy to find people in their 60s and above in square dance clubs and international folk dance clubs (I will use the term “folk dance” to imply both dance scenes in this article). A common phrase I’ve heard around the country is: “The folk dance scene is graying.” For the most part, these are people who were exposed to dance in the ’60s and ’70s and sometimes even earlier through PE classes, dance clubs and camps, and community events. Remember, this was a time when some small towns only offered bowling and dancing as recreational activities. It was also a time of folkloric revival, increased social awareness, and protests for peace. Circular handholding folk dances united large groups and embodied these ideals.

It’s been estimated that over a million people participated in the recreational folk dance movement at its peak in the ’60s and ’70s. Then, the movement suddenly slowed in the ’80s when ballroom dancing became the rage. For the younger generation at this time, folk dance began to gain a reputation of being “outdated” as it was something their parents had done growing up. At the University of California, Berkeley, almost overnight, Sunni Bloland’s folk dance classes that had once attracted hundreds of students could muster only a handful. It was a clear sign that attitudes had shifted.

Still, people continue to folk dance. Many loyally attend clubs, camps, and conventions year after year; excited to see old friends and to dance to nationally recognized callers, instructors, and musicians. There are retirement communities that define themselves as square dancers when asked, “What do you do?” Some dancers proclaim themselves dance “gypsies,” traveling freely from state to state, tasting the flavor of local dance scenes and making friends along the way. This is not a lifestyle that caters to a demographic working full-time and raising a family. 

At the 58th National Square Dance Convention in Long Beach, there were several teens participating as exhibition teams and in the youth room. I learned that many of them got involved in the activity through their parents. But what are the chances they will continue when the go to college, are exposed to new hobbies, join the workforce, and start their own family? I’ve heard of some instances where people stop dancing in their 20s through 40s to focus on other matters, and return to dance when their kids have left home. Yet, the fact that dance club membership and convention attendance are going down exponentially implies that reentrants are hardly making a big splash.

Models for Success:

Example 1: On a trip to Albuquerque, I heard about a folk dance class that attracted young people. About 30 people were there that evening, and probably two-thirds were under 25. At least six kids came with a parent who was also dancing. I learned that most of the kids were from a preexisting home school community, and that the person who led the class was actually a home school teacher who knew the kids prior to starting the class. These kids subsequently brought in non-home school friends they knew from church and other community groups, many of whom stayed in the class because they had fun. I also learned that kids who went to college often came back and participated in the class during their summer and winter breaks. The dances taught the class included fast and slow circular Balkan dances, tangos, waltzes, and polka mixers. There were also original dances choreographed by the teacher to up-beat songs by Tarkan and Shakira; these had lots of hand gestures, body part isolations, shimmies, spatial weaving floor patterns, and some room for improvisation. It was mainly the kids who participated in these dances, whereas all ages mixed freely in the other dances.

Example 2: The weeklong Balkan Music and Dance Camp in Mendocino, California seemed to have the most even distribution of ages of all the events I’ve attended. Children and teens came with their parents and had their “camp friends” from previous years. However, unlike the folk dancers in Albuquerque, these kids felt apprehensive about bringing in “outside” friends to the camp, as this situation might make them feel obligated to spend all their time with one person. They recognize Balkan Camp as a highly social experience in which they engage in particular activities with their peers, by default, but also one in which they can blend into mixed company somewhat effortlessly. For example, the kids had their own band, but also took music classes with adults. While the kids did not take formal dance classes, I did see them dance or “play” horo (serpentine or circular hand-holding dances with a repetitive step pattern) alongside adults until the wee hours of the morning. Even if they could not execute the steps with precision, the group pulled them along without any hesitation.

Perhaps the most important lesson we can take from this example is that the children were not shoved off into a children’s area to learn children’s dances and children’s songs. I believe that this type of multigenerational social interaction is critical, especially since in our modern society music and dance often are viewed as separate from everyday life. Not only do we have to deal with that stigma, but isolating children to do their “own” songs and dances, enforcing that what they’re doing is not what adults do, could drastically impede comfortable acceptance of music and dance at a later stage in life.

Key Takeaway Points:

1. Both groups developed from a preexisting community (a home school community for Albuquerque, parents involved in the Balkan music scene for Mendocino).
2. Both groups fostered child-adult interaction, mutual acceptance, and trust.
3. Both groups had activities specifically for the youth that served to strengthen bonds among peers. 
4. Both groups had an eclectic mixture of activities to keep youth engaged and motivated.

Discussion: Do you know of any other examples where young people were introduced to a folk dance community and stayed involved with it? How do those communities match up to points 1 through 4, as listed above? Have you come across young people creating their own folk dance scene that is very different from the scenes mentioned in this article? If so, what is it like?

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July 9, 2009. Field Notes.

One Comment

  1. Jeremy Hull replied:

    I am part of an international folk dance club that has been growing slowly for the past 15 years. We get some younger people (20s) coming out occasionally, but our core members are from about 40 – 65 and getting older. I wouldn’t say that most of us were folk dancers in the 60s and 70s, although some were. I think our growth has mainly been because we provide a fun, social activity for people in our core age range, people whose children have grown and left home and who are looking for activities and exercise. Younger people come out and enjoy themselves but don’t come as regularly as others, probably because their lives are busy in other ways. We usually have about a 60-40 female:male ratio, although sometimes it is more balanced. This seems to be a relatively high proportion of men compared to some other groups I’ve seen.

    I am also part of an Irish set dancing club that started about 5 years ago – this is a smaller group that has its ups and downs in terms of participation. Again, It seems to attract mainly middle-aged people. At this point we one younger couple out of 12-16 people who come out regular. Again there are a majority of women in the group, probably about 60-65% women most of the time.

    Lots of young people attend the big Winnipeg Folk Festival every year, although there was a time, about 10-15 years ago, when people were worried that the audience was becoming too old, and the younger crowd dances up a storm there. They don’t do any particular steps, for the most part, it’s just free-form dancing. A few times I have started line dances, contras or Irish dancing at the folk festival during performances, and a few times I have seen others do this, but the festival doesn’t try to do anything of this kind and actual dance workshops at the folk festival are rare.

    I agree that ethnic groups are more successful in getting young people involved in dance, although in some communities the dancing is just defined as something young people do and older people watch. Native Canadian youth, in particular, seem to enjoy both pow-wow dancing and their style of square dancing, both of which are organized competitively.

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