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 For the younger generation at this time, folk dance began to gain a reputation of being “outdated” as it was something their parents had done growing up.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. 1 comment.

Fieldwork Sponsored by AZ Commission on the Arts

With the generous support of at Professional Development Grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, I was able to attend three dance events that were critical for the development of my book. These events were the Tucson Area Square Dance Festival in Tucson, Arizona; May Madness Contrafest in Prescott, Arizona; and the National Square Dance Convention in Long Beach, California. At each event, I spoke with a range of individuals including key leaders, observed interactions on and off the dance floor, and participated in dance to gain a thorough understanding of the culture.

The weekend prior to the Tucson Area Square Dance Festival, I attended a square dance fly-in (or mini-convention) in Tucson sponsored by T-Squares, a gay and lesbian square dance group. Since there is some crossover between the gay and straight square dance communities, this experience introduced me to notable square dance figures in Tucson and helped paved the way for in-depth cultural exploration at the Tucson Area Square Dance Festival. I met professional square dance caller Rick Gittelman, the Tucson Area Square Dance Festival Chairperson, who asked me to videotape the festival and create a publicity video for next year (It’s coming, Rick — don’t worry!).  I also shared meals with legendary square dance callers, who debated the flaws in the current modern western square dance program and made suggestions for improvements. Additionally, I recorded several one-on-one interviews with dancers and square dance callers, asking them to elaborate on themes I observed during the event.

 When I registered for May Madness Contrafest in Prescott, Arizona, I was put on a waiting list of “single” female dancers. Because contra requires a near-even number of men and women so that everyone can dance, my attendance depended on enough single men registering (18, to be exact). Two months before the event, I mentioned my dilemma to a group of international folk dancers during a Tucson focus group. They said it was unlikely that enough men would register, but that I should ask  a local contra dance enthusiast and dance anthropologist to register with me. This generous person has been an active member of the international folk dance and contra dance scenes, and provided me not only with ethnographic reflection at May Madness, but also organized a home-stay for us. During this event, I learned the importance of carpooling, after-parties, and home-stays — all serve to reinforce a sense of community off the dance floor.

The 58th National Square Dance Convention was another invaluable learning experience in terms of dance and community. When interviewing square dancers, many remarked that national convention was a quintessential part of the culture, and that people saved year-long to be able to attend and see friends they had made in prior conventions. When I arrived at the convention center in Long Beach, I felt excitement in the air as thousands of people poured into the building to register. The program offered all levels of square dancing, as well as round dancing (cued partner dancing), country line dancing, clogging, contra dancing; a youth room, hadicapable room, and “rainbow” or gay room for square dancing; and a series of educational seminars. This was the first national square dance convention to include a square dance competition, which seemed to be successful but sparked a lot of debate. While some dancers believe competitions will be the death of square dancing because they defeat the activity’s recreational nature, others perceive it as a way to attract younger people.

The idea of preserving a dance form by attracting youth is a common concern among all the communities that I am researching — square dance, round dance, contra dance, clogging, and international folk dance groups. It is obvious that some modifications will have to be made to make these dance forms relevant to young people. Square dance and contra dance callers reflect that one of the biggest problems is when elementary school PE teachers use outdated “Turkey in the Straw” type square dance records to teach the dance, which leaves the students with an impression that square dance is hokey, old-fashioned, and uncool. In the youth room at the National Square Dance Convention, I heard contemporary pop music as well as classics like “Pretty Woman.” In one session, the organizers even dimmed the lights and gave the children glow bracelets and necklaces to wear. One 18-year-old who has been calling square dances for four years stated, “In schools they do it the wrong way. If they did it the right way, more kids would be interested because they would see how much fun it is.”

It is no coincidence that when the older teens left the youth hall, they migrated to the rainbow room to continue dancing. The gay square dance community has made modifications to the dance form that are more appealing to younger people (and many older ones who find regular square dancing too rigid or boring): 1. A relaxed dress code; 2. The ability to dance either the man or woman’s part regardless of one’s own gender (and therefore dance more often); and 3. “Flourishes” or extra details added to standard dance moves to make them more exciting (hand-clapping, twirling, and kicking). As my research progresses, I will continue to investigate the gay square dance community, which has been holding its own national conventions for over 25 years, as well as the gender-free contra dance community. I believe much can be learned from these groups’ efforts to revitalize and preserve traditional dancing by attracting new dancers.

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July 7, 2009. Field Notes. 10 comments.