What Is Folk Dance?

Folk dancing is a blanket term that covers a lot of ground

Korean folk dance in palace
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When someone says "folk dance," do you think about, say, folks in country-western garb dancing to fiddle music? Or do you think about persons from another country wearing traditional clothing of a particular time and place and dancing to music made on instruments you don't know the names of? 

What if both these concepts are right? Doesn't that suggest that the term "folk dance" is a little slippery — that its meaning seems at first obvious, but becomes less obvious the more you think about it. 

It turns out that folk dance historians are also puzzled by the term, which, they note, has any number of different meanings, not all of them compatible with others. 

Folkloric Dances

Ron Houston, one of the founders of The Society of Folk Dance Historians, a research group informally affiliated with The University of Texas at Houston, considered the question in a 2012 issue of the group's newsletter. He concluded that there really is no one answer to the question, but in the process of doing so he made some interesting distinctions between different kinds of dancing that are often grouped together with the term "folk dancing.' He begins with what is probably the narrowest of "folk dance" categories: folkloric dances. These, he proposes, are dances originally performed for "metaphysical purposes" — religious rites and related ritual behavior. They persist in the present day as atavistic remainders of a way of life that no longer exists; in that sense, recreated folkloric dances can be almost anything, from scholarly reenactments to dances under entirely different auspices and with very different meanings that retain the flavor of a folkloric dance. Vassal Nijinsky's "Rite of Spring," (Le Sacre du Printemps) with music by Igor Stravinsky is a well-known example of a recreated and radically redirected version of a supposedly primitive ritual dance.

Folky Dances 

Houston proposes another related kind of "folky dance" that originates in pre-industrial, often agricultural societies. He proposes that folky dances are folk dances that used to be folkloric dances — until over time the original meaning of the dance was lost. At that point, the dance remains but the original purpose does not. 

Popular, Elite, and Mass Dances

Houston next proposes three kinds of "folk" dance that are somewhat related and that may have folkloric origins. One is popular dance, by which he does not mean dancing to pop music, but rather dance that is enjoyed primarily by what he calls "the lower classes," — peasant dances, for example. A related kind of folk dance is the elite dance which may have originated as court dance and was practiced primarily by mobility or a defined upper class. Mass Dances, as Houston considers them, are dances that allude to folk origins, which may or may not be spurious. He gives the Hokey Pokey and the Lambada as examples. 

Art Dances

Houston considers the folk origins of such dances as the waltz and the flamenco. These, he proposes, have become traditions of their own, but somewhat divorced from folkloric or even folky origins. They're popular dances that have become, if not elite dances, then somewhat elitist. Few nightclubbers would dream of stepping out on a dance floor and attempting a flamenco. Such dances, he argues, are professionalized folk dances. 

Traditional Dances

The last category of legitimate folk dance that Houston considers is traditional dance — a broad category that overlaps several others. He divides traditional dances into those that have been deliberately fixed (by the Board of Highland Dancing, for example) and those that are still evolving. He points to a Swedish folk dance, for instance, that has offshoots in Mexican and German folk dance. Evolving traditional dances are perhaps the closest thing in the modern world to pre-industrial "folky dances."