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Folk Dance Federation of California, South, Inc.

The Source Book
for Ethnic and Vintage
Dance Teachers

By Richard Duree, 2004

Richard Duree



Hungarian Man Dancer Of all the forms of dance, ethnic dance has the most to teach us. Originating from the traditions, beliefs, and practices common to its culture of origin, the dance speaks to us of those behaviors and attitudes that defined the cultural personality. It is an honest, unpretentious, and colorful expression of cultural values and aesthetics.

As students and teachers of the dance, it is our responsibility to learn and understand the stories the dance is attempting to tell us. The dance can and does broaden our understanding and appreciation of cultural histories and their present conditions. Cultures developed over many generations and the dance was an integral part of the artistic expression so important to almost every culture.

Anyone attempting to teach the dance has the responsibility of imparting the knowledge of the dance's culture of origin, as well as the technique and character of movement. Ethnic cultures were — and are — very proud of their dance culture and are aware of the range of permissible movements. The dance's character is the underlying tradition and that is the most important factor that the teacher must impart.

In my years of study and research in ethnic dance, I have been impressed favorably and unfavorably with the teaching skills of my teachers. Many of them, both famous and unknown, have made the learning process an effortless and lasting experience, memorable to this day. Others, often revered as "master teachers," have left a frustrating memory of attempting to learn in the face of inept teaching, expecting the student to "sink or swim."

The latter has produced a dance community that has learned to "learn by rote," with little idea of why the dance moves the way it does. All dances blend together and the character of the dance very quickly is lost in a vast collection of meaningless dances. Many of those who have dropped out of folk dance have done so because of that loss of perspective.

This book is not a collection of dance descriptions, though there are a notations for dances used as illustrations. Rather, it is a study of the "nitty gritty" of dance movement, ethnic history, learning theory, and teaching methodology. I hope it will enable both teacher and student to grasp the enormity of dance in general and ethnic dance in particular.

To anyone who would wish to attempt the task, I hope that the Source Book will provide the tools to succeed in providing your students a satisfying and successful dance experience.

The recognition of dance ethnology as a legitimate academic study is the ultimate goal. Ethnic dance is too valuable and too precious to loose through uncaring and inept teaching. Please take the lessons to heart and go spread the word.



"Choreo" = dance; "geo" = earth; "graphy" = to record. A word first encountered in writings by Dr. Hugh Thurston of the University of British Columbia, "choreogeography" is a scholarly study of the distribution of various dance forms throughout the world. It is a term unique to the study of ethnic dance — dance ethnology — because it is based on a natural selection and development of dance style and character, entirely removed from the carefully choreographed classical forms of theatrical dance. It is a sibling of Ethnomusicology, and as such, is equally worthy of scholarly examination.


Thoughtful consideration turns the problem of defining dance into a complex subject indeed. Learned professors and others have expended countless hours attempting to define dance and to this day have failed to achieve a universally accepted definition. One must realize that in such a broad subject, it is imperative that a definition not eliminate any form of dance, which is exactly what happens when one attempts the definition based on one's own narrow experiences.

Perhaps the simplest one is best: "Dance is expressive movement performed for its own sake with the intent to express or communicate." A bit simplistic perhaps; perhaps not a definition at all, but at least it encompasses the entire range of human dance movement.

As teachers, it is necessary to understand and teach the differences between the various forms of World Dance and to observe and identify the significant characteristics of each. The true value of the dance is in the story it tells of its creators. One need only to learn what to see in the movements, the character and the mood of the dance to realize the depth of the story it tells. Our responsibility is to enlighten the student to this wealth of knowledge as well as to teach movement and technique. An uneducated dancer misses the very thing that makes the dance significant, reducing it to irrelevance and wasting the treasure it bears.

These are not necessarily definitions, rather a list of characteristics of the different forms of World Dance.

Ethnic Dance

"Ethnic dance" is an umbrella term for any dance form which can be identified with a specific ethnic culture by virtue of natural development to meet and satisfy the cultural needs and aesthetics of that culture. It includes all forms of "folk," "religious," and "tribal" dance and some forms of "theatrical" dance." It includes all races, all cultures past and present, and all social classes. It even includes those dances of artificial creation outside the cradle of folklore, which were created for specific rituals and events. For those to whom "ethnic" means "non-white," it must be understood that race has no relevance to the term. European cultures are as much ethnic as are those of Africa or Polynesia or Latin America or anywhere else. To believe otherwise indicates a naïve kind of ethnocentrism and is an affront to the most basic foundations of anthropology. Nor does "ethnic" mean "someone else's" dance. The Hungarians look upon their csárdás the same way as Americans look upon our Fox Trot or Swing; thus they are "ethnic."

Character Dance

Primarily associated with ballet and theatrical dance, character dance is a choreographer's adaptation of an ethnic dance performed within the technique of another discipline (usually ballet). It is most often seen in the romantic ballets of the 19th Century.

Tchiakowsky made extensive use of character dance in Nutcracker with dances of Arabia, Russia, China and elsewhere in that famous scene. Copelia contains the Hungarian "csárdás," The Bartered Bride the Bohemian "furiant." Most were created during the Romantic Period of the late 19th Century with noble kings, kind and beautiful queens, handsome princes pursuing lovely princesses and peasant girls. The European aristocracy dressed as peasants in silks and satins and amused themselves with the fantasy of the happy peasant. After all, the ballet was supported totally by royal patronage and royalty thrived on such flattery.

Folk Dance

"Folk dance" is that form of ethnic dance most widely distributed. It is the "dance of the people" ("folk" comes to English from the German "volk" = "people"). This is the form of dance most frequently adapted to recreational use. Its flexibility and range of technical difficulty is without limit, from the simplest chain dance of the Balkans to the most demanding dance of the Caucasus. It brings a brief glimpse into the aesthetic of the dance's creators, which is at the very center of the study of traditional dance.

To be considered "folk," the dance must meet certain criteria:

The term "folk dance" has been applied for decades to the dances taught in public schools and recreational dance communities in the United States. The phenomenon has spread throughout the world, with avid hobbyists in many European countries happily dancing the dances of neighboring countries. The study and enjoyment of European and American folk dance in Asia has been a thriving activity for many years.

Though not properly "folk dance" in these recreational settings, since the dance has been adapted and practiced far from its roots and is usually performed for purely recreational purposes with no intent of expressing either the dancers' or the creators' cultural content or heritage, we seem to be stuck with the term. Only die-hard purists need be disturbed by it, however it is a distinction that should be understood by teachers and students alike.

It must be mentioned that dance educators in most college and university dance programs have exhibited a biased view toward "folk" dance as being not worthy of scholarly pursuit and have largely eliminated it from the curriculum. There can be no excuse for that egocentric attitude and as ethnic dance teachers, we need to proactively resist it.

Social Dance

The impulse is to call our own folk dance "social dance" and someone else's "folk." Suffice it to say that "social" and "folk" are, for our purposes, synonymous, differing only in being "ours" vs. "theirs." The Fox Trot and Swing may be properly viewed – and probably is – as an American folk dance by dancers from other countries and cultures.

"Ballroom Dance" is simply formalized or codified social dance. The repertoire is smaller and generally is considered to be a more clearly defined discipline. Rock and Roll, hip hop, and any number of fad and novelty dances may easily be considered "social" dance, but it's a stretch to consider them "ballroom" dance." Ballroom dance implies stricter standards of dress, performance, technique, rehearsal and behavior, with prescribed figures and etiquette. The formal "International Ballroom Dance" stresses elegance, grace, and glamour with ample display of feminine charms.

Tribal Dance

A "tribal" culture is characterized by small numbers of closely related families and a non-industrial form of livelihood. Historically, these were nomadic peoples, involved in herding, animal husbandry, hunting and gathering, or a subsistence form of life, living close to the land and personally involved with their self-created deities. Dance is integral to daily life, serving as contact with the supernatural, precursors to important events, such as battle, hunting, planting or harvesting, rites of passage and displaying relationships within the tribe.

Theatrical Dance

Theatrical dance includes the various forms of ballet, including "national" forms, character, modern, tap, and jazz dance that are created primarily for performance before an informed audience. Theatrical dance's major focus is on technique and spectacle, striving for perfection in form and execution that will please its audience. Training is usually formal, taught by professional teachers in studio settings and performed in venues designed for performance.

It also includes some forms of "ethnic" dance that meet the following characteristics:

Theatrical ethnic dance is distributed around the world; the most well-known locations are the cultures of Asia and India, where dance is a highly complex, highly developed art form demanding lifelong dedication by professional dancers, often beginning in early childhood. It is not uncommon for the dance profession to be a family profession, passed from parent to child for generations.

Frequently, special "societies" within a community (often even in "tribal" communities) perform dances which are at once theatrical and religious, such as the "căluşarii" of Romania and the "chapayacas" of the Yaqui Indians of Arizona and northern Mexico. The dancer represents a concept of great importance to the community: fertility and vitality in the former; the ever-present forces of evil in the latter.

Religious or Ritual Dance

The performers of religious dance are frequently the religious leaders or individuals specially charged with the dance's performance. The major purpose of religious dance is to communicate with the supernatural or the spirit world, or to protect the community from it, and shares characteristics of "theatrical" dance. It attempts to influence those mystical beings who control life's forces to be favorable to the people's welfare. Tribal dance is often religious in nature, though religious dance is widely distributed and has a long tradition in many non-tribal cultures. Indeed, religious history includes many references to dance as religious expression.

Even the Bible refers to dance as a religious activity. The European Renaissance left us with ample evidence in tapestries and paintings that dance was an integral part of religious life, condoned by the church. To those who practice it, dance as a religious observance is of utmost importance, a concept that must be respected and honored by all of us.

The so-called "Whirling Dervish" of Turkey is a priest seeking to achieve enlightenment and communion through the trance induced by the dance. The performance is a marvel of control and endurance made possible by intense belief in the truth of its purpose.

The "căluşarii" of Romania are young men dedicated by their parents to serve as special beings to perform the dance which brings good luck, fertility, health – and protection from the fearful sprits which inhabit the unseen world around the community during "rusalii" following Whitsuntide. Transformation into and out of the being of the căluşarii is accomplished by complex and secret ritual, a practice not necessary for the every day dance of the community.

Many Native American Indian tribal dances are essentially ritual dances seeking either to incur favor from the supernatural or to shield the community from the evils of the unknown spirits. Dances were utilized to call upon the buffalo or the rain or any other benefit bestowed by unseen spirits — not too different from Christian prayer.


Though it is important to be able to identify and classify the various types of dance, it is also important to utilize objective and honest criteria. Such criteria should take into account the type of culture, the role of the dance, the performers, and the attitude of both performer and observer. It is obvious that rarely does any dance fall exclusively within one category, rather many will serve more than one role. The pursuit of that inquiry is at the center of the study of dance ethnology.


The uniqueness of World traditional dance — and much of the entire body of ethnic dance — is that it was developed in response to environmental influences. No one applied themselves to the task of creating the dance in a spasm of creativity. The creation was a spontaneous, even innocent evolutionary creation of a common behavior to suit the common aesthetic, resulting in a body of dance that was unique to each community. Environmental influences, which differed from one place to another, resulted in different life styles, different temperaments, and different behavior.

Consider how the various factors might influence how people perceive and express their world and ask yourself — and your students: "Why do people dance the way they do?"


Topography is nothing more than the physical appearance and character of the landscape: open plain, forested hills, coastal, jungle, and so on. One's perception of the horizon strongly affects the sense of movement; those living on the plains and moving about on horseback tend to move horizontally much more than the logger or shepherd whose lifetime walking about on steep hills creates a much more vertical sense of movement.

Consider the differences between the different Polish regional dances. The "mazur" and "krakowiak," from the flat terrain of central Poland, characterized by rapid and graceful travel across the floor, as movement is perceived by adventurous horseman with a limitless horizon. The Gorali, mountain dwellers in the south, dance in place in a virile display of high leaps and rapid footwork enabled by powerful leg strength developed in a lifetime of walking steep mountain trails and the light moccasin-like shoe. These two vastly different dance forms were created less than a hundred miles apart by people who speak the same language.

A similar contrast can be observed in the music and dance of Sweden and Norway, two neighboring countries with — one would assume — much in common. Sweden is a land of gently rolling hills and meadows, while Norway features rugged mountains, deep valleys and fjords jutting inland from the sea. Listen and you will hear the gentle landscape of Sweden and the echoes of swirling wind and turbulent running water in the music of Norway in their respective musical traditions.


Many recreational folk dancers have suffered the discomfort of wearing an authentic folk costume from some northern European country to a folk dance festival in America. The heavy fabric, often wool, was designed to ward off the chill and to last forever. It was made for a different climate and environment which fosters the growing and use of wool or whatever natural product is used for clothing, not to mention the traditional notion that everything was made to last a lifetime or two — a rare idea these days.

The wide trousers of Hungary and surrounding areas, known as "gatya," are a response to the need for cool, lightweight garments for the hot summers of the Hungarian Basin — probably the warmest spot in Central Europe. One will not find anything resembling the gatya in northern Europe's cooler regions. This garment, whose shape and proportions are determined by the fabric's loom width, is simple to make, as well as cool and drafty.

To carry the analogy further, consider the contrast of the stereotypical personality of the people of Scandinavia and Southern Europe — Sweden and Spain — for example. The Scandinavians are seen as even-tempered and reserved, while the Spanish are perceived as volatile, expressive, and emotional. Their respective climates contribute subtle, yet powerful forces to shape that temperament; Scandinavian weather is predictable and changes slowly through the seasons; anyone who has spent any time in Spain has experienced the remarkable change in temperatures between day and night, a sure sign that people who live there will experience similarly quick and extreme changes in the way they respond to life.

There is a distinct relationship between both the Swedish "hambo" and the Spanish "sevillanas" and their respective climates. The gentle, relaxed nature of the former contrasts sharply with the tension and explosive movements of the latter and are a sure indication of the nature of the people who created them.

Compare the dance of Vera Cruz and Jalisco in Mexico. Anyone who has spent any time at all on the Mexican Gulf coast can verify the stifling humidity which encourages one to move as little as possible to avoid overheating. Notice the absolute, gentle stillness of the Vera Cruz dancer's body, even as the footwork sounds its fantastic and compelling rhythms, men's arms to the sides while the girls raise their enormous skirts in modest and subtle turns, fanning the air.

Jalisco is Mexico's cattle country, a high, dry, warm plateau populated by superb horsemen — and women. The low humidity encourages a much more vigorous dance characterized by whole body movement, less complex but more expressive footwork. The women's "skirt-work" is well-known to anyone who has any familiarity with Mexican folkloric dance, vigorously waving complex and beautiful images through the dance. The restrained elegance of Vera Cruz is replaced by expressive vigor and unrestrained joy.


The pre-industrial peasant was forced to live off the land in the manner best suited to what the land had to offer. Mountain dwellers relied on sheep and goats, logging and mining. Plains dwellers raised cattle, livestock and crops, while those near the ocean most likely relied on fishing for their livelihood.

Livelihood was thus a direct result of the topography and climate. Just as the American cowboy developed a unique lifestyle, dress and tools to satisfy the needs of his life, each "profession" developed its own lifestyle and clothing, utilizing the materials available to them.

Footwear is one of the most practical considerations in one's livelihood. Farmers everywhere wore heavy shoes. Horsemen wore boots. Mountaineers wore light moccasin-type footwear which, in the dance, could not and did not affect the stamps and heel beats of their booted neighbors; rather the light shoe prompted light, fast footwork evidenced in the Polish Gorali — Krakowiak comparison.

The dance often incorporated such motifs as imitations of favored animals (eagles and horses being the most popular) and the tools and implements which were part of the daily task. Women's dances frequently are characterized by a display of the tasks with which women were charged. Thus, the horse culture creates dance movements with heel beats and long gliding steps, while the mountain-dweller attempts to fly with the eagles, striving to be free of gravity. Women's dance washes windows, kneads bread, celebrates childbirth, mimics grain in the fields.

Poland, with its compact and richly varied topography, is a fine example of the effects of these factors on the form and function of the dance.

Consider this Choreogeographic study:


by Richard Duree

Poland's dance is an interesting mix of highly-developed national dances and earthy village dances, with a unique mixture of regional styles, costume and music. As much as any ethnic dance of Europe, the Poles dance with the entire body, including arms and head, with soft, effortless movements contrasting sharply to erect, vigorous, powerful ones. It's an interesting body of dance, well worth a close Choreogeographic study.

The country is both blessed and cursed by its location and topography, an easily crossed area devoid of natural obstacles to the many invaders who have trampled it through the centuries as they sought to destroy one another. To the south, the rugged, lovely Tatra Mountains form an impressive boundary with Slovakia and the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. On the north, the Baltic Sea is a major outlet to the world through its many ports.

From the east and west the powerful military cultures of the Ukrainians and Germans came to shed each other's and Polish blood. Anyone with even a smattering of European history knows of the country's troubled past. Polish military history is filled with legends of extraordinary heroism and the tradition of brilliant military horsemanship. Indeed, the horse plays an important role in Polish folklore, as we shall see.

But to the dance . . .

Men's boots are soft, allowing both great flexibility of technique and protection for strong heel-beats, seemingly a requirement for booted dancers everywhere. Women's boots are frequently laced tight, though the popular "folk dance" style boot is found everywhere. Costumes, as in every other country, are very local and readily identify the wearer's hometown. Polish folk costumes are among the most recognizable in Europe and, in the case of Novy Sącz, among the most elaborate.

There are five national dances, all highly influenced by professional dance masters. These are "Pan Poland" and exist outside the village dance repertoire. We are most familiar with these national dances, often to the point of ignoring the village dances altogether.

The dances are perhaps most readily approached in order of tempo from slowest to quickest: Polonaise, Kujawiak, Mazur, Krakowiak, and Oberek. Note that the polka is not one of them, though it is danced throughout the country.

Polonaise — To many Poles, this is the most important dance of all and, perhaps because of Chopin's music, it is possibly the most well known. It opens every ball, led by the guest of honor or the ranking person present, its elegant 3/2 rhythm setting the mood for the evening's festivities. We are informed that the Polonaise was the dance in which all sorts of clandestine arrangements were made. (Maybe that's why it was so important.) Elegance and restraint are the major characteristics, almost pompous in demeanor with bows and curtseys and flirtatious acknowledgments, weaving graceful figures across the floor not unlike the 16th and 17th Century ball dances from which it descended.

Kujawiak — The only dance which attempts to tell a story, the Kujawiak (koo ya vee yak) originated in the impoverished Kujawy region of north central Poland. Its swampy soils were unable to produce abundant crops and its dance reflects the poverty in the sad, lovely strains of its music and in heavy, graceful gestures, a unique character of restrained beauty and free-flowing movement across the floor.

Mazur — The ultimate court dance of old Poland, the Mazur was danced at court in elaborate court dress and brilliant military uniforms by young, fit, energetic ladies and gentlemen. Named for the Mazowsce region in which Warsaw is located, the Mazur perhaps more than any other dance reflects the tradition of horsemanship. The dancer literally flies across the floor in steps and figures designed to mimic the horse and propel one forward in graceful, gliding leaps as one might gallop unhindered across the open landscape

Listen to this the next time you hear the Mazur: the 3/4 music is accented on the second beat; it's subtle, but it's there and that's why it is so difficult to waltz to what appears to be a waltz rhythm. The reason: tradition has it that the rhythm was influenced by the gait of a galloping horse which begins with a step on one or the other rear hooves (count 1), then the opposite rear hoof and its diagonal front hoof land together (count 2), and the remaining front hoof completes the cycle (count 3), thus the heavier accent on the second beat. Isn't folklore wonderful?

Krakowiak — Obviously from the Krakow region of south central Poland, near the foot of the mighty Tatras, the Krakowiak is the only national dance in 2/4 rhythm. The heel-beats are there, as is the rapid, lateral movement, but now comes a sudden stop, followed by vigorous figures performed in place, as though the horseman came upon the impassable mountains.

Oberek — The fastest and most demanding of the national dances, Oberek means "spinning," and so it does. Its 3/4 rhythm is danced in a unique syncopation, counted "1&-3," a kind of "quick-slower-slow" rhythm which gives the dance a powerful, driving character. Couples spin clockwise in a unique position, the lady on the man's right and holding his upper arm with her left hand as he executes leg sweeps from a deep plie or leaps high in the air at the end of a spin, or tosses his partner high in the air over his shoulder. A great dance for showing off. It frequently appears as a break in the melancholy Kujawiak, a study in contrasts.

Those, academically speaking, are the five national dances of Poland. There are more, however — many more. Among the most well-known and interesting are the dances of the Gorali, mountain dwellers of southern Poland's Tatra mountains, where "kierpce-clad" feet move with unbelievable speed and the dancers move laterally very little. Muscles developed from a lifetime of walking the steeply-sloped land lend an easy power and grace to the mountaineer's dances, alternating deep knee-bends with exhilarating leaps. The "chupaga" (mountaineer's axe) appears prominently in men's dances and couples dances resemble nothing so much as the aggressive courtship of the eagle. No horses depicted here! Poland is thus one of the most demonstrable examples of the effects of topography, history, and livelihood on the way its people live — and dance.

Foreign Occupation and Exchange

Most cultures have a history of either occupying another by conquest or having been occupied by another — sometimes both. Perhaps the most telling of all influences in folk dance are those imposed by conquering or dominant neighbors. The Turks were in southern Europe for 500 years; the Swedes conquered and occupied Poland. Russians occupied Finland. Americans occupied the lands of Native American Indians. One does not have to look far to find numerous examples.

An enormous amount of cultural exchange occurs naturally over several generations as trade develops and flourishes, transporting not only goods and currency, but ideas, new concepts, and new fashions. Indeed, change in fashion follows closely with changes in economic conditions; new fabrics, new standards of behavior, new manufacturing technology, new opportunity for advancement — all contribute to the development and evolution of traditional dance forms, as in the case of the Ragtime dance craze in America's early 20th Century.

An interesting comparison can be made between Swedish and Polish music and dance. The effect the Swedes may have had on Polish dance forms could be studied endlessly, but a unique, common thread may be found in the music. Though much of the music is in 3/4 meter, the accent is frequently on the second beat. The Swedish waltz is danced with a slight lift on the second beat, as is the Polish Mazur, hardly a coincidence.

An interesting theory about this "second beat" accent has it that the three-beat rhythm mimics the rhythm of a galloping horse. The sequence of lead front leg on the first beat, followed on the second by the opposite front leg and diagonal rear leg, followed by the remaining rear leg creates a stronger second beat because of two hoofs landing, while first and last beat are only one hoof.

Turkish influence on the dance and folklore of the Balkans, an area they occupied as the Ottoman Empire for centuries, is very evident in the chain dances of Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, and other regions. The effect that occupation had is a fascinating subject still studied by scholars to this day. The restrictions of the Muslim faith forbid genders to mix, especially in the dance, and the concept of dancer partners was inconceivable. Since the chain dance predated even the Ottomans, the later arrival of the decadent couple dance of the Renaissance never penetrated Turkey's iron grip on tradition. That situation exists to this day.

The Renaissance

Since it dawned in Italy, the Renaissance was the social transition out of the Medieval Age, an awakening and acceptance of the creative, artistic nature of the human mind, a new age of inquiry, discovery and creativity. The effect on dance was dramatic. It introduced for the first time the concept of dancing with a partner, new at least to the aristocracy (the peasants may have been doing so for some time). Earlier dance was limited to the religious observance, usually danced to tell a story or to influence a deity; now the idea of "social" dance entered cultural evolution.

The chain dance, often called "line dance," is considered to be the oldest form of dance. Its origins are lost in antiquity, but most probably were a natural evolution of religious rituals around a central object, such as an idol or image of a deity. As generations and societies evolved, the ritual took on form and structure, guided by who knows what idea or aesthetic, eventually becoming a dance performed for any number of reasons as Tribal dance ritual. As Christianity replaced pagan religions the dances, though less and less a part of religious ritual, were retained in the repertoire. Eventually, the reasons for the dance's origin are forgotten and the dance becomes a mere habitual performance, preserved as long as it suits the attitudes and condition of the people.

The couple dance of the Renaissance served as a courtly exhibition of aristocratic pomp. Gentlemen escorted ladies in elegant processions and dance masters created exaggerated movements, postures, gestures and choreographies, many of which seem painfully "wrong" today, lacking as they did, a scientific study of the human body and movement. Elaborate choreographies were created for elaborate court events and learning them was an important part of every aristocrat's life from young adulthood. This processional dance form and the "set dances" into which they evolved are still with us in the form of the New England lancers and contras, the Hungarian "palotás," the surviving Finnish minuet, and the Polish "polonaise."

Today we can tell almost exactly where the influence of the Renaissance ended and that of the Ottoman Empire began. Coming from the north, couple dances dominate until one reaches a line running across Romania, Hungary, and Croatia. There, a narrow zone exists in which both circle and chain dances coexist. Moving further south, only the older form of chain dances are encountered, preserved for hundreds of years by the Ottoman Empire's shield against the western Renaissance.

Socioeconomic Conditions

Barring the tragedy of war, the normal evolution of societies is toward betterment of living conditions. As technology develops more efficient tools, more comfortable living conditions and more leisure time, the creative process is freed to exercise this most basic of human urges. Increased wealth creates the urge to display and the display of wealth can take any number of forms from expensive fabrics to countless numbers of "Sunday outfits," to remarkable examples of embroidery and embellishments in precious metals.

America was a prime example of socioeconomic evolution in the late 19th and early 20h Centuries. The Industrial Age and the country's enormous natural resources provided the setting and the trust-busting actions of Roosevelt and Taft provided the opportunity. Freed from the almost feudal controls of "Big Business," an affluent middle-class sprang to life within a decade from the "toiling masses" of the 1890s. It was only natural that the "nouveau riche," as they were called by the "old money" of the time, wanted to distance themselves from the working class of which they had so recently been a part.

The Ragtime dance craze sparked by Vernon and Irene Castle became a passionate expression of newfound elegance and style. The dances of the time are at once pompous and elegant, pretentious and innocent, contrived and danceable, a perfect depiction of the social values of the time. An interesting comparison can be made of the further evolution in American social dance following World War I as the "Roaring 20s" left its mark on the dance in the contrasting forms of the Charleston and Foxtrot.


American Social Dance
The Dance is Us
by Richard Duree

Why do we dance the way we do? How do we describe the difference between the flamenco of the Spanish gypsies and the Lindy? Or the Ukrainian hopak? Why do those people dance the way they do?

Why, indeed. Why do we dance at all? And what is dance anyway? It's a bit like asking about the meaning of life. If we give it some thought, dance, and how we perform it, tells us a lot about ourselves. And not just ourselves. We can see into the intimate values of anyone who dances. And that includes almost everyone. Serious studies are made on lesser questions.

Dance ethnology is that unique science that relates dance to the personality and aesthetics of the ethnic group to which it belongs and identifies the social, geographical, and historical factors that effect the dance's form and character. It seeks to understand not only how, but why one culture's dance differs from another and what the dance tells us.

The theory is that dance will survive as long as it satisfies a contemporary social need and aesthetic; if it does not, it will not survive and will pass into history or, at best, be preserved only artificially. But its movements and relationships will tell us much, if we only observe.

For centuries, dance served as the social center of polite society and the artistic release for the peasantry. Dance historians and ethnologists have an almost limitless supply of dance history upon which to ponder.

America's own two-hundred year-old folk/social dance traditions are entirely worthy of such ethnological examination as both the product of a rapidly changing society and a clear record of the evolution of contemporary social values and attitudes.

Our social dance tradition goes back well into the 18th Century with the importation of country dances from England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Germany, and Scandinavia. Even the fandangos of the Spanish West are important, but we will attend to the East Coast here.

George Washington loved to dance. His favorite, Sir Roger de Coverly, became the "Virginia Reel." It was the time of the minuet, a time of pomp and elegance, partners standing apart from each other, gentlemen supporting heavily gowned ladies through the latest complex figures created by touring dance masters. In the coarser "colonies," the dance became much less restrained and reflected the more casual and energetic nature of the unrefined Americans.

The formal polka and waltz from Europe became the popular ballroom dances of the 19th Century, delayed at first by the reluctance of 18th Century minds to accept the dangerous new closed dance position. They swept European society by storm, although the peasants had been dancing it for a couple of generations before. In America, the waltz and polka were strong ties to the Old Country and were cherished as a reminder of a heritage left in the bittersweet emigration to America and on to the frontier. There is even record of the polka being danced in the California gold camps seventeen years after it was first recorded in Bohemia in 1834!

West Point cadets were expected to be proficient in dance as part of being an officer and a gentleman. Many an elegant waltz in the finest Viennese style was seen at military balls throughout the Civil War and subsequent Indian Wars on the frontier right up to the time it disappeared.

Not all American ballroom dance was of the waltz/polka variety. New Englanders danced barely-changed English country dances, performed in long-ways sets, called contras, or in squares, clearly descended from the previous century's minuet. Each dance had a set sequence of well-known figures and the dances were well and eagerly attended in the many small villages. A person's reputation and standing in the community was frequently enhanced or diminished on attendance and skill at the dance.

From Tennessee to Georgia, Irish and English settlers brought their dances to their isolated Appalachian Mountains an interesting merge of styles. The Irish jig took on a different flavor, influenced not only by the wearing of heavy work boots, but by the freely expressive dance movements of African slaves. We know it now as the "clog" and it is a truly American folk dance, registering perfectly the origins and aesthetics of the Appalachian people.

To this mix of Appalachian aesthetics, add the country dances of the English. The evolution of the Big Circle Dance is an adaptation of one or more English dances, with the added element of called figures and clogging, danced in isolated hamlets in wooded hills and valleys for generations.

Following the Civil War, New England farmers began to abandon their rocky farms and Southerners left destroyed plantations to seek new land in the west. Expansion into the Indian lands of the Great Plains from Montana to Texas began in earnest in a period of American history familiar to us all — the Old West. And the dance went with it. Like the people who went West, the dance took on new forms and new roles in the new society about to be born.

Imagine the scene: widely scattered small towns and ranches, populated with a mix of people from not only the North and South, but by newly arrived immigrants from Europe: Czechs, Poles, Irish, Germans, and French. In this vast land with few amenities, dances were eagerly anticipated and well attended by people from vastly different backgrounds who barely knew each other. The New England contras and quadrilles would not work here, since no one knew the sequence of the figures. High-topped riding boots and lack of a wood floor made clogging impractical. Necessity created the quadrille with called figures and our national square dance was born, its complex figures requiring attentive teamwork from everyone, reflecting the social climate and aesthetics of American culture which are still with us — we hope.

To Americans of the emerging 20th Century things needed to change — and things were indeed changing. The frontier was gone, the Industrial Age was upon us, a new middle class was emerging and great social and technological innovations were on the horizon. The 19th Century — and Europe — were in the past, old fashioned and out of step with the modern new times. The waltz and polka and even the square dance must step aside for something different and new, just as the minuet had a century earlier.

To social historians, the most significant socioeconomic event of the new century was the "trust-busting" campaign of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, relieving the huge business conglomerates of their strangle hold on the American society and economy. An "aristocracy" had risen through corrupt, self-serving, and ruthless business practices unfettered by government restraints and had claimed control of the nation's economy to its own benefit in fine European feudal style. Child labor was common, as were ten- and twelve-hour workdays, six-day workweeks, sweat shops, and subsistence wages. A merchant class was almost nonexistent and an enormous void separated the upper and lower classes — a void soon to be filled.

The nation's industrial base had become well established during the "Industrial Age." New mechanical gadgets, everything from washing machines to apple peelers, held the public's attention and were being produced and consumed in a frenzy of mechanical technology. The automobile came into its own as a popular form of transportation, thanks to Henry Ford's excellent vision, and America's most enduring new industry was born. Cottage industries were disappearing in the shadow of factories and mass-produced goods. "Consumerism" was a new part of social life as more and more new products came on the market.

Labor unions became an emotional part of American society and the working class suddenly began to realize its economic power. Labor riots raised emotions to new highs on both sides of the issue, but wages began to rise and working hours began to lessen. People began to realize not only expendable income, but also exciting new products and leisure time to obtain and enjoy them.

It was also the time of the powerful and emotional cause of women's suffrage. With the vote, women moved ever closer to legal and social equality with men and a major shift in the social order was underway.

This volatile mixture of changes in power, the increase in competition, the growing purchasing power of the people, and rapidly evolving social and economic values led to the single most important social development in modern American history — the emergence of the American middle class. It happened in less than a generation.

This new social phenomenon suddenly thrust America into an unfamiliar but eagerly grasped role as one of the world's powerful nations, emerging amid the crumbling and unstable empires of the Old World. Teddy Roosevelt built and sailed the "Great White Fleet" around the world to prove it.

This newly affluent middle class exhilarated in its sudden wealth and, free from the feudal business practices of the "Gay '90s," sought desperately to distance themselves from the lower classes of which they had so recently been a part. In searching for their new identity, elegance and newness became highly prized symbols of success — new fashions, new music, new machines — new anything.

And they began to look for new means of expression of their new status — something fresh and new and . . . American!

Ragtime music was fresh and new; its syncopated sounds quickly became popular in spite of its disreputable origins as entertainment in the finer "sporting houses." The combination of African rhythms and syncopations produced a sound very different from the 19th Century ballroom music of Strauss and others.

One of those African-American brothel pianists, Scott Joplin, was discovered by music producer John Stark, who, fascinated with the new music and able to see its possibilities, contracted Joplin to write new songs in his Ragtime style. "Maple Leaf Rag" was published in 1898 and the rest is wonderful Ragtime history. For two decades, Ragtime was almost the only new music composed in America.

The "nouveau riche" at first disdained the "vulgar" new music as more suitable for the lower classes, but its lively, infectious new sound eventually won out and Ragtime music was "in."

But those awful dances!

To "high society," the black community's dance was vulgar and unsophisticated: the "Grizzly Bear" and the "Bunny Hug" and the "Cake Walk" and "Turkey Trot." These weren't dances! They were the strutting and carryings on of the trashy lower class. Nobody would be caught dead dancing them, especially when one was striving to identify with "polite" society. Remember, this was generations before modern political correctness; references abound to the desire for grace and sophistication in all things and the exclusion of "vulgar" or "crude" behavior. So the middle class waited . . . and waited . . . for something new, more suited to their new status in life.

It came in the form of Vernon and Irene Castle, a young couple who, while seeking their place in the Paris spotlight, had created and performed a new form of ballroom dance — elegant, smooth, and sophisticated. An instant hit in Europe, they were just what the folks at home wanted: fashionable, handsome, young, fresh, suave, wholesome — and married! Their new style of dance was perfect for Ragtime music and a perfect match with the expectations of the new America. The Castles launched a dance craze which has not been equaled in this country before or since.

The One-Step, Castle Walk, Tango, Maxixe, and Polka seem quaint and archaic to us now, but they are symbolic of the American "personality" of the new 20th Century. They were danceable, fun, and elegant and everyone could dance them. It was democracy in dance and America wanted all it could get. The Castles became fabulously wealthy, giving performances across the country and giving dance lessons to the wealthy at prices that are unheard of even today.

Alas, it could not last. World War I changed the world, abruptly tearing America from its innocent past and Europe from its feudal one. Vernon Castle's death in 1918 dampened the Ragtime fever, and America was left seeking something to fill the sudden void. After only twenty years, the 20th Century needed to be reborn.

Suddenly America realized something! We were a world power! We had conquered a mighty foe and brought American thought and values to the rest of the world! We were young and powerful and we could do anything we wanted. We had natural resources beyond imagining and we could build anything. The energy of it all was ready to explode into the "Roaring '20s."

Jazz had experienced a parallel development to Ragtime, primarily in New Orleans, out of the mainstream of East Coast and Mid-Western society. Like Ragtime, jazz pianists had entertained customers in the brothels of Storeyville, New Orleans' 28 block-long red light district. Storeyville was shut down in 1917; the brothels were closed, the gambling halls were locked up, and all those wonderful musicians were suddenly out of work. Their exodus from New Orleans must have been a difficult one as they migrated to the big Eastern cities of New York and Chicago and Philadelphia and elsewhere.

Jazz took up where Ragtime left off and the "Roaring 20s" were underway! The economy soared, Prohibition added its contribution to the mix and Americans began the great experiment of redefining America. Jazz took its rightful place at the heart of American culture.

Many people were dancing the "naughty" Charleston in defiance of their parents' disapproval. The Charleston began with the African-American community over a decade earlier and became popular in the mid-1920s as an ideal expression of the exuberance in America's new power and wealth. For the first time, women took an equal and energetic part in the dance, celebrating suffrage as the law of the land. Mothers were aghast at their young daughters' short skirts and shameless antics, unthinkable under the 19th Century standards of the great, dour Queen Victoria.

Interestingly, the Fox Trot was the most popular dance of the 1920s, in spite of the Charleston's notoriety. The Fox Trot evolved from the One-Step — smooth, graceful and sophisticated. Etiquette books of the day plainly state that this is the dance for those who would appear "elegant." It is still the dance of sophisticated society and has been with us longer than the waltz and polka had been at the turn of the century.

We all know what the Great Depression of the 1930s did to our country and to the world, as the thoughtless excesses of the 1920s resulted in the bleakest period in American economic history. Dance marathons emulated the grim, dogged struggle to survive. The carefree, sassy Charleston became the heavy, deliberate Shag, again adopted from the black community's prolific repertoire, because it satisfied the incessant urge to express the human condition in movement. Jazz and the blues became the voice of American music and we cherish it still.

World War II, for all its horror and sacrifice, revitalized America. Thrust abruptly into a conflict of monumental proportions, Americans found new pride and energy in their ability to respond to the greatest threat ever to our values and way of life. Factories sprang to life, everyone worked for a common goal and the nation focused on one thing — victory.

And there, in the midst of it all, Benny Goodman's bubbling, energetic, optimistic Swing appeared, perfectly defining America's mood. The dance that accompanied it, an evolution from the Shag, still rates as one of America's greatest folk/social dances, strongly affecting American popular dance to this day. Women were free to express sexuality and strength and femininity, an equal partner in the dance as they had been in the war effort. If one stops to think about it, the Swing would have been out of place in the Ragtime Era.

Many of us remember the music of the 1950s and what Rock and Roll did to it. This new music style revolutionized not only our music, but spread around the world as the symbol of America and what this country represents. The evolution of Rock and Roll and the countless fad dances created for it has been a mirror of rapidly changing social values and economic conditions, varying from gentle to frantic and beyond. Dancers abandoned the embrace and support of a partner, preferring to display their art from a viewable distance. Music and dance alike appear, flare brightly and disappear, to be replaced by something else within months. Disco appeared in the mid-1970s, emulating the 1960s fascination with newfound sexuality and competition, just as the Charleston did fifty years earlier.

Love it or hate it, Rock and Roll now has a 50-year history which must be recognized.

An interesting phenomenon awaits us in the not-too-distant future. Looking back over several hundred years of Western history, the beginning of every century has been marked by great social evolutions. The Baroque Period emerged in the early 18th Century and gave us the stately, proper minuet. The waltz and polka, with the embarrassing embrace, pushed their way inevitably into a reluctant 19th Century. We have just witnessed Ragtime's role in our current century.

A new century is here. A new millennium! Think of it! What forces, what needs, what new aesthetic will emerge to shake off the hoary old 20th Century and create new ideas and behavior standards. Dance will invariably be a visual expression of that change.

What kind of dance and music will those born in the early and mid 1990s adopt as their expression of their new world and new century? Might they discard their parents' sixty year-old Rock and Roll and start something yet unimagined? What can they do to shock and scandalize a generation raised on rap music and MTV?

Social Structure and Cultural Personality

An interesting phenomenon is found in the men's dances of Transylvania. Here a mixture of Hungarian and Romanian populations have existed side by side for hundreds of years, resulting in a uniquely Transylvanian dance culture. The most observable difference between Hungarian and Romanian dance is the difference in competitiveness; the "legényes" of the Hungarians is a competition — friendly, but competitive nonetheless, each dancer displaying individual virtuosity in turn, while the Romanians tend to dance together, all dancers performing the same figures at the same time.

A dancer once observed, "The English must be a lot more 'laid back' than the Scots" after observing the casual nature of progressions in an English Country Dance in strong contrast to the highly organized and directed progressions in Scottish Country Dance. Another dancer, quite familiar with both Scottish and English cultures, nodded in vigorous agreement. The apparent differences in the two cultures, closely related by history and geography, was thus vividly exposed in the dance.

One of the great gifts to American culture was the mixture of cultures from which it was created. The conquest and settling of the frontier required cooperation and universal contribution to the development of communities everywhere, not unlike the need in the Old Country under similar economic conditions. Thus, American society in the early years was characterized by an intricate social order and system of cooperation. What better way to re-enact this state than through the combination of dances from England and Germany that eventually evolved into the Square Dance — our national dance.

The dance relied on the complete cooperation of every dancer to carry out the complex figures, just as required in life. It's interesting to note the drastic decline in participation in Square Dance in the late 20th Century. One might wonder if the concept of communal participation and cooperation has lost some of its value in favor of a more self-centered concept of dance — and life.

Thus we see that the dance fulfills and satisfies those concepts which are considered important in each culture. A competitive and independent nature will result in an individualized and competitive dance form; an orderly, disciplined culture will create an orderly, highly constructed dance form with no loose ends. One who is familiar with other such closely related cultures can begin to identify similar differences.


In the definitions of dance in the beginning, the various forms of dance were defined by "characteristics," including the role the dance played in its culture of origin. Ballet and folk dance are differentiated not only by their very different techniques, but by the way they are perceived and practiced in society. Popular participation is not a part of ballet; entertainment is. Folk dance may, in some instances, be theatrical, but participation is a major reason for its existence.

A study of the role of dance in various cultures is a fascinating study, particularly with folk dance, because unlike ballet, it varies from one culture to another.

Expression of Social Structure and Values

Perhaps the most profound statement ever made about folk dance was this:

"Folk dance is at once an expression of one's identification with a community and of one's individuality within it." (Dick Crum)

As surely as language identifies a person with a culture, so does dance. The culture which allows couple dance in closed position has accepted a more or less equality of men and women, accepting a close public relationship between them. The chain dance, whether mixed men and women or segregated, will tell much about those relationships. The most profound query one can make about folk dance is: "Why do people dance the way they do?"

The American square dance is a fine example of the coordination and cooperation of a group of individuals in executing complex figures, a trait shared with many Northern European cultures (Scotland, England, Ireland, France, Germany), which played a large part in our make up. This tradition of "making things work" has been a major factor in creating our complex, industrial society, made possible only through a mutual value of cooperation.

Self Entertainment and Recreation

Poverty was the common denominator of the general population in every country until modern times, especially during the times when folk dance was being created out of the people's need for artistic self-expression. The dance gave an opportunity to cast off the burdens of labor and it was "cheap," costing nothing. People with no accumulation of wealth are forced to create less costly forms of diversion and entertainment and dance survived as a well-entrenched form of entertainment as long as poverty ruled their lives.

Even after the accumulation of wealth, dance remained as a form of recreation, because dance is fun. No one who dances has to be told that. Today, self-entertainment is the major reason for dance to exist and it does so with great success.


Freedom of choice in selecting a mate is a relatively new concept, even in Western culture, and still not practiced in many others. For centuries, marriages were arranged for a wide variety of reasons: political, economic, social status, and many more. In Western cultures, as in others, the dance was a situation where prospective mates were introduced and groomed. As traditions softened, courtships were carried out, either clandestinely or otherwise, under the watchful eye of the elders. Strict social behavior was strictly enforced and the dance gave the young people the opportunity to meet and become more acquainted. Even today, there are few better ways to get up close and personal with an interesting member of the opposite sex.

Social Control

Not so true today, but dance was one of the major means of peer pressure to conform for generations. We have the example in Slovenia of dancers in a circle, moving clockwise in a tight "drmeš" until the spell is broken by one person interrupting with a loud verse, repeated immediately by all in the circle, a unique, but effective form of social control. That verse was a report to the community of any transgression by a member of the community, a form of ridicule that could be devastating to those "found out." And one had better have a very good excuse for not being present at this communal "roast." A very powerful form of social control, indeed.

Communication with the Supernatural

Ethnic dance is rich with examples of pre-Christian dance forms. If one steps outside the realm of folk dance, examples of "religious dance" and "tribal dance" fall almost exclusively into this role.

Most Americans are familiar with the dances of the Native American Indians, dances to the Great Spirit, the buffalo, the water spirits; the list is endless when the concept of religion is that of multiple deities. When the unseen gods are all about you, observing your every move, dance is the most obvious, visible means of communication. They might not understand your words, but they will certainly understand your imitations of the buffalo or the rain or the wind, understand your needs and heed your call.

The Native American Indians are not unique. The dance is used universally for such communication around the world by non-industrial peoples. With the advent of organized religions, the role of dance changes and diminishes, based on the demands, mores and evolution of each religion. Many cultures, such as the American Indian, often retain a unique, interesting combination of dance and ritual honoring both traditional and Christian deities.


It is necessary to consider the role of each dance in its culture, else the dance will exist in a vacuum and surely die. Most lost dances and folk cultures were lost because of the changes brought about by outside forces — industrialization, emigration, conquest — which either eliminated or changed the need for the dance.

Migrations to the city destroyed the traditional social structure of the rural community, creating anonymity and eliminating the need for dance-controlled courtship or social behavior. Technological innovations change the roles of men and women. Other forms of entertainment emerge. Religious influences occasionally forbid dance as something evil and the dance dies. The dance may suddenly become a symbol of the poverty from which one wishes to escape; indeed, the entire culture, including language, may be shunned. That phenomenon is not uncommon among immigrants into the United States who attempted to completely sever ties with their old, impoverished, war-torn culture. Or, it may become the symbol of the class to which one aspires. The dance is in reality a traditional art form, a treasure worth preserving if only for its beauty, worth studying for the fascinating story it has to tell.



Students' learning rarely exceeds the quality of their instruction. It is the responsibility of the teacher to impart not only the technique of dance, but a comprehension of that culture from which the dance emerges: the collection of social, cultural, and historical forces which created and shaped it.

The peasant mind, from which most of our folk dances come, is characterized by an extremely conservative and logical nature. Tradition was and is the guiding force in both thought and action. Fortunately for us, that very conservatism is what preserved the treasures of the art. The peasant approached everything in a logical manner. We marvel at the ingenuity of people who have created exquisite works of art and immensely practical solutions to vexing problems of everyday life with simple, uncommonly intelligent logic applied to every aspect of peasant life: clothing, tools, food, shelter.

It is one of the wonders of humankind that even in the most humble of cultures, the artistic spark lives so surely. Peasants who probably never saw money, never owned their own land, were impoverished by a feudal economic system and had no hope of ever improving their lives, are responsible for some of the most remarkable achievements in human artistic creation. Textiles, embroideries, clothing, carvings, jewelry, music, dance — the list is endless; all show the unmistakable mark of artistic genius and integrity, honestly and innocently telling the story of its creators.

Given all that, it is logical to presume that the dance has been created in a logical, artistic, honest, and innocent fashion. There is no attempt to create a spectacle of choreography. It is the teacher's principle responsibility to discern the logic of the dance's structure, its movement character, and role in the culture and to impart that information to the student with the reason for its creation and performance.

Perhaps the most important responsibility of the teacher of folk / ethnic dance is that of imparting the significance of the dance, even more so than the steps and figures of which it is constructed. Failure to do so will produce a body of students who simply learn dances to add to their collection, with rare comprehension of the reason for its existence. We study American history to understand who we are and what we represent; we owe at least a similar study of what we claim to be our favorite hobby.

Personal Qualities and Skills Necessary for Teaching

Any dance teacher worthy of the title must have certain personality traits that will ensure student success and develop continued interest in dance. After witnessing every level of teaching excellence, it becomes obvious what works and what doesn't and the teacher's personality is invariably a major factor in the quality of instruction.


Above all — patience. Patience is born of and supported by several personal skills and attributes. It is the quality that allows a teacher to observe, consider, analyze, and "teach." Patience is the ability to set frustration aside and efficiently draw from one's repertoire to impart learning and solve problems. Students will love a patient teacher and scorn one who is not. Patience will allow one to become a successful teacher; lack of it will guarantee failure.


All the patience and teaching skills will be wasted if one is unable to "see" into the students' minds, discern their learning styles, identify learning problems, and apply the most effective teaching technique. One must be able to read students' body language, facial expression, movement aptitudes, body type, musical / rhythm comprehension, frustration thresholds, strength, stamina, physical abilities — all that and more. Once read, the information should give the teacher an indication of the effectiveness of one teaching technique or the need to abandon it and go to another.


Flexibility follows Perceptive. A teacher must be ready and able to raise or lower the bar for a class, depending on the information gathered upon observing the class. If the material is too difficult, either simpler material must be immediately introduced or the teaching methods need to be adapted to meet the learning skills of the class. Don't be afraid to discard a dance if it appears to be inappropriate to the class' skill level, but always have alternative material to take its place. The ability to change "in midstream" must appear effortless and without emotional upheaval. A class will sense and resent a teacher's disappointment or displeasure.

Learning Theory

Most students fall into one of five or more learning styles. Without going into a long discussion on Learning Theory, the major ones are:

  1. physical (learning by internal body feel or performance),
  2. mental (the inclination to learn by memorizing),
  3. visual (the need to see the movement in order to duplicate it),
  4. auditory (the ability to learn from vocal instructions and turn them into movement), and
  5. analytical (the practice of studying dance movement and structure to understand the form and concept of the dance — probably the most effective and desired learning process).

There are others, but these will serve our purpose here. One must understand which of these learning methods each student is most able to use.

Dance Movement

A teacher who has little knowledge of dance movement and cannot dance well should not teach. Students are seriously short-changed when the teacher cannot illustrate movement. This is not to say that teaching requires extraordinary performance skills — far from it. Few professional sports coaches can perform as well as their players, but they understand the performance techniques that work and are able to impart that understanding to the student / player.

Dance Knowledge

Dance knowledge is not the same as movement skills. Now we are concerned with the knowledge and respect of the "biography" of the dance: location, ethnic origins, geography, history, livelihood, function, economy, traditions. This is what gives the dance character and a reason for being. And it gives the student an understanding of the reality of ethnic dance. Any teacher of traditional folk / ethnic dance should be able to conduct an intelligent, in-depth discussion of those who created the dance and why they dance the way they do.


One of the basic skills of dance is to learn how much energy or effort to expend on a movement or technique. For the teacher, this concept must be applied to the ego. A teacher must have an ego, but any that shows beyond an obvious self-confidence is bloated turn-off to most students. Excess ego puts an ugly face on all the other qualities a teacher may possess and many very good teachers are still wondering why they and their wonderful personality have not been invited to teach for so long.

Teachers must like and respect people, be interested in them, and be able to bond with them. There is no quicker turn-off than to have a teacher "talk down" to a class as though they are elementary school students. They need to feel that the teacher has taken notice of their presence, assessed and recognized their abilities, and made an effort to enhance their learning experience.

Voice Quality

Voice tone and humor are major factors of a teacher's image and reputation. A high-pitched voice will begin to strain and irritate a class after a short time and it becomes a distraction to many. Teachers must learn to hear themselves and know if they're climbing the scales. Tempo must be controlled and pronunciation must be clear, precise and confident. If your voice doesn't carry well, always use a microphone to avoid straining your voice and distracting your students. Be aware if impatience is creeping into your voice.


The teacher is in a leadership role and should project an image of style and confidence. Clothing and footwear should be appropriate and even suggestive of the dance culture under study. If teaching vintage dance, wear clothing that suggests 19th or early 20th Century attire. If boots are appropriate to the dance, wear boots. If ballet students are expected to dance in ballet shoes, folk and vintage dancers should dance in the footwear of the dance culture under consideration. After all, footwear is a major factor in how a dance form was created and performed. And never, never, ever teach in athletic shoes.

Above all, be neat and clean. Ladies should not wear long skirts to teach, even if the traditional dress for the dance is long; it's distracting to everyone to see a woman teacher hiking up her skirts so the class can see what her legs are doing. Close-fitting pants for men and women teachers allow students to see leg positions which are so important to dance movement.

A little style doesn't hurt; some of the best-loved teachers are known for some charming, colorful, entertaining, piece of apparel, such as a hat or scarf, or for their humor and warmth. You don't need to "dress down" or "dress up," but don't be reluctant to add a little personal touch to your teaching ensemble.

Class Management

Even the most knowledgeable teacher must be able to successfully manage a large group of people with varying degrees of experience and skill into an orderly and cooperative mass. Not an easy task, though with experience it becomes second nature. Following are some ideas and concepts that will help develop your own teaching style, along with some of the necessary skills and aptitudes that teaching requires.

  1. The class (or club) will take on the personality of its teacher/leader.

This phenomenon has been observed countless times. An attitude of warmth and helpfulness will permeate a class as rapidly and effectively as one of arrogance and intolerance. Few students will remain in a class where the attitude is one of constant challenge by a teacher more concerned with displaying his or her prowess and knowledge than in creating a successful experience for the student. Only the students who similarly wish to flaunt their skills will remain, a collection of egos that cannot last. Anyone wishing to teach should take a close, objective look at his or her reasons for wanting to teach.

  1. The "circle" is not the only formation for teaching dance.

Folk dance seems to have fallen into the practice of teaching in a circle formation and, while it is suitable in most instances, the teacher must be ready to abandon it if the situation calls for other formations.

The circle in reality offers many drawbacks to a class:

  1. The students who the teacher is facing across the circle are forced to "reverse" the teacher's movements, a problem which the teacher must alleviate by frequently changing positions around the circle.
  2. Students are crowded into the outside circumference of the room, leaving the center of the floor unused; this problem may be more or less severe, depending on the comparative size of the room and the class.
  3. If the shape of the floor is long and narrow, the circle can become a very difficult learning place.

Other formations which should be considered:

  1. Parallel rows facing "front" with the teacher's back to the class.

  1. This is particularly useful in the "bowling alley"-shaped room or in a room with mirrors along one long wall. Space between students should be controlled and lines should be routinely rotated to the front to assure that all can see.

  1. A "semi-circle" formation.

  1. This is similar to the parallel rows can be very useful, but can be difficult to arrange and maintain.

  1. Diagonal lines with the teacher facing into a corner can be a useful variation on the parallel lines if the room is nearly square. This can allow for longer and fewer lines, increasing the frequency of rotation to the front. It can utilize more of the floor and gives the teacher ample room to move right or left to be in front of different sections of the line.

Addressing the Class

When the circle formation is used, teach in front of a part of the circle and talk to those on the other side facing you. Change positions in the circle frequently!

Keep it positive, keep it light! Students will sense a teacher's displeasure instantly. That in itself is not necessarily bad, but the teacher's response to displeasure can be. Humor, well handled, can be all that saves a stressful situation. Any sense of ridicule or impatience will destroy a relationship between teacher and class.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Nothing separates a good teacher from an average one more quickly than the ability to diagnose problems and sense frustrations in the class and to treat those problems in a non-threatening manner. It requires sensitivity to the student's inability to grasp a movement and to the "treatment" which will effectively overcome the problem.

Everyone has different learning skills; some learn by rote, some by analysis, some by feel, some by seeing, and some by reading. Let it be said here, that "rote" is the least desirable and the most often practiced. It requires the least effort from the teacher and the most effort by the student and realizes the lowest retention level of any method.

A teacher must be able to master all methods of delivery and must be able to determine quickly, either by instinct or by trial and error, which method will best serve each individual student. An engineer-type will learn through logic and analysis much more than by imagery, while a social worker-type will often grasp the idea of an image rather than simple counting. Consider all these techniques as tools of the trade and always have them ready to use.

Teaching by "Motif"

Existing within the overall structure of the dance is the concept of the "dance motif," the building blocks of the dance. Whether classical theater dance or village folk dance, the motif gives the dance its style and character. The arrangement of the motifs gives it its structure. The movement character in which the motifs are performed gives the dance the flavor that is unique to each culture.

The motif is a short group of dance movements with a recognizable beginning and end. It may be as short as one or two beats or as long as a musical phrase. It is the building block of the dance and determines the character or style of the dance.

If the weight is carried in a demi-plie and the movements are heavy and into the floor, the motif is the way the step lifts and changes weight. It is the height and angle of a leg lift or the height of a hop or leap. It is the manner in which the foot meets the floor, either rolling from the ball onto the heel, the heel to the ball, the whole foot, or keeping the weight on the ball of the foot for the entire weight change.

Native Americans of the Great Plains most frequently dance with a "touch-step" motif in which the ball of the free foot is touched forward, then lifted slightly before taking weight on the full foot. Various regions have a slightly different feel to this step, but it is very widely distributed throughout the Native American dance community.

The Hungarian csárdás step may be danced with either an up or down movement, depending on whether the knee is flexed or straightened as weight is shifted. The rida may begin with either a crossing or opening step, may be flat-footed, or on the ball of the leading foot.

Urban Greeks will probably dance the tsamiko with the feet kept low, moving smoothly across the floor, while the rural folk from the mountainous areas dance the same dance with high leg lifts, a motif natural to those who spend their lives walking up and down steep inclines.

Dances which are distributed throughout an ethnic region will reveal very different movement motifs, even though the dance may remain the same. The râčenica is considered to be the national dance of Bulgaria for that reason. The very slow, heavy dance of Dobrudža in the northeast contrasts sharply with the sharp, quick version of western Šop. The wide difference in tempo creates very different movement motifs in this wonderful dance.

These are but a few of the countless motifs found in every dance form. It is here that the teacher must find the heart of the dance; to overlook it is to strip the dance of its uniqueness and condemn it to the common movement of naiveté.

Teaching by Structure

Once the concept of motifs is learned, the dance must be constructed using the motifs as building blocks. The practical, logical peasant mind is most evident here. The student must learn to recognize the collection of motifs into logical structural elements that will enhance the learning and retention of the dance.

Example A

"Horehronsky Čardáš" (Joukowsky) has been with us for many years. More properly a "koleso" (it's not a čardáš, which is a couple dance), the dance illustrates a structure unique to Slovak music and dance which will become obvious.



Learned from Anatol Joukowsky in 1967. "Hron" is the name of a river is Slovakia; this is "Mr. J's" choreography of a girl's dance (koleso) from the Hron River valley, set to čardáš music.

FORMATION:         W in circle, hands joined low.
Meas FIGURE — Introduction
1Walk RL in LOD (cts 1,2); face ctr and step R on R ft with knees flexed and turned in, weight on both ft (ct 3); straighten knees and close L ft sharply to R ft (ct 4).
2Repeat action of meas 1.
3Turn 1/4 turn L and step twd ctr on R ft, turning R hip to ctr (ct 1); touch ball of L ft beside R ft (ct 2); pivot 1/2 turn R on ball of R ft and leap next on L ft next to R ft (ct 3); hold (ct 4).
4Face ctr and run bkwd RLRL (cts 1,2,3,4).
NOTE: Each measure is one motif: here, the structure is AABC. It is not a part of the structure of the dance as discussed here, as it is only an introductory motif and does not effect the dance after it is completed. The figure is danced a total of 8 times.
FIGURE A — "Square Corners" (8 counts)
1Step L on L ft with knees straight (ct 1); step in place on R ft and flex knees (ct 2); step twd ctr on L ft with knees straight (ct 3); step in place on R ft and flex knees (ct 4); step to L on L ft with straight knees (ct 5); step in place on R ft (ct 6); run bkwd away from ctr LRLR (cts 7,&,8,&).
FIGURE B — "Zig-Zag In" (8 counts)
1Reach L step fwd diag on L heel (ct 1); step on R ft behind L ft (ct &); step L fwd diag on L ft (ct 2); stamp R heel to L instep (ct &); repeat action of cts 1&2&, moving R fwd diag on opp ftwk (cts 3,&,4,&) [Recognize the motifs?]; turning 1/4 turn R, step in place on L ft (ct 5); flex L knee and stamp R ft to L instep (ct &); turning 1/2 turn L, step in place on R ft (ct 6); flex R knee and stamp L heel to R instep (ct &) [More motifs!]; run LRLR bkwd away from ctr (cts 7,&,8,&).
NOW: Dance the figures in this sequence: AABABA two times through. This is the "structure" of the dance. Apply the formula to the rest of the dance, using the following figures as A' and A."
FIGURE A' — "Twist" (8 counts)
1Keep R heel in place and step L on L ft with L knee flexed, turning body 1/4 turn R — R ft points upward (ct 1); straighten knees and step in place on R ft (ct 2); repeat action of cts 1,2 three more times (cts 3-8).
FIGURE A" — "Rida" (8 counts)
1Facing ctr, step to L on ball of L ft (ct 1); step on R ft in front of L ft (ct &); repeat action of cts 1& five more times (cts 2,&,3,&,4,&,5,&,6,&); facing RLOD, run LRLR, lifting ft bkwd (cts 7,&,8,&).
NOTE: There is no dramatic, Hollywood-style ending. The dance simply trails off.

Example B

Most folk dancers know Dick Crum's "Godečki Čačak," but few understand its structure. It is a good example of the 10-count phrasing, common through much of eastern Serbia and Bulgaria, that is danced to an 8-count musical phrase. The resulting "overlap" of dance and musical phrase is a popular practice, creating an interesting tension in the dance until the two phrases finally end together after the fifth musical phrase and the fourth dance phrase: dance — 4x10 = 40 cts; music — 5x8 = 40 cts.

In this particular dance, the 10 counts are always constructed in motifs of 4 counts plus 6 counts as the following notation illustrates.



FORMATION:         Open circle.
1Facing slightly LOD, leap fwd on R ft (ct 1); run fwd LR (cts &,2).
2Repeat meas 1 with opposite footwork (cts 3,&,4).
3Face ctr and step R on R ft (ct 1); hop on R ft and lift L ft slightly fwd (ct 2).
4Repeat action of meas 3 with opp ftwk (cts 3,4).
5Repeat action of meas 3 (cts 5,6).
NOTE: Measure 1 is one motif, repeated in Measure 2 = 4 counts; Measure 3 is a second motif, repeated in Measure 4 & 5 = 6 counts. Every figure in the dance follows the same 4+6 structure.

Example C

"Šetnja" (Dick Crum) is one of the most well-known dances in the folk dance repertoire. The basic motif is: slow-slow-quick-quick-slow or 1,2,3&4. Or: long-long-short-short-long. It is one of the most commonly encountered motifs in folk dance and should always be recognized. "Raca" (Dobrivoje Putnik) uses the same structure, though each motif is longer.



FORMATION:         Open circle.
1Step R on R ft (ct 1); step in place on L ft (ct &); step R on R ft (ct 2); lift L knee L fwd diagonal (ct &); repeat movement of counts 1&2& with opposite direction and footwork (cts 3&4&) [LONG-LONG].
2Step R on R ft (ct 1); lift L knee L forward diagonal (ct &); repeat movement of counts 5& with opposite direction and footwork (cts 6,&) [SHORT-SHORT]; repeat movement of counts 3&4& (cts 7,&,8,&) [LONG].
NOTE: You will be surprised how often this particular structure reappears in other dances. Learn to watch for it and recognize it.
NOTE: It is a basic teaching skill to recognize the basic motifs and structural composition of the dance and to impart that concept and skill to enhance the learning skills of students.
NOTE: It is a disservice to our students to fall into the simple method of "Teaching by Rote," presenting the dance from "beginning to end," hoping or assuming complete memorization of the dance. Those who cannot memorize the dance are bound to forever copy it.

The Teaching Process

This is the "nitty-gritty" of teaching. All the knowledge and technique are wasted if the teacher is unable to master the skill of teaching. Depending on the situation, the teacher may be faced with a class ranging from basic beginners with widely varying movement abilities to "advanced" students — with widely varying movement abilities.

The class may be one which meets on a regular weekly or monthly basis or it may be a "one night stand." It could be a church group ranging in age from 8 to 80, all wearing athletic shoes, or it could be a Sierra Club group — ranging in age from 8 to 80, all wearing hiking boots. The class could have a clear objective or it may just want to be entertained. In any event, they are all frightening at first, even for an experienced teacher, until the class is observed, analyzed, and guided to a successful experience.

Getting Started

Needless to say, the teacher's introduction to the class must be warm, positive and confident. Every long-term dancer has become addicted to dance because of a class or event that was so much fun and filled with so much excitement that they could not wait to go again. And again.

If the teacher can provide that kind of experience, a dedicated dancer is created. If not, it is very difficult to overcome an awkward beginning to gain the class' confidence and cooperation — and to get them back.

Set your objectives before beginning and select dances that will meet those objectives. Each class should review previous dances and techniques, reinforce them, enrich them, and add something new. The basic steps and combinations must be part of each class, especially for new students, such as walk, hop, leap, etc., as well as such movements as changing direction and positioning the free leg in the correct gesture. Explain the objective of each lesson so that the students can focus on that aspect of the dance being taught. Know when the objective has been achieved and what to do when the class has reached that point.

Begin gently, with dances that are guaranteed to be successful, stress-free and learnable by everyone. It will probably be the dance the class will like best when it's all over. Be aware of how many dances are too many — overloading a class will result in a total loss of recall. When teaching several dances to a one-night-stand, it may be a good idea to have one or two dancers focus on learning only one dance well so that they can share the dances after you've gone. If they all try to learn every dance, deterioration is certain to follow.

Warm-ups may or may not be appropriate for any given class, but some attention should be paid to at least a token stretching and warm-up. This is the best time to introduce basic technique and the objectives for the lesson. Too many recreational dancers never learn to prepare for the dance and experience physical discomfort from injuries incurred over many years of improper technique and lack of warm-up. Just don't overdo them or take them too seriously unless appropriate.

Demonstrations and Cues

It is an enormous help to students to see a dance before trying to learn it. Demonstrate before beginning the teaching process, paying particular attention to style and character, so that students have an idea of where they're going. But, like the thing about the ego, don't overdo it.

Square dance callers are past masters at cueing dances. That's what makes the dance work and it's what will make your teaching work — or not. Know how many beats a figure takes and provide clear, precise verbal cues to the next figure before the current one ends. Cueing a dance is one of the major skills a teacher must master. Transitions between figures are probably the most difficult things for students to learn and properly timed cues will greatly ease the frustration and ensure a successful class.

Injury Prevention

Dance is, by its nature, off-balance and prone to injury. Since students will almost always have no proper dance training, will very likely be middle-aged or older, and will be subjected to new movements that will try their flexibility and stamina, it is necessary to provide the techniques that will contribute to their wellness and longevity. Many long-term dancers have had to quit dancing — often for long periods or permanently — because of damaged knees, bone spurs, strains, fractures, and even worse. A study of the various hazards is necessary:


Stamps feel good. There are few opportunities outside the dance to make such a delightful noise and many new (and old) dancers go at them with vigor — the leading cause of bone spurs after a few years. Learn to make the movement by flexing the supporting knee and allowing the striking heel to hit the floor with the knee flexed and moving straight down with a minimum of force. A student striking the floor with excessive force should be corrected and alerted of the dangers from the beginning.

Jumps and Leaps

Proper knee and ankle alignment is a basic dance skill which students must learn. These joints are easily strained and damaged, especially with repeated misaligned stress. Teach that the leg must be rotated from the hip and not the knee or ankle; that the foot should be aligned with the knee and should always be aligned when taking weight. When taking weight following a leap or jump, the foot must meet the floor ball first and roll onto the whole foot. Warm-ups and stretching are, of course, necessary and are the perfect time and place to introduce these techniques.

Lifting the Woman

Lifts are fun and dangerous and should be saved for more advanced students. Sooner or later, someone is going to ask how to do a particular lift. Possible injuries here are obvious: lower back strains, shoulder strains, bruises — there has even been a case of a broken pelvis and prolonged recovery. Ultimately, the woman's safety is the man's responsibility.

All lifts, from the most basic to the spectacular, are based on the same basic principles:

The preparation must be correct or the lift must be aborted. The man leads with a soft lifting of the body from the knees, which the woman joins; both then settle into the plie that is the prelude to the jump. This is when the hands are positioned for the lift (they will be different for each lift). The man must not grasp his partner with his fingers, rather, he catches her with the palm and heel of his hands, using the large muscles of the chest to bring the hands toward center. The lift will be made with the larger muscles of the trunk and legs — not the hands.

The man must be lower than his partner and must push her into the air by keeping his elbows in — no more than shoulder width. The knees must be flexed, with feet about shoulder width apart. The back must be straight with the buttocks tucked under. The lift is made by expanding the legs and arms "from the center" like an expanding balloon. Bring her over you, bringing her center of gravity over yours, arms extended to the desired height, depending on the style and timing of the lift. It will require the man to lean back from the hips and look upward to his partner. The lift is ended by reversing the expansion, or deflating like a balloon, leading with the legs and lowering her gently to the floor.

The woman must prepare to push down against her partner, elbows wider than shoulder width and fingers pointing inward, hands behind the man's shoulders. Her preparation must be with feet close together, knees flexed. Her jump must be followed immediately by pushing down on her support, keeping the head forward, and looking down at the man. Her task is to jump straight up to get her center of gravity over his and not attempt to help the man turn or anything else. The woman supports herself with her straightened arms, her legs pressed against his chest. As the lift ends, she extends her legs to the floor to meet it with the balls of the feet and allows the elbows to flex outward to begin lowering from the lift. She should settle gently without a sound, taking the landing with flexed ankles and knees.

A little physical fitness helps. Teachers need to know the correct strengthening exercises and lead the student through them. Proceed carefully and emphasize timing and technique. Have spotters close by to avert falls. Be sensitive to problems and know how to treat strains.

Pivots and Turns

Another movement which feels good, is necessary to dance and is rarely experienced outside the dance. Many students manage to strain ankles and knees doing these and their dance suffers because of the reluctance to do them. It is necessary to lift to the ball of the foot to present the smallest possible surface in contact with the floor (the ballet pointe is the ultimate example), with the hip directly over the point of contact and the foot aligned with the knee. The turn will strain the ligaments of the ankle and knee if alignment is not correct.

Arm Gestures and Positions

This is primarily an issue with older dancers whose shoulders have lost the full range of motion from any number of reasons (arthritis, injury, inactivity, etc.). Any dance requiring raised arms, whether to hold hands or gesture, should be preceded by warm-ups emulating the dance movement. Watch for anyone having difficulty, determine the cause and decide whether to make adjustments or to impart proper warm-up and stretching. Older students can benefit greatly from the proper technique and conditioning the teacher can provide. When hands are held in a chain dance, students need to learn to carry their own weight and present a hand that does not cling or grip painfully. Students need to be informed and reminded of a particular student's limitations and vulnerabilities.


A strange thing to worry about, but more than one dancer has suffered serious injury, heart attack — and even death — by over extending themselves in a favorite dance. Such an incident can not only ruin that dancer's day, it doesn't do the class any good, either. It's a real downer to have someone hauled away by the paramedics. There may be liability issues, as well as concerns by those who control the dance venue. The teacher is responsible for preventing such an occurrence as much as possible by teaching the value of proper technique and restraint.

Dance Terminology

One of the most important tools for both teaching and learning is to have a universally understood terminology of dance movements. These are generally accepted terms in the folk / ethnic / social dance community and the teacher must be familiar with all of them.

A change of weight from one foot to another with at least one foot remaining in contact with the floor throughout the change.
A change of weight from one foot to another with both feet being off the floor at some time during the change.
A series of leaps, usually continuing in the same direction.
Begins with the weight on one foot, moves into the air, and lands on the same foot.
Same as the hop except that only the heel of the supporting foot leaves the floor; usually done with a straightening of the supporting knee and a lifting gesture of the free leg (sometimes called a "lilt").
Beginning on either or both feet, springing into the air and landing on both feet.
Slide or Chassé
A step to the side with the leading foot, usually with a soft knee flexion, followed by a low leap into place on the trailing foot; usually done in a series.
A hop followed by a step on the free foot, usually in an irregular Quick-Slow rhythm.
A series of "step-hops" or "hop-steps" with the foot taking weight stepping in front of or behind the supporting foot; may travel or stay in place.
An abrupt slide forward or backward on either or both feet, usually accompanied by a plie of the supporting knee(s).
A gesture by the free foot in which the ball of the foot contacts the floor as the foot is swung forward or backward.
A gesture by the free foot in which the foot is swung forward, brushing the heel on the floor.
A gesture by the free foot in which the foot lightly contacts the floor without taking weight or creating noise. Either knee may be flexed or stretched.
A touch which is done with the gesturing leg and foot extended.
The act of bending a joint (knee, ankle, elbow, wrist).
A movement in which the body is lowered by flexing the knee(s) and ankle(s) of the supporting leg or legs.
The act of straightening a joint to its fullest range of motion.
Supporting Leg / Foot
The leg or foot which is carrying the body's weight.
Gesturing Leg / Foot / Arm / Hand
The limb which is not carrying weight and is free to move as the dance dictates.
The spot where the feet are when standing still with feet together. Place moves to the new spot beside the supporting foot when weight is transferred from one foot to the other.
Touching the heels together in the air during a hop. NOTE: The supporting foot always rises to meet the free foot in the air.
A movement in which the body spins in place on the ball of the supporting foot or both feet.
A vertical downward movement which strikes the heel of the free foot on the floor without taking weight, but which creates an audible noise. Generally accomplished by lowering the body in a plie of the supporting leg and striking the floor with a flexed free leg.
A movement from the ankle which lightly strikes the floor vertically with the ball or toe of the free foot without taking weight.
A brush forward and backward with the free foot.
A dance form in which dancers stand in a line and are joined by holding hands with the person on either side; may be in closed circle or lines and the hand holds may vary (shoulders, belts, basket, etc.).
"V" hold
Handhold in a chain dance with the hands joined low, arms relaxed and elbows straight.
"W" hold
Handhold in a chain dance with the hands held higher than waist-high, elbows lower than hands.
"T" or Shoulder hold
Handhold in a chain dance with hands resting on the shoulders or upper arms of the person on either side.
Closed Position
Couple dance position in which partners face each other, man's right arm around woman's rib cage, woman's left arm on man's right shoulder.
Open Position
Couple dance position in which both partners stand side-by-side facing the same direction; men's inside arm supporting woman's back, woman's inside hand on man's near shoulder, outside hands free.
Semi-open Position
Couple dance position similar to "open" position, except outside hands are joined forward.
"Banjo" / "Side Car" Position
Couple dance position in which partners face as in closed position, but with right hips adjacent.
Csárdás Position
Couple dance position in which partners face as in closed position, both man's arms around woman's rib cage, both woman's hands on man's shoulders.
Skater's / Promenade Position
Couple dance position in which partners face forward as in "open" position with hands joined in front, right-to-right and left-to-left with hand-shake grip. Upper arm may vary, depending on requirements of the dance.
Varsouvienne Position
Couple dance position in which both partners face forward as in "skater's" position with right hands joined over woman's right shoulder, man's right arm behind woman's head. In some dances, the woman may be temporarily on the man's left side with the left hands joined over the woman's left shoulder, right arms extended forward or to right side.
Escort Position
Couple dance position in which both partners face forward as in "Varsouvienne" position with right hands joined at woman's right hip, man's right arm behind woman's back.



Perhaps the greatest challenge to teaching folk / ethnic dance is the infinite variety of movement "styles" involved. The same dance figure or motif may be very wide-spread (the Pas de Basque, two-step, step-hop, and many more), but it is the norm for each culture to express it in its own way. Those differences are the essence of folk dance and both teacher and student must be aware of them.

The peasant was a laborer. The work was hard, demanding and exhausting. People who work under those conditions become very efficient with their bodies, using the minimum amount of strength and energy to accomplish each task — a skill necessary to survival. Also, people living that life style often live to a very healthy old age.

Few of us or our students have ever experienced the serious hard labor of the farm. The sedentary life-style brought about by our urban, mechanized society does not lend itself to developing those kinds of movement skills and strength. Professional dancers and athletes study and practice for years to achieve what comes naturally to one who must lift or move heavy equipment or wrest a living from the forests and the earth.


By learning and applying some basic concepts and techniques, we can become more adaptable, flexible, and efficient dancers. Generally applied techniques will be addressed first, followed by specific ones regarding dance movement.

The Basic Steps and Terminology

It is a good idea to review the terminology outlined in Chapter II. These descriptions are based on them. There are only four basic steps in dance:

  1. Step: The transfer of weight from one foot to the other with at least one foot always in contact with the floor.
  2. Leap: The transfer of weight from one foot to the other with neither foot in contact with the floor in between. (The run is a series of leaps.)
  3. Hop: Begins with weight on one foot, pushes the body into the air, and lands on the same foot.
  4. Jump: Begins with weight on either foot or both feet, pushes into the air, and lands on both feet.

These definitions say nothing about the energy level, magnitude, or direction of the movement. Obviously, each has an enormous range of all three, but they are the building blocks for an endless number of combinations which constitute the steps of which dance is composed. All other movements are "gestures" (lifts, bends, pivots, etc.)


To define the possible combinations would be impossible, but a few examples of steps used frequently in folk and social dance are:

As the name implies, one steps (usually forward or in place) on one foot, then hops on that foot, rhythm is usually even. Frequently used in turning dances, but this motif is found everywhere in a countless variety of motifs.
Known by various names (slip step, glissade, chassé), it is basically a sideways "step-leap;" the first step is a sliding movement of the lead foot to the side followed by a leap in place on the following foot.
In an irregular "Quick-slow" rhythm, this is the "skip step." It is found frequently in dances of the southern Balkans as well as all over Europe.

Thus, most dance steps are combinations of basic steps and there is an endless variety of them. Many dance steps are actually gestures made with the gesturing leg; thus a leg lift is a dance movement with the "gesturing leg" while the "supporting leg" might add to the lift by adding a "hop."

The Pelvic Tilt

Though not applicable to every dance movement, perhaps no other technique enhances the ability to move correctly as much as this simple technique. It is accomplished by lifting the pelvis in front and dropping it behind. The lower abdominal muscles must be tightened and the lower back muscles relaxed. Relax the knees and think of tucking your fanny under you; your legs should feel as though they are "ahead" of you rather than "under" you.

Most of us walk with the pelvis tipped forward, a condition caused by many things — most often by poorly conditioned abdominal muscles. The shoulders are thrown back and the head is thrust forward, all trying to counterbalance each other. The back is arched and the stomach is forced forward as the internal organs are pitched forward against the abdominal wall. The weight is distributed forward onto the balls of the feet and the legs are behind your center of gravity. When one tries to dance in that position, the movement is hindered by the forward pressure of the body onto the forward part of the foot.

The pelvic tilt allows the body to align itself properly for efficient movement:

  1. The center of gravity is moved backward and lower, providing a more "grounded," balanced position.
  2. The weight is more evenly distributed on the foot and the legs are now positioned in front of the plane of the body, freeing them for movement.
  3. The back muscles are stretched and the lower spine is allowed to straighten, releasing the tension caused by an arched back.
  4. The internal organs settle back into a position, supported by the dish-shaped pelvis.

The Center of Gravity

Every object with mass has a center of gravity — that point where the weight (not mass) of the object is the same in every direction. It is not a stable point. It moves as the object changes position to reflect the pull of gravity upon it. If one holds a broom vertical by balancing the end of the handle in the palm of the hand, the center of gravity is centered in the handle. Let the broom tilt out of vertical and the center of gravity rushes toward the heavy end of the broom and it begins to fall. Holding the broom horizontal by that same end will become a very difficult task because the center of gravity is near the heavy end. Only by moving the supporting hand toward the heavy end can the center be found again so that the broom will balance in a vertical (— horizontal —) position.

If the center of gravity of something as simple and inanimate as a broom can be so dynamic, imagine the dynamics of the human body. Every movement moves the center of gravity. Turn the head, lift an arm, take a step . . . the center of gravity shifts. When the movement is far enough that the center moves outside the body, the body looses balance and falls. The muscles are constantly and unconsciously contracting to counterbalance the potential disaster of the shifting center.

The Law of Physics or Inertia tell us that: "A body at rest will tend to stay at rest and a body in motion will continue to stay in motion." Dance is the art of manipulating movement in a controlled manner, overcoming and utilizing inertia to create movement.

Movement may be initiated by driving laterally or utilizing gravity to effect the center of gravity. Simply stated, one can "fall" into a movement by shifting and or removing the support and creating momentum and a state of imbalance, a state necessary for all movement. It is that "imbalance" which the dancer must learn to control and utilize; fear of moving out of a balanced position will severely limit the ability to dance.


To begin a backward turn in the European waltz, the man begins with his back to the center of the room or line of direction, holding his partner in closed position. By collapsing his right knee and leaning his body backward into a clock-wise turn, his body weight pulls both into the turn without further effort. The man then falls to the right off his left foot, which has been planted under the hip and catches his balance on the second step to the side. After the closing step, the woman repeats the same fall.


Every time we move we create momentum. When humankind first stood on hind legs, we learned to control momentum through balance. Now we are concerned with utilizing momentum to create something called "dance." Momentum is one of those factors which separates dance from ordinary movement; we create momentum outside of and beyond the normal range of movement to generate the feel of dance — one of the reasons for dancing in the first place. Pity the poor soul who never ventures into the world of controlled momentum.


It is a rare couple dance that does not explore the joys of turning. This dance form uses the partner's body weight to counterbalance turning figures and many countries' dances seem to favor turning over all other movements. Gentlemen will discover that the ability to lead a partner well will be rewarded with an abundance of willing dance partners.

Older couple dances tended to remain in place during the turning figures, as found in examples of dances from Hungary, Romania, and France to name a few. The traveling turn, as in the waltz, polka and schottische, is a much more recent development.

Most turns are clockwise, though many dances will turn counterclockwise, either as a basic turn in the dance or as a challenging turn for the more experienced dancer. The clockwise turn is more common for a simple reason: When turning, partners alternate moving ahead of the other as the turn is completed. Because Line of Dance (LOD) is usually counterclockwise, that means that in a clockwise rotation, the advancing person travels on the inside of the Line of Dance. When turning counterclockwise, the advancing partner travels on the outside, a much further distance.

Turning Fundamentals

A few basic principles and techniques can be applied to almost all traveling turning couple dance forms:

  1. Pelvic Tilt!
  2. Men support the woman behind her back at shoulder-blade level.
  3. Women support the man behind his right shoulder.
  4. Right foot between partner's feet.
  5. Upper body still; no leaning or weaving.

Pivot Turns

The pivot turn, whether executed with a "step-hop" or a "step-pivot," requires two things: form and consistency. The form allows the movement to happen, but consistency is necessary to sustain the pivot and is the mark of an accomplished dancer.

The basic pivot turn is initiated by the man crossing in front of the woman (from an open position to closed position with his back to Line of Direction) and using his body weight to counterbalance the woman's next turn. Again, certain principles and techniques must be applied:

  1. Pelvic Tilt!
  2. Right foot forward between partner's feet; Left foot backward.
  3. This position must be maintained as the couple turns; the turn must be far enough that subsequent steps will be made in Line of Dance without changing the leg position.
  4. The turn is initiated and maintained by the upper body, not the feet!
  5. Each partner will alternately step backward in Line of Dance on the Left foot and forward in Line of Dance on the Right foot.
  6. Each partner contributes to the turn by lifting the Left thigh forward when stepping forward onto the Right foot.
  7. When turning on the Left foot, each partner assists by pulling the other from left to right over his/her own Right leg — primarily the man's responsibility.


Dance Positions and Holds in Couple Dance

Many positions are identified in the Terminology section of Chapter II. Some of the more frequently used positions are more fully described here. The principles described here are applicable to all positions.

Closed Position

One of the most common dance positions, found throughout western social dance. This position allows a wide range of dance movement and flexibility between partners. For the man to be able to lead and support his partner — and for her to follow him, correct positioning of arms and hands is necessary.

Body Relationship

In most instances, each partner must have the right foot between the partner's feet. Shoulders and hips should be parallel, each looking over the partner's right shoulder. The pelvic tilt is important to the successful execution of most dance figures in this position. A slight settling of the weight backward into the partner's arms is necessary for control and balance in fast turning figures.

NOTE: The positions described here are techniques for traditional dances. Modern ballroom dance utilizes a very different position and something called a "frame" which creates a very different technique and feeling. If you want to dance "traditional," be aware of the difference.

Arm Positions

  1. The man's right arm is the principal "steering device," transmitting cues and providing support for the woman.
  2. The right thumb should lie vertically along the inside of her left scapula (shoulder blade) with the fingers spread comfortably across her back and the fingers extending across her spine.
  3. The man's right elbow should be rounded enough that his right wrist is straight; this may require closing the distance between him and his partner.
  4. The woman's left arm rests on the man's right arm, her left hand behind his right shoulder to provide mutual support in turning.
  5. NOTE: The woman must not use her left arm to clamp down on the man's right arm for support. It causes instant, long-term paralysis.

  6. Man's left hand and woman's right hand, joined at shoulder height to the side, must press slightly together to provide resistance and support.
  7. The tension must be in the large muscles of the chest and shoulders rather than in the smaller muscles of the forearms and wrists.
  8. The man's major support of his partner should be with the inside of his R wrist and forearm, keeping the hand relaxed and ready to send cues as needed for leading.

Csárdás Position

Named after the popular Hungarian couple dance, this position differs from the traditional "closed position" in its symmetry. Partners do not join hands at the side, rather both the man's hands are at the woman's back, both of hers draped over his shoulders and her arms resting on his. This is a very strong position for turning or moving the woman about, but does not allow as much flexibility as the closed position.

Semi-open Position

Partners stand side-by-side facing the same direction; woman is usually on man's right side with his right arm around her waist, her left hand on man's right shoulder, outside hands joined forward. A very flexible position, often used as an opening position or a "bridge" between other positions.

Open Position

Same as "semi-open position," except outside hands are not joined, but are at the side or in gesturing positions.

"Banjo" or "Side Car" Position

There are many other names for this position. Partners stand right to right hip, man's right arm around woman's left rib cage, high up under her arm. Shoulders should be parallel and the man should ensure that the woman is slightly forward from him, rather than standing under his right arm. Partners should be able to comfortably look at each other without excessive turning of the head.


Why does the man lead?

Couple dance is a finely developed exercise in teamwork. At some point in human social evolution, it was decided that the man should lead in the dance. He is, after all, usually larger and stronger. Whether or not of sexist origin, that is the way it is. Three principles rule this idea:

  1. It is the man's responsibility to lead, support and display his partner.
  2. It is her responsibility to agree with his lead and to fulfill the movement.
  3. The woman should be the object of the audience's attention.

Gentlemen should bear in mind that it is a rare partner who is not moved to ecstasy by being whirled in a death-defying dance, safe in the arms of a sure and considerate partner.

When does the man lead?

The man must remember that the lead must give the woman time to react on the correct beat. The lead is a preparatory signal that indicates the direction of her movement and on which beat. Thus, the lead must come before the beat on which the man chooses to begin.

Think: "lead-step": (& 1).

The lead is an integral part of the dance and must always be there. The man cannot expect to "program" his partner with an initial lead and then turn it off.

It is of utmost importance for the man to make the effort to learn at least the basics of music structure and to be sensitive to when a measure or phrase of music begins. Sadly, most women are far more aware of music than men. Gentlemen, you owe it to your partner to at least be aware of the rhythm so that you can begin on the beginning of a measure or phrase and stay with the rhythm.

Where does the lead happen?

As illustrated in the discussion of arm positions, the woman's left arm should rest lightly on the man's right arm to give her tactile information on the man's movements. That contact, along with the pressure from the man's right hand, provides perhaps 90% of the lead.

Other leads might be a subtle body lean to ensure the woman's weight is on the foot opposite from the one she should begin with or a slight lift coming from the legs and shoulders to indicate a pause in the movement. The man's attitude should be one of gentle control and support from the moment of contact, giving the woman an immediate sense of safety and ease.

How does the man lead?

The man might imagine that his partner is standing on a "dolly" which will move in whatever position he moves her. The lead is a form of communication that should not be observable by other viewers. Most leads are only a momentary tensing of an arm or shoulder.

As important as "when" is "how much" lead is appropriate. Too much or too little too soon or too late is as bad as no lead at all. It is usually not necessary to lead the woman through the movement, only to initiate it with enough information and following support to enable her to execute it.

A few typical leads:

Man forward/Woman backward
A slight shrug forward of the man's shoulders against the woman's left arm and right hand. Remember: "lead-step."
Man backward/Woman forward
The man applies pressure with the lower edge of his right hand against the woman's back.
Man forward in CCW turn
Pressure forward with the man's right elbow and forearm against the woman's left arm is supported by inward pressure with the fingers of the man's right hand against the right side of the woman's back.
Man forward in CW turn
Heel of man's right hand presses inward on left side of woman's back and man's left hand presses woman's right arm and shoulder backward.

The Art of Dance Movement

After one has assembled all the elements of the dance: position, figures, leading, following, rhythm, posture, etc., now comes the final task — turning it into a dance. Almost every student, regardless of age or the relationship with the partner — spouse, sibling, friend, colleague, or stranger — will suffer brain fade when suddenly faced with the reality of moving gracefully with arms wrapped around one another, feet and knees competing for space. Embarrassment is but a flicker away; frustration and anger hover, threatening to ruin the whole experience.

This is a good time to recall the story of a fellow who, after learning the woman's step to a rapidly spinning Scandinavian dance, explained: "Wow! No wonder women like to do this!"

Gentlemen, remember that. Women have an inborn urge to dance, because it fulfills a need which probably cannot be explained to most men. It's a gender thing. For the man, it's a rare chance to share something important with her and give her a safe and thrilling ride. It's been said that you should be in love with your partner while dancing with him or her. Maybe — maybe not; but it helps.

Pretend that she's standing on a dolly, able to move in any direction you move her. Practice some simple movements first, such as moving forward and backward, then begin to experiment with gentle turns.

Your spine meets the pelvic girdle at the "sacral bone" and it's right behind your center of gravity. If you develop the mental image of starting your movement from there, with the rest of the body, both above and below, joining in, grace will be yours. All your leads begin there; all the changes of direction and all the turns begin there. Practice until it's second nature.

The ball of the foot should rarely leave the floor, gliding with the slightest contact between foot and floor. This not only keeps partners' feet from stepping on top of each other, it smoothes the weight transition so that your partner barely feels it.

Above all, be considerate of your partner and where legs and feet are at all times. By keeping your right knee between your partner's knees, the potential for bruised toes is largely eliminated. Too many men think that underarm turns are just too cool and try it at strange and random times in the dance with no regard of whether the woman is ready or not. But they do it anyway, regardless of twisted arms and shoulders, awkward foot positions and bumped hairdos. Work with your partner to learn how to position and alert her for a turn, how to know which foot is best to turn her on, how to follow through and support her. Remember, she's dancing backward, maybe even in high heels.

Dance so that the lady gets to move forward at least as much as she moves backward. That means the man moving backward, at least for short times. She may have that smile frozen on her face, but she's not enjoying it that much if she's been doing Fox Trot backward for three minutes. If she's wearing a floor-length ball gown, moving her backward vastly increases the chance of her stepping on it — with unpleasant consequences.

Remember, you're a team. When you're learning — and even after you've been learning for years. Be open to suggestions from your partner, both of you. There are many small adjustments to be made as you progress, such as arm or hand positions, tension, balance, uncertainty, unclear leads, support, rhythm — they have to be learned and incorporated one at a time. Be patient with each other. Many relationships have been destroyed over impatience with one's dance partner, especially if it's a spouse. Relax! It's not worth it. Any problem you have has been experienced by countless thousands before you and the solution is usually something simple. That's what the teacher is for.

As a teacher, your first and foremost task is to give your students a comfortable, satisfying, and pleasant experience that they will want to try again. And again. And again.


History of Chain Dance

"Chain dance" is the proper name of dances in which dancers stand side by side and are joined by some sort of hand or arm link. The dances may be in circles, open circles, or straight lines and may be as few as two dancers or the whole village.

The Chain Dance is considered to be the oldest form of human dance, performed around some kind of central object, most likely of religious importance. Dancers may or may not have been linked together — no one knows and it's not that important for this study. It is safe to assume that this attempt to communicate with the supernatural would have been the earliest form of organized dance movement intended to accomplish something.

As cultures developed, the dances would have become specialized, serving the division of labor that naturally develops. Men would dance for those functions falling to men: warfare, fertility, hunting, scouting, etc.; women would dance for theirs: harvest, child birth, cooking, etc. The dance would have been intended to appeal to the supernatural for favors that would ensure success and survival.

The Chain Dances with which folk dancers are most familiar are those of the Balkan regions of Southern Europe and the Middle East. After centuries of development, the dances would have been identified with certain members of the community, identifiable by gender, age, social stature, livelihood, ritual, or some other function. There were a few dances in which all participated regardless of age or gender, but the vast majority were intended to identify one's place in the society. Interestingly, this phenomenon is found in dance folklore throughout the world, whether danced in chain formation or otherwise.

One of the social changes brought about by the Renaissance was the concept of dancing with a partner. Up until then, dance was still in the chain format and perhaps some dance historian may know when and where the idea of couples dancing together first appeared. The first couple dances, to be sure, were very formal affairs with partners separated at arm's length — it was another two or three centuries before the closed dance position edged its way into the dance.

While this evolution began in Italy, France, and other countries affected by the Renaissance, the regions of Europe under the control of the Ottoman Empire, i.e., the Balkans, were shielded. The Ottoman Empire was a closed world to such ideas and the European Renaissance remained a northern and western European movement. The Balkan dances continued to reflect the values of the occupying Turks and the Muslim traditions of social structure and relationships. To this day, the couple dance in the Balkans is a foreign concept and the role-specific chain dance is very dominant in the repertoire.

This situation is very fortunate for us as dance ethnologists and historians. The preservation of this older dance form give us insight into the values of generations long ago. The marvelous wealth of the Balkan dance repertoire has enriched us all. Balkan dance is a major segment of the recreational folk dance repertoire. There are many reasons why modern folk are fascinated with these treasured relics of another time and another age and Balkan dance appears to have its share of devotees.

It must be realized that the reasons for dancing in a recreational environment are considerably different from those in the village. The recreational dancer strips away all the attendant forces integral to the village dance, leaving only the shell — the steps and the music. There can be no re-creation of the village setting because the interpersonal relationships in the recreational group do not approach those of the village.

It is important to understand the original intent of the dance and what it tells us about those who created it. Teachers and students need to understand that one dance functioned as the mother-in-law's dance at a Macedonian wedding, another is a young men's dance to impress possible mates, yet another a young women's dance to impress possible mates. Each dance tells its story in its movement character, which is almost all that is left to us to re-create. That is why it is so important to be able to distinguish the dance character of each dance.

There is a reason for the dances of different ethnic groups within the Balkans to have differing styles and character. The almost delicate, precise steps of the Serbian kolo differ greatly from the more solid, earth-bound steps of the Croatian drmeš. Why? The frantic, challenging tempo of the Šop region of Bulgaria and the slow, heavy tread of Dobrudža might cause one to question if they are indeed from the same country. Why the difference? And why the similarities (in spite of native populations' denials) between the dances of southern Romania and northern Bulgaria, separated by the border at the Danube River? Why are so many neighboring ethnic communities claiming to have been the originator of dances which are common to each?

Hint: You don't have to know the answers — just the questions; looking for the answers is what this is all about. You'll find some, question others, even be led astray, but you will become an educated dancer. You will discover the truth about ethnic dance and what it really means and what secrets it is waiting to reveal to you.

Chain Dance "Etiquette"

A few thoughts about the "Rules of Etiquette" should be a part of every teacher's repertoire:

Do not attempt to lead a dance unless you know it.

Respect the knowledge and skill of those who do know it.

The leader is supposed to be the example for everyone else.

Know which end of the dance the leader is on. They don't all go to the right. Join the dance in the middle of the line, preferably next to someone you know.

Never break into a line to lead it. This is a fighting offense in many ethnic groups. Develop some awareness of the traditions about the dance. Some are danced in short lines with separate leaders, while others include the entire gathering and the person leading it may be there for a reason. It may be an event in that person's honor, it may be that person's traditional dance to lead, that person may be the one who paid the band to play a favorite tune.

When visiting an ethnic group's event, observe! You are not the expert. Take the opportunity to learn from the group. They may be pleased and impressed that you know their dances, but you are an outsider in the group and very likely have no idea of what the dance means to them. Never, ever criticize. Folk dancers have made fools of themselves many times by telling someone they're doing their dance wrong. Do not fail to use the opportunity to learn about the group. You will learn things you never considered.

An ethnic event is not a appropriate time to wear the folk costume you brought back from your trip to Europe. They will be dressed as you would dress for any social occasion in contemporary clothing.

If a dance line is stretched to the point of breaking, try to shrink it to the center.

Carry your own arms! A neighbor's death grip or heavy arm draped off a shoulder can ruin one's favorite dance very quickly. When arms are carried forward at shoulder high, a very common arm position, present your fellow dancers with a slight arm tension toward your own center line, creating a comfortable and welcoming feel. Never push your arms forward to the side, pushing your arms in front of the dancer on each side of you — it's rude, ugly, uncomfortable to others, and way out of the spirit of the dance.

In a recreational setting, it is customary for the person who requested the dance to either lead it or request someone else to lead it. It's only courteous to observe the process.

Two different reasons have been expressed for being attracted to Balkan dance:

  1. it is a wonderful expression of being together with a group and
  2. you don't have to relate with anyone in the dance.

Which are you?



Musical rhythm is a mystery to many, though it need not be. Rhythm is nothing more than the division of time into definable units. By learning to count the rhythm, one can analyze it, identify it and make sense of it.

Folk dance is incredibly rich in musical rhythms, especially when one delves into the rich musical traditions of the Balkan states of Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Greece, Albania, and Turkey. Here we often leave the more familiar "even" rhythms of Western music and encounter the "irregular" rhythms of the East, often frustrating all but the most dedicated dancers.

How to Analyze the Rhythm

To begin with, realize that each musical note divides the next longer one by half, thus a Whole note is divided by two, creating a Half note, which is in turn divided in half to create a Quarter note, then an Eighth note, and a Sixteenth note.

With this concept in mind, realize that the rhythm most suitable to dance is the Quarter note (or Fourth note) and Eighth note. The others, while used rarely, are too slow or quick for dance movement. Each "beat" is marked by a "note" on which the dancer moves, either by a change of weight or a gesture. Groups of beats are called measures or bars that give organization to the music. Measures are then arranged into phrases to give structure to the music.

Even Rhythms

The rhythm is simply the notation of how the beats are arranged into measures.

A 3/4 rhythm means that the tempo (speed) is based on the quarter note and there are three notes to a measure, counted "1,2,3; 1,2,3; 1,2,3." This is the waltz rhythm, usually accented on Count One of each measure.

A 2/4 rhythm means, again, that the tempo is based on a quarter note and there are two beats to a measure, counted "1,2; 1,2; 1,2; 1,2." This is the other most common rhythm in American social dance, such as Foxtrot.

A 4/4 rhythm is four quarter notes to a measure, counted "1,2,3,4; 1,2,3,4; 1,2,3,4." The tango is a good example of 4/4 rhythm.

A less common rhythm is 6/8: "1,2,3,4,5,6; 1,2,3,4,5,6" played twice as fast as 3/4, using the "eighth note" as the time length. Usually, this rhythm is danced on beats 1,3,4,6, resulting in a "slow, quick, slow, quick" dance movement.

Uneven Rhythms

The dancer needs to understand the difference between even and uneven rhythms.

The "uneven" rhythm is nothing more than an "even" rhythm with one or more beats divided into half. Thus a 2/4 rhythm with the second quarter note divided in half creates a "slow, quick, quick" rhythm (a "quarter" note for the first beat followed by two "eighth" notes for the second beat).

This is a very common thing to do with even rhythms, but it is important not to confuse an uneven rhythm with an irregular rhythm.

Irregular Rhythms

The "irregular rhythm" is one of the fascinations of folk dance. In many cultures, deeply held emotions are often expressed in "sustained" beats, beats which are held longer than others within a measure, usually for half a beat longer than their normal length. In musical notation, this is designated by a "dot" (·) following the note. Identifying "irregular rhythms" thus becomes an interesting mathematical exercise — an ideal approach for engineers, computer buffs, and the like.

Begin with 5/8, the simplest of the irregular rhythms. This is nothing except a 2/4 rhythm with the second beat held for half again its length — a "quick" (Q) note, followed by a "slow" (S) note — a "dotted" note. By applying the simple mathematical formula of the "common denominator," the first "quarter note" is given a "time value" of 2, the second "dotted quarter note" a value of 3 (half again as long as the first beat), totaling a time value of 5. Since the basic note value has been reduced to an eighth note, the rhythm is now 5/8.

Other irregular rhythms frequently encountered are:

5/8 = QS (1,2-1,2,3): Paiduško Horo
7/8 = SQQ (1,2,3-1,2-1,2): Lesnoto Horo, or QQS (1,2-1,2-1,2,3): Râčenica
9/8 = QQQS (1,2-1,2-1,2-1,2,3): Ile Ile or Daičovo Horo
11/8 = QQSQQ (1,2-1,2-1,2,3-1,2-1,2): Gankino Horo, Kopanica

Other rhythms are sometimes encountered, however, almost all are combinations of two or more of these rhythms.

It is common for Balkan dances to be notated as 5/16, 7/16, 9/16, or 11/16; the only difference is in the "tempo" or "speed" with which the music is played. Many dances from the Balkans are characterized by rapid tempos.

Teaching Rhythm Structure

Far from being an intimidating and unfathomable aspect of dance, rhythms are at the heart of the dance and can be an interesting aspect of the study of dance and its creators.

Understanding the concept of rhythm structure is basic to understanding the structure of the dance.

It is unfair to the student to bypass the basics of rhythm.


Šetnja has previously been used as an example because it is known to almost every folk dancer. It's rhythmic structure is 4/4: counted SSQQS = 1,2,3&,4, perhaps the most common rhythm encountered in folk dance. Yet teachers are frequently observed counting: "1,2-1,2,3." This is a simple example, but it is at the core of the problem.

When written, that count is meaningless and worse, it denies the student any idea of either the rhythm or structure of the motif. It fails to teach the student to discern the basic concept of the dance and forces learning by rote!

Learning by rote creates a student who must learn by memorization and is dependent on following someone else.

Suggestions for Counting Rhythm

Because the problem exists primarily in counting uneven (as opposed to irregular) rhythms, the most commonly encountered are discussed here.

QQS = 1&,2 (pas de Basque, cifra, balance steps, two-step)
SQQ = 1,2,& (rhumba, Dick Crum's "mixed pickles" step)
SSQQS = 1,2,3&,4 (Šetnja, tango)
SSQQS = 2,3,4&1 (Cha cha)
5/8 (or 5/16)
QS = 2-3 (Paiduško)
7/8 (or 7/16)
QQS = 2-2-3 (Râčenica)
SQQ = 3-2-2 (Lesnoto Horo)
QQQS = 1,2,3,4&,a (Ile Ile, Daičovo Horo)
QQSQQ = 1,2,3&,a,4,5 (Gankino Horo, Kopanica)

It is imperative that the student understand where a measure begins and ends. For instance, 11/16 — an interesting rhythm found in some of our favorite dances — begins with two "quick (Q)" counts, followed by a "slow (S)" count in the middle and two more "quick (Q)" counts at the end, followed by two more "quick (Q)" counts as the next measure begins. Students will hear the break between the measures, but many may not and will think of the rhythm as having four "quick" counts together, completely losing any comprehension of how the rhythm — and the dance — are constructed.


Rhythm is nothing more than a mathematical division of time. By developing the concept of ever diminishing lengths of time, the teacher can provide the student with an important tool by which dance can be understood and learned. It is a well-known fact that folk dancers are "smarter than the average bear," with an educational level higher than the general population (in addition to being more interesting), so take advantage. Lead your students into utilizing their analytical skills in learning the dance. They will become better dancers and you will become a better teacher.

Final Examination


Close books and notes. You have until Pasarelska has been played 29 times to complete this exam. Write all answers on this page.

  1. What would have replaced "hop-ah" and "eee-ha" if Špsko Petorka had originated in:
    1. Mezőség?
    2. Valdres?
    3. South Central Los Angeles?
  2. Discuss the advantages or disadvantages of replacing "Hoooooooo-pa!" by the more descriptive phrase "Timmmmmmm-ber!"
  3. Choose your favorite dance of the ones taught, and describe how Lt. Commander Data of the U.S.S. Enterprise would do it, assuming that he has studied and assimilated the styles of all folk dancers that have ever existed in Earth's recorded history.
  4. Describe how all of the dances covered in this class would have differed if the Balkans had been occupied by the Chinese for 500 years instead of the Turks.
  5. Estimate the number of arm swings per minute per person per arm in Trite Pâti. From this, calculate the total number of arm swings done by a village dancing continuously for eight hours, assuming that there are 245 people in the village each having an average of 1.993 arms. Discuss whether your answer was worth calculating.
  6. Considering that the Kopanica rhythm (2 + 2 + 3 + 2 + 2) remains the same when time is run backwards, discuss the possibility that the early Bulgarians who developed it may have actually been Time Lords.
  7. Design ANY TWO of the following:
    1. A version of Logovac for 3 men and 5 women.
      (For extra credit, generalize to M men and W women).
    1. A version of Bistrica Kopanica for 4 couples in square-dance formation.
      (For extra credit, make up a script for the caller, preferably in Bulgarian).
    2. A version of Šopsko Petorka based on imitations of more modern activities including driving a tractor, firing a machine gun, and programming a computer.
    3. A version of Zonoradikos that could be taught to formless energy beings of the type commonly encountered when people seek out new life and new civilizations.
      (If you have time left over, formulate and answer any other questions that come to mind. Make sure that they are as relevant as the ones above.)


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Used with permission of the author.