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Survival or Extinction
By Dr. Anthony Shay, 1974

Dr. Anthony Shay


Over the years, while doing research on specific dances of Yugoslavia (which includes the steps and movements, the historic and ethnic background of the area, and people from whom the dance emanates), questions of a more general nature have arisen. Two of the major questions which are presently of interest to this investigator are:

  1. Why the traditional dance forms in some areas of Yugoslavia are living art forms, viable and changing, while other areas have almost totally lost traditional dance forms or the forms remain as fossilized relics?
  2. In which ways does change manifest itself, both in form and function?

In my case, active observation and research began in 1956, and is still an ongoing project. The research has consisted of observation, interviewing, and reading of pertinent literature.

The observation has been done in both Yugoslavia and the United States, and in this country it includes several generations of immigrants and their descendants from several different time periods of arrival here. In addition to passive observation of noting and filming dance material, I have played the role of participant observer during a period in which I was engaged by the St. Steven's Serbian Orthodox Church of Alhambra, California, to teach Serbian folk dances to the descendants of Serbian immigrants. Another form of participant observation has consisted of my participation in the AMAN Folk Dance Ensemble, performing at various ethnic functions with AMAN being in great demand by the various segments of the Jugoslav community for what they conceive to be faithful representations of their traditional songs, dances, and music. This, of course, affords entrée into the community for purposes of investigation.

In addition to visual observations of dance events at the churches, picnics, cafés, and other ethnic gathering places, interviews with investigators in dance, attendance in several classes and seminars with acknowledged scholars and stylists and folk dancers, and finally the reading of relevant literature, have all contributed to the formulating of the research problems as well as amassing field data, and tendering some possible answers.

Taking as examples two relatively limited areas, that is, the urban and surrounding rural districts of the respective capitals of Serbia and Croatia, Beograd and Zagreb, we find two very different pictures of the state of traditional dance forms.

In the immediate surroundings of Zagreb traditional dance forms are all but dead, and what remains has been fossilized. By fossilized, I mean that the remaining material has been resuscitated by both interested urban folklorists and choreographers presenting the material on stage with urban dancers trained in the idiom, and for the preservation and performance Croatian national creative art forms and by small town and peasant groups who wish, as a matter of local pride, to perform in the many folklore festivals and events, as well as drawing tourist interest. In Zagreb itself, the urban elite rarely, if ever, did traditional dance forms, but rather danced what was current in Vienna and the rest of Central Europe. In the latter part of the 19th century, one dance that was popular and taught in the leading finishing school was a ballroom dance based on folk themes and forms composed by the director of that school (Hrvatsko Salonsko Kolo).

Central European forms, figures and steps, especially the polka, made incursions into traditional forms from the mid-nineteenth century until by World War I, the old indigenous shaking dances (Drmeš), which were widespread throughout Central and Eastern Croatia, became a melange of these steps and figures of the polka and other Central European dances. Dances originally performed in closed circles gave way to couple formations, and eventually even the shaking figure was omitted and only the name of the old dance remained.

This phenomenon is particularly observable among the Croatian immigrant groups that I have seen. Even the oldest generation dance waltzes and polkas. The shaking dances and other older forms are rarely seen in ethnic events in a social context except among some of the second and third generation as a result of their contact with American folk dancers of other ethnic backgrounds. Some of these folk dancers are employed by the community to teach these children both for performance and to dance them in ethnic social events as a means of maintaining their flagging interest in their cultural background and religious heritage. This process has been in progress for some twenty years so that a sizable number of the younger Croatians knows something of these old forms.

In Croatia itself, an interesting variant on this theme is that urban members of the national company, LADO, are hired to teach dance routines in villages near the city so that the villagers may dance in public folklore presentations. I saw one such group in Šestina, and other members told me that they were hired in similar situations.

In Serbia, another pattern obtains. Traditional forms are viable and changing, and the change has been observable through the years in both Serbia and the United States. The chief form of the dance, an open circle with a leader at the right end of the line, and dancers, irrespective of sex, holding hands down at the side of the body, has not changed, although Dick Crum, noted Jugoslav dance authority, noted that the position of the leader has seemingly decreased in importance in more recent times. The circle either moves very little, first to the right and then to the left (for example in U šest koraka), or the line moves more or less steadily to the right (as in Šetnja and Orijent). My observations and readings lead me to the conclusion that change has manifested itself in the following way: the number of actual dance types has decreased to about three, but the figures and scope for improvisation has proliferated to an amazing degree. The older immigrants who have just come from Serbia, as well as those who came just after World War II do these dances in a relatively unadorned fashion and they know more dance types. The younger immigrants who have just arrived seemingly know one dance form which they do to a myriad of recently composed musical compositions in the traditional playing style (but sometimes with more recent musical instruments such as electric guitars). The dancing of these younger (generally under 30 years of age) immigrants is highly improvised and embellished; it is a very flamboyant relative of the older style, but it is still well within the framework of the traditional form and style. The footwork is still small, the body stance the same, and vertical bounces have all greatly increased. Dick Crum (interview: 11/17/1972) characterizes this style as a combination of urban and youth style and he described the difference between this style contrasted with traditional, restrained peasant style in Želznik, Serbia, 1954.

The phenomenon of increased tempo and improvisation is also stressed in some of the studies conducted by the sisters Ljubica and Danica Janković in other areas of Serbia.

This more recent urban-youth style is very new in the United States and American folk dancers as well as some of the members of the Serbian community are attempting to master it.

Interestingly, in Serbia this dance tradition co-exists and holds its own alongside contemporary Western dances, and has done so for several decades, and also the stylized and relatively fossilized presentation of folk dances for the stage. The non-professional dancer, member of the culture who dances the traditional forms in social contexts, does not either call or regard these traditional forms as "folk dance." It is "dance," pure and simple. "Folk dance" is what other ethnic groups do, or regional peasant dances, or more specifically in Beograd the term "folk dance" is generally regarded as what the professional and amateur companies perform on stage.

Given this brief background, the question arises as to why the traditional forms have died in the area around Zagreb, and yet are still alive and viable in Beograd.

  1. To me, one of the most attractive and reasonable hypotheses, but one that is difficult to test because it somewhat begs the question, is that while an art form is aesthetically relevant and meaningful to a society they will retain that form. Not only will the form be retained, but it will expand and change. Change is the key here. One of the only methods of testing such an hypothesis is to see how a form functions in a society, and then to observe if the form functions in a society, and then to observe if the changes occur in either form or function to meet the changing needs or tastes of the members of that society. Few studies have his diachronic and synchronic approach. If, for example, a dance form is done "spontaneously" in a social context by most members of a society, the form can be held to be aesthetically and culturally relevant. The same may be said of professionally performed dance forms such as Kabuki or Belly Dance, which require specialists, but are aesthetically relevant to the majority of the members of a society. When that form ceases to change and is only consciously done by a limited number of specific persons and functions as an aesthetic representation of the historic past, then the form can be said to have lost its immediacy and it has lost its original function to the society at large. This does not mean that the form has lost its aesthetic appeal totally, but it functions on a different emotional level and is retained in much the same way and for the same purpose as a valuable museum item – an historical reminder and source of ethnic pride.
  2. Another distinct possibility is that change from traditional clothing to contemporary Western garments changes the appearance of the dance and movements that made a person dressed in traditional garb attractive to unattractive or even grotesque. In a society where the public dance is the chief occasion in which young people meet looking for prospective mates, movement forms that are uncongenial to what that society conceives of as attractive will soon go by the board. Anya Royce Peterson stated that in Oaxaca the women who wore traditional garments sat and moved differently than the women who wore contemporary dress (1972).
  3. The specific historical circumstances of each area must also be considered. The Croatians were part of the Hapsburg dominions for over a millenium. They shared the Roman Catholic faith of the German majority and always felt themselves to be culturally inferior and so dance forms from Vienna, and to a lesser degree, Budapest, found acceptance in Central Croatia. The Catholic Church authorities sporadically tried to suppress dancing as a sinful pastime throughout this area, and in general western behavioral patterns were enforced from the top and sought after among the urban and to a lesser degree, the rural populations.

    The Serbians, on the other hand, were under Ottoman rule, and because of religious and cultural differences the hatred between the Serbian and Moslem was intense. Because of this, a conscious effort was made to retain Serbian character, but in spite of this, much of Oriental and Byzantine social values and psychological behavior, as well as material items, still remains in Serbia.

    Dick Crum feels that the relationships between the sexes and between men offers a clue. The Croatians have, for over a century, been influenced by Western values so that men are not so readily willing and comfortable to join hands in a circle. The physical closeness found in Eastern societies is prescribed in the West, so that most Serbians do not seem to feel the physical constraint that Croatians experience. This can be clearly seen in demeanor of men in the two respective areas, as they walk down the street, sit together in cafés, and interact with friends.

  4. Moreover, during both World Wars in which the military action took place largely in Serbia and Bosnia, the fighting forces of all political persuasions danced in the woods and mountains and these old forms were widely utilized. This joining together physically in the dance undoubtedly played a large part in boosting morale and giving a sense of togetherness. Dick Crum (1972) feels that this turning to these dances in the traumatic war periods gave an added lease on life to these forms. There are several scholarly articles on this phenomenon among the Partisans in World War II in the various folklore journals of Jugosalvia.

    Interestingly, the old dance form (Hop šaj diri), was utilized by the Croatian Partisans in World War II, but its duration was short-lived after the war. Now only stage companies perform this as an emotional memory of that period. This again demonstrates how a form may answer a need, and function as a spontaneous need to the dancers, but when the need disappears, the function of the form changes.

In sum, several possible, contributory explanations have been posited for a specific situation as to why certain similar dance forms are viable in one area and have become fossilized or extinct in a neighboring area that has an analogous social setting. The situation is specific, but the implications are more general. The phenomenon of culture change is central to the interests of folklorists and anthropologists. Why do the various traditional forms, be they material culture items, or social and religious systems, or languages change in function or become extinct altogether? Why does a form die in one area and reamin vital and changing in a neighboring area? It is simplistic to say that people do not know what they are doing or what the dance once meant. As we have seen, the same form will function and mean different things to a society at different time periods. The quantitative and qualitative degree of relevancy does not remain static, it changes. And when it ceases to change it fossilizes, and when the form has lost all meaning and relevancy, and can not function even as a memory of the past, it will eventually become extinct as have so many languages, social systems, dances, and clothing styles through time.

Used with permission of the author.
Adapted from "Survival of Extinctions" by Tony Shay
in Viltis Magazine, January-February 1974, Volume 32, Number 5,
V. F. Beliajus, Editor.