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Folk Dance Federation of California, South, Inc.

What's Wrong
with Our Folk Dancing?

By Song Chang, 1948

Song Chang



What the writer is about to say is the result of his years of observation and personal contacts in the teaching field. His comments, no doubt, will bring on heated discussion and sharp criticism. On the other hand, he is sure that many will agree with his views on the subject. The important thing is that from such discussion constructive action be set in motion.

For all practical purposes, the writer deems it advisable to bring the question right out in the open and hopes that a satisfactory solution might be found for the betterment and heathy growth of the folk dance movement. To be sure, any change in the direction of furthering folk dancing as a more satisfying recreation for the many would be a good change.

Selfishness Must Go

To carry out successfully, such a solution depends largely on the unselfish minds of all concerned. Unselfish we must be, because many of us are known to have been uncooperative in helping others enjoy and share the good fellowship that folk dancing brings. Selfishness, therefore, has no place in the movement. So, let us not forget for a moment that a social organization without good fellowship can never be a smooth-running organization.

Too Many Dances

The vital question is: Are we having too many dances? For all practical purposes, the writer would emphatically say, "Yes!" One does not need much reasoning power to arrive at this conclusion, if the objective of the folk dance movement is to be achieved. The whole trouble of the matter is that we have been geared unconsciously to build up the Folk Dance Federation of California dance repertoire instead of the movement itself. We have actually bitten off a piece much bigger than we can possibly digest without ill effects in terms of dances. The writer agrees that learning new dances is stimulating, but there is a danger of being overstimulated.

Let us say that we have to date, at the minimum, 150 dances in the Federation repertoire. One hundred already compiled into the four volumes of Folk Dances from Near and Far and the other fifty in the process of compiling. These do not include the pet dances done by different clubs. To a few, this number may not seem very big, but then we are not building up an organization for the fancy of a few. Our goal is mass participation with full enjoyment by all.

If the movement is to succeed in the right channel, we would have to make it easier for people to join and stay in folk dancing. The general impression today is that prospective folk dancers are afraid even to come in and try to learn to dance. Curiously enough, dancing itself has been one of the many barriers. Many who have come in have been finding it difficult to keep up due to the too large repertoire of dances. The whole scheme challenges their courage, abilities, stamina, and patience. They feel thay have been burdened with the problem of forever learning. How then should we keep from getting discouraged to a point of quitting?

Even as You Began

First, we must give them confidence by teaching short and delightful but not too difficult and strenuous dances. Cheerful assistance and encouragement to them, in most cases, are essential to carry them over the hump. Make it a motto: Help those as others helped you. Unfortunately, there are in our midst many unwilling souls. They have forgotten that they once were helped by others who came before them. Their achievement in dancing is likely to make them feel aloof. They are choosy of what to dance and would not be involved in progressive dances. Such individuals only seeking self-enjoyment regardless of how it affects the enjoyment of others are of no value to the movement.

"How soon can I learn to dance?" is a common question often asked. Of course, no one adequate answer can be applied to all interested persons. Many factors, such as the time element, ability, stamina, courage, and patience have to be taken into consideration. Shall we say that success can only be measured in degrees? Under the present setup, going once a week, one does not hope to accomplish much in a year's time. It is doubtful, after a year, that one can do thirty of the forty dances at a festival.

Fewer Dances Done Better

Folk dancing should be made easier. Instead, it is being made harder and harder as time passes, because of the constant increase in the Federation repertoire. It is clear then that something must be done. What then would be the solution satisfactory to all concerned and for the betterment and healthy growth of the folk dance movement?

One thing is important – that the Federation repertoire should be and must be reduced. Uninteresting and tiring dances like Goralski discarded and "made-up ones" made unacceptable. Let people do as they wish in their own clubs – made-up or otherwise – so long as they do not inflict them on others. The writer will now venture to give some suggestions toward a logical solution, which he hopes will meet with the approval of all concerned.

First, out of the 150 Federation dances, excluding all those used by individual clubs, a yearly repertoire is to be made up of say seventy-five well-selected dances. The same to be used by all Federation clubs. Such repertoire is to be made varied from year to year in the same manner as festival programs are made varied. According to this plan, all festival programs are to be made up from these seventy-five dances. It would be more desirable, too, to reduce also the festival program dances from forty to thirty.

To assure smooth and uniform dancing at festivals, all sponsoring clubs should prepare far in advance their programs and mail same to other member clubs for review in preparation for their participation and full enjoyment. It is true some clubs have been making this their practice but it should be made compulsory for all.

Even the seventy-five dances would be too many for an average dancer to digest. Three years is not too ling a time required to learn them – going, say once a week regularly to a class. One goes fairly fast with the first twenty-five or thirty dances. After that, the going is slow. At this point, one starts to forget some. Then one thinks to go twice a week to catch up and there is no catching up. Not by the way new dances have been coming in.

Long, difficult dances should only be used for exhibition purposes or at one's own club social. The simpler and more delightful dances we would do at festivals, the better would be the chances for drawing people into the movement. Long, difficult dances may be interesting to watch, but in all likelihood not very inducive as best sellers.

In the past, festival dancing has not been generally smooth. It is no one's fault but that of our present setup. A general house cleaning is very much in order at this time if the fault is not to continue and grow.

Authentic Folk Dances

The wonderful thing about real folk dancing is the carefree spirit one puts in it. It is meant for people of all ages, for the mere expression of their inner feeling and goodfellowship. In this regard, we should be doing more dances of this category rather than just a lot of old time ballroom and recently made-up dances such as Hot Pretzels, Shaw Polka, and the like. There is a big reservoir of folk dances at our disposal – why make up any?

If we could only include two or three of the most interesting and popularly known authentic folk dances to represent each country in the world, we would have something to crow about. And, then too, the name of our Federation would not be so misleading. Out of the one hundred dances compiled in the four volumes of Folk Dances from Near and Far, roughly about one-third of that number can be truly classified as genuine folk dances representing only about fifteen countries. In the past, without exception, all festival programs of forty dances or less have shown only from three to ten so-called real folk dances.

Final resume:

  1. The selection of seventy-five dances for a well rounded-out Federation repertoire.
  2. Weeding out uninteresting and made-up dances.
  3. Introduction of more interesting and authentic dances to represent as many countries as possible.
  4. Conservation of extra dances for future uses.
  5. To devote more Institute time for review and teaching of authentic folk dances.

Song Chang (1891-1974) was the famed founder of Chang's International Folk Dancers of San Francisco, one of the original proponents of the revival of folk dancing in California. As one who had observed and participated in the growth of the movement, he was particularly well qualified to make constructive suggestions for its continued health. The Federation itself was Chang's idea. The initial plans were developed in his home.

Printed in Let's Dance!, October 1948.
Used with permission.