Where Do Dances Come From?

by Andy Bettis

It's interesting how things turn around over time. In my years of circle dancing my approach has fluctuated between a number of polarities: from compulsive dance collecting to actively reducing my repertoire; from strict adherance to (what I thought were) regional styles, to loosely guided self expression; from an almost religious approach to ritual forms, to free-and-easy dance parties. I suppose changes of focus like these are to be expected in an expressive medium such as dance, especially when combined with the challenge of leading groups of varying abilities and in various settings. Far from considering them a liability, I feel that these vicissitudes have made me a well-rounded dancer and teacher.

Recently I was asked a seemingly innocuous question at my regular group and it made me think about how much my attitude to this particular question has changed over the years. It was somewhat ironic as the question was one with which I used to pester my early teachers with at any opportunity. As soon as a dance had been taught I would be the first to ask:

"Where does that dance come from?"

In my early dancing years I, like many male dancers - but that's a whole other subject - was an avid dance collector. I would spend tea breaks huddled over my notebook writing down steps and anything else that I could find out about each of the dances, each dance on its own page, in alphabetical order. One of the things I needed to know before a dance was 'done' in my book was where it came from, but in hindsight the only reason for asking was to keep my database of information neat and tidy. It didn't make any difference to me whether a dance was from Brittany or Bulgaria, it was just something else to remember about it. As I started teaching it became even more important to be able to give the geographical origin of each dance, because a real teacher would, of course, know that. It was good for my ego, and it had the practical use of making me an authority figure that people could accept and follow to a common goal in the dance.

So at this time the question had a simple, straightforward answer for each dance. Ali Pasha came from Turkey, King of the Fairies came from Ireland, Lesnoto came from Jugoslavia. All well and good. The simple answer to this question led me on to other simple answers: "Breton dances go to the left." "Greek dances are energetic." "Slow dances are for meditation." By limiting a dance to what I could write down in my notebook I made it simple enough to remember amongst the hundreds I had collected, and by making it that simple I was able to make huge generalisations about dances from a particular country.

However, no sooner had I reached this idyllic stage than cracks began to show in the facade of my knowledge. I discovered that if two teachers had different answers to the question, there was no way of finding out who was right. Could a dance still be described as Jugoslavian once the country began to fragment into Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia and so on? And what about the music? If a choreographed dance was done to Romanian music did that make it Romanian itself? Half Romanian? To make things even muddier, there was a lot of information going around the network that had been itself confused during transmission. I remember one dance camp where a well-known teacher, who shall remain nameless, had sold tapes of dance music with no track listing. Instead, a large sheet of paper was pinned up with the names and nationalities of the dances on it, which we all dutifully copied down. Sadly, the order of the list didn't exactly match the order of the tape, and for years afterwards dances were passed throughout the network with false names as a result of this mistake. As confusion like this became more apparent I began to start off dance sessions with the disclaimer "Everything you hear at a circle dance meeting is wrong." (This is still true, but for different reasons now.)

Exposure to 'regular' folk dancing made things even more difficult. The teachers often knew the exact village that a dance came from, but would normally name the person that they had learned it from as being the more important source. I began to see what regional styling could mean, and how it couldn't be reduced to a single characteristic. Indeed, the more I learned about regional styles the more regions I discovered inside the previously (to me) homogenous countries. My answers to the question were getting longer and much more specific, and were now starting with where I'd learned the dance and progressing backwards rather than giving a definitive starting point from which the dance had come down to us.

A change in my overall approach to teaching was reflecting this person-centric description of a dance's origins. I found that I was spending more time and energy in teaching people to dance rather than teaching them a dance, and the old goal of getting everybody moving in exactly the same way at the same time was becoming less of a priority. As I started looking at the balance between the individual and the group in circle dancing (and to this day virtually every workshop I've led could be subtitled "The Individual and the Group"), I found that the act of submitting to the group's shared movements needs to be balanced by opportunities for the individual's self expression, if not within each dance then over the whole event.

With this balance as my main objective, the core of my teaching repertoire began to change. I began to include simpler dances where the step sequence could be taught quickly so that we could get on with the dancing, as well as Gypsy dances where different individual styles could coexist in the same circle. I also began to experiment with using different pieces of music for the same dance; exploring the variety of ways of dancing a set of steps; and (speak it softly) changing, modifying and simplifying existing dances to bring out particular elements that I wanted the group to share.

This last change was a big step for me. For all of my dancing life I had viewed dances as having some sort of Platonic Ideal Version towards which dancers must strive: the more one learned about a dance the closer one would get to this ideal and any variation from this was just wrong. I reasoned that if everyone changed the steps then there would be no circle dance community, because each group would have its own (incorrect) version and every dance would always have to be taught every time at every event in case somebody had learnt it differently somewhere else. (Funnily, though, it was an accepted fact that in the Balkans each village had its own specific dances and they seemed to cope.) Despite this philosophy, I noticed that every time I taught a dance it was filtered through my own individual experience, ability, preferences and so on, so that I ended up inadvertently changing it anyway.

The question was now leading me into all sorts of complications. A dance could usually be traced back to a country, but the trail didn't stop there; it could lead to a specific village and even to a particular time when it was collected. Now I needed to ask even more questions. Is this very specific version truly characteristic of this area? Have the borders changed in recent memory, is the village now in a different country, does the original country even still exist? Has the dance been homogenised by a state dance troupe to emphasise national unity? Are the people who used to live in that area still there, and if not, where did they go? If a dance comes from an expatriate group in an alien country, what is its true nationality? Even assuming satisfactory answers to these questions can be found, each dance is changed - whether unconsciously or deliberately - by each person it passes through, up to and including myself. How does this affect its identity? If I learn an Armenian dance from an American community taught by a Dutch teacher in England is the dance still Armenian? I further discovered that the music and the steps of a given dance can each have separate histories, origins and meanings, possibly with no historical connection prior to some dancer bringing the two together. Short of giving a lecture on the various elements that had influenced a dance each time I taught it, how could I answer the question?

But I found a new answer.

When I teach a dance, I'm doing a lot more than just passing on a set of steps. I'm bringing together a whole range of external sources and influences: the teachers I've learnt the dance from; what I've observed in others dancing it; all of the factual information I've been able to find out about the dance; regional styling, history and so on. Then there are more personal factors: things I remember about doing the dance, both thoughts and body memories; other dance experiences; my movement repertoire, both in a folk dance sense and in terms of general ability and movement preferences; how the dance moves me and the way I interpret it. Each time I do the dance it will be slightly (or sometimes wildly) different. I may simplify or exaggerate some steps to make them easier to follow, I might dance the basic version all the way through to give people a reference point, or I might slip in variations to encourage them to experiment. My state of mind and energy level will colour my dancing, as will the context set by the dances coming before. And deeper (or higher?) still, there may be cultural archetypes and morphogenetic fields which I am channeling into existence. All of these things are there in potential, but it isn't until I actually start moving that a dance comes into being.

So my simple answer to the question is me. I am the source of the dance, the definitive authority and unparallelled expert, and so is every other dancer or teacher who transmits it. The roots may spread in all sorts of directions, but it is only when they come together in human movement that any dance can have a real, physical existence. I have the freedom to choose my own way with the dance, the responsibility to pass on what I know so that those I teach can make their own choices, and the support of all of those before me who have kept the dance alive.