RCM: form and function of dance in a resilient community

Woman spinning

 

Practice

In Cossack culture, we see several different types of dance. Each has the potential to involve the whole community. For convenience, I am separating them into two main categories: dances of peace, and dances of prowess.

Dances of Peace

Dances of Peace include dance styles common throughout Europe, such as the quadrille.

These are dances for festivals, rites of passage, and indeed any other community-building social event. Note that, in this example, every man dances with every woman (and, of course, vice versa). Dances like this create a space for formalized interaction between men and women, and also between generations. Established couples can participate, as well as randomly-paired couples. I’ve been to a couple of Andrey Karimov’s classes where we went through the steps of a quadrille and similar dances, and you know what? They were fun.

That’s worth noting: I don’t know about you, but I went to some after-school folk dance classes when I was young, and they were dull, joyless affairs which I and almost everyone else stopped going to as soon as I could. It was only much later, in my late 20s, that I realized how much fun folk dance could be. I was at a beach party in Borth, Ceredigion, and a bonfire was blazing. Someone was playing the fiddle, someone else a bodhrán, and a big group of people started to dance… They’d all been through the Welsh-medium education system, which places a much stronger emphasis on folk culture than the English-medium system I went through, and they knew all the steps. It was hugely enjoyable, and I found myself wishing I knew how to dance….

A resilient community needs this kind of dance culture. The steps are standarized, everyone knows them, and so pretty much anyone can participate on equal terms.

As I mentioned, dances like this are common throughout European cultures, so there’s no shortage of local examples for your community to turn to.

The problem, of course, is to make them cool! I don’t know about where you live, but in the UK many generations have grown up knowing nothing about folk dance, and certainly not thinking that it’s in any way fun….

Which leads me to the second class of dance, those I call dances of prowess.

Dances of prowess

In contrast to the group-oriented dances of peace, dances of prowess focus on individual performance. They are still performed in a group environment – a circle – and the steps may still be formalized. However, individual interpretation and performance are paramount, allowing for demonstration of strength, endurance and skill. In Cossack culture, there are two main dances in this category: the Ukrainian gopak, and the Caucasian lezginka, which are frequently mixed together – as in this example:

These dances are also perhaps more suited to impromptu environments where there aren’t instruments, or a relatively equal number of men and women… though as the next example shows, that doesn’t mean that women can’t match the men!

These are the types of dance popular amongst Soviet soldiers during WW2, as can be seen here.

This kind of dance is less common in the cultures derived from Western Europe, it seems to me. Wales has it in its clog-dancing culture, as do the North of England and Appalachia.

It strikes me that this kind of dance, used by community-builders, could create sufficient interest to draw people towards the dances of peace: they’re more spontaneous, require fewer people, and less space.

Pattern

A resilient community, in order to endure very hard times, needs dances which:

  • strengthen inter-generational bonds;
  • create intra-community bonds and facilitate rituals and rites;
  • allow an outlet for individual performance;
  • develop skills in breathing, dexterity, spacial awareness, strength, endurance, and relaxation.

Dance is also an important element in establishing a community reputation amongst neighbouring communities, via impressiveness, grace, and complexity. Furthermore, it can be a tool for either intimidation or for the avoidance of confrontation. As I’ll explore in another post, dance can also be a fundamental training technique for combat.

Individuals or small groups who are facing the challenge of establishing a resilient community should first of all look to the folk culture of their own region, and try to find teachers or other resources from which to learn. If there are no suitable dances, seek out those from other cultures which may carry sufficient cultural prestige (eg cossack dancing?) to be transferrable.

Image credits: Cossack’s at The Fringe Festijval Canberra by user David Burke on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

2 Comments

  1. Right on!

    Participatory art, music, dance… it’s a shame that these things have been taken from most of us, at least in the States. A few years back, I attended a wedding party at a Pan-Mid_Eastern night club, Alhambra Palace in Chicago. I was moved to tears to see people of many generations and many countries all participating in dance together. More importantly, it was beautiful to see young men enjoying dancing together in an athletic, masculine way, where any such thing would be seen “in my culture” as taboo.

    Like

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