Note: This is part of a series of blog posts about the 40th Anniversary Year of the American Folklife Center. Visit this link to see them all!
April 29 is International Dance Day, established by the International Dance Council (CID) in 1982 to call attention to the importance of dance worldwide. So get your dances ready and visit the CID Dance Day web site to learn how you might participate.
Folklorists and other ethnographers are interested in dance that expresses ethnic identity and the values of a culture. This may include dances that are social or religious, informal or ceremonial. A common view of folk dance is that of dances from pre-literate times passed on within a rural community with little formal training or a requirement for proficiency in order to join in. This idea comes from a European view of folk dance in the seventeenth century. But looked at world-wide, traditional dance styles may be informally learned or studied through ancient teaching traditions, and highly skilled dancers may be the pride of a community. As people move about the world the view of their ethnic traditions may change as well. What is classical dance in India may be the expression of specific immigrant communities elsewhere and seen as traditional. Ethnic dances once learned informally may now be formally taught within communities. There are also emerging dance forms among ethnic groups that may be studied by folklorists, as well as very old traditions. Hip-hop is an example of a relatively new dance form springing from African American urban experience that has been regarded as both folk and popular dance.
The American Folklife Center’s archive has a long history of documenting performances on site at the Library of Congress in order to add to its collections. This began before the archive was part of the Center and when an audio recording booth was adjacent to the reading room. When the American Folklife Center was founded in 1976, it had a budget for events and began presenting concerts at the Library in 1977. This became a regular concert series and recordings of these, audio at first, added to the archival collections. The view of dance for these performances has been broad, including dance forms that spring from ethnic communities and are an expression of their identity, whether very old or emerging, whether formally or informally transmitted.
As video became available this provided a better record of performances at the Library, particularly dance. In more recent years, concerts have been recorded digitally and put online so that they may reach a broader audience. For example, among the first concerts to be made available online is “Negura Peruana: Afro Peruvian Music and Dance from Connecticut,” performed in 2005.  Concerts like this one bring traditional dance groups to a wider audience.
American Indian dances in many tribes went into decline in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as U. S. and educational policies sought to assimilate Indians into American society. Today, as Indian peoples work to revitalize their traditions, dance is becoming a part of the education of their young people again. An example is seen in the video of the Dineh Tah Navajo Dancers of New Mexico and Arizona, a troupe of college and high school students. This presentation includes ceremonial dances that have had key parts of the ceremony removed in order to make them appropriate for a public performance, allowing the public to see examples of dances ordinarily performed only within the Navajo community. They begin with the basket dance, which is a blessing and also a dance symbolic of Navajo history. This is followed by the Sash Belt Dance, where the young men and women braid and unbraid sashes as they move. The dance symbolically refers to the introduction of weaving to the Navajo, as well as to weaving as a metaphor for the web of life. Next they demonstrate the Bow and Arrow Dance, which honors veterans, concluding with the Ribbon Dance, a dance of healing traditionally performed at the summer and winter solstices. Groups such as this one can help to inspire young Indians to learn dances of their own heritage.
Hawaiian traditional dance is enjoying a similar revitalization. An example available in this presentation comes from Hawai’i Community College in Hilo, Hawai’i, where a program in traditional hula, Hālau Hula, emphasizes learning Hawaiian language, as well as dance, chants, and songs. Students and teachers of this program formed the group Unukupukupu, which performed at the Library of Congress in 2012, demonstrating their commitment to the revitalization of their culture through hula. Students learn the traditional chants in Hawaiian as well as the dance, meaning that this is a language program as well as a dance program. It would not do for dancers to perform sacred dance songs without knowing their meaning or to to pronounce the words incorrectly. This is one of many examples where traditional dance education includes a broader education in language and culture.
The traditional venues for traditional music, song, and dance in Korea were tied to events that were no longer celebrated as the country’s people modernized and adopted new religions such as Buddhism and Christianity. People realized that preservation of Korean cultural history both in Korea and in Korean communities in other countries required an effort to pass these traditions on to younger generations and the creation of new venues for traditional arts. Sounds of Korea is an example of a troupe that has taken up this challenge in the United States. One of the more dramatic dances, the fan dance, descends from the traditions of the shamanistic religion, Muism. The fan dance is an artistic presentation drawing from the traditional symbols of Musim. The fans are used in rituals to drive away harmful spirits (about 29 minutes into the video). In addition to preserving Korean traditions, Sounds of Korea works for a greater understanding of Korean culture through their performances.
Kevin Doyle, an Irish step dancer from Barrington, Rhode Island, first learned to dance from his mother, who was from County Roscommon, Ireland. His mastery of traditional dance earned him a 2014 National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship. The video of his 2014 concert at the link includes a telling of Doyle’s life illustrated with dances. Irish step dancing is characterized by a stiff upper body and intricate steps usually performed by a solo dancer. There are both soft shoe and hard shoe versions and these dances were performed by both men and women. After demonstrating step dances, Doyle explains that he also became excited by tap dancing while growing up and so learned both styles. Then he performs some tap dances (about 35 minutes into the video). His performance of both Irish step dance and tap can be seen as part of a complex history of these related dances. At about 46 minutes into the video he also shows how competitive dancing can be in the Irish tradition with a dance off with flutist Josh Kane.
American tap is related to Irish and British step dancing, but has a much freer style with upper body movement. Step dances are thought to have influenced the development of buck dancing among African American slaves, usually men. Buck dances were then brought to the popular stage in minstrel shows of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, performed by both African American and white troupes. The minstrel show dances spread the more relaxed style of stepping to many other cultural groups. Irish step dancing, tap dancing, Appalachian clogging, some urban dances, and many other dance styles we think of as “American” are thought to be related, though the exact historic events that connect them are often difficult to trace.
Junious “House” Brickhouse is well aware of the complex relationships of American dance styles, and has mastered many of them. In 2014, he performed in the Library of Congress concert “Phil Wiggins & Friends: Acoustic Blues & Dance from Maryland,” demonstrating buck dancing, flat foot, and tap, among other styles. Brickhouse is a founder and Executive Director of Urban Artistry, which is dedicated to preserving and performing urban music and dance and includes a dance school. He also was a key member of a project called “The Meaning of Buck Dance” that included many of the various styles of related American step dancing to showcase their diversity and artistry.
What these artists all have in common is the discovery that all genres of dance can serve to bring people together and traditional dance can further the cause of understanding between cultures. By bringing dances of many peoples to the Library of Congress venues, the American Folklife Center has given performers the opportunity to engage audiences in learning more about the many ethic groups in America. In the Resources below you will find videos showing more varieties of traditional dance that have been performed at the Library of Congress.
- This video has recently been updated to MP4 in a larger format, as have many of the other early videos on the Library of Congress site.
“Bringing in the May,” a talk by Jennifer Cutting. Includes Morris dancing on May Day and dancing around the May pole in Britain and the United States. (video)
Hoop Dances by Dallas Chief Eagle and Jasmine Pickner — Dallas Chief Eagle, Rosebud Sioux tribal member, and Jasmine Pickner of the Crow Creek Sioux tribe present traditional hoop dancing. November 15, 2007. (video)
Libaya Baba: Garifuna Music and Dance from California and New York, July 2, 2013. (video)
Major League Tassa: Indo-Caribbean Drumming and Dance from Queens, New York, January 31, 2008. (video)
Ollin Yoliztli Calmecac — Aztec Dance Ensemble from Pennsylvania. June 18, 2009. (video)
Omaha Indian Music. Includes photographs of performers at the 1983 Annual Powwow and recordings of dance songs. (online collection)
Natasinh Dancers & Musicians — Lao Music and Dance from Iowa. July 26, 2006. (video)
Son Jarocho Master Musicians: César Castro, Artemio Posadas, and Luis Sarimientos, September 11, 2014. (video)
Tom Mauchahty-Ware with Thomas Ware, III and Chester Tieyah, Jr. Kiowa and Comanche Music and Dance, excerpt from the Legends and Legacies Concert Celebrating Joseph T. Wilson and the National Council of Traditional Arts Collection in 2009.