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Folk Dance

tribal dances, tribal dance, jitterbug, folk dancing, folk dances

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Folk Dance, recreational or ceremonial dance performed usually by members of the community to which the dance is traditional. Varying criteria have been used to differentiate folk dance from other kinds of dance: For example, the dancers are said to belong to a certain economic level or come from certain locales; the steps are simple and repeated, so that any member of the community can participate; the dances require no audience; and they are passed down through many generations. Each of these criteria can be contradicted by dances that are indisputably folk dances, and in each of these criteria, folk dance overlaps with other kinds of dance.

The Dancers

Folk dance is sometimes defined as dance performed by agricultural peoples who live in close-knit communities—a definition that reflects the division of preindustrial Europe into a peasant class and an aristocracy. People in modern industrialized cities, however, participate regularly in what are called folk dances, which were brought to the city by immigrants from rural areas or, sometimes, from other nations. Although the dances of rural Europe are called folk dances, in Africa—which has no peasant-aristocracy division comparable to that of 18th-century Europe—rural dances that in function and complexity are comparable to European folk dances are instead often called tribal dances; confusingly and inconsistently, African traditional stories are often called folktales.


Folk dance is usually viewed as being strictly for the pleasure of the participants, as not requiring an audience, and, despite the dancers' enjoyment, as often being of little interest to spectators. If participant pleasure is the only criterion, folk dance overlaps somewhat with much tribal dance and with modern social dance, for example, the waltz and the twist. Paradoxically, some traditional ritual and ceremonial dances, such as the English morris dance and the Romanian calusari, have for generations attracted local informal audiences. On the other hand, when a traditional recreational dance is performed onstage in a formal concert, its origin, steps, and patterns may be those of folk dance, but it has been removed from the context of folk culture.

Level of Complexity

Folk dances are usually thought to be simple dances composed of repetitive, easy-to-learn steps. Many folk dances, however, are highly complex and may even be performed as solo virtuosic pieces, an example being the Highland fling of Scotland. Although folk dancing may be considered a nonprofessional activity, some people make their living by performing staged adaptations of folk dances.


Folk dances are defined as being passed from generation to generation, with no known choreographer. Folk dances continue to be invented, however, and in many cases the composer of the dance is known; most Israeli folk dances, for example, were created in the 20th century. At the same time, the choreographers of popular social dances (such as the jitterbug) are usually anonymous; but because these dances remain popular only for a brief time and do not gradually become part of tradition, they are generally not considered folk dances. The many forms of folk, popular, court, and theatrical dance, however, may be closely related. The waltz, for example, originated in Alpine folk dances, was popular for more than a century as an urban social dance, and persisted in folk tradition after its popularity had otherwise lapsed.


To clarify the contradictions that occur in defining folk dance, it is helpful to divide this body of dance into two major categories: folk dance in its first existence and folk dance in its second existence.

Folk dance in its first existence is an integral part of community activities. The dances are learned by individuals as they grow up in the society. Each dance is a living form that changes over time. Folk dance in its second existence refers to dances that have been removed from their original context. No longer performed as part of communal life, they are danced in other contexts, either for recreation (perhaps in folk dance clubs in cities or in foreign countries) or as stage adaptations to entertain an audience. Not learned by the dancers as they grow up, the dances must often be taught through formal instruction. At this point in their existence, they may cease to change or develop variations—unlike the folk dances that flourish within a community.


Youngerman, Suzanne, M.A., Ph.D.

Executive Director, Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies. Editorial Board, "International Encyclopedia of Dance". Contributor to "Essays in Dance Research" and "Illuminating Dance".

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