- What is International Folk Dancing?
- Why do folk dancers find this activity so fulfilling?
- Do I need a partner?
- What does a typical dance class look like?
- When are the classes?
- Who teaches the classes?
- Do I need any special shoes or clothing or equipment?
- Do I have to sign up for a multi-week class – or can I attend one class at a time? Can I just drop in any time?
- How long will it take for me to become a good dancer?
- Is this going to become an expensive hobby? How much do folk dance classes cost?
- What does the music sound like? Got any examples?
- What do these dances look like? Got any examples?
- Is there live music or do you dance to recorded music?
What is International Folk Dancing?
There are just about as many definitions of international folk dance as there are participants! Some people like to define international folk dance as the social dances of the world. Others call them ethnic dances; some describe them as the dances of the common folk or non-performance dance. International folk dancers are "Dancers Without Borders."
We enjoy doing the dances done by people in other countries at weddings, parties, festivals – just about any time people get together and music is present. The music starts to play and people start to dance. Dancers have been collecting and sharing these dances for decades. They have formed clubs that gather to learn new dances, practice difficult dances and enjoy dancing the dances they know.
The bulk of the dances currently done by the international folk dance community are from Eastern Europe: Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia, Croatia, Serbia, Hungary, and Greece. Thrown into that mix are dances from countries to the south such as Israel and Turkey, from the countries to the north such as Poland, Russia, Sweden and Norway, and from west as far as the British Isles. Sprinkle in some dances from France, Denmark, Finland, Armenia, Albania, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the U.S. and Canada, and you’re still missing some of the dances! The repertoire includes dances from all over the world.
Dances that might be done for seven to 10 minutes in the country of origin have typically been recorded in a two-to-three minute version for use in our dance venues. Some of the dances have simple steps and rhythms; some are choreographed in the style of a particular culture. They range from slow and meditative to vigorously aerobic.
Despite sharing a common repertoire of dances, each dance class, club or group is a bit different. Newcomers to this activity should take the time to visit more than one dance venue (assuming there are many to choose from in the local area). It is similar to trying on many pairs of shoes before you find the right ones, or visiting many Chinese restaurants before you find your favorite.
Why do folk dancers find this activity so fulfilling?
Folk dancing combines the best of several activities.
- It is a good basic form of exercise. You won’t get the same aerobic benefit as riding a bike or running or using a Stairmaster at the gym, but doing folk dancing continuously for 2 hours will burn calories. How much will depend on whether you dance mostly the strenuous, aerobic dances or choose the slower, walking dances.
- It has a social component. Unlike going to the gym or running around a track, dancers gather in groups. Nearly every dancer will tell you that the people they meet in their dance classes and clubs quickly become their friends. Most of the dances stress cooperation and connection. You hold hands in a circle or a line, or you change partners during a dance. You might have to respond to calls or direction from a leader. You may have to execute a movement as a group which requires some coordination. All of this encourages social interaction. In addition, many dance groups gather after the formal dance class at a local restaurant for drinks and light snacks where there are more opportunities to talk and make friends.
And there always seems to be one couple or perhaps a few in every group who delight in telling everyone that they met their partner-for-life at a dance class! [There is a bumper sticker that reads, “FOLK DANCING – HELPING GUYS PICK UP CHICKS SINCE 1940!”]
- It is intellectually stimulating. Learning and memorizing patterns is good for the brain. A New England Journal of Medicine article entitled Use It or Lose It — Do Effortful Mental Activities Protect against Dementia? by J. T. Coyle (June 19, 2003) has shown that people who engage in dancing (along with doing crossword puzzles!) are less likely to suffer from Alzheimers, senile dementia and other brain disorders as they age. Go to nearly any dance class and you will find dancers well into their 80s and even 90s who are still dancing, still learning new dances, and still actively participating on the dance floor, though perhaps no longer dancing every dance.
- It’s a great stress-reliever. Unlike many activities that allow you to think about, worry over, and plan other activities, dance requires most, if not all, of your attention. Some have said they consider dance to be like Novocaine. Yes, the problems of your life are there when you get out of dance class, but for a few hours, you didn’t have time to think about them. As with most physical activity, dance is a stress-reliever. The simple act of holding hands with people in a circle or line can be a reassuring form of physical contact that cuts down on social isolation.
- It’s usually not competitive. Most of us spend a lot of time competing, whether it is part of our job or part of some other hobby. Dance certainly can be competitive if you are driven to be the best dancer, or to know the most dances, but typically dance is a communal activity where the only goal is to enjoy doing this dance to this piece of music.
- It’s portable. There are folk dance classes and clubs all over the world, in most major cities and many towns. Often there are several dance classes to choose from during the week, as well as parties, dance workshops, dance camps, etc. Take a look at the national listings elsewhere on this website. This means whether you are traveling on business, on vacation, or relocating, you can drop in at a local dance session and join people doing your favorite recreational activity and probably be welcomed like a long-lost cousin.
- The music. The music that accompanies the dances is a huge factor in their popularity. Every culture has its own dances and its own music; both are expressions of beauty that transcend ethnic and national boundaries. Many people even join folk dance bands to play their instrument or even to learn an exotic instrument. Ever want to learn the Bulgarian gaijde (bagpipe)? The Turkish oud (lute)? The Macedonian kaval (flute)?
One becomes adept at identifying dances’ nationality not only by their hand holds, postures and movements, but also by the musical style and instrumentation. While some styles are pretty familiar (German, English, French), others can seem quite strange and exotic. [Did you know that the great 20th century Hungarian composer Bela Bartok infused his music with the style of Hungarian and Balkan dance music? It gives his masterworks a wild, unconventional quality.] The music we hear as we dance is the most important part for some dancers!
Do I need a partner?
The early folk dance movement consisted of only couple dances. Gradually dance teachers began collecting dances during their vacations and study trips to Europe. They brought back non-partner dances from Bulgaria, the former country of Yugoslavia, Romania, Israel, Greece, etc., and taught these dances to the growing international folk community. Today you can find dance classes where a partner is required, but there are many where single men and women are the bulk of the participants and few, if any, partner dances are done. As noted above, try more than one dance class before deciding which one is right for you.
What does a typical dance class look like?
Some dance classes are very structured, with dance lessons scheduled for specific levels at specific times on specific days of the week. Other clubs have a general teaching session when enough people are present, and otherwise just encourage newcomers to join the circle anywhere and any time, and pick up the dances by watching and copying other dancers. Some clubs have Guardian Angels or a Big Brother/Big Sister assigned to newcomers to help them in the learning process. Some clubs have just one teacher while others have a staff that shares the teaching duties. There are even clubs where there is no formal teaching, just dancing.
There are some dance groups that also include a performing group. Some have musicians who provide live music. Often in the same city there will be several dance classes from which to choose.
Dance classes also vary with respect to the dances they teach and do. Some truly are international folk dance classes and have a wide-ranging repertoire. Other classes focus on a particular area — for example, dances of the Balkans. Still other classes are designed to specialize in the dances of one country — Hungarian couple dances, for example. Some classes do only non-partner dances, others only couple dances, and other classes provide a mix of partner and non-partner dances anywhere from 50/50 to 10/90.
You will find classes ranging from a few people gathering in a church basement to hundreds of dancers in a ballroom or gymnasium. A lot depends on the type of dance and the size of the community in which the dance classes take place.
In addition to these differences, folk dance groups attract a wide range of ages. You will find dance clubs where the participants are mostly seniors over age 65. You will find others where there are few dancers over 65, but the bulk of the dancers are in their 40s and 50s. There are classes that specialize in teaching families – adults and their children. There are youth groups as well. Again – shop around until you find the club or class that works for you.
When are the classes?
You can find classes during the day at some schools, community centers, and junior colleges. There are classes at night in many locations, typically beginning at 7:00 or 7:30. Classes for beginners might last an hour or two. Dance classes with lots of dancers with lots of energy and experience might last until 11:30 or even midnight. Most of the evening classes are held Monday through Thursday, but you will find classes on Friday nights and Sunday night as well. Saturday nights are usually reserved for parties and other special events. Visit our Where to Dance page to learn of our member folk dance classes in Northern California and when.
Who teaches the classes?
Who does the teaching depends on the class. You will find everything from credentialed teachers at community colleges and universities to amateur lovers-of-dance who volunteer to teach dances on the wooden deck in their back yard—and everything in between. Occasionally, internationally known master instructors will hold a workshop to teach dances in your area based on their travel schedule and on group interest.
Do I need any special shoes or clothing or equipment?
You don’t need any special equipment or clothing to participate, at least not in the beginning. After a few months of dance classes, you may notice that other dancers wear a specific type of shoe and you may want to have a similar pair. You can also dance for years in your favorite athletic shoes.
Some dancers, particularly the women, enjoy buying and wearing costumes, sometimes authentic garments from foreign countries, but just as often a colorful skirt or shirt or blouse. Other dancers never wear anything fancier than jeans and a t-shirt.
Do I have to sign up for a multi-week class, or can I attend one class at a time? Can I just drop in any time?
Some classes welcome drop-ins, but others do not. Typically the more formal the setting (community college or university), the more likely pre-payment will be required. Dance clubs and classes run by volunteers tend to be more flexible, except if the type of dance requires mastery of some basic steps before moving into more complex patterns—in which case dropping in will probably be discouraged. More likely than not, visitors who just want to watch are always welcome.
The best way to find out is to contact the person or people running the club or class. Visit our Where to Dance page to contact our member folk dance classes in Northern California. In any web search the email and/or phone number of a contact person will be included in the listing.
How long will it take for me to become a good dancer?
How long it takes you to become a proficient dancer depends on several factors. One factor is how often you are willing to attend dance classes and dance. Just as with any activity or hobby, whether it is bridge or tennis, the more often you play or practice, the faster you get good at it. Someone who dances twice a week typically becomes a good dancer twice as fast as someone who dances once a week. You will hear stories of dancers who danced six nights a week when they first got started, because they were eager to learn all the dances as quickly as possible, but now dance only twice a week.
Another factor is whether you have previous dance experience. Someone who has done a lot of ballroom dancing will have an easier time learning to folk dance than someone who has been sitting on a couch watching television or playing computer games.
Finally, there is the physical agility and stamina factor. If you’ve always been physically active and generally fit, played soccer or basketball as a youth, and go to Jazzercise classes once a week, learning to dance will be easier than for someone who is overweight, has habitually engaged in sedentary hobbies, and seldom does anything strenuous enough to break into a sweat.
By the way, no one knows all the dances played by request at parties or all classes; if you did every dance, you wouldn’t have time to meet people, socialize, and make friends.
Is this going to become an expensive hobby? How much do folk dance classes cost?
The cost of dance classes varies widely. You will find dance classes that are free because the leader or teacher does not take payment for his/her services, the facilities are not rented, and the music is provided for free. Other classes charge just enough to cover the rent, but the teachers are volunteers. Others pay the teachers, have to pay for rent and insurance, and regularly put away money to buy sound equipment and music. You could pay nothing or you could pay $8-$15 for a two-hour class. In general, you will find that folk dance classes are cheaper than a movie or a gym membership.
There are thousands of samples. A few selections are on our "Music and Dance Samples" page.
Is there live music or do you dance to recorded music?
Most dance classes and clubs cannot afford a live band for weekly classes, but some—especially those that specialize in contra dance — do have live musicians. Most international folk dance classes rely on recorded music. Live bands are frequently hired to play at folk dance festivals and workshops.
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