the episodes

How this started - the eleven "episodes".

It began in 2008 with an issue I was trying to address: a longstanding frustration with recreational folk dancing. I had trouble learning new material, and often felt awkward. Yet occasionally I also heard people say I was a good dancer. Sure, in the course of life, being hypercritical of oneself is a common pitfall. But I started noticing that beyond the internal conflict, I was also dealing with a contrast of values and esthetics within folk dancing that I had not previously noticed or heard discussed.
At the time, I was using Myspace for miscellaneous blogging. To maintain continuity between posts on this topic, I numbered each one as an "episode". Though I may not be focusing on the original issue, I think I'll keep the name for now. Kef is a good thing. Though you can't necessarily make it happen - when it does, it is always appreciated.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

episode 11 - why Bulgarians don't go folk dancing (MySpace 6/03/2009)

This entry was written just prior to the emergence of the current Bulgarian-American folkloric groups, such as Antika Bulgaria in the Bay Area, which teach, practice, and dance according to their own standards and esthetics.  

This also ends the original "Where's the kef?" series on MySpace - additional hunks of material worthy of a full post just didn't emerge.  However,  I have appended some new material at the end that does add a bit of resolution. 

Subject Where's the kef? - episode 11 - why Bulgarians don't go folk dancing
DateCreated 6/3/2009 12:17:00 AM
PostedDate 6/3/2009 12:14:00 AM
Body Last weekend I drove down to a small Bulgarian "folkloric retreat" in Ben Lomond. Food, wine, campfire, conversation, contemplation - some singing, but this year no instrumental music or dancing. Took a friend from Sebastopol with me. She is an avid folk dancer who particularly enjoys Bulgarian folk dances.

On the way down, this friend asked me why the local Bulgarians never come to their folk dance sessions. I suggested that maybe the Bulgarians feel that the folk dancers' way of doing Bulgarian dances "has no soul". She was concerned - and demanded to know whether I had actually heard them say that. On reflection, maybe I hadn't. Perhaps I had just assumed.

So I shared her initial question with someone at the retreat. It brought instant recognition and a smile, and comments, such as: The folk dancers way of dancing "feels too artificial," and Americans are "too concerned about doing the steps".

Rewind to events in the previous weeks - Theodosii Spassov's Folk Project band, and the Kiril i Methodi celebration, both where most of the attendees were Bulgarians. Specifically the latter, where a middle-aged woman with short hennaed hair mysteriously arrived bearing a loaf of specially prepared bread, and danced solo amid the pravo line offering pieces to the dancers. Later, she led the line - not a virtuosic exhibition, but solid, and with excellent vigor, timing, and joy, and obviously inspired by the music - a perfect model for Americans to learn from. Yet, for many folk dancers, a simple pravo is a beginners' dance, not to be taken seriously, perhaps even boring - and appropriate for plodding through.

One more comment from Ben Lomond (paraphrased), "You are not ready for complex dances until you understand how to move in the simple dances". And one more from me: If a group doesn't seem to share their values, why should they want to come join them?

Nonetheless, Bulgarians have often expressed an appreciation for the interest that Americans - and other foreigners - have taken in their culture.  After all, there may be only 8 million of them in the entire world.  And more than one American has heard a Bulgarian say, "Thank you for inspiring us to again take up the culture we had largely put aside as irrelevant".  

Yet as I described above, the way the Bulgarian dances are usually done within the "Balkan Dance" recreational culture does not inspire their participation.  I can recall a brief awkward moment at a Bulgarian event in San Francisco.  When the music started, the Americans present were more ready to dance than the Bulgarians, and quickly lined up and began Racenitsa in the American fashion.  One dancer turned to a Bulgarian lady, opened the line, and invited her to join - a gesture of friendship, and I think also showing that they would feel honored to have her.  The response was so frank it took me by surprise, "Thank you, but this dance means too much to me."

So where do I fit in all this?  Sometimes it's hard to figure that out!  A case in point was at last year's Golden Fest in New York, with a gigantic American-style Racenitsa line, that was especially handicapped by large numbers of enthusiastic but clueless newbies.  No fun for me there, so I hung out in back by myself, moving and enjoying the music.  Eventually I thought, "what the heck," and started doing the American step by myself, shadowing the line.  Almost immediately, WHAM!  A small young woman latched onto my right, and started dancing with me. Her movements had a kind of timing I have long envied, but never quite grasped - so I flipped across, and put her in the lead.  Then she really took off - yes, inspiring, but I could barely match her new vigor.  And then the music ended.  "Where did you learn to dance?," she asked.  "I try to learn from Bulgarians."  She smiled, "That is always the best way.  You are not a high dancer, but you know what you are doing."  

And in that manner, she "put me in my place" - but not at all a bad place to be in - enjoying the music and the dance communally, on its own terms.  In that place, I believe there is room for all of us - even American beginners.   

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