City Folk: English Country Dance and the Politics of the Folk in Modern America.
Some might be tempted to ask, what would North Americans have to say about English dancing? The answer is, quite a lot. From the early days of the revival, Cecil Sharp, his books, and his disciples have been in great demand in North America, especially on the two coasts and in the large cities. Daniel Walkowitz focuses on the social dance arena, primarily (in their terms) English country dancing (ECD for short). This includes the Playford-style dances, Pat Shaw's oeuvre, and composed dances in the same vein, but rarely the simple, rumbustious dances typical of English ceilidhs. He lightly touches on the display dances, such as morris and sword, as they were often taught in conjunction with ECD and involve many of the same participants. Other social dance forms, such as square and contra dances, and international folk dancing, are contrasted with ECD.
City Folk complements Georgina Boyes's Imagined Village, as it discusses the English folk dance revival from the viewpoint of the other side of the Atlantic, and extends the time frame to the end of the twentieth century. As a dancer, and professor of history and social and cultural analysis at New York University, Walkowitz delves into both the historical and the sociological aspects of the revival, and draws upon the results of a survey, interviews, and archival research. He believes that he is fairly typical of his generation and location. This insider perspective enhances the research and helps bring the topic to life, though it may not fit everyone's experience. Given his credentials, the number of inaccuracies that have crept into the work is disappointing (there is a corrected edition in process).
In England, the English traditional social dances revived by Sharp, and his subsequently refurbished Playford dances, are generally enjoyed by a middle-class, British audience, rather than the children of immigrants (the Karpeles sisters being notable exceptions). In the United States, in the first half of the twentieth century, instructors were imported from the EFDSS, and ECD was a fairly anglo-centric activity. But the 1960s saw a gradual influx of other ethnicities and a growing tendency towards self-sufficiency. Now, a significant number of participants in ECD and related forms are (also middle-class) children or grandchildren of non-British immigrants who have, due to their ancestors' desire to fit in, lost touch with their own heritage. They tend to be technical or professional people, highly educated, with tastes slightly outside of the mainstream. While British experts are sometimes brought over for special events or workshops, there are plenty of highly skilled home-grown teachers to supply the demand.
The 'dance community' is a phrase often used in North America by the dancers, and reflects their feeling that there is more to ECD than just dancing. The dance groups act as a virtual community, where friendships are formed, births, marriages, and other life events are celebrated, deaths are mourned, and even more mundane things such as employment, accommodation, and travel are arranged. Dance clubs encourage membership in their organization, offering discounted admission to events, but they actively encourage non-members to attend. This social cohesiveness is often reinforced by attendance at weekend or week-long camps in remote areas, where daily instruction and evening dances are only part of the communal living experience. Many participants see these events as an escape from the modern world, an alternative social and political sphere, and a safe haven. As Walkowitz aptly phrases it, they are 'Folk seeking anti-urban spiritual renewal while engaged in urbanity' (p. 258).
This book is not very strong on the background and experiences of those who currently partake of ECD in Britain, being limited to the author's research trips to London. But Walkowitz makes it clear how the two sides of the Atlantic have diverged in interpretation and practice. In the United States, perhaps because of counter-culture and contra dance influences in the 1970s, dancers make constant use of eye contact, and even flirting, and expect to switch partners after every dance. Many dancers from England find these habits unsettling. North American teachers often emphasize poise and graceful movement, and dancers may be chided for poor posture and plodding footwork. This is in keeping with their preference for the historic dances and for modern dances in the style of Playford. There also tends to be a difference in musical taste, with the British favouring emphasis on strong beats, and the North Americans preferring a melodic fluidity. However, the cross-fertilization between the two continents continues, with teachers, musicians, and enthusiasts visiting back and forth and sharing ideas and experiences. Though he ponders the future, Walkowitz wisely refrains from making predictions.
All things considered, City Folk fills a gap in the literature and is thought-provoking and worth reading. It may, however, be better to wait for the corrected edition.
E. BRADTKE Vaughan Williams Memorial Library
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|Publication:||Folk Music Journal|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 20, 2011|
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