The Grail in the USA

Women and the Arts

The Role of Folk Dance in Community and Village Life: Personal Reflections
Jay Williams

Grail member Jay Williams has offered folk-dancing classes and workshops at Grail national gatherings and retreats, as well as programs at Grailville and throughout southwest Ohio.

I grew up folk dancing in Yellow Springs, Ohio. As a little girl I was immediately taken by it — the entire town seemed to be dancing and I was swept up by the music, a light and lyrical Israeli dance. Without thinking, I jumped right in.

We are all familiar with social rituals that strengthen the integrity of a community. From singing our national anthems to cheering for our favorite sports team to our more private rituals of living with partners and families, these rituals enable us to interact with our world in a way that is safe and promotes well-being and happiness for ourselves and those around us.  The village folk dance is a social ritual in which the citizens set aside a time and place, (usually the village square) to join their neighbors and dance. Where gatherings for religious rituals bridge the world of the people with an understanding of Divine Presence, so the village dance bridges the individuals’ personal world with the larger community and sometimes with the surrounding landscape and natural elements.

Folk dancing creates a sense of well-being, not just because it’s fun and the music sounds great (especially when it’s live). When the individual joins the dance, the person becomes extended into a larger organism. The songs and dances cover the entire spectrum of human experience – love, joy, sorrow, the pain of unrequited love, lilting courtship, bringing in a harvest, mining, celebrating the coming of rain or honoring the power of fire. These are not the dances of the aristocrat; they come directly from the earth, the peasant people.

Some, like the Shepherds Dance that celebrates the winter solstice, are pre-Christian, giving folk dancing a feeling of timelessness. During large folk dance parties at which people dress in the style of different counties, it feels like the whole world is on pause and for that moment, has joined up and is dancing together. In some villages, the role of the community dance is as much a priority as going to church; taking time out for community dance was as important as taking time out for communal prayer.

This has been adapted from an article in the March 2011 edition of Gumbo.

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