women and men lined up to dance a reel

On Folk Dancing

by Chester L. Bower

Living the Gospel can take unexpected forms. I recently came across this beautiful introduction to a pamphlet for callers of square dances, a pamphlet published in 1940.     editor

The wise leader of all play activities strives continually to give those who participate an experience of real joy. This is the high ideal of play.

In folk dancing, as in other forms of social play, the attainment of this ideal is itself worthy, for it is in real fun that the true social values of play become most apparent.

A group of young people appear to be merely playing together; in reality they may be learning to co-operate with each other, to help each other, to be loyal, to be tolerant of other’s opinions, to be fair, to be real social beings.

In this sense then, we may say that character values are by-products of play. These by-products are most likely to appear when the group is not consciously trying to develop them.

Self-consciousness is always a restraining force when individuals are together. It is for this reason that in the use of these games the attainment of fun and fellowship is the legitimate and wholesome aim of the group.

In speaking of English folk dancing, an Austrian writer comments, “The sociologist might indicate how in such mass dances there is mirrored a self-contained society.” Folk dances are group dances. They differ in nearly every fundamental respect from social couple dancing as we know it.

Instead of a highly individualized activity, we have here a group activity which depends for its fun upon beauty, social feeling, and the spirit of co-operation which is developed in the group by the activity itself.

The folk games are capable of taking individuals and welding them into a group—a miniature society. When playing these games, the entire group is a unit, and the success of the game depends upon the co-operation of all.

There is a definite pattern which everyone must follow or the entire group is thrown into confusion. Each individual must then become an intimate part of the whole. It is essentially social. The reason for this is readily understood when one considers again that the origin of these games was group play, not individual amusement.

The truest value to be gained from the use of these games is more than social and aesthetic; it is religious.

Religion is concerned with all of life. Christianity has sought to make living more rich and beautiful. Anything which can contribute to the supreme task of lifting personality above the petty and sordid is in true measure identifying itself with Christ in making life more abundant.

The beauty of this folk art is that it brings to us the riches of life itself, laying it before our eager eyes and making us the finer because of it.

Folk games and dances spring from the same source as other primitive arts and are equally valuable as art treasures.

The aesthetic impulse which produced material objects of beauty in metal, clay, stone, and wood, likewise produced the immaterial folk song, dance and story. If one should be preserved for its cultural value, even so should the other….

The folk game and dance, then, hold for us new experiences if we will but treat them with the same respect we bestow upon other art treasures.

Reprinted from The Handy Play Party Book, (1940), Cooperative Recreation Service, Delaware, Ohio