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At the heart of English folk
Morris dancing - photo by Owen Ralph

Why do we dance?

by Jeremy Carter-Gordon, dance scholar, teacher, and performer of traditional English and American folk music and dance. He holds a MA in Dance Knowledge, Practice, and Heritage. When he is not dancing he sings and plays banjo with the American vocal band Windborne.

Laura Smyth

Why do we dance?

While it has been asked countless times over countless years, it is not a good question. That is not to say that any one of us might not have a good answer to it, but that in the serious investigation of dance as a culturally situated practice, it is not the right question. Perhaps a better question would be: What are the human needs (social, physical, intellectual, etc.) which dance uniquely fulfills? That is, why do we choose to dance rather than sing, play checkers, or ice skate; what makes it efficacious? 

Dance anthropologist Anya Peterson Royce points out that "dance does not exist apart from dancers;" when we look at the form of a dance we cannot, and should not, attempt to separate it from the specific social and cultural setting in which it is performed. This has broad implications for dancers and practitioners, as well as in dance academia. Specifically, it should direct our attention to the values behind certain reasons we give for engaging with a practice. While 'continuing the tradition' or 'having fun' certainly indicate something about why an individual dances or sings or otherwise does folk arts, it is not sufficient. To go beyond this I ask: What is it that I find valuable about continuing this tradition? How do I go about determining authenticity or defining what constitutes tradition? How is the way I understand and delineate a form dependent on a particular historical moment? What or when am I trying to evoke?

In asking these questions we must not fool ourselves into thinking that the dances we do are the same as those done in the past, either in form or function. Some of these changes are obvious; we travel farther to dance than ever before, share (and learn) movement and music on Facebook and YouTube, and perform dances from different traditions from different geographic regions and periods of time. Not only have these external changes occurred, but we are not the same people, and our understanding of these forms is a temporally and culturally situated understanding.  This should not be a cause of concern; dance is an inherently ephemeral form that "exists at a perpetual vanishing point" and is constantly being reimagined, reproduced, and resituated to fit its particular situation.

In particular, I have found discussions of dance heritage or tradition to be particularly interesting. Heritage, from the same root as inherit, is properly conceived of as an active appropriation, rather than a passive receiving. Using the inheritance metaphor, consider the process that happens after the death of a parent. As we sort through their belongings, we save some things and discard others. We chose different objects for different reasons, while we might want to use the cake pans and books, we keep a broken watch for sentimental reasons. A generation later our children go through this process, but their reasons are different than ours. Sometimes the same objects are kept, but their meaning and use changes; we love grandma’s old pedal sewing machine, but use it as a bedside table instead. Cultural heritage works this way too, with each generation of practitioners adapting the aspects of tradition that are somehow valuable or useful, and discarding other parts. When we look at the broad range of activities that we engage in, it is obvious that only a tiny fraction of a generation’s practices and ideas survive over time.

This, for me, is the exciting part and comes with a set of new questions. How do certain practices become traditions? How do dancers create value in tradition; what is selected, what is discarded, and how is it discussed? How do culture bearers, revivalists, and researchers understand, protect, and interact with dance? What does it even mean to 'preserve a tradition?' What happens when 'the way things were' comes into conflict with changing conceptions of 'the way things should be'?

As a dancer who loves and values these forms, some of these questions can be uncomfortable at times. While the past can be studied and mined for inspiration, context, curiosity, there is sometimes the inclination to let the present be enacted but unexamined? There is often desire to say that tradition has value simply because it is tradition, and the way we dance is a purely neutral fact. I think we should fight this tendency, for the reexamination of tradition in the present context is the lifeblood of these practices. Without it we wouldn’t have women dancing morris, southerners dancing rapper, nor anyone dancing Appalachian clog.

Luckily, we have the material and intellectual resources that are needed to question and reexamine what we do. While what worked in 1800, 1911, or 1974 may not be what works now, history has given us a wealth of resources to call upon. We have projects such as The Full English, and dancers re-envisioning tradition, like Folk Dance Remixed. We have sword and morris teams performing old dances and writing new ones, and communities of new dance scholars eager to engage around dance. We have educators’ networks, online communities, books, articles, and videos. We have our own ability of introspection and conversation.

I hope that we as a dance community can strike a balance between self-examination and simply dancing, between spreading and preserving these forms, and understanding how and why we choose to do so. I hope we continue these traditions, not slavishly receiving, but actively inheriting and making them our own.

Let us dance joyfully, exuberantly, powerfully, but let us also dance thoughtfully.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of EFDSS.


#1 Anya Peterson Royce 2015-07-10 02:59
Nicely expressed, Jeremy. You write thoughtfully about heritage and how we need to consider it as always in motion, like dance and dancers. "Simply dancing" an eloquent statement about the need for both reflection and practice. Bravo.
National Youth Folk Ensemble

National Youth Folk Ensemble


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