I try to go to France as often as possible to follow workshops, and we regularly invite foreign dance teachers to teach for our school in Brussels.
I would like to share this video of one of my favourite dance instructors, Pierre Corbefin, who speaks about traditional dances and their impact on human relations. He has been dancing for over half a century!
What does dancing mean to you in your life? And what does ‘folk’ mean to you?
To put it simply: dancing is my life. Or it has been for the last 18 years. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t dance: I teach it, I study it, I do it for enjoyment and most of my friends nowadays are dancers.
‘Folk’, for me, is the one dance that may well suit me the best. I am also a passionate salsa and tango dancer, and I’m very curious about contemporary forms of dancing, but folk is so much more than just the dance: it is also about history that has deep roots in European regions, the life style and an environment in which I feel particularly at home: everybody is welcome, no dance partner needed as we all dance together, no dress code, little alcohol, live music, ecologically-minded ...
Elena, could you explain to us what ‘folk dancing’ is and its origins? What is the difference between folk dancing and folklore?
In 2013, we produced this little video to answer your question, and also to show what folk dancing looks like today:
You see, it is a tricky question as we navigate between cultural backgrounds and the modern boom in folk dancing where everybody tries to find the right words. These are the three different words we use:
- Traditional dancing is how it used to be done in the villages at the time when these dances emerged. Nobody will ever dance like this again, since many traditions have been lost because they were no longer popular or ‘in’. After the two world wars people moved from their villages to the city and adopted a modern life style, including dances from America (swing, rock ‘n’ roll...)
- Folk - In the 70s there was a revival of traditional music and dance, and the folk movement was born.
What we do is take whatever is left of the tradition and adapt it to modern taste; some researchers have been to villages and interviewed the elderly about the musical and dancing habits of their youth (this is what we call ‘collectage’ in French). We try to get as close to the forms and movements that may have existed in villages before the industrial revolution, and we make this material our own.
- Folklore is the name used when someone takes a snap shot of what they think a dance would have looked like, and present it on stage. It is an artificial representation on stage, in costumes, by trained (amateur) dancers of something that has never existed in this form.
Indeed, in the villages, people danced in whatever dress they had, and the goal was not to put on a show, but to have a good time after a long, hard working day.
I still use the term ‘traditional dancing’ when I want to make the distinction between:
For me, being a good folk dancer today means being able to do both. It is a quite a delicate balance between respecting our ancestors’ heritage and adding a modern swing to it.
What are the main differences in folk dancing in different countries?
- “Dancing in a very contemporary way based on tradition, but with lots of improvisation and new influences” (folk) or
- “Dancing a specific repertoire, as closely as possible to what my dance masters taught me” (traditional).
It depends on how fast and how far the industrial revolution went, some countries like Belgium almost completely lost contact with their traditional roots (fortunately, still a number of Flemish dances and Walloon dances have been collected, and we dance them); whereas in a few more remote areas of France, for example, the tradition could almost be kept alive without any real interruption.
Then there are areas where it is very popular to claim that tradition never died (although many a researcher would claim otherwise), as tradition is sometimes used to back a culture of separatism or nationalism (e.g. Brittany where traditional dancing at the “fest noz” (1) is very popular these days).
What type of music and instruments qualify for folk dances?
Typical musical instruments would be the violin, the accordion, the flute and more ‘obscure’ instruments such as bagpipes (2), ullean pipes and whistles, tambourines, flutes (3) and the hurdy gurdy (4). I find this one a particularly fascinating instrument, now that I’ve learned to appreciate its very particular sound.
Some styles require certain instruments: in the Auvergne (5) you will almost always have a violin, in Brittany the most fascinating bombard (6), etc. In recent years, the banjo, trumpet, cello, saxophone, etc. have found their way into folk music.
Do young people still play folk music?
Yes, there are more and more very young bands (7) playing, and even composing new ‘traditional’ tunes, some even very contemporary – can you guess all the references made by the band Accordzeâm in the following video of a ball we organised in Brussels?
Incidentally, this video shows how folk dancers are quite open to anything, and yes ... at minute 6’00 you can see me dancing the Macarena!
When we organise folk balls here in Brussels we try to follow the trend and invite a mix of the older, more traditional bands, as well as bands from the very creative younger generation. Some have a classical music education and others are self-taught – many of them are very good.
How do folk musicians differ from the pop/rock and classical music ones?
I see two main differences: firstly, they never use scores, most learning and playing is done by ear. Secondly, and it must derive from number one, there is a great camaraderie between all these musicians: very often a folk ball ends with a jam session where professional musicians will jam together with beginners, and that is basically how many of them learn the common tunes and how to play together.
In the following video you can witness a very late night (or early morning) jam session with musicians and dancers at a festival:
Are folk dances meant to be danced primarily in groups or in couples?
Traditional dances were first danced in chains and in circles. Then the square dances (8) came, as danced at court. Dancing in couples is a very recent development from, the 19th century.
Elena teaching the Ronde du Quercy, a dance from South-West France
Nowadays, although we love the romantic mazurka and the scottish – two favourite couple dances along with the polka and the waltz – you will have a nice balance between these, and chains, circles, mixers (where one changes dance partner regularly) (9) and even some individual dances like the Fandango, which you can discover in the following video, also taken at a very late night jam session at a festival:
They can go from a very simple learn-as-you-go style to highly intricate movements which can take years to learn.
Observing your folk class I noticed that you warmly invite men and women to perform both the roles (the leading one and the following one): is there a specific reason, what’s the benefit?
Both roles are fascinating and have their own particular flavour. Changing roles has benefits, for example:
Are there international folk dancing competitions?
- Firstly you simply learn faster when you learn both sides – what are my partner’s needs? How do I communicate this or that?
It took me years to become a really good follower, to really listen to what my partner was saying, and to finally enjoy being taken on a journey by a leader. But I also realised how wonderful it can be to take someone else on a journey ... now I lead as much as follow.
- Secondly, if you can lead, you will never stand alone and wait to be invited (that’s the main reason why I stopped going to tango balls).
There are no international folk dancing competitions at all, simply because – unlike promoting folklore – our main motivation is not to perform on a stage, but to dance for our own pleasure.
However, there are competitions at a local level, for example every summer, at Les Brayauds (10), the traditional dance & music centre where I go to study the bourrée auvergnate (11) (probably my favourite dance for the moment), there is a competition to choose the two best bourrée dancers of the year (12).
It is quite informal and the winners go home with a huge Saint-Nectaire cheese. Which is quite amusing as this happens in July and we all sleep in tents – so basically the winner has to share the prize on the same day with everybody else!
Once in a while you can see us on stage when we do an – always improvised – demo, like this one with my dance partner Koen Dhondt in Antwerp:
Koen Dhondt & Elena teaching at a festival in France
Our meetings are festivals. Up to 3500 people gather together in villages in France, Portugal, Italy and so on, to dance all day and night for 10 days, and then again a few days later in another village, for another 7 days.
Do you think folk dancing will become more popular in the future?
I really don’t know. I would love to say “yes”, as I consider the whole environment a very healthy one, but we are subject to fashion, like any other form of dancing.
What I can say is that no matter what, there will always be those who cannot imagine dancing without live music, without switching from couple, to group, from circle to chain and ... staying up until 7am to listen to bagpipes and whistles!
I collected some feedback from your students; I asked them why they attended folk dance classes. Most of them told me that they like the spirit of conviviality, the possibility to dance both in couples and in a group. Others mentioned that they were happy they had the opportunity to experience both the leading and the following role, it was a great surprise to exchange roles.
Elena teaching folk dance to her evening class
What types of students attend your classes? What is the average age of the folk dancers in your classes? Do you need any previous dancing experience or any musical experience to start?
How long does it take to learn them (on average)?
Everyone is welcome and I’m quite happy to say almost anyone comes to our classes. As neither experience, nor a dance partner is needed, it is very easy to join in. We have 17 year old students dancing with retired people, EC- civil servants and expats surprised by how easy it is to melt into a Belgian universe, hard-rockers, classical musicians, couples, mothers and sons, sisters ... My only regret is that we don’t have many people originating from non-European countries yet.
It can take many, many years to become an excellent dancer (I myself, am still learning so much every year), but the great thing about folk dancing is that within a few weeks you can feel completely comfortable at a folk ball and then it is quite easy to join in other dances even if you don’t know the steps yet.
Would you like to add any more reasons?
I think the most touching feed-back I ever got was this one: “Elena, when I joined your classes 3 months ago, I had to force myself to come and the next day my whole body hurt. And now, I can’t wait to come to class and the next morning I feel young again – nothing hurts”. What a beautiful present this was!
One more thing I have noticed is how many of our students very quickly bond with each other and then go to folk balls together, and even spend week-ends and the summer holidays together. Dancing helps break down barriers.
Is teaching folk dancing your major occupation, Elena, or is it a hobby?
Elena explaining the couple dance position
Dancing had been a very important hobby for over 10 years, when in 2011 I finally took the leap and made it my profession.
It was not easy to trade in my ‘serious’ job as a web content editor and event organiser for one of dance teacher and co-manager of a dance school, but it may have been one of the best decisions of my life. What I lost in security and cash flow, I gained many times over in happiness and sense of purpose.
My two main pillars during this period of change were The Hub Brussels, a co-working space that is now closed; and a women’s circle held by two fantastic women here in Brussels.
To maintain a good balance, I still work as a consultant in my other domain of expertise – I love trading my dance shoes for the rush of a high level expert group meeting.
Do you also play music or sing?
I played the violin and trombone for many years when I was younger. A good knowledge of classical music and jazz helped me a lot when I started dancing – generally speaking, when I listen to music, rhythm is the first thing I hear and enjoy.
What are your dreams for the future, Elena, - both professionally and personally?
I have two main dreams. One is to continue as a dancer and dance teacher and gain a better understanding of the body, of movement and of teaching.
The other is to create a strong bond between dancing, energy work and movement and the work place. I want to offer bodywork as part of coaching or training sessions and also as leisurely breaks. For the moment, I run a folk dancing class at lunchtime, and very much enjoy the idea that participants go back to their offices refreshed and ready for a good afternoon’s work.
Innovation consultant Jeffrey Baumgartner and I are also working on a project called ‘Human Dynamic Problem Solving’, where we coach participants to have a new outlook on unsolved problems by impersonating the situations. Our first try-outs generated some very promising feedback. My dream will come true when we can apply this method in a real business environment!
If you had a magic wand, Elena, and were allowed to do magic to promote folk dancing, what would you do?
I would pay a professional team to produce a short promotional video of our dance classes and other activities to be distributed on local TV, on the big promo-screens I have started seeing in town, and on the Internet.
I would also like more people to know about our folk dancing animations which we offer for corporate and private events: the (B)all in One, where in a bit over an hour a group of people learns a few simple dances, and then has a lot of fun together while dancing them.
Last but not least, I would have a brand new website for Frisse Folk, and one for my own activities.
Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
If you have a dream, or if you feel a calling: go for it now!
Elena’s students dancing a Chappelloise, one of the most common mixer dances
(3) A comprehensive article in French on tambourines and flutes
(4) Hurdy Gurdy
(7) “Les Piliers de Bal” are a very young folk band
(8) Square dance
(9) Short list of common folk dances
(10) Les Brayauds Traditional Music & Dance Academy (only in French)
(11) Bourrée auvergnate
(12) Dance competition at Les Brayauds
(13) Human Dynamic Problem Solving
Elena Leibbrand is a dance-enthusiast who has been practicing folk and traditional dances; Argentinian tango; Viennese and Latin dances; and contact improv’ / contemporary dance for over 15 years. She has also been training in massage and energy work since 2011.
In 2010 she became co-manager of the folk dance school Frisse Folk, where she teaches several weekly dance classes in Brussels as well as holds dance workshops in Belgium and abroad. In parallel, she teaches private tango and folk dancing classes in her home studio and coaches people for their wedding dance.
In addition to her substantial professional dance experience, Elena has worked in the corporate world as a web content developer, conference organiser and communications specialist for 10 years. She still acts as a consultant for communications agencies.
One of her goals is to bring dance and movement to the corporate world through workshops designed to analyse problems; relieve stress and spur creativity.
Dance teacher & co-manager at Frisse Folk
Private teacher of tango, folk & wedding dance
Events management consultant
Any views and opinions presented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Frisse Folk, nor do they constitute a legally binding agreement.