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American Folklife Center: Library of Congress, An Illustrated Guide

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Balinese girl dances in front of the gamelan
Legong dancers perform to a gamelan ensemble, Bali, 1941.
(Fahnestock South Sea Collection. Photo by Howard M. Kincheloe)

In 1940 and 1941, Sheridan and Bruce Fahnestock, along with their wives and members of their sailing crew, conducted two expeditions to the South Seas to collect information on Pacific Island birds and gather specimens for exhibits at the Museum of Natural History but also to record the music of Oceania for the Fahnestock-Hubbard Foundation in New York. The Fahnestock Collection also includes film footage and still photography, such as this photograph depicting Balinese dance.

Although virtually all cultures have dance as part of their heritage, the concept of folk dance, as it has been commonly understood in the United States until recently, developed in Europe during the seventeenth century. Folk dance in Europe was customarily associated with so-called “peasant” or “folk” communities, created and choreographed collectively and anonymously, and passed on informally from generation to generation. Some English and European folk dances, as well as certain children’s games, are thought to have had their origin in ancient rites, religious ceremonies, and life-cycle rituals. Maypole dances, for example, celebrate the return of spring and incorporate symbols of fertility.

The belief that folk dance is an authentic representation of an ancient heritage and the cultural identity of a folk or a nation has inspired scholars, politicians, and others to seek out typical and representative dances. For much of the twentieth century, in Western Europe and the United States, folk dancing was popular as a way to promote regional and national identity. After World War II, in the new socialist states of Eastern Europe, professional groups formed under state sponsorship to develop stylized productions of folk dance for stage presentation.

There have been attempts in the United States to identify a particular dance form as the true American folk dance. Folklorists, however, stress the inappropriateness of singling out one form of cultural expression as quintessentially American or preeminent. In our multicultural society, folk dance embraces, among others, the Anglo-American square dance, Native American fancy dance, Spanish fandango, Latin salsa, Irish jig, Bohemian polka, Scottish highland fling, African American hip-hop, and English Morris dance.

Omaha Indian Fancy Dancer
Men's Fancy Dance Competition, Omaha Powwow, Macy Nebraska, 1983.
(1983 Omaha Powwow Collection. Photograph by Carl Fleischhauer)

The American Folklife Center holds documentation of Omaha Indian Music from the 1890s and from the 1980s. The multiformat field collections contain forty-four wax-cylinder recordings collected by Francis La Flesche and Alice Cunningham Fletcher between 1895 and 1897, and more than three hundred songs and speeches from the 1983 Omaha harvest-celebration powwow. The powwow is a social gathering that helps to ensure the cultural conservation of Native American song and dance traditions. Dance Competitions are held in various categories and prizes are awarded to the most accomplished dancers.

The American Folklife Center’s Neptune Plaza Concert series, which began in 1977, and was reconstituted as “Homegrown: The Music of America” in 2002, has featured a diverse range of music and dance traditions from this country and around the world, and many of these are documented in video, photographs, and audio recordings in the Center’s collections. The Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project, the Chicago Ethnic Arts Project, and the Maine Acadian Folklife Project documented dance traditions ranging from square dancing to polka parties.

Folklife Center collections also contain materials on the music and dance from cultural groups around the world, including Alaskan Tlingits, Jamaican Maroons, and Moroccan Berbers. Of particular note is the Discoteca Publica Municipal de São Paulo Collection, a group of sound recordings, film footage, and photographs made in 1938 that represents one of the first ethnographic compilations of music, dance, and ritual from Brazil.

In December 1986, Margaret Fahnestock Lewis, of Great Mills, Maryland, presented the American Folklife Center with a collection that includes 143 sixteen-inch disc recordings of music and dance from Bali, Fiji, Java, the Kangean Islands, Madura, the Marquesas Islands, New Caledonia, Samoa, and Tahiti. These recordings were made by Mrs. Lewis’s late husband, Sheridan Fahnestock, and his brother, Bruce, on two expeditions in 1940 and 1941, the first aboard the ship Director II. The collection includes documentation of Legong dancers performing to a gamelan ensemble in Bali. Accompanying the discs are five reels of color film and numerous letters, magazine articles, and newspapers clippings documenting the progress of the expeditions.

Let's Dance magazine cover photo of African American dancers
Let's Dance: The Magazine of Folk and Square Dancing, September, 1954.
(Periodical Collection. American Folklife Center)

Folk-revival clubs and organizations abound, and many publish magazines and newsletters that include a wealth of information on events, activities, and the history of particular forms of folklife expression. Many of these hard-to-find periodicals are available at the American Folklife Center.

In 1949 Gheorghe Popescu-Judetz became director and choreographer of the Romanian government-sponsored Ciocîrlia Ensemble, and for the next twenty-two years (until his death in 1972) he worked on the compilation of a catalog and ethnographic description of all Romanian dances and variants. The research resulted in a collection of several thousand notated folk dance variants, more than 3,200 tape-recorded melodies, and approximately 4,000 notated dance melodies. The collection also includes musical arrangements, choreographic diagrams, photographs, and show programs documenting the activities of the Ciocîrlia and Perinitza Ensembles. Gheorghe’s wife Eugenia Popescu-Judetz donated the collection to the American Folklife Center in 1990 and 1995.

Dance presents special problems for documentation, even when a video camera is available. Some researchers have developed systems of dance notation, and examples of these are available in the archive. In addition, the archive holds journals and other publications that are devoted to dance and the cultural activities surrounding dance organizations.

To learn more about Omaha powwows and hear recordings of the events, go to the online American Memory presentation, Omaha Indian Music.

Senegalese dancer and drummers
Dgimo Kouyate, Senegalese drummers and dancers of the West African griot tradition, perform at the Library of Congress, June 5, 1986.
(Neptune Plaza Concert Series Collection. Photo by Reid Baker)

Four bridesmaids dancing together
Bridesmaides at the Sakadolskis-Pakštas wedding reception, Chicago, Illinois, June 25, 1977.
(Chicago Ethnic Arts Project Collection. Photo by Jounas Dovydenas)

African griot traditional dance, African American hand-dancing, Khmer classical ballet from Cambodia, Omaha Indian dance, flamenco, and English contradancing are some of the many dance traditions that have been featured on the Neptune Plaza in front of the Library's Thomas Jefferson Building and documented for the Folk Archive. In 1977 the American Folklife Center and the Illinois Arts Council conducted a survey of more than twenty ethnic groups in Chicago to document ethnic artistic expression to that city. The resulting collection contains more than three hundred hours of sound recordings and thirteen thousand photographs. This was the first fieldwork project undertaken by the American Folklife Center, founded less than a year earlier. In this photograph, four bridesmaids dance at a Lithuanian American wedding reception. The woman at the left is the maid of honor, as signified by her headdress.

Drawing of Romanian dancers in cosutme
Drawing of Romanian dancers in rustic dress.
(Gheorghe and Eugenia Popescu-Judetz Collection. Drawing by Ada Ghinescu)


Dance diagram
Detail of choreographic diagram for the staging of a suite, developed by Gheorghe Popescu-Judetz in 1965, based on traditional dances from the Maramures district of Romania.
(Gheorghe and Eugenia Popescu-Judetz Collection. Drawing by Gheorghe Popescu-Judetz)

The Gheorghe and Eugenia Popescu-Judetz Collection consists of primary documentation of Romanian folk dance and music. Dating from 1938, with the largest portion of the material from the period 1950 to 1972, the collection was donated to the American Folklife Center in 1990 and 1995 by Eugenia Popescu-Judetz. Although Romania's changing political climate and industrialization have threatened the survival of its traditions, folk dancing has remained a Romanian national pastime.

Children costumed in garlands of flowers around a maypole
A young May queen and her courtiers around a maypole in the Cotswold village of Upper Slaughter in Gloucestershire, England, May 1, 1933.
(James Madison Carpenter Collection. Photo by Butt [Studio], Bourton)

Originally a pre-Christian rite, the custom of erecting a maypole (with its dancing and other associated customs) flourished in England in the Middle Ages, was banned in 1644, was reinstated in 1660, and finally was revived as a children's festivity in the mid-nineteenth century. Many such customs are documented in the James Madison Carpenter Collection, considered one of the world's most important collections of British folk dance, song, and ritual drama. Carpenter was a Harvard-trained American scholar who sought out folk traditions in Britain, collecting the bulk of his material in England and Scotland from 1928 to 1935. Traversing the countryside in an Austin Seven roadster with his battery-powered Dictaphone cylinder-recording machine, a typewriter, and a camera, he documented two thousand songs, ballads, sea shanties, and carols, as well as children's singing games and three hundred mummers' plays.

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( October 29, 2010 )
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