Catholic Activity: Dancing
Maria Augusta Trapp discusses the importance of dancing as a universal language and contrasts traditional folk dancing with modern American dancing.
Coming from Austria to America meant coming from a country known from time immemorial as "the land of dancers and fiddlers," a country that had brought forth not only hundreds of most picturesque folk dances, but also that world-wide favorite, the Viennese waltz — to the country that had given to the world jazz music and the dancing that goes with it. Needless to say, we soon found ourselves engulfed in endless discussions on the subject of folk dancing versus modern ballroom dancing.
Many times we were told: "But is not jazz America's popular music and true `folk dance'?"
Here is my answer: Most of the so-called popular music of America certainly does not come from the people. Rather, far removed from any creative contact with this earth of ours, it is composed in some New York skyscraper; it is propagated by modern means of mass propaganda, radio and television, to a nation of one hundred and sixty millions; and upon the appearance of its successor, completely forgotten and lost.
And now let us take a look at the people who dance in the bars and nightclubs and dance halls. In the first part of the evening there prevails an air of sophistication which shows in facial expressions of bored indifference. As the evening progresses, however, the low rumbling of the rhythm seems to increase and to win out over the poverty of the melodies. And then something like a trance takes hold of the dancers as they trip around and slur and wiggle, hypnotized by the suggestive sound of the jazz orchestra.
As one looks down from a gallery on one of the modern dance halls, one is struck by something else — a picture of utter chaos. There is no pattern of movement relating the dancing couples; each pair seems alone on its narrow piece of floor, busy only with itself, with no thought for the others. The red or purple twilight mercifully conceals what could easily be read on the dancers' faces; for we must not forget that the dance is a universal language, just like music; as it involves the whole body, it has a depth and wealth of expression which surpasses by far the language of words.
It is high time for all Christian parents to wake up and see what has become of modern ballroom dancing. I say on purpose ballroom dancing. At the time when I was quite young, or when our mothers "came out," there existed ballroom dancing too, as distinct from folk dancing. But at that time the waltz, the minuet, the Rhinelander and polka, the quadrille, gallop, and mazurka held the place taken today by jazz and jitterbug. Each nation added one or two favorite national dances, Austria the "Laendler," Sweden the "Hombo," Jugoslavia the "Kolo," Hungaria the "Czardas." How could one single generation have been so careless as to lose all these precious goods which had enriched the lives of many generations?
The last years, however, seem to have brought about a reaction. In French Canada there is the beginning of a movement aimed to reintroduce folk dancing to young people. In America the English and Irish square dances are becoming increasingly popular, and all over the country little groups seriously interested in the folk dances of many nations are forming. We were surprised to find on the West Coast even more interest in folk dancing than in the East.
We have always enjoyed our inheritance of Austrian folk dances. As we started touring all over Europe we exchanged our own national dances for those of the country whose guests we were. So it comes that we have a large collection of European folk dances which we brought home from our travels. From the very beginning of our summer Music Camp, folk dancing has been an integral part of our evening entertainment. It was always a joy and a rewarding happiness to see how everybody took to it enthusiastically. One difficulty is usually the music. One should realize from the very beginning that record players are not the right accompaniment for folk dancing. They are too mechanical, too rigid. People simply have to learn to play instruments again accordion and guitar, fiddle and clarinet, or the recorder, the ancient flute that is gaining so many new friends today.
One thing is sure people have always danced, and always will. By experience we have learned that it is not enough to criticize an existing system; one should rather supplant it with a better one, overcome the evil with the good. Parents might get interested in the nearest folk dancing group, join in their evenings, learn the dances, read about them, learn to play the dances on simple instruments and then introduce them in their own homes. With these folk dances, old and new, and the ballroom dances of our own youth, we shall be able to enjoy many a happy evening together with our families.
One more thing needs to be said here there are times when dancing is allowed and times when dancing is forbidden "All things have their season. . . . There is a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn, and a time to dance" (Ecclesiastes 2:1-4). This also has become forgotten, and dances in parish halls on Saturday evenings during Advent and Lent are not infrequent. Again, we have to wake up from our sleep, or shall we call it stupor, and look to our Christian inheritance in order to learn when we should dance and when not. Then, in spite of "but everybody does it," we shall act accordingly. It may not always be easy to be a true Christian, but it brings inner happiness — that kind of happiness which is the result of a sacrifice cheerfully brought — the happiness the children of the world ignore.
Activity Source: Around the Year with the Trapp Family by Maria Augusta Trapp, Pantheon Books Inc., New York, New York, 1955