Apr 292014


Today is International Dance Day, which was introduced in 1982 by the International Dance Council (Conseil International de la Danse or CID), a UNESCO partner NGO. The celebration is not intended to be linked to a particular person or a particular form of dance, but it was chosen because it is the birthday of  Jean-Georges Noverre (29 April 1727  – 19 October 1810), a French dancer and ballet master, the creator of ballet d’action, a precursor of the narrative ballets of the 19th century, who was instrumental in separating ballet from opera in 18th century Europe, thus giving dance a spotlight of its own.. The main purpose of Dance Day events is to attract the attention of the wider public to the art of dance. Emphasis should be given to addressing a new public, people who do not follow dance events during the course of the year.

Every year, the president of the CID sends the official message for Dance Day. The message for 2014 is a poem by Alkis Raftis, a Greek choreographer, ethnographer, and current president of CID.

A dancer’s creed

I believe in one dance
father, all-resonant
revealer of heaven and earth
and of all things visible and invisible:
Light of body,
very dance of very souls,
begotten, not made,
by whom all things are transfigured.

Who for us men and for our salvation
came down from heaven
before all worlds
and was incarnate in the bodies of mortals
and humanized them.
And was crucified during the consumer society,
suffered and was buried
and rises again in isolated places
where no scriptures exist.
And comes again with glory
to enliven both the quick and the dead:
whose kingdom shall have no end.

I believe in a holy dance,
lord, giver of life,
who proceedeth from independent communities
who speaks by the flesh of humans,
instead of the prophets.
I acknowledge that it constitutes a baptism
for the remission of afflictions and sins
the resurrection of dead limbs,
and the life of the world to come.

Alkis Raftis

My professional career as an anthropologist has had many foci, but dance has been the most significant. I have been a dancer, dance teacher, and historic and ethnographic dance researcher since my late teens. I thought that to honor International Dance Day I would give you a taste of some of my interests via video clips. Sadly all my videos are on a hard drive somewhere in New York, so I have had to make do with ones pulled from YouTube. I apologize for the amateur quality of most of them, but they do give you the idea.

I was first drawn to dance and dance research in England in 1967 when I first encountered traditional dance there. Thirty years, and hundreds of libraries, later I published the definitive history of one strand in the very rich tapestry of English traditional dance:


I have performed and taught a great many different English dance styles. (I am pictured in the lead photo of this post, 3rd from the left with the muttonchops, and my son is crouching in front (in the straw hat). Here’s a clip of rapper, a linked “sword” dance which is found traditionally only in the coal mining towns of the far north. You will see that it is ideally suited for confined spaces, as befits miners. Last time I performed this dance was in a cramped bar on the island of Madeira in 2007.

The north west of England is noted for dancing in clogs which were traditional footwear for the working class for centuries. They have carved wooden soles and leather uppers, ideal for making clicketty sounds as you dance. Some of the dances are performed in teams, but there is also a strong tradition of solo stepping. I can do this but I’m not an expert by any means.

Team clog dancing found its way to the South of the U.S. where it took on its own style based on the local music. It originally evolved in the Appalachians but has since spread to other regions. The clogs were replaced with hard-soled shoes (like those worn by rapper dancers), and eventually taps were added. I’ve not performed these dances, but I have done research (unpublished) with dancers, and was once a judge at a local competition.

Stage tap dancing evolved directly from English clog stepping, which was an element in some Vaudeville shows in the U.S. (as it was in Edwardian Music Halls in England). You might be interested to note that in all film versions of tap dancing, the taps are added to the audio track afterwards. This is purely for technical reasons (just as singing is dubbed over the images from studio recordings). In the case of tap this is quite a feat of audio engineering.

My research into the history of traditional dance in Western Europe led me to the dances of the pueblos and Hispano villages of New Mexico, where I spent a year doing fieldwork in 1993/94. The matachines dances of the southwest of the U.S. and northern Mexico are hybrids of indigenous dance styles and dances from Spain which were brought there by Spanish missionary monks. Much of my research (published and unpublished) has focused on the links between European dances and the matachines. Here are the dances from Alcalde, NM, an Hispano village adjacent to the Tewa pueblo of San Juan (where the dance is also performed). I have detailed ethnographic studies of both.

I have also done extensive research into historic dances in England, which has included reconstructing dances from old sources, mainly from the 16th and 17th centuries, and arranging the music for performance. Here is a dance of this type taken from John Playford’s manual The Dancing Master (1651). Reconstructing such dances is difficult because Playford’s instructions are so meager.


Sometimes the dance patterns do not fit the music, no stepping patterns nor hand/arm movements are indicated, and so forth. But familiarity with the whole corpus of dances from the era ultimately gives a sense of how to carry out reconstructions. The strangest place I ever taught these dances was in Sing Sing prison to a group of inmates who had written a play that had a dance sequence in it. I choreographed a version of a Baroque dance for them which was a comic prelude to a break dance session. The inmates could barely keep straight faces as they rehearsed, and I certainly couldn’t.

So, now I live in Buenos Aires where tango reigns supreme. People outside Argentina know tango from ballroom styles. This is NOT tango. You can find tango in different venues in Buenos Aires. Tourists usually experience “tango show” which has authentic roots, but is heavily re-choreographed for audience excitement. The most traditional tango is to be found in the milongas (dance halls) of the city, many of which are clustered in my barrio, san Telmo, one of many crucibles of tango in the nineteenth century. Milongas are strictly for locals to get up and dance; there is no performance element. In between show tango and the tango of the milongas is street tango, a common form of busking in tourist areas. This clip is from el Caminito in barrio La Boca, near where I live. The music, sadly, is not fully traditional, but comes close (if you excuse the English lyrics). Tango is all about passion kept rigidly under control – love, sex, betrayal, longing . . . It is slowly dying for all kinds of reasons. But tango still remains the lifeblood of Argentina. We are VERY proud of it.

I’ve got the world to choose from when it comes to picking a recipe. I’ve decided to go with a quasi-traditional recipe for kidneys from Northumbria, home of rapper. It’s based on a classic recipe for kidneys in gravy, but tarted up. Some cooks use a mix of kidneys and sausages. You can use all sausages if you prefer. The best beer for the sauce is Newcastle Brown Ale. I made do with Patagonian amber ale this time. Any dark beer that is not too sweet will work. I also like lashings of freshly ground black pepper in the sauce. All traditional English cooks keep a dripping pot for the fat from Sunday roast. It adds a characteristic richness to gravies of browned meats. But the health conscious can use vegetable oil for the sauté here.


©Northumbrian Tipsy Kidneys


8 lamb’s kidneys
¼ pint/150 ml brown ale
¼ pint/150 ml sweet sherry
2 onions, coarsely chopped
pan drippings or vegetable oil for frying
2 tbsps tomato puree
8 oz/225 gm mushrooms
salt and black pepper to taste
1 tbsp flour
¼ pint/150 ml beef stock


Cut the kidneys into bite-sized chunks, removing the fat and tubules (the white bits) from the center.

Heat a heavy, dry skillet on high heat and then brown the kidneys very quickly. Addition of fat at this stage or slow cooking will cause the kidneys to leak fluid and so will not brown. Set aside.

Add a tablespoon or more of fat or oil to the pan. Add the mushrooms and brown quickly. You can keep them whole if small, or halve/quarter if large. Set aside.

Reduce the heat to medium and sauté the onions until they are golden.

Return the kidneys and mushrooms to the pan. Turn the heat to high and add the sherry and brown ale. Reduce for about 2 minutes.

Add the beef stock and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a simmer and cook uncovered for about 20 minutes. Overcooking makes the kidneys chewy.

Make a slurry of the flour in a small amount of cold water. Add it slowly to the gravy, stirring well as you add it. Add just enough to thicken the gravy.

Cook for 5 minutes at a simmer and then serve with boiled or mashed potatoes.

Serves 4