Folk Dance- Born of Pagan Roots

Most people are not familiar with the origins of what we would now refer to as folk dance. In fact, many dance professionals today struggle with this term and exactly what it means and the type of dance it represents. When I first began my research on the topic to present it in my dance history and appreciation classes I was rather surprised and fascinated with the origins of European folk dances. I think the history may be of interest to most of us, as you will soon discover that the dances are completely Pagan in origin. So, for my Pagan Blog Project post this week I want to share a selection from my book that explains the Pagan roots of European folk dance.

As you’re reading please keep in mind this is an excerpt from a text book for college freshman so it is a bit dry at times and it makes reference to material from other parts of the book, although I think the content is still clear. I have also found that most of my students are completely unfamiliar with Paganism and have no understanding of it, so some of those descriptions are very rudimentary and not geared for an audience that is well versed in the practice of Paganism. You may also note my subtle touch in introducing students to Paganism, which we all know can be very misunderstood 🙂 I definitely relish the opportunity to not only teach students about dance but also about other subjects, such as alternative religious practices.

…After the fall of the Roman Empire, Christianity did not spread overnight. Rather, converting people to Christianity was a process that took hundreds of years. At first people simply continued with the religious practices they were familiar with. Their religions and beliefs were similar to those discussed in chapter two, in that they practiced what is essentially an earth-centered form of worship. They had gods and goddesses, which they communed with in the hopes of affecting their lives, and their holidays centered on the cycles of nature and the seasons.

It is this earth centered religious practice to which the Christians give the name Paganism. To this day many people are confused by what this religion is and what the word means. Because the early Christians painted it in a negative light all sorts of mistaken connotations have grown up around the term Pagan. In reality Paganism is simply an earth-centered form of religious belief and practice. Pagans are not Satan worshipers, and there are a number of practicing Pagans throughout the world today.

You can recall that the first forms of Christianity in Western Europe were struggling with the separation of spirit and body, and were having trouble figuring out where dancing fit into religious practice. Meanwhile all the old religions included dance as a major focus for worship and communication. As Christianity grew and spread religious leaders were interested in banning dancing altogether, but you can imagine this would be a hard sell to people who have been dancing as a means of religious expression since the dawn of mankind.

At first Christian leaders attempted to stamp out dancing entirely, but this caused some problems. For one, the Pagans were afraid they would anger their Gods by not performing their dances. Also, life in the Middle Ages was pretty rough and people did not experience many fun times. Dancing together in a community celebration was certainly seen as a joyous time, and people were loath to give up what few good times they had. Christian religious leaders soon realized that it would be easier to convert the Pagans if they kept some of the holy days, festivals, and religious items in place.

Thus the Christian religious leaders decided to “borrow” from the Pagans. The Christians identified the Pagan holy days and lay Christian holidays on top of them. Easter and Christmas are both examples of Pagan holidays that became Christian. In the Pagan world Ostara was the holy day to celebrate the rebirth of spring, the lengthening of days, and the welcoming of light. Ostara becomes Christian Easter, which has the undertones of rebirth as seen in the resurrection of Jesus. Christmas replaced Yule, a time for families to come together and prepare for the cold and the darkness. Christianity again centered this holiday around Jesus by making it a celebration of his birth. In an attempt to further purify the Pagan celebrations Pope Gregory the Great in the seventh century decided to settle on set times each year for the festival days. These early festival dates are what will eventually become the holidays in which we Westerners are familiar.

In addition to festival days, many Pagan symbols and religious items were borrowed as well. Remember that fire was a main element of pre-historic dance forms, and this fire symbol retains its importance through candles and fires in the hearth that families gather around. Elements such as bells, incense, and singing were also borrowed from Paganism. These borrowed items not only aided in the conversion process, but made Christianity more fun and appealing to the Pagans they were trying to convert. It also allowed the religious leaders a chance to “purify” and make holy (in a Christian sense) the Pagan festivals they saw as being wild frenzies totally out of line with the Christian belief in separation of body and spirit.

But try as they might, the Christian leaders were never able to completely stamp out dancing in the peasant communities. The peasants continued to dance for communication and celebration, and to gain a sense of socialization and community. These dances were able to continue because they happened out in the countryside, away from the prying eyes of Christian religious leaders. As time went on these dances began to take the shape of the community performing them through costuming, use of rhythm and pattern, and mood and intent. The various conquering and traveling peoples who came into contact with the peasants also influenced these dances. It is in this process that Pagan dance becomes folk dance. The Pagan dances loose their meaning as religious dances communicating with the gods in celebration of seasonal and life events and become dances that celebrate national identity and heritage.

In modern times a folk dance is properly defined as a traditional dance originating among the common people of a nation or region. The term is often misused to describe any dance that is not a theatrical or concert form, or any dance that comes from outside the western world. Sometimes people use the term ethnic to refer to these dances, but that is particularly misleading. Ethnic refers to any group of people who share common linguistic, genetic, and cultural ties, and place special emphasis in cultural tradition. It makes no distinction between east and west, as any group sharing linguistic, genetic, and cultural ties is ethnic. Under this definition the Western world is producing ethnic dances, making ballet an ethnic dance, as well as court dance, folk dance, and dances from any number of nations.

In regards to Western Europe, folk dances refer to the genre of dance performed by the common people to represent heritage, national pride, and identity. Their origin can be stripped down to one simple definition. Folk dances are Pagan dances whose religious intent has been replaced by feelings of National identity and pride…

I must confess, I love sneaking a little lesson in religious history in there, and I always find it a bit disturbing with how lacking the students are with any knowledge of Paganism or what it means. If they have even heard the term most associate it with Satan worship. I can only imagine what they’d say if I announced to the entire class that I am a practicing Pagan….which leads me to the closeted discussion….why do I feel I have to hide my religious beliefs because they are “unconventional”? I would never preach to my students, but I would feel comfortable telling them I was Christian if that was the case. Why do I hide the fact that I am Pagan from my students? I openly share that information with the rest of the world, so what is my hang up with sharing in the classroom? But that is an issue for a different time…

I have a lot more written about dance in the middle ages, which is actually a very curious and barren time for dance in Europe. If anyone is really interested let me know and I’ll be more than happy to share. I’m a total dance history nut and can answer a lot of dance questions, so if you’ve got ’em, ask ’em!


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. okarnill
    Mar 22, 2014 @ 08:24:12

    I have some photos of morris dancing last Beltane if you’re interested. I own the copyrights since I took the photos.

    I always go to the dance every year on May Day, they dance at sunrise and yet have no clue that they are recreating pagan traditions, at least they didn’t until a new side got involved last year and one of the dancers is most definitely pagan lol

    Great post!


  2. Marco Antonio
    Sep 08, 2014 @ 08:17:18

    Hello friends, I want to congratulate you for your very interesting article. I want to share the following video (traditional dance from Peru) , hoping it will be of your total satisfaction.
    fraternal greetings


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