A private dance club evening was held in the Book Club on Liszt Ferenc Square on 6 May 1972. At first sight nothing strange in that, except that the participants were not dancing waltzes, tangos or sambas. Instead, the young people used Hungarian folk dances, until then choreographed exclusively for stage, for their own entertainment and as a way of dancing socially. The event would have far-reaching consequences. As Ferenc Sebő (who attended the dance as a musician) writes: “Not only did the buds of a new type of entertainment take shape here, but a lively, clarifying debate about folk dance and its staging and other functions was launched.”
One of the unforeseeable consequences was that forty years after the initiation of this newest folk music movement, it received significant international acknowledgement when in 2011 the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage recorded the dance house (táncház) method, a Hungarian model for the transmission of intangible cultural heritage, in the Best Safeguarding Practices register. But what prompted all this? Is this four-decade process some sort of genteel mischief on the part of the urban intelligentsia, or later proof of the inexhaustible vitality of folk traditions? Were there intellectual precedents to the Liszt Ferenc Square “cultural hooliganism”, or did a strange twist of fate lift up a momentary whimsy to great heights?
It was a long and winding road before the Sebő-Halmos duo could “launch” the dance house movement. At that time the concept did not even exist. Neither was the dance house combined with dance tuition universal. The first wave of folk music movements is associated with two Hungarian pioneers of modern folk music research, Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók. This, however, began to lose impetus by the early 1950s. In the words of Bálint Sárosi: “[Kodály and Bartók] were well aware that peasant music is closely tied to the peasant way of life; with a fundamental change in the way of life, the associated music will also inexorably slide into obscurity. They also recognized that starting a movement among peasants designed to maintain folk music would be futile because the peasants were trying to free themselves of their old ways of life along with all its associations. Preservation of folk music – or as much as was successfully recorded – is only possible in the more cultivated strata of society, where its value was taught and the effort required to learn and disseminate it is accepted.”
This was followed by the second great wave of the folk music movements sparked by the national folk song contest Röpülj Páva (Fly, Peacock!), organized by Hungarian Television in 1969-1970. The competition can be considered its direct antecedent since the factual broadcasting of folk traditions immediately captured the imagination of young urbanites who, again recalling the thoughts of Bálint Sárosi, “... were tired of the folk song specimens used for school experiments, sample folk songs which became predetermined, worn to death in public use, hollowed out and encrusted with clichéd praises...”
Photo: Liszt Academy / Róbert Szebeni Szabó
In the meantime, there were important movements in other areas of culture which helped the dance house movement to blossom. One such was the scouting movement, where the bard scout took shape under the influence of the rural research activities of ethnographers, which replaced the North American Indian romanticism of the original English concept with the romanticism of folk culture. From the late 1930s, folk art knowledge also appeared in the profile of adult education centres established for the further education of the peasantry and village intelligentsia. Several hundred people attended these boarding courses running all year round. At the beginning of the 1960s, the only institution which could fulfil demands related to folk dance and (in part) folk music was the Dance Department of the Institute of Popular Education. They released folk music recordings, organized film loans, screening services and folk dance courses until the end of 1964. By this time, the department was closed down as anything to do with folk art was forced into the background and the film archive and work of collecting were transferred to the Academy of Sciences.
“The interest of the new seventies’ generation and the early period of the dance house movement was a surprising, out-of-the-blue event for me,” György Martin remembered in 1981. According to Ferenc Sebő: “It was no surprise that this still-living tradition, modern in its roots, triggered an extraordinarily strong affection in us. It required no ideology to find it beautiful and worthy of learning. The perfect sound of instrumental ensembles […] of the 18th century living with the mannerisms of public music-making was good as it was. […] The heretical idea came to us that it should be learned as it is, with the thorough observation of the rules and operational mode of the tradition. The practice proved the concept correct: […] Once in possession of the necessary “grammar” and an increasingly broad “vocabulary”, one could finally attain a kind of language, and this provided the experience of self-expression even in the early period of study. And if, in that place, working communities shaped this language, here the situation was reversed: mastering the language carefully selected from the entire tradition made the organization of new communities possible among urban, or more accurately, optional circumstances.”
On reading lines put to paper in 1983 (and as a sort of epilogue), the insight of Bálint Sárosi is simply astonishing: “The best singers, musicians, dancers of the new movement […] are rapidly socialized and turn professional. […] Along with professionalism, it is a given that they have to meet all types of audiences, they have to constantly refresh their programmes and their appearances must be impactful. […] However, the passive, and, as a consequence, less and less knowledgeable audience does not react to nuances; they have to be influenced by easily perceivable externalities: with exotically sounding pieces, virtuosity, interesting instruments... […] The concession made to a public that is not sufficiently expert and unable to discern obviously weakens the power of the movement and leads to decline. After all: there are no such things as perpetual movements.”