When Kesseke Yeo doesn’t dance for a week, he feels it.
“If I go for one week and don’t hear the drum sound,” Yeo, an African-dance teacher from the Ivory Coast, says over coffee on Commercial Drive, “I get too much stress.”
He says his students have told him that his classes, in which every movement has meaning, help them release anxiety and tension from their bodies and minds. “When you dance,” Yeo says, “it’s like something just comes out—you feel very relaxed in your body.”
African, Punjabi bhangra, and Latin American forms rank among the highest-intensity folk dances in the world. It’s easy to see why they’ve been integrated into western aerobics classes—they’re definitely calorie burners. Yet the pace, style, and energy level of folk and classical dances vary from culture to culture, covering the entire spectrum from the explosive to the reflective.
For those bored with gym classes or seeking something beyond familiar dance genres like jazz or ballroom, folk dances can be an accessible alternative. After all, they are dances created for the people by the people. Finding something suitable for any level of ability shouldn’t be a problem in this city. Thanks to Vancouver’s multicultural composition, almost every type of folk dancing—from Israeli and Polish to Filipino and Chinese—is taught here. For those who want to sample a little bit of everything, there are even groups like the Vancouver International Folk Dancers, who practise dances taught by members, from Greece, Turkey, Macedonia, Albania, Scotland, Russia, Hungary, Romania, South Africa, Quebec, and more.
Of course, the benefits of folk dancing aren’t just physical. Numerous studies, including one published by the American Academy of Family Physicians in 2005, suggest that regular aerobic activity can help people shake off the cobwebs of pessimism or depression. The celebratory nature and social aspect of folk dancing’s music and movements will certainly challenge any negative outlook. What’s more, participation in a dance class as part of a group, rather than working out at the gym alone, can potentially counter the effects of social isolation.
Interaction is a central component of the partner-based dances practised by the Scandinavian Dancers of Vancouver. The Burnaby club’s 50 members perform dances from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. “The theme that is most important to me,” club president Judith Anderson says in a phone interview, “is making sure that your partner is enjoying himself or herself. For that two or three minutes while you’re dancing with that person, he or she is the most important person in the room, and you do everything you can to focus on them and have fun with that person.”
Anderson describes the dances as a low-impact workout that varies in pace from extremely slow to very fast. Most of the dances involve legwork, core muscle strength, and posture. “There’s not a lot of arm movement most of the time,” she says, “because it’s couple dancing, and because so much turning is involved, you keep your arm around your partner.”
While Anderson says it’s great for fitness—“You know you’re exercising the minute you’re out on the dance floor”—she points out that there are mental benefits too. “It’s good for your brain because, unlike square dancing, these dances are not called, so you have to use your brain to remember what you’re supposed to do.”
Although many Asian folk dances and most Asian classical dances are less aerobic, they focus on elegance, precision, and nuance. Because the classical dances are rich with complexity, the learning process requires—and often indirectly teaches—virtues that are lacking in our convenience-obsessed world: patience, perseverance, and commitment.
“It’s a really different paradigm of learning,” says Japanese classical-dance teacher Colleen Lanki of TomoeArts. “I think it can be—and it was for me when I first started too—quite frustrating, but very challenging in a good kind of way.”
Although she’s studied nihon buyoh (the form of Japanese classical dance performed in kabuki theatre and by geisha) for about seven years, Lanki feels she’s just beginning. “You actually have to just keep repeating the dances for years. And it takes years to actually get to a point where it starts to actually become part of your body style. It really is this long-term process to try to learn the pieces,” she says. “And I think that that’s really valuable for people to learn in this society, because we’re so used to taking a weekend workshop and trying to then conquer the world with it.”
The physical benefits of nihon buyoh, Lanki explains, include centring, improved body control, strengthening of the spine, and the development of leg muscles due to a constant bent-knee stance. The unique movements of classical Indian, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese dance (all of which are taught in Vancouver) involve muscles that may not commonly be used.
“There’s a lot of concentrated work in the classical training that is a lot harder to grasp,” Lanki says. “The [Japanese] folk dance is more fun and social.”
Whether these dances are fast or slow, folk or classical, an additional benefit is the cultural education that accompanies them. What Yeo says of African forms is true of all folk and classical dancing: “Every dance is a story”¦it’s like you’re talking.” Who knows where the conversation will lead you?