American traditional informal freeform solo folk dancing

American traditional informal freeform solo folk dancing is a form of dance oriented to spontaneous individual dancing, where self-expression and creativity are expected.

Contrasts of American traditional dance styles

Traditional dance in America has various contrasting aspects and schools of practice:

  • Some are formal styles that have standards and regulating bodies, while others are informally practiced.
  • Some are oriented to performance or competition, while others are done with no regard to judges and standards.
  • Some are choreographed in advance, while others are freeform.
  • Some are meant to be repeated exactly as handed down by tradition, where others are open to spontaneous composition.
  • Some are done as couple or group social dancing, where some physical contact occurs between the dancers — while others are done "solo" or in loosely formed small groups … without any contact between dancers.
  • Most forms of dance require musical accompaniment (or just percussion), while others can be practiced without any accompaniment.

Filling the later case for each of those aspects is American traditional informal freeform solo folk dancing. This category includes Flat Foot Dancing (AKA Flat-Footing), Hoofing (AKA Hoofin'), Buck Dancing, Soft Shoe (casual tap dancing performed in shoes without metal taps), Clogging (in its older non-show form), Irish Sean-Nós Dance, and the Irish Jig. (Various other names may be applied for this category of dance, depending upon the specific regional, language, cultural, or social group.)[1]

Traditional couples and group social dance forms such as Cakewalk Dance, Square Dance, Hoedown, Line Dance, or Contra Dance might have interludes of this solo form of dancing between those dances.

More modern American dance styles—including those oriented to performance (such as Vaudeville and Tap Dance), competitive (such as Irish Stepdance and Ballroom Dance), or other forms commonly studied at dance schools—may employ some of these same steps. However, those modern dances are more likely to emphasize steps oriented towards showmanship or correctness of form.

Informality of American vernacular solo dance

The distinguishing characteristics of the American traditional informal freeform solo folk dancing are that it can be done spontaneously, with creativity and self-expression, and may involve only one person. The foot need not be lifted very high off the ground for this form of dance, but the skill and physical exertion required can still be demanding. Even if musical accompaniment is not present, the sound of the foot contacting the dance surface provides a rhythm of its own.

While showmanship cannot be totally divorced from this form of dance, the emphasis is more upon making the dance appear almost effortless. This dance style is adaptable by those who are physically limited in some way—yet can provide significant exercise. These traditional dance forms exist outside generational bounds and can be enjoyed by the youngest of children or those more advanced in years.

Often only a small dance area is required, as the dancer need not travel far from the central spot where the dance is started. Sometimes the dance is done on a table top, a door taken off the hinges, a board placed between two supports, or even on the limited area of the top of a stool. No specialized facilities, props, or clothing are required—other than a pair of sturdy shoes (plain sole, without taps).

Roots and regions where prevalent

Significant influences on these traditional styles in America include the traditions of African, European, English, Irish, Scottish, and Native American dance. Irish Dance includes a traditional informal freeform solo style known as Sean Nós or "old style". Sean-nós dance in America has been a significant influence on solo Southern dancing and solo mountain-style dancing. The regions where this form of dance is most commonly found roughly parallels the geographic area of Appalachia, the Ozarks, or other regions where the isolation and rough topography impeded the encroachment of more modern forms. These regions coincide with Colonial frontier areas where America's earlier English settlers found the land less desirable and subsequently were more available for newer immigrants. Thus there is a stronger influence of the Irish and Scottish peoples in those regions from their migration during Colonial and later eras.

Sean-nós dance in America has made a significant contribution to the American traditional informal freeform solo folk dancing that includes Hoofing (AKA Hoofin'), Buck Dancing, Soft Shoe, Clogging (in its older non-show form), and the Irish Jig. (Various other names may be applied for this category of dance, depending upon the specific regional, language, cultural, or social group.) Solo Southern dancing and Solo mountain-style dancing show strong influences from sean-nós dance.

I believe that to get some idea of the process of Southern vernacular dance development, we must consider it in parallel with its companion music and the dominant cultures that have mixed to produce it: British, African, and to some extent, Native American. These cultures began their intense musical interaction here in the 17th century, first among African-Americans and then in the 19th century among British-Americans, especially in small Southern towns and nearby rural areas. A good example of Anglo/Afro interaction in music is the introduction of the banjo, originally an African instrument. It is quite certain that the interaction between the European fiddle and African banjo changed the styles and repertoire of both. African-Americans first played these instruments together soon after being brought here, and the banjo/fiddle combination was the basis for the late 19th-century/early 20th-century mountain music to which most of our older dancers moved.[2]

- Mike Seeger, Musician, Documentarian, Ethno-Musicologist


Because this form of dance is not commonly found on stage, in the media, or taught in dance schools, it has received less attention and its practice is significantly diminished compared to its past popularity. Institutional means of preserving this sub-category of dance include through the activities of folk festivals, documentarians, folklorists, ethno-musicologists, dance schools, and performance troupes. Isolated pockets of practitioners may choose to pass this down, if the younger generations step up to learning the dance form.

See also



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