A Balfolk Introduction

Greg Austin here. One of the delightful gems that I have discovered since moving to Europe is the dance known as Balfolk. I find that most people have never heard of it, so I’m shining a little light on this vibrant and growing dance community. I spoke with Agnieszka Dworzańska, Kraków’s resident expert on Balfolk. Let’s listen in…

Greg Austin We are here in Kraków, I am sitting with Agnieszka Dworzańska. How are you today?

Agnieszka Dworzańska Sleepy. Really sleepy.

Greg Sleepy? Why is that?

Agnieszka Because of our wonderful autumn sleepy weather outside. Typical for Kraków.

Greg It definitely is autumn, isn’t it? Nothing like an autumn day interview with coffee in hand. As we begin, if you could tell us a little bit about who you are, and why do you dance?

Agnieszka Ok, who am I? I’m Agnieszka and I’m from Kraków, since always. And I’m dancing also, since always. Since I was a small girl.

First I started with gymnastic acrobatics, and then after a few years I started with Irish and Scottish dances, which I danced for 8 years. Somewhere in the middle there was some historical dances from the Renaissance, from France. And finally, through Irish and Scottish dances, I got to Balfolk.

Greg And for people who might not know what Balfolk is, can you describe how Balfolk came to exist today?

Agnieszka Yes. Balfolk is a movement that started in 1960s and ’70s in France. A group of ethnographers started digging about the roots of, and reconstructing the traditional dances from different regions in France. This movement grew from that, spreading to other countries, so that today there are traditional dances from all over Europe within the Balfolk dance movement.

Greg So almost half a century now?

Agnieszka Around. But also there are some new dances being added. They are still growing, they are still inventing, evolving, and changing.

Greg Why do you think Balfolk is still interesting and attractive to people in Europe today?

Agnieszka Because first of all, it is a dance that brings only joy. You don’t have competitions. You don’t have performances on stages. Of course, some people are experimenting on the stages or dancing in traditional groups in costumes, but that is something a little bit different from the main Balfolk movement.

In Balfolk the most interesting thing is that you have a lot of different types of dances. You have more “jumpy” dances, you have slower dances, you have dances in chains, in circles, but also you have really romantic dances in couples.

Greg So one thing that is unique in Balfolk, is that it is not just couple dancing? It is a whole collection of different ways you dance with the people in the community?

Agnieszka Exactly. For example, at a Balfolk ball, after you dance a really nice couple dance, you can go and dance a mixer… a dance where you change your partner during the tune. From this you can meet new people and new partners, and you have the opportunity to meet more people. Also, you can have dances that you do not need a partner at all, you can just join the chain or circle dance and have fun with the whole group.

Greg Would you say Balfolk is one of the most welcoming dances for people who don’t dance?

Agnieszka I think so, yes.

Greg I’d like to pivot to another topic that I find fascinating in Balfolk. The line dance trance that can happen sometimes at balls. My experience with Balfolk is that I’ve seen times at the dance, usually at the very end of the night, where everyone will be together in a chain dance, and the musicians will come to the end of their song, but the dancers will keep dancing in silence. Can you describe your own experience with this phenomenon? How does this trance happen?

Agnieszka Sure, it’s something that is happening a lot, specially at the festivals, where you have this amazing festival atmosphere, and you can feel the festival spirit… and often the musicians are playing a Hanterdro, which is an easy dance, a dance in a chain, and then the tune is over, but people are still moving, still in the rhythm of the dance, or they even start singing, all together the same melody. So it’s a really magical moment, you can just close your eyes and feel the movement of people around you. And feel like one, common energy from one dance and one song. One big trance.

Greg It’s like a dancer’s encore, right? Asking the musicians to play to keep playing?

Agnieszka Yes. Sometimes they come back onto the stage, or sometimes, and this is the most magical moment, they go out from the stage with their instruments and join the dancers. They then start playing again in between the dancers, so that everybody is on the same floor, in the same dance, in the same moment. It truly is magical.

Greg Are there any historical reasons that can help explain where this magical trance feeling comes from?

Agnieszka I’m not sure if the dances were created especially for trance. I do know, however, that some dances had completely different meanings. For example, there is a Breton dance called the Plinn. This chain dance was invented to help a young couple with preparing the ground for their new house. The community would come together, they would cook a big pot of soup and dance the Plinn for all of the night. In the morning, the soil would be compacted and ready to build the house on.

Those dances are really easy, they have a simple movement going on and on. They were created by simple people living on the countryside…

Today, of course, the main purpose of dancing is just the joy of dancing with people, and to appreciate movement together. So I guess the trance is a side effect, but a really welcome one.

Greg That’s a fantastic example of a Balfolk dance. But not every dance is a simple, chain dance like that, right?

Agnieszka Not every dance, of course. You also have very advanced dances, that you have to have some knowledge of. Also you must have a specific way of movement, to have joy with these more advanced dances.

Greg Excellent. I guess let’s move on to something different. Do you see any challenges for Balfolk in the future? Is there something that the Balfolk community needs to be working on?

Agnieszka From my point of view, the really important thing is to go deeper. Since many of the dances are easy, many people think that they can learn Balfolk only at the ball. I think it is important for them to go for workshops and to learn those easy dances again from the beginning. Because then they can have the entire spectrum of dances that make up Balfolk. So this is something that we should work on a lot more.

Greg Do you find that if people only join the balls and don’t do workshops, they stay in the Balfolk community? Or do they go off to other dances?

Agnieszka You have different examples. You have people who are coming to the balls and having fun just with Balfolk with the easy dances they can learn at the parties. But also Balfolk people are usually dancing other dances too, like Forró, Blues, Tango, Swing etc… So it’s hard to say if people actually are not staying just in Balfolk.

Greg But is the reason it is a challenge is to increase the level and quality of the dances, or is it to help build the community?

Agnieszka It is about making better the quality the dances.

Greg And that is important because…?

Agnieszka That’s important, because if you want to really enjoy the traditional dances, you need to know the right movement and where is it come from, where is the accent and how and where you should use more energy or less.

Also to appreciate a dance all together, we should all know the movement. If you have people who are going for workshops and getting to know the right movements, accents and energy, but then other people who are learning only during the balls and not being sure about their way, you will never have a common energy in the dance. Accents will be in different places, energy, instead of going up, will be going down. That makes a lot of frustrations. And we all want to dance together.

Greg And the importance of having this one, common energy, how important is that to getting this trance quality in some of the line dances?

Agnieszka Very important. You can’t have it if your neighbor in dance is doing something completely different, something not fitting the music.

Greg So at the end of the night, to reach that magical trance stage in Balfolk, you need to have a community that’s all feeling the same energy?

Agnieszka Yes.

Greg Excellent. Let’s talk about that. Do you have a dream about where you want to be in the Balfolk world in 5 years? How will the community in Kraków go deeper?

Agnieszka First off, I would really love to work with people. To show them how magical the dance world might be. And how easy it is to start and find the joy in movement, with contact with your partner. How amazing is dancing to the live music, how to play with musicians and other dancers. Of course, I would love to organize and grow my little festival and show people specially in Kraków that life might be much more colorful when you have contact with your body and movement.

Greg Tell us more about this little festival that you organize.

Agnieszka I organize a small festival in Kraków, it’s called Balfolk May Weekend. The first edition, I organized just by myself with some small help of Justyna, and it was two days of parties, one day with concerts, one day with digital music. Really not an official thing, partly in my mom’s garden.

The second time I organized it with two other people, with Dorota and Justyna and a group of volunteers. We organized it as a three day event, two days with live music and workshops, and one day with digital music. We had teachers and musicians from all over the Europe. It was a really small festival, but be had people from all over Europe; Italy, France, Russia, Czech Republic, Belgium, Germany, Netherlands. Organizing the festival, even though it is a lot of work, brings me joy. You know, when you can see people from all over the Europe dancing together, making friendships, getting to know each other across the borders… That gives you the biggest satisfaction in the world and the feeling that everything is possible!

Greg Wonderful! What is possible right now for people interested in Balfolk? How can people dance Balfolk in Kraków right now?

Agnieszka Here in Kraków, I’m teaching the Balfolk dances right now from beginning, in Kraków Dance Works studio. Also, from time to time, I’m giving deeper workshops about body awareness, how to feel good in your body and in your movement.

I’m inviting teachers from Poland and from abroad to come and teach us something new, something more. And of course, concerts! Last weekend we had a concert with OMG Dude! From Warsaw. And of course, the small-big festival in May.

Greg Great, and if someone wants to get involved with the Balfolks organization, they can reach out to you?

Agnieszka Of course! We’ll appreciate any new input from people in our organization. We’re always open.

Greg Any final words as we wrap up?

Agnieszka I just hope that we will all learn together and grow, not only in Kraków but also in the whole of Poland.

Greg Wonderful. Thank you so much for your time.

Agnieszka Thank you.

Learn more about Balfolk and what Agnieszka is up to through the Balfolks organization page.