Thursday, October 27, 2016

Hungarian Folk Dance troupe “steps higher;” much more to their art than leaps and boot slaps

When we were young we had some bohemian friends, Randy and Daisy.  Their passion was folk dancing.  They loved everything about it:  the music, the steps, the endorphins they ginned up from the strenuous exercise, the social interactions.  We were invited to join them, multiple times, but truthfully, we thought it corny, though harmless.  After all, we were young Americans, and young Americans didn’t “folk dance.”

Now, after decades, a near lifetime, come to find out as with so many things, we were wrong.  Turns out there is a lot to more to folk dance than is immediately apparent.  Though not a “fine art,” it is art, it is not “corny,” and it has as much meaning to offer humanity as any other art form, maybe more, and can even serve to show some remedy to much of what ails society today.

How did this reversal come about?  During the research for the “csárdás” section of a new book I was working on (see, I had made the online acquaintance of Mr. Kalman Magyar, and learned he would be producing a national tour of the Hungarian National Dance Ensemble in a program titled “Spirit of Hungary:  Revolution and Roots in Dance and Music.”  It would make its Chicago stop October 19, 2016.  He was extremely helpful to my research, I was grateful, and as an opportunity to say so in person, I promised to attend.

When the day actually came, as luck would have it, I was returning from an arduous two-week business assignment.  After a four hour flight, I went home long enough to drop my bag, splash water on my face, change clothes, and exhausted, push myself back out the door again to fight some unusually brutal Chicago traffic and make it to the show on time.

I’m glad I did.  I was repaid 500 times.  The dancers, some 20 strong, in the prime of youth, were unforgettable:  athletic, artistic, confident, poised, in absolute command of their intricate steps.  The young women were beautiful, lithe, expressive, and modest, all at the same time, not a small feat.  The young men:  muscular, leaping, boot-slapping, powerful, ferocious, even, at times, tender.  Moments of humor interspersed with moments of awe at the sheer athleticism of all the dancers.  It was a two-plus hour program, quite long, but one wished it wouldn’t end.  Part one was a moving tribute to the 1956 revolution;  part two, traditional folk dance.

Out in the wider world, we have wars and rumors of wars;  in this idyllic, mythic ‘village’ recreation, there was no such enmity.  In the dances for men only, everything was handshake, nod and respect, freely given, freely received.  No “dissing,” no “trash talking.” 

Most notably, the same high plane was attained when the young women took the stage to join the dance, and male-female relations came to the fore.  Respect, admiration, and eventually .... love.  One of the eleven set pieces even depicted a village marriage that followed a proper courtship.

Here was parity between the sexes vs. master-slave;  respect and love vs. cynical exploitation;  partnership vs. separation.   “Gender equality,” an ancient issue that has never and maybe never will be resolved and obviously much discussed in our society, actually becomes a reality in the art of folk dance.

It was in the steps, in the assured expressions, the eyes, the heart, the feeling that came from the dancers over the stage lights and into the audience.  All was right in the world, at least while the music was playing and the dancers were dancing.

Folk dance was showing us a possibility: a world not only of art and rhythm, dash and color, leaping and boot-slapping, sound and fire, but a world in which men can cooperate, and men and women can respect each other and achieve true oneness of purpose, neither diminished, both enhanced by the exchange.

This must be what God (we know in some quarters it is “politically incorrect” to mention him, still......) had in mind when he invented marriage and we don’t find it often in film, or television, or books or plays, but we did in the most unlikely setting:   folk dance.  Maybe the writer of Ecclesiastes had it right:  enjoy your spouse, enjoy your food, enjoy your work, your days under this sun are short, and end soon enough.  Here, through dance, was the enjoyment of the spouse, male to female, female to male, in a wholesome, yet vibrant setting.

The young pairs here were having fun, there was no angst, no hand wringing, so much so one might imagine having this much fun was illegal or at least politically incorrect.  Out in the wider world, sadly, too many young people were at the same moment taking drugs, committing crimes, ruining their lives in 1,000 ways, but none of that in this pristine, artful setting.

Dance, specifically folk dance, has in it a treasure chest of good things:  all the things our friends liked plus a) a model of relations between all humans, and specifically between male and female.

We write this at a time (October, 2016) when that very topic -- male-female relations -- is in the very forefront of the presidential race news.  Candidate Donald Trump was recorded some years ago bragging about his ways and means with women that some say should more rightfully be titled sexual assault.  Others chalk up the same disclosure to “locker room talk,” never acted on.  The “discussion” and race goes on....meanwhile....

Whether talk or action, that sort of sensibility could not be further from the ethos of folk dance where respect, parity, positive intentions reigned.

From the earliest days of “classical” music, composers have appropriated folk and popular tunes. 

For example, the final variation, no. 30, in J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which some cite as the foremost keyboard composition ever written, is a Quodlibet (lit. “that which pleases”) based on the tunes of two folk-songs, as pointed out by harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick, in his liner notes to his classic 1958 recording:

“Ich bin so lang nicht bei dir g'west.
Ruck her, ruck her, ruck her.”


“Kraut und Räben haben mich vertrieben,
hätt' mein' Mutter Fleisch gekocht,
so wär' ich länger blieben.”

These might be translated thus:

“I've not been with you for so long.
Come closer, closer, closer.”


“Beets and spinach drove me far away.
Had my mother cooked some meat,
then I'd have stayed much longer.”

A touch of love, a touch of humor, a good summation of the folk art.  If folk music was not a “dumbing down” for Bach, and countless other composers, then how much less for us.  It was for them a tool to be employed, and a special one.  Instead of “dumbing down,” it might be a “stepping higher.”

Understanding the ramifications and hidden meanings of folk dance help us to better  understand classical music.  For that alone, we earn an intellectual profit by giving a closer look to folk dance.

One of the projects Kalman Magyar had contributed to earlier in the year was my pursuance of a translation of Mihály Vörösmarty’s 19th century symbolist play, Csongor és Tünde.  Considered avant-garde for its time, the title character Csongor encounters money, power, and knowledge as paths to self-fulfillment, but finds them all wanting.  Only love, he concludes, can provide transcendence.

The folk dance art from Hungary seemed to provide another argument -- in human movements vs. words -- to the same conclusion that night in Chicago, that parity, respect and partnership were paramount virtues in human transaction, especially so in male-female transaction.  And that only these values would provide the path, the only path, to transcendence, at least in the never-ending interaction between the sexes.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The way to go out

Chicago radio legend Herb 'The Cool Gent' Kent dies at 88 |

The radio station where Kent worked, iHeartMedia's V103 FM Chicago, said Sunday that Kent died Saturday evening.

Kent had been on the air, like he was every weekend, just a few hours earlier and had celebrated his birthday just a couple weeks prior.