What is balfolk?
Balfolk (sometimes spelled bal folk) is a collection of West-European dances. A balfolk dance evening is commonly called a bal. A bal can be compared to a tango or salsa evening, but with West-European music and dances. Balfolk includes both couple dances and group dances. There is always live music at a bal. This creates a playful, vibrant and cosy atmosphere. Sometimes there is the opportunity for musicians to play together in a session after the bands’ performance. People grab their instruments to play some music together and everyone is welcome to join playing. For the dancers it means they can dance even more!
The point of a bal is to have fun while dancing together. Enjoying yourself is more important than getting all the steps right. You don’t need to come with a partner – at a bal you can ask anybody to dance with you and anyone can ask you to dance with them. Sometimes everyone is dancing together. Many events include a short workshop at the start, so everyone can join in. More advanced dancers needn’t get bored either; every dance has opportunities for variations and improvisation. There are teachers offering lessons at several locations in the Netherlands or you can learn to dance at “sociales”. These are evenings meant for practice, which anyone can attend. For a more in-depth coverage of a specific dance or topic, workshops with experienced teachers from both the Netherlands and other countries are organised regularly.
The dances we currently dance at bals were originally (and are) danced at weddings and festivities in small villages around Europe. This aspect of culture is still very much alive in several countries, such as France, and there is an active music and dance scene there. Nowadays we also see dance evenings and festivals that aren’t necessarily part of the (folk) tradition, but are organised because it’s fun to dance and play live music. Dances from other countries have also been introduced into the balfolk repertoire, such as the Polska from Sweden. These dances have spread through the whole of Europe, leading more young people to discover dancing. Balfolk can be described as a living tradition, one with influences from a variety of music and dance styles.
The beauty of balfolk is in the interaction between the musicians and the dancers. Musicians play with the dancers and the dancers play with the music. Many musicians are themselves dancers, and quite a number of dancers also play music. This results in music that is easy and pleasant to dance to. In the province of Groningen this combination has even resulted in a compound word “Spansen” (from Dutch “spelen” (playing) + “dansen (dancing). Perhaps we could substitute the term “Plancing”?) A bal without live music isn’t a bal.
There are lots of Dutch bands playing at the bals, but also many from abroad. They often have their own modern take on dance traditions. Young musicians write their own compositions that are inspired by traditional music and dances. Often at the end of bal, when the band is done performing, not everyone wants to go home yet. So if there’s time, a session will start. Some dancers, who turn out to also be musicians, will pull out their instruments and play together in the middle of the dance floor while the dancers continue around them. It’s not uncommon for the musicians from the bands to join them there.
Do you want to know more about the origins of balfolk and the different dances? Take a look at the wikipedia page. You can also find links there to pages about specific dances.
Do you play an instrument and would you like to play balfolk music?
Workshops for musicians are also organised regularly, from introductions to dance music to in-depth advanced workshops. There are also websites with sheet music, so you can prepare a repertoire at home.
Do I need to wear special clothing or a costume?
Nope, it doesn’t matter what you wear. Just whatever you would normally pull on for an evening out. If you feel good in jeans and a t-shirt, great. Would you rather wear a dress shirt? Totally fine. Just bought a new dress? Fantastic! Keep in mind that it can get pretty warm at a bal. Dance shoes aren’t necessary either, but something with a sole that doesn’t grip the floor too much and without heels is advisable.
Come and visit a dance evening to experience balfolk yourself!