Teacher's guide to In My Heart, I Am a Dancer
by Debora Kodish and Deborah Wei

book coverPart One: What are folk arts?

Folk arts are names for the arts that we shape for ourselves, rather than learn in school or from formal institutions. Folk arts are rooted in community traditions, in collective experiences. This means that while individuals make up folklore, new stories, songs, or sayings, these arts endure because they name the experiences of many people. When we share stories at the end of the day, recall a proverb that gets to the heart of a situation, or eat traditional foods at holidays, we are using our own folk arts.

Why not simply call folklore "art"? Calling these arts "folk" is a way of naming what is collective, community-based, or a peoples' tradition. It is a way of distinguishing arts that represent more than an individual point of view. The term is also used because in this country, the creative expressions of ordinary people are not always seen as art, or as significant, or as part of a tradition. Because mainstream and elite notions of art generally marginalize the majority of world cultural and artistic traditions, the notion of "folk" art is a way of making equal room for all peoples' habits of expression and creativity.

Isn't folklore old and irrelevant stuff? Folklore is not only old art - it is as new as rap music, kids' clothing styles, and other contemporary and emerging traditions. But some folklore is old. Embedded in some of the stories we tell, rhymes we chant, or dances we do are elements, motifs and movements that can be traced back generations and across continents. Such folklore is handed down and preserved because it is still useful in naming common experiences, feelings and situations. Sometimes folklore can offer an alternative language, a code for expressing ideas that may be dangerous. Sometimes, folklore is preserved simply because it feels so very "tried and true." Folklore can give comfort and can be a force for liberation; it can also be a constraint (as when community traditions are used to stifle divergent expression). While some folk traditions have "survived," more portable than material things, folklore always changes in its travels. It evolves, fitting into new contexts to which it remains suited, and new traditions emerge, in response to current issues. Whenever people have significant experiences in common, folklore will arise to name these experiences. Every element of folklore has its own history (which can be studied), its own functions and meanings.

Why use folklore in the classroom? Folklore is especially useful in the classroom because it is often counter-institutional. Living outside formal institutions, reflecting alternative traditions, folklore can help students think about how knowledge is created, and by whom, and how it is conveyed, passed on, or even rejected.

Folklore makes the most sense when it is explored in relation to a particular time and place - as when a single person tells a story for a particular reason on a particular occasion. Then, it is possible to understand how a point of view - a perspective - is embedded in that tale. It is possible to see the artistry and skill that makes a story capture the listener's imagination. And it is possible to see how others respond with stories that agree or disagree with the first teller.

Asking students to document and analyze their own folklore is a way of helping them to see how patterned and recognizable expressions help to define all of us as cultural and expressive beings. Using folklore is a way of valuing, and critically assessing, community experience and expression. It can be a way of democratizing knowledge.

Many teachers rely on folklore as a convenient, easy tool for diversifying curriculum or adding "multicultural content" to a classroom. While we agree that the richness of a people's experience is often represented well in folklore, we also see "pitfalls" to the use of folklore in this way. There are dangers in this type of presentation, which are outlined in the next article.

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