I often write about growing up folk dancing with my family in the Santa Cruz mountains. We mostly participate in Israeli and Balkan folk dancing, even though no one in my family is Israeli or of Balkan ancestry. Regardless of race, I’ve been doing this type of dancing since I was in the womb.
Just before I was born, my aunt (white) and my uncle (white and Japanese) met at folk dancing classes at UCSC. Another class member owned land in the Santa Cruz mountains, and he invited my aunt and uncle, as well as a few other people, I believe, down to his property to practice. This was about 40 years ago. It quickly grew into a biannual event, with weekend-long dances over the Labor Day and Memorial Day weekends. This type of music is not in my blood, and I didn’t even grow up in this culture. However, I spent countless long weekends dancing with people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, including those who have immigrated from the Balkan region.
About 15 years ago, I surprised a Macedonian coworker by jumping right into a folk-dancing event at the nearby Seattle Center. She never saw it coming but was pleasantly surprised. Amazed that her black friend knew this aspect of her culture so intimately.
Whenever I dance in a circle with my left hand attached to one person and my right hand attached to another, I feel a sense of connection that I’ve never feel anywhere else. It’s not just the hand holding, and it’s not just the movement in and of itself. It’s this particular tradition that I’ve grown up with since birth. Whenever I attend weekends at what we refer to as “The Land,” I feel like I’m reconnecting with my roots.
I’m black on my dad’s side, and German, English, Irish and Scottish on my mothers. If anything, ancestry says I should love African dancing. I should love square dancing or English country dancing. But I don’t. For me, it’s Balkan and Israeli all the way.
This connection brings up many questions regarding ethnic identity. For example, if a black child is raised by white parents, is he culturally–in his bones–white? Can Rachel Dolezal claim blackness? Perhaps the simple difference is that I don’t see myself as Israeli or of Balkan origin. I don’t pretend to know much about the cultures or even the histories, besides what I’ve learned in school and picked up orally.
But when the music plays, whether it’s in the car or at The Land, my very bones feel that connection. My feet move as if they’ve always been meant to folk dance. I grab the belts of those next to me as if I were meant to perform this very act. Even when years go by between my visits –even when the landscape of who is attending is almost completely foreign to me–once I get on the dance floor, I’m connected to the wood, to the earth beneath, and to the rhythm that pervades my very core. I am a black folk dancer.