Sunday, 7 August 2011

Q45: Why did Doukhobors discard dance?

From: Fred Samorodin, Vancouver. B.C.

Why is dance not part of the Doukhobor ethnic heritage?

On my desk, at the moment lives an article published by Elizabeth Lear on “The History of Russian Vocal Music” (notes) which I printed out over 18 months ago.... I have a great interest in all vocal music and have been a member of one choir or another for many years — focussing more and more on enjoying and performing a classical music repertoire from written scores. Fortunately, several events during this last choral season prevented me from continuing with a chamber choir I was singing with earlier in the season, and thus offered me the opportunity to return to my roots and sing with the Lower Mainland Doukhobor Choir at the May 2011 USCC Doukhobor Youth Festival!

That aside, I have been mulling over the idea of writing a contributing article to Iskra (and/or other Doukhobor printed media such as your blog, perhaps) on why dance is not part of the Doukhobor ethnic heritage. Personally speaking, I have made dance part of my personal musical heritage since the late 1970’s when I spent (save for an interruption of a year’s studies in the Soviet Union) 18 years at Israeli Folk Dancing, and then American Contradancing and most recently, Latin Dancing! That being said, I would be interested in your comments on the subject of the historical/social disappearance of a dance heritage component within the Doukhobor cultural movement, to be cited or included in my planned article.


How nice to receive the news of your interest in dancing. I encourage you to pursue your intent in writing an article on the subject.

In the first place, dancing is a normal part of human society. People of all cultures and eras have expressed their behaviour in this form. An exception has occurred with some religious groups during specific periods of their development. With Christianity, Wikipedia states it well, Worship dance:

Dance has had a chequered history within Christianity. Many records exist of prohibitions by leaders within most branches of the Christian Church, for such reasons as the association of dance with paganism, fears relating to sexuality, and a Greek-influenced belief in the separation of the soul and body.

However, beginning in the latter half of the 20th century there was a significant growth in the use of dance within christian worship. This received a boost within the framework of the charismatic movement of the 1970s, which initiated a transition to contemporary worship in many churches. During this time, the International Christian Dance Fellowship was formed in Australia by Mary Jones and it now has branches in many other countries.

Centuries back in the 1600s, Doukhobors broke away from Christian Orthodoxy in a radical way by rejecting the institution of the church including priests, a separate building, icons and the Bible. Yet some aspects of earlier cultural patterns remained such as men standing on one side and women on the other, the reading and singing of psalms and hymns. It appears that the fear of dancing was included as well.

Fast forward to the latter 1900s, there was an interesting shift among all Doukhobors. Those of us Canadians who visited the Caucausus Doukhobors in the 1970s and 1980s witnessed busload of guests greeted traditionally with (1) bread and salt, and (2) folk dancing and singing. Observers noted that Russian Doukhobors may have lost some of their history, but they retained their visual cultural traditions. Contrast this with Canadian Doukhobors, while knowing their history (thanks to historians and the lack of a war in Canada) they lost some of their cultural traditions such as colourful clothing, language, and dance. (Or as active Doukhobor singer Frances Kanigan stated Canadian Doukhobors have 'modernized and Canadianized our singing', Iskra, June 1, 2011: 23.)

Many of those who moved to Canada, it appears, where influenced by the strict code of Peter V. Verigin as well as by the view of Western Christianity that dancing is a sin. This was 'mainstream' and 'normal' as any doctrine of fundamentalism. Such behaviour was, many believed, the first step towards many other sins.

However, with education and maturity, dancing has regained some of its original status as a normal cultural expression of human beings. Gradually, dance has begun to find increasing acceptance in spiritual life once again as it had been during the early period of paganism. For example, Saskatchewan Doukhobors from as early as the 1930s used to dance in barns or granaries to the sound of mouth organs and later accordians and violins. I have witnessed this on the farm in the 1940s in our granary in Saskatchewan. Such is the evolution of secular development in modern society.

Now, as with all extremisms whether secular or religious, there could be weaknesses and vulnerabilities in any behaviour. However, real ballroom dancing, ballet, and other forms of dance expression remain as legitimate and creative.


  1. Doukhobor "a cappella" singing is recognized by ethnomusicologists as a distinct and somewhat unique musical form. Given that the Doukhobor Movement ultimately was born from and within the Eastern Slavic and Russian peasant societies, the musical roots of Doukhobor musical culture should be of some interest to all Doukhobors interested in exploring their historical roots.

    From my narrow exploration of this subject, I came across an interesting exposition of this theme in a study "The History of Russian Vocal Music" (Elizabeth Lear, 1997) In it, she writes, that "Eastern Slavs had work songs, ritual songs, and songs and laments that accompanied [various]rituals." While a review of the subject material and musical styles that make up the catalogue of the Doukhobor songs shows both international musical influences as well as the adoption and influence of various Russian folk singing styles. What is missing from the Doukhobor musical folk music repetoire is the inclusion of dance.

    Dance is an ancient and inherent part of the musical heritage of most societies throughout the world. Elizabeth Lear writes that during the 1400's "(the)majority of [Russian] music, secular and liturgical, was...still vocal...Western court music was almost entirely instrumental, while Russian court music was primarily vocal. This reflects the power of the Church, which had always allowed more freedom in vocal music than in instrumental." This appears to indicate the retention of this cultural norm within the Doukhobor culture even when the adherence to such a "cultural norm" did not fight against the musical spirit (read: doukho boretz) promoted by the Russian Orthodox Church. Obviously Russian folk music culture has persisted with the obvious inclusion of dance despite the eclesiastical dominance of the Russian Orthodox Church. Whereas folk dance does not appear to have persisted within Doukhobor culture once its social expressions were fully gathered under a "spiritual Christian movement" banner. However, as mentioned (elsewhere) by Andy Conovoloff (webmaster), dance was retained within the sister spiritual Christian, Molokan culture for a significant period of time after its community emigrated to the United States from Russia. As someone whose creative urges have included the "need" to dance as part of being alive, I raise the question of whether the absence of dance from the Doukhobor musical culture has played a significant part in the identity and survival of the Doukhobor culture?

  2. As to dancing, I am sure it was discarded along with instrumental music as works of the devil and temptations for sin (another anomaly since Doukhobors were supposed to be rational), but again, specific references are lacking as to when and where this began, and these taboos could be examined along with the above.

    In any case, religious dancing is ecstatic behaviour; for a proper examination, the Jumpers etc. must be separated from leisure dancing as for pleasure and exercise, but this is not delineated in your article.

    I offer these points for your consideration.