I dance, therefore I am…

How folklore shaped who I am today – what made me more human…

*This blog is dedicated to our teacher John Kuo, who passed away in May 2023… he has lit a candle that will forever light our world.

Listen deeply, allow the rhythm to flow through your entire body, see its purpose, share the energy with those next to you…embrace humanity in its entirety! This is what I’ve learned to see through folklore.


It is rather meaningless to attempt to convert this spiritual energy into a formula of steps to follow, which many aspiring dancers do. Instead, it is being an apprentice to a great master that allows you to start to see and feel the life of the dance beyond the formula of steps – its rhythm as its purpose and its cause. It is precisely this purposive depth of folklore that John Kuo imparted that enabled me to gain an existential depth and exhilarating feeling of embodying social practices and ‘being in the world’ – I am lucky to have been his apprentice!

Before meeting John, folklore was always the exhilarating village melodies that people danced at weddings and but also took a rather nationalistic form of pride and nostalgia for a past that never was. It is only years after I met John that I realised the richness of folklore dance – as the embodiment of societal practices that are inevitably connected to Earth, as the immaterial social bond that carries its own norms and language, as an intimate and yet very public expression.  

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About 16 years ago, I met my friend, now-husband in dance… he then promised to take me to a rehearsal of the Chicago Balkan ensemble, named Balkanske Igre. What I did not expect to see was a Chinese guy waving a handkerchief and flipping through a stacked pile of old folklore cassettes, which held self-recorded songs from villages around Eastern Europe. I recall that sometime between our introduction and the beginning of a lengthy rehearsal speech, he played an old Bulgarian pop-folk song “Kamanite Padat” (The stones are falling) as if mockingly yet curious choice… followed by a self-recorded screechy sounding piece from Serbian village in the 70s… Why would this guy play such cynical pop-folk songs that have gained bad reputation and then follow with authentic village recordings that sound as if I am listening to my great-grandfather’s radio… It occurred to me only years later that this was in itself a lesson – to allow us to see the evolution of folklore in it’s ever-changing purpose and format. And so the music sporadically changed while his feet never repeated a single step. His feet must’ve raced through all of the Balkans, uniting them through rhythm and spirit… never mind how small, stubborn and divided most of these countries are. 

This is John Kuo – the director and founder of ensemble Balkanske Igre.


Yes, this is John – a Chinese American whose life’s passion and dedication has been capturing and disseminating the authentic Balkan folklore that emerged from the villages, before it transferred to become a subject of stage performance; before it got nationalised to become ‘national ensembles’ and professionalised through ‘schools for folklore studies’ …

John – a Chinese American, a senior employee at IBM, a graduate from University of Chicago, an honorary musicologist, historian, humanist, musician … and most of all a folklorist and a dance pedagogue! He made five trips to the Balkans in the 70s, collecting books and recordings and attending festivals, which often made him a subject of suspicion among local police…because why would anybody collect manuscripts, recordings of villagers and musical instruments for other than intelligence purposes? At that time, Balkan dancing was a political taboo due to its communist association which is precisely why it gained such attraction among many top US universities – and particularly amongst mathematicians and philosophers. John once said: “You’ll know if it is a good university if it has a folklore ensemble”.

“You’ll know that it is a good university if it has a folklore ensemble”.

He helped organise the annual folk festival at the University of Chicago while also seeking out dance masters from Serbia, Bulgaria (Mitko Manov) and Macedonia (Atanas Kolarovski) to better capture the authenticity of style behind dances and understand their shared rhythmic patterns. He swiftly became a dance instructor to the Balkan diaspora groups in the US with the hope to disseminate his primary research into the ‘real nature’ of folk dancing – simply said – it is not about jumping or hopping in a graceful fashion. He wanted to show the ‘groundedness’, severity, weight, fullness of the dance as it was in the villages. 

Speaking to John was like searching the encyclopaedia but in multimedia chronological context. A typical conversation could morph from ‘five-paragraph historical’ email exchange at 3am, to regular chit-chat aiming at the mathematical explanation behind ‘shopska ruchenica’ (fast dance from Shop region), or an attempt at applied physics with a taste of Tai-Chi to assimilate how weight shifts between legs during ‘natrisane’ (specific vibration sequence in dance). It was always intellectual, metaphysical, and very meaningful – it was always about thinking carefully and not just replicating steps. 

Seeing folklore through a different lens

John’s biography might never be captured in its entirety… but it is this very unique biographical journey and life’s dedication that has also fascinated many fellow Bulgarians and Macedonians… as if only natives have the “divine skill” to feel the complexity and life of the dance…As John says “You Don’t Have to Be Austrian to Love Mozart“. In fact, it is when you study folklore from the fringes that you begin to engage with it differently – intellectually, methodically and critically. This is sadly what many natives simply do not have the need or capacity to do, since folklore has recently been reduced to fashionable fitness exercise, borrowed by inappropriate pop-folk rhythms and nationalistic pride – as if it is a genetic trait.  

Learning folklore dance through John adopted a meaning beyond the literal. It translated into meditation, a way of self-reflection…a way of seeing and being that has transformed me and many others who have opened their senses to the existential values of folklore. I can say this now, but not a couple of years ago… a year ago even, I wasn’t sure what John meant when he told me: “It takes a couple of years to absorb this… you’ll see”…

It is only the wisest teachers that create an unforgettable learning experience that transform lives, but it is only when you step back and reflect that you assimilate their immense impact on your ‘being’ and how you see the world’! There were moments of anger, annoyance, disobedience and even frustrated tears… it wasn’t easy, and John wasn’t either. I entered dancing as a hot-tempered college student with determined view and prejudices against the simplicity of folklore. John carelessly uprooted these barriers by incessantly challenging our biases, building up a diverse repertoire, going outside the carefully-kept national borders, questioning our values… and all through the grace of dance! 


Long live John Kuo through Balkanske Igre 

So many stubborn identities, politics, borders and egos bigger than the room… though the one thing that united us was the platform that John fostered through folklore. All politics and nationalistic tendencies were to be left at the door. There is not yet a politiician that can better unite the Balkans than John – or at least he charismatically insisted.

Balkanske Igre is an ensemble based on the love of music, not politics or history… it is not a place where borders divide us, but space where humanity unites us! After jumping through my own prejudices and mocking my own failures, I want to think that I have become the bigger person. I pity those whose biases remain bigger than themselves, and who see folklore dancing as a primitive village characteristic. I want to think that folklore dance is not just a set of complex sequences that could be explained mathematically, nor should folklore dancing be seen and reduced to performing for the sake of “doing your cardio for the day”…

I see folklore music and dance as a method of learning, a way of seeing existence as complex, socially purposive and ever so enchanted being in the world …and a way to foster a selfless feeling that connects us to ourselves and the Earth. I don’t see the art of dance as a tool or product… but dance as at the core of humanity. And now that I have reached the confident moment of self-reflection, and folklore dance has become a way of being and seeing… I turn back to you John, and I thank you for making me a better person as a dancer!