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Before dating sites and apps, there were dance halls

Updated: Jun 14

If you wonder how grandparents swiped right (or left) back then in this part of the world, wonder no more.

Online dating sites and apps have given single men and women more opportunities to search for meaningful connections that hopefully lead to lasting relationships. Technology has expanded our options. Busybodies can now scope out the dating pool without needing to go anywhere and skip the first few awkward steps on the road to forever. However, long before the swipe-right or left dating culture emboldened by internet access, there were spaces called dance halls.

Dance Halls were like Tinder, FriendFinder, or OkCupid of today’s dating world. They were spaces where community events happened. There were performances and merry-making. Unlike dating sites and apps, though, one had to muster enough courage to physically approach someone and risk getting slighted by an innocent ‘no’ for onlookers to witness. There was also the prerequisite of knowing the traditional dance language of the community.

In dance halls, freestyle dancing was not the trend. The standardized one was recognized more by other members and musicians. The efforts of safekeeping the tradition were vital in the community where children at an early age were taught traditional dances in this part of Europe.

I was fortunate enough to have a glimpse of this dance hall culture during an anniversary celebration of a folk dance group in Méhkerék, a Romanian village in southeast Hungary. Anyone can see where the merry-making was happening. By merry-making, I meant the dancing, and there was a lot of it since people from Méhkerék know how to dance the night away.

Young people were assigned to set the pace, so they initiated the dancing. An elderly couple explained that young people traditionally led dance events. They did too when they were young, and their knees could still endure the skips or jumps of their traditional dances. They also said that dance halls were avenues for meeting prospects for marriages.

As I looked around, this was not a far cry from the current on-goings where young people were boldly interacting with one another and were, for lack of a better term, flirting openly. These days though, dance halls do not always lead to prospective marriages.

Although I was aware that various cultures relate differently to spaces like this, I cannot help but wonder and draw similarities from Filipino culture. In the Philippines, social gatherings almost always have dances. In the singkil dance, for instance, the Muslim princess’ manipulation of the six fans impressed a conscious (or unconscious) advertisement to would-be suitors. We also have traditional dances that depict courtship, like the kuratsa, karasaguyon, and tinikling, to name a few. But if I was to think about what dance halls would be like back home, our bayle fits almost perfectly.

By my generation, bayle was revered loosely and even treated as a pun for light conversations. However, it was a practice that my elders remember with gladness. It reflected their generation’s form of courtship and entertainment in addition to more conservative ones.

Bayle was considered the highlight of town fiestas in the Philippines. There was the usual food and drinks, the anticipated crowning of the queen, and some games, but the most memorable was always the dancing paired with live accompaniment. Young men and women wore their Sunday best. The women would be seated, waiting shyly, sometimes impatiently, for the men to approach them to dance. Some were lucky to meet their wives or husbands in bayles, while some nostalgically narrated how they met their first loves. Others heartily laughed because they were reminded of getting snubbed and made fun of after getting rejected.

Whether they are dance halls or bayles, or maybe dating sites and apps for the current time, it is interesting to see how courtships shared similarities and differed not just in places but also in generations. Every generation defines its courtship culture, but as for me, I was lucky enough to experience a bit of every form.

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