Back in the early 1960's, I worked as Alan Lomax's collaborator/assistant on the "Cantometrics" project (see posts 4, 76, et seq.), devoted to the comparative study of world music. One of the many experts we consulted was the noted Swedish folklorist and musician, Gordon Tracie, a specialist in the study of Scandinavian fiddling and dancing traditions. During the course of a long interview, Tracie played a recording of a dance as performed by traditional fiddlers, which, as he pointed out, sounded quite fast to the untrained ear. He then demonstrated, by dancing along, that actually the tempo was slow -- but only someone thoroughly familiar with this tradition would be able to find the correct beat.
This difficulty of finding the beat resonated with certain things I knew from my studies of music history, regarding the sometimes very intricate and complex dance suites of the Baroque era - particularly the extraordinarily intricate dance movements of Bach's 'cello suites, which resonated in a very strange way with some of the Swedish and Norwegian fiddle music Tracie played for us.
To give you an idea of how intricate some of these folk dances can be, I'll direct you to a web page by folk fiddler Laurie Hart, devoted to the Polska in Dalarna & Northern Sweden. The Polska (not to be confused with Polka) is a traditional Swedish folk dance in triple time which can have very intricate rhythms that disguise the basic beat. If you go to the upper right corner of Hart's web page, you'll be able to hear some excellent examples played by two fiddles, as is traditional -- just click on the title of each dance to hear it. The last one is an "instructional version" in which the beat is provided by some foot stomping. (These are excellent performances of some wonderful music, by the way, so by all means listen carefully.) While these pieces are very different from Bach in many ways, their intricate rhythms and the manner in which they disguise the beat does, nevertheless, call to mind some of Bach's more complex and confusing "dance" music.
Here's another example of the sort of thing Tracie demonstrated, this time a Springar dance, from Norway:
Here's another example of a Springar, only this time in an arrangement for 'cello:
Played on the 'cello, this Springar strikes me as quite similar, in its rhythmic intricacy, to something one might find in one of the Bach 'cello suites. If it weren't for these excellent dancers, it would be easy to assume this wasn't really a dance at all, but a virtuoso display piece. Which raises the question: could someone thoroughly familiar with the various dances of the Baroque period similarly dance to Bach?