Somewhere in-between the Celtic fling brought to us by Michael Flatley, Spanish Flamencos and Zorba the Greek’s Sirtaki, we stumble upon a wealth of far less known, yet equally fascinating traditional dances.
Romania’s choreographic folklore goes back to days of yore, having been attested on this territory since pre-Christian times.
It includes a great variety of dances, classified into 18 main genres or groups; within these groups, no less than 82 specific dances have been cataloged throughout all regions of the country. But it’s quite likely that every village or community has developed their own, particular dance style.
The most prevalent dance genres are Cete, Doi and chain dances like Hora, Brâu, Sârba.
A notable characteristic of Romanian folk dances is their syncretism:
The steps, melody and lyrics – either sung along or in the form of rhythmically scanned verses, spurs and shouts – very often go together, making the dance even more lively and entertaining.
Crihalma village in Braşov district
For starters, let’s watch this “Girls’ Dance from Crihalma”, Crihalma being a village located in the heart of the country, in the South-Carpathian mountain range of Făgăraş, Braşov district.
Some say that, long ago, the village maiden started this dance for fun; others believe it appeared during wartime, when the men were away and the women stayed behind to take care of the farms and households.
Whichever the case may be, the dance is unique in its way; it features very interesting and rather difficult steps which, it is said, the local girls start learning from a young age. The dancers also sing while they move, so this dance doesn’t necessarily need instrumental accompaniment.
Crihalma is of the “Cete” genre.
Ceată, plural cete, means group, band, gang, troop… Each dancer moves individually, but synchronizes his steps with the others in the group. The “ceata” may have a leader.
Enjoy watching these neither too young nor too slim ladies cheerfully singing and dancing in the rhythm, and be amazed by their agility.
You are encouraged to try this at home.
Here Come The Tough Guys
Secondly, let’s look at another highly popular “cete” dance known as “Căluşarii” or “Căluşul”.
Its origins are in Oltenia, south-western Romania; nowadays Căluşarii can be found in most regions of the country, albeit in slightly different forms.
The Căluşari have a leader, “vătaf”, who guides the others and spurs them on, but dances at their side as well.
As a particularity, the group can also have another character, “mutu” (the dumb one), a kind of clown or bad guy who acts up, interferes with the leader’s commands, makes jokes or punishes the dancers if they don’t show enough enthusiasm.
While many believe that the name Căluşar comes from the word cal = horse, it is far more likely that it derives from the word căluş = gag, hinting at the “mut” character who does not speak – or maybe he was gagged so he couldn’t speak during the dance.
The dance is extremely complex and spectacular, a “show off” recital, if you will. It evolved from an old ritual dance rooted in pre-Christian times, and is performed exclusively by men organized in a strictly hierarchized group.
Those who wished to join the Căluşari gathered a week before Pentecost and took an oath of chastity. They wore specific clothes with colorful ribbons and small bells strapped to their ankles, and carried a club, apparently to chase away the evil spirits that bring ailments and disease. It is said that, initially, the men were dancing with swords, not clubs.
This here is a very good rendition of Căluşarii. Merely watching it will leave you breathless!
Oas area in Maramures district
Among a great variety of “Doi” or couple dances (doi means two), one region stands out in style and purity:
Oaş, pronounced “owash”, is situated in an intermontane depression in northern Romania’s Maramureş district and was more sheltered from outside influences, which helped preserve its distinctive folkloric heritage. Ethnographers consider it an oasis of archaism – in a good sense.
The dances from Oaş are characterized by quick, small steps, pirouettes, hops, stomping, heel clacking, head bobbing, accompanied by shouts, whistles and sing-along lyrics. At times the dancers stay very close together and the whole group moves as one.
The melody, too, is characteristic to the region and does have a more archaic sound. A simple theme with few variations is repeated over and over again but, somehow, doesn’t strike you as monotonous or boring. Once you get used to its sound, it tends to become an earworm.
Watch this charming “Doi” performance and make sure not to miss the ending!
… and Holding Hands
Chain dances are perhaps the oldest known dance form in human history. Within the territory of present-day Romania, the chain dance has been attested as early as 3500 B.C.
This genre is prevalent in other European countries as well, in the Balkans, in Asia Minor and in Israel. The dancers hold hands and form a circle (sometimes a spiral), a semi-circle or a line.
Hora is a slower-paced dance, where villagers young and old join in, hold hands, elbows bent and arms held up at shoulder level; they swing their arms in the rhythm, moving forward and back with diagonal steps, while at the same time turning – usually clockwise – with the circle.
Sârba is a lively dance derived from Hora, with the dancers resting their arms on their neighbours’ shoulders. The name “Sârba” is believed to come from the word sărbătoare, which means feast or celebration. Although it could also come from the word sârb = Serbian.
Brâu started as a shepherd’s dance in the mountainous region of Banat, western Romania, and later spread throughout the entire Romanian territory and beyond. The dancers hold on to each other’s waists (brâu means waist or belt, cordon); another form is to hold hands with one’s partners, arms crossed in the front or at the back.
These are the main chain dance styles, but there are tens of sub-styles and perhaps hundreds of sub-sub-styles specific to each region, county and even village.
Test your knowledge
See a dance suite from Dobrogea in south-eastern Romania, and try to identify some of the above-mentioned styles.
I should point out that Dobrogea is a wine-growing region.
Learn A Few Basic Steps
If you enjoyed these Romanian folk dances but find them challenging to learn, know that not all dances are as difficult. Classic horas, for instance, feature only a few steps:
Înainte (forward) şi înapoi (and back)
La dreapta (to the right) şi la stânga (and to the left)
Pe loc (stay put)
That’s all. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?
Here you can learn an easy “Horă Moldovenească” = Moldavian hora, by following this short dance lesson for beginners. Have fun!
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