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The Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH)

Albanian Folklore
Compiled by Jay Michtom, 2002

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Jay Michtom

HISTORY

Once upon a time, the Albenes, an Illyrian tribe occupying the mid-Western part of Illyricum, peopled the part of the world now known as Albania. From them came the name of the country, and some of the base of their Indo-European language, "shqip." The next occupants of the area, the Romans, remained until the fall of the Roman empire, after which Albania became part of the Byzantine Empire. Following this, the Visigoths, Huns, and Ostrogoths invaded in quick succession. In 893 CE, the Bulgarians occupied, and in the 14th century the Venetians, only to be ousted by the Ottoman Empire.

During their long occupation, the Turks had a heavy influence on most aspects of Albanian life. Music, dance, food, clothing, and other folk arts all bear the marks of this period. The religious structure of the country too, was modified, with a great number of people converting to Islam. Many folk songs have as their subject the battles and eventual overthrow of the Turks in 1912. After the Second World War, a repressive Communist regime controlled until the Albanians got their freedom in 1991.


FOLKLORE

Until recently, little was known outside Albania about Albanian folklore and traditions, except maybe for neighboring countries where Albanians also live. While ensembles, musicians, and singers from other Balkan countries, such as Greece, the former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Romania, were supported by their governments and showed their folk costumes, music, songs, dances, and rituals all over the world, the Albanian National Ensemble of Folk Songs and Dances performed mainly within their own country and in befriended countries.

Now that Albania is open to the world, we are able to see the enormous richness and diversity of Albanian folklore in its proper context. We can see Albanians not just from the Republic of Albania itself, but all Albanians living in the Balkan peninsula and the minorities such as the Aroman within the Republic of Albania.

Keeping alive the traditions and activities part of daily life, especially in the mountainous regions, is encouraged by governmental organizations that show deep respect for the Albanians, their way of life, and their eagerness to share it with us.


FOLK DANCES

Albanian Folklore Albanian folk dances show a very diverse pattern of styles and characteristics, which makes it difficult to make a general description in order to distinguish them as "Albanian." On one side, there are large differences between the dances of the Gheg people in the north and the Tosk people in the south; on the other side, we have the influences of the neighboring countries and the influences of foreign invaders from the past. In this respect, we have to take into consideration that Albanians lived and still live outside the political borders of the Republic of Albania and Kosovo, where the majority of Albanians live these days. The influence from Greeks and Slavs, as well as from Turks and Italians, is reflected in some of the Albanian folk dances to a greater or lesser extent. Also, vice versa, Greek, Slav, and Italian folk dances are influenced by Albanian folk dances.

Here are some examples of cross-influences in well-known dances. The Greek folk dance Tsamiko clearly refers to the Çam people of Albanian origin, living in the border areas with Greece in Epirus, a disputed region between Greece and Albania. The Macedonian folk dance Berače refers to the city of Berat in Albania. The Albanian folk dance Vallja e Katjushkës is in fact the same as the Pajduško Oro or Baidusko from Macedonia and Greece and is known in Bulgaria and Romania as well.

In parts of Albania, close to the Macedonian border, we encounter Albanian folk dances with Slavic names, such as Žensko, in Slav language meaning "women's dance." The tunes may be the same or just the names may be the same, but the character and style of the dances is very different. We also find dances with the name Hora. The Tirana wedding dance Napoloni has the looks and feeling of an Italian Tarantella-like dance in couples, but the steps are typical for Tirana. In addition, of course, we should not forget the Greek minority with their "Albanian" versions of Kallamatjana, Karaguna, and others within southern Albania, nor the Slavic villages in the eastern and northern parts of Albania. Turkish influence can be found in the dance from the Mati region called Zebkshe, translated as the dance of freedom fighters, referring to the Turkish Zeybek fighters. The dance, however, has no characteristics in common with the Zeybek dances of western Turkey. In Kosovo, the term Alaturca is used for some folk dances in the same way as the term Alafrance is used for certain costume parts, stating clearly that this comes from the Turks or from French fashion.

But apart from all this, Albanian folk dances have a character and style of their own. Albanians may have folk dances on Greek or Slav tunes, but their style of dancing to it is much different from what their neighbors dance to these tunes. Although the steps of the Vallja e Katjushkës are more or less the same as the Pajdučko Oro steps in Macedonia, the dance is executed as an open circle dance without hands held, more a solo dance with a lot of solo turns and arm and hand movements specific to the Albanian tradition.

Several folk dances originating from one region in Albania or Kosovo have become popular throughout the Albanian communities. Vallja e Kuksit, originating from the Kukës region in the north has become popular as a wedding dance throughout Albania, while the Pogonishte from the south has made its way up to the northern parts as well. These are recent developments and of course modern society with modern transportation and communication through radio, television, and the Internet have made this possible in a rapid way. On the other hand, exchanges between different regions have had their impact as well. Interaction between the Albanians of different regions still occur and are proof of the evolution of folk dances within the tradition of Albanian folk dances and folklore in general.

In general, the folk dances might be divided into two groups: urban and rural dances. The city dances from Tirana, Elbasan, Berat, and other cities are very different in character and style from those of the rural areas around those cities. This is also the case with the folk music. The urban style developed differently from the rural regions, which expressed itself in different costumes, music, songs, and dances.

The North, being Gheg county, is rather clear. The style and character is almost the same in each district, although there are some minor differences. Folk dances from the Tropoja district have a distinct character and style, as does the Dibër district, but originate from the same source as the other districts in the region.

The ethnic division of Ghegs and Tosks is well illustrated by the difference in dances and costumes, but also in the music accompanying the dances. The music to the dances of the Ghegs is often accompanied by either zurla (a wind instrument) and tapan (a large drum), surle and lodra in Albanian, or orchestra with çifteli (a plucked string instrument with only two strings), sharki (a similar instrument as the two-string çifteli, but with a larger body and more strings), and flutes. The çifteli (probably equal to a Turkish instrument that disappeared) is unique for the northern Albanian music. The southern Tosk dances are usually accompanied by an orchestra with def (a single sided flat drum), violin, clarinet, lauto (a type of lute), and fiz-harmonika (organ-like wind-driven musical instrument). The central Albanian dances, especially the urban dances, are combined with orchestras that combine the instrumentation of both northern and southern regions. No need to say that in these days the electric keyboards have replaced instruments such as the gajda (bagpipe) and other traditional instruments.

There is one folk dance that can only be found in Albania: Valle Dyshe. This folk dance is just for two men (although there are some female examples too). They range from the northern part of Albania to the south, each in its specific regional style, but the concept is the same all over Albania, from Kosovo in the north to the extreme south in Sarandë, and can be considered as a specific dance style for the Albanians.

Two dancers start the dance with the first (at the right) dancer executing some figures on the spot. The second dancer is just supporting the first dancer in his movements and moves along. The figures he makes might be difficult and look like improvisation, but it is a prescribed set of figures. Then they change position and that dancer makes his own movements, also prescribed. When he is finished, the two men break apart, moving away from each other sideways with solo steps, coming back again to meet each other and ending the dance together, usually arms to shoulders or hands held. This structure of dancing, no matter what the movements are, is found in all Albanian regions.

Also of interest are the ritual dances performed during wedding ceremonies. Marriage is one of the landmarks in life and connected with it are a great variety of rites and customs that show the people's conception of life and different social groupings down through the centuries. Most marriage customs of the patriarchal society were aimed at consolidating its social relationships, that put the woman in a subordinate position. One is reminded of these relationships in the conduct of the ceremony, the songs, and especially the dances. The very content and structure of the dances are a clear expression of the situation and role of women in Albanian society.

This type of dance is found in several regions of Albania. In one wedding dance, as soon as the new wife enters the room, the women all rise to form a circle with hands joined at their sides. The oldest lead, then the others are in descending age order. The bride also participates, and sometimes her attendants do, too. In the center of the circle stands, or sits, the mother-in-law, rolling jewels between her hands. In some locales, the groom is in the center. The dance has no name, but is accompanied by a song that is in the form of a madrigal – a short dialogue between the circle of women and the bride. The few simple lines express joy for this longed-for moment, and welcoming to the bride.

Another wedding dance, Vallja e Nuseve te Siloves, is based on a custom found only among the Gheg population. In it, a group of "brides," women married within the last year, dance while pointing to the gold and silver headdresses they received at their own weddings.

New concepts are being born and have left their imprint on all creative art forms, including folk dance. Dynamism plays an important part in this transformation. Women's dances have become full of feeling and more lively. The new concept and sophisticated orchestral accompaniment in the songs have their influence on the development and spiritual enrichment of the thought expressed in the dances. The woman, the peasant girl, is now participating in all domains of life including local and national folklore festivals.


NAMES OF DANCES

Although the separate dances had their own names (and some still have), the dances are often named by the region from which they come. The most common form is Valle, but also Valija is used.

This might cause some confusion as one Valle Korçare is not the same dance as another Valle Korçare. Both dances are from the Korça region, but might differ in character and style. Valle Kuksit or Valija e Kuksit are both accepted as names for the same dance. In order to make it clear which dance is mentioned, the title of the song to which the dance is executed, or the specific style or gender of the dancers can be added to the name.

Other usual names refer to the profession, the work, the gender, historical events, people, animals, or arms.

Despite the diversity in styles, the folk dances of the Albanian people have their own unique character and styles, which distinguish them from those of the neighboring countries, Slav and Greek. The main characteristics are: many couple dances, much more vertical movements, wide arm and hand movements, and using all the space there is. The character is often described as being related to the desire of complete freedom of the Albanians.

We should not forget, however, that research on folk dances started after WWII within a changing world. The preservation of the folklore under the socialiste regime was encouraged, but also brought some changes to the traditional dances. Many dances were recorded at festivals, with adaptations to the choreography to make them fit a presentation on stage. Also, ritual meanings in dances have been lost in the process.

The most popular dances are the Valle Pogonishte for whatever festivity, Valle Napoloni for wedding parties, Valija e Kuksit and Vallija e Shamia e Baqarit, which is the last dance at a wedding party and is danced by the bride and groom who burn the bachelor's scarf.


COSTUMES

All women's clothing, whether of cotton, wool, linen or silk, were made at home by the future wearer herself. Nowadays, however, silk and linen are used less. From the age of twelve, girls began preparing their trousseau. A considerable amount of work because it included most of what she would wear for the rest of her life, and had to be as fine as possible. Blouses, trousers, and jackets were made by the dozen, from the most magnificently embroidered for feast days, to plainer for every day wear. Up to fifty or more socks were knitted as the bride would give a pair to each person who gave her a wedding present.

The gune (a kind of coat) that was worn by both men and women alike, from all parts of the country, is probably that which was described by Plato as the garb of Illyrians. This hypothesis seems to be confirmed by Roman bas-reliefs depicting Thraco-Illyrian slaves dressed in a kind of "gune" (gown). As to the "xhuplete" (woolen skirt), which is still worn today in the mountain regions of the North, everything points to this object as being one of the most ancient types of clothing we know of, going back at least to Creto-Mycennian civilization. There are striking analogies to certain Neolithic statuettes and various female silhouettes of the Minoan age.

Hence the value of Albanian costumes lies not only in their beauty and variety, but in their links with the past, more marked here than anywhere else.


DOCUMENTS


Most of this article was taken from the Internet.
Printed in Folk Dance Scene, February 2016.


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