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Folk Dances of Bulgaria
By Yves Moreau, 1973

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Yves Moreau 1970


Bulgaria Map The great variety of movements and steps as well as the intricate rhythmic structures found in Bulgarian folk dances indicate the various developments undergone throughout hundreds of years.

In the 7th century CE, the Bulgars, under their leader Asparoukh, settled in the Balkan Peninsula. They eventually mixed with the Slav tribes that were already there. Both these cultures integrated, thus forming a new and rich cultural heritage that has evolved until today and that still occasionally carries traits of Thracian, Hellenic, and Roman times!

Very little is known about the precise types of dances that were done during the early years of the new Bulgarian state, however, old books contain information related to chain-type dances and point out that these songs and dances were quite popular among the people. Furthermore, many of those manuscripts, which were written by religious writers, suggest that dancing was very much frowned upon by the Church Elders that attributed the devil as the main instigator.

Old paintings and frescoes, that depict various forms of folk dances and that throw some light on their nature during the Middle Ages, have been found in monastaries and churches. Some good examples may be found in the Rila Monastery in southwest Bulgaria as well as in several churches throughout the country.

Slav peoples (Serbs, Macedonians, Ukrainians, etc.) utilize many common dance forms in their folklore that have developed differently through the centuries according to each nation's characteristic features (that is, chain dances).

The only information as to the folk dance traditions in Bulgaria during the Ottoman rule (1396 to 1878) is found in diaries and travel accounts of foreigners who would be passing through the country on their way ro Constantinople (Carigrad). Their actual descriptions of the dances, however, were very vague. One of the best reports was written by a French scientist, Ami Boué, in the early 19th century. He clearly made mention of the horo (chain dance) danced in open circles with belt hold, as well as the couple dance râčenica with the dancers holding handkerchiefs in their hands.

It is most important to state that the long Turkish rule did not destroy the old song and dance traditions of the Bulgarians. In fact, because of their oppression, the people became more conscious of their cultural heritage. The monasteries became underground "houses of culture" where books were secretly published and where education was offered. This movement produced such key figures a Otec Pajissi, Rakovski, and Botev whose names were synonymous with Bulgaria's cultural and political liberation.

The first serious "scientific" collections of Bulgarian songs and dances were written in the 19th century by such scholars as the Milodinov Brothers (1891), Vassil Čalakov (1872), and Ivan Šišmanov (1889). These books gave a detailed picture of the many types of dances in each region as well as the existing songs, rituals, and musical instruments.

Another serious scientific account on the dance folklore of the 19th century was by a Czech music teacher, Karel Mahan, and was entitled "Choreography from Vidin and Lom Counties." Mahan's research, however, was concentrated on that particular region of Northwest Bulgaria.

Still, today, folk dances in Bulgaria undergo transformations as they are passed down from the old to the new generation. Many dances known to have been danced in the 19th century are still done today. This is easily proven by the accounts of the old folk who remember those dances from their parents. Therefore, in a given village dance repertory, one usually finds a mixture of old and new dances.

Tunes and even rhythms also go through a renewal process. Among the most common sources of change are: Romani musicians who continuously experiment with new musical ornamentations and, more recently, radio broadcasts where many musicians hear new tunes from other parts of Bulgaria and the Balkans.


Bulgarian Horo Dancers The horo(derived from the Greek χερóς) holds a central place in the socio-cultural activities of rural Bulgaria. The horo is mostly a community dance that, until recently, could be observed every Sunday in the village square. Today, because of the greater choice of free-time activities, and the lack of interest on the part of the younger generation, folk dancing has been confined to a few specific occasions.

Most weddings, whether held in small villages or big cities, will inclue a good amount of horo dancing with exciting music provided by good local Romani bands, generally using brass instruments. There also are regional fairs and festivals held annually or at specific intervals that will include spontaneous folk singing and dancing. Among the most famous are: The Rožen Fair held in August near Smoljan in the Rhodope mountains, The Pirin Festival held at Predel near Blagoevgrad, the National Festival in Koprivštica in May, and the Moskova Thracian Festival in June.

Most towns and villages organize festivities including folk dancing at some specific time of the year, but, because of poor scheduling and lack of communication within the country, it is quite hard to find out exactly when and where these manifestations take place!

Every village has its local repertoire of horos and other dances that reflect the local character of the people. It is important to note, however, that there are four basic horos characterized by their rhythm and steps and danced throughout the country. They are:

The horo can be danced in a closed or open circle formation, or in a straight or "crooked" line. The best dancers are usually located at each end of the line ("na dva tanca"). Both of them guide the group through exciting patterns while waving kûrpas (handkerchiefs) in their free hands. The leader is usually called horovedec, vodač, glava, or čelo.

The râčenica is probably the most widespread dance in Bulgaria for it can be performed in many ways: solo, couples, trios, segregated, and even in a horo form (this type is usually referred to as horo-râčenica or hvanati-râčenica (hooked râčenica). The râčenica is also considered by many as the liveliest of all Bulgarian dances for in it dancers can show their greatest skills.

Other dances that are widespread throughout most regions of Bulgaria include: Eleno Mome (Elenino Horo), Dajčovo horo (especially popular in the West and north), and Gankino (also known as Kopanica or Krivo) which is found in most regions except East Thrace and the Rhodopes.

There are many hand positions and formations used in Bulgarian horo dancing. Hands can be joined down at sides or up at shoulder height, or crossed in front or back in a basket fashion, or the arms may rest on the neighbor's shoulders. Perhaps the most characteristic of all positions is the "na pojas" (on the belt), where the dancers hold each other by their belts or waistbands. When a group of dancers use this particular hold and dance in a straight line, this formation is know as "na lesa" (on a stave). Other formations include crooked or twisted lines and open or closed circles with mixed or segregated groups of dancers.


The names of some dances and tunes often refer to the town or village from which they come: Radomirsko (from Radomir), Kulsko (from Kula), Jambolsko (from Jambol).

Other names originate from a persons name: Gankino (Gankina's), Denjovo (Denjo's), Dajčova (Dajčo's).
Often, dances are related to the milieu in which they are danced or may indicate a craft or trade guild: Grânčarsko (potter's), Kasapsko (butcher's), Kajdžisko (tinsmith's).

The exact character of the dance can also be defined precisely in its name: Čukanoto (stamped), Kucao (limping), Sitno (small).
the character of the dance may also be described by using names of animals: Zaješkata (rabbit's), Konskata (horse's), Ovcata (sheep's).

Many names of horos also show a foreign origin: Čerkesko (Circassian), Šumadijsko (from Šumadija, Serbia), Vlaško (Vlach).

In a reverse manner, some dances of other Balkan countries show a definite Bulgarian origin. Pajduško and Râčenica dances are done in Romania and Greece and there is a Turkish dance known as Bulgaristan Urulu (in the Bulgarian way).


Bulgarian dancing is done mostly with the feet. There are, however, certain dance styling that are proper to specific regions of Bulgaria. I use the term "regional styling" here to make a clear distinction from the term "style," that misconceived word that has to do with each individual dancer's degree of emotional involvement with a dance that makes him move in a certain way! "Stylings" can be taught, "style" can not be.

Dances of the ŠOP area (named after the šopi, an ethnic group found in Western Bulgaria and Eastern parts of Serbia and Macedonia) are usually quite fast with tricky movements and wild tunes while dances of THRACE are more solemn and generally slower. The dances from the Western part of Thrace, west of Plovdiv and around Panagjurište and Ihtiman, are livelier and are sometimes confused with the Šop ones! Dances of the PIRIN region, which is in fact the Eastern portion of Macedonia, are very much related to the types found slightly to the West in Yugoslav-Macedonia in such towns as Kriva Palanka, Strumica, Delčevo, and so forth. Many of these Pirin dances begin slowly using an improvised pattern that develops later into a more regular form at a faster tempo.

NORTH BULGARIAN dances are in generally quite energetic and exuberant. Dances of the NORTHWEST have a similar character but have more marked influence from nearby Serbia as well as a strong Romanian flavor radiated by the imposing number of Vlachs in that area. The dances of DOBRUDŽA are probably the most exciting to watch. Dobrudžan dances are done generally at moderate tempo using slightly bent knees with the dancers' backs arched backward. Shoulder and arm movements play an important role in their dances. It is quite probable that some of these stylings were influenced by the Turks as similar forms are found along the Black Sea Coast in Turkey. Not too many dances have been collected in the RHODOPES (named after the mountain range). The types of dances observed there very much resemble those in East Thrace. Dances in the Western part of the Rhodopes have much in common with those in the PIRIN. In the East section, there are many Turkish settlements that have kept up specific traditional dances. The entire region, however, is perhaps the richest treasure-house of folk songs in Bulgaria. The STRANDŽA area is also a subdivision of EASTERN THRACE where singing tradition is prominent. The area used to be famous for the nestinarsko (fire-dance) ritual. The Râčenica po Trojki (râčenica for three) is widespread in that part of the country.

One must not forget the various minority groups throughout Bulgaria that have kept up specific dances and traditions. Among them are the Vlachs in North Bulgaria (mostly Northwest), the kopanici, descendants of the first Bulgar settlers of the 6th century CE, that live around Razgrad in Northeast Bulgaria, the Turks also in Northeast and Southeast parts of the country, and the Romani, as well as the Armenians, Serbs, and Greeks.

Here are some examples of representative folk dances from each ethnographic sector of Bulgaria. The dances are taken from the current repertoire of Bulgarian folk dances in America.


The 2/4 meter is the most common measure found in Bulgarian folk dance music. The most characteristic rhythms, however, are the ones which are the foundation of many unequal beats: 5/16, 7/16, 9/16, 11/16, and even intricate combinations such as: 7/16 + 11/16.

Such rhythms are typically Balkan and are best thought of as combinations of "quicks" and "slows" rather than using Western time signatures. A Bulgarian village musician can rarely identify the time signature of a dance tune. Just like the drummer, he will relate to the melody in terms of "quick" and "slow" stresses.

The unequal beats found in Bulgarian and Balkan music are fairly complex. They are composed of alternating two and three-time beats. At an accelerated tempo, these beats lose their significance as independent beats and turn into simple and lengthened times (quicks and slows).


Still today, many weddings are accompanied by special songs and dances. A honey loaf is baked on Friday before the wedding and a horo is danced around it. The dance is led by the brother-in-law holding the "oruglica" (banner). The wedding banner is decorated with flowers and ribbons (this is sometimes replaced with a flag). While the bridegroom is having a shave his mother circles around him three times with a small kettle of water in her hand, dancing the rûčenica. On leaving her father's house, the bride dances a slow rûčenica, with deep bows, next the godfather who is the leader. Brothers and sisters-in-law dance the rûčenica with small steps before the wedding procession. The mother-in-law or her son meets the young couple with candles held in their hands or stuck in a bowl full of flour. Then the bride gives presents to the guests and all who have received such gifts dance a special Darovno (gift) horo led by the brother-in-law holding the oruglica.


In the past, Bulgarian peasants performed various rituals that were mostly connected with farm life. To a certain extent, these practices have persisted until today, although often the original meanings and purposes have disappeared. In many cases, the old ritual dances have been replaced by dances of everyday use. These rituals usually deal with demands for good crops, rain, productivity, or even the chasing of evil spirits. Today, these ritual events take on an amusing and entertaining character.

Among the most popular ritual customs today are:

LADUVANE – Foretelling happiness in wedlock, this ritual takes place on New Year's Eve or on the morning on New Year, or even on another holiday in the Spring or Summer. From the fountain or the river and in complete silence, the young maidens bring a tin-plated copper cauldron filled with "silent" water" (carried in silence). Every maiden drops a bunch of flowers into the cauldron. Each mainden hs attached a ring or similar object to the flowers. The rings are taken out either by a small boy or girl whose parents must be alive. Several songs are sung during this ritual such as "Prošetna se Vasilia" and "Vasilko, Bosilko." In the Šop District, these songs are diaphonic (two simultaneous lines of independent melody singing).

KOLEDUVANE – This ritual takes place on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. On that occasion, "koledari" (young men) go from house to house singing carols and wishing everyone health, success, and fertility The koledari have special songs for entering and leaving each house and for young and old people. After singing a few songs, the leader of the koledari says a traditional "slava" (blessing).

LAZARUVANE – St. Lazarus' Day takes place a week before Orthodox Easter. On that day, the "lazarki" (young maidens) go to each house in the village singing and dancing. Like the koledari, the lazarki have special songs for each dwelling they visit. One dance often performed at the Lazaruvane is the "Buenec," a winding chain dance with small jumps and danced in a counterclockwise direction.

ENJOVA BULJA – The St. Enjo's Day ritual is still practiced in a few villages of Eastern Thrace. It also is a ritual for fertility and good health. A small procession of maidens goes around the village fields to protect the crops from evil forces; on their shoulders they carry Enjo's bride, a small girl dressed like a bride.

NESTINARSKO – This ritual is not performed anymore. It used to be held on St. Helena's and Constantine's Day in the village of Bâlgari, in the Strandža mountains. One local woman was chosen to be a "nestinarka" (fire walker) and to walk on hot coals carrying the icons of St. Constantine and Helena. Today, some localities organize fire dancing for all who wish to attempt to walk on the burning embers, but the character is purely competitive and entertaining.


What sparked interest in Bulgarian folk dancing and folklore in America? Why is it still quite popular? To answer these questions, we have to go back to the beginnings of the folk dance movement in the United States. Before Americans started flying to Europe every Summer to bring back new dances, the main source of material was from the various ethnic communities living here. This is where such teachers as Michael and Mary Ann Herman, Vyts Beliajus, and others found many of their dances.

The Bulgarian community in America is not a very large one compared to the Italians, Greeks, or Ukrainians. The main migration from the Balkans started in the early 20th century and continued through World War II. Most of the Bulgarians settled in such industrial areas as Pittsburgh, Toledo, Chicago, and Detroit. The largest communities today are found in Canada, in the greater Toronto area, as well as Hamilton and Windsor.

Some of the first basic Bulgarian dances appeared on the "folk dance circuit" in the early fifties, filtering out from Bulgarian večerinka (parties) or social picnics. The Detroit Bulgarians, for example, did such favorites as: Eleno Mome, Šana horo, Ciganskate, Pajduško, Zmirna horo. Anatol Joukowski and Ivan "John" Filcich in California popularized many Bulgarian dances on the original XOPO 78 rpm disks: Gankino, Narodno, Trakijsko.

The first North American to travel to Bulgaria for the sole purpose of researching folk dancing and spreading it over here was Michel Cartier from Montréal. Michel was then director of a famous amateur folk dance group in Montréal, "Les Faux Follets," and was also coordinator of folk dancing activities for the City of Montréal. As a member of the jury of the Moscow Youth Festival in 1956, he became fascinated with the Bulgarian delegation and a year later had an official invitation to visit Bulgaria. In Sofia, he had special classes with such specialists as Horalampiev, Dženev, and dancers from all regions of Bulgaria. Up to that moment, very little had been known here about such ethnographic zones as Dobrudža and Strandža. After this work in Bulgaria, Michel toured the United States and Canada several times and presented many of these new dances. Most important, he brought back some excellent recordings (Folk Dancer label) and many are considered the best: Dajčovo (Zizaj Nane), Trite Pâ, and Ekizlijsko.

From that moment, Bulgarian folk dancing was "in." Dick Crum, then choreographer for the Duquesne University Tamburitzans, researched some material for the "Tammies" and they always had a Bulgarian suite in their show. "Kolo" festivals and parties always included the horos and râčenicas!

The first appearance of the Filip Kutev Ensemble in 1963 across America did a lot to stimulate further interest. This great ensemble presented a fascinating concert with colorful costumes, emotional songs, and intricate yet down-to-earth dancing. Several groups of folk dancers got the opportunity to learn some dances and styling points from the Kutev group during their tour.

The next person to do additional research in Bulgaria was Dennis Boxell. Dennis brought back mostly original village dances, unchanged, and used village folk music released on the Folkraft label.

Finally, dozens of excited folk dancers have been combing Bulgaria in the last ten years learning material and adding it to the ever-growing Bulgarian repertoire: Martin Koening from New York and Yves Moreau from Montréal spent many months in Bulgaria and brought back many village and ensemble dances. In that same period of time, Dick Crum introduced new material, as did Ron Wixman, Steve Glaser, and members of the AMAN ensemble from Los Angeles.

What will happen in the next ten years? In the last five years, folk dancers have developed a taste for simpler dances with primitive music. This trend is continuing. More people have travelled to the Balkans and have "seen the real thing." Some of these travelling folk dancers have even stopped dancing completely in folk dance halls and clubs because they couldn't take the hassle of fighting their way for a place in the line to dance a 56-figure Kopanica to a scratchy Boris Karlov record. Their minds were still at that village wedding in the Rhodopes where they had danced a Pravo for three hours to the sound of three gajdas (bagpipes).

I personally believe that the "Bulgarian Folk Dance Machine" should take a rest. Already, over 150 dances have been spread in the repertoire. Most of them have been forgotten or badly butchered and still people ask for MORE! MORE! People tire fast of the "old" dances; they seek new steps, new tunes, and new rhythms. The teachers and researchers easily become "caterers," feeding the masses! Local teachers who can't afford time or money to go to the Balkans want MORE for their group and people attending the 683rd Balkan Festival want MORE for their money!

Bulgaria should take a break. The trend right now seems to be moving East to the more "exotic" stuff: Turkey, Arab countries, North Africe . . . but WAIT . . . we can't go too far East. We forgot one tiny spot in the Balkans: Albania!


Encouraged by a special Institut za Hudožestvena Samodajnost (Institute of Amateur Artistic Activity – IAAA), thousands of folklore groups and companies have been created in Bulgarian towns and villages since 1950. At present, there are more than 2,000 amateur groups attached to various cultural organizations, schools, factories, and trade unions. Many of them have travelled abroad and have been awarded numerous first prizes and awards at such top folklore festivals as: Dijon, France; Llangellan, Wales, and Tunis. Leaders and members of these amateur groups often collect and study the typical local dances and even revive horos that have been abandoned for many years. The majority of the group choreographers, however, usually pick up material at special dance seminars organized by the IAAA maturing top choreographers. The institute publishes monthly a small booklet containing about five important choreographies suitable for stage. These all include the proper music and information on costuming and staging. Every local leader is familiar with the terminology used in describing the steps. The most popular and widespread system for dance descriptions in Bulgaria is one taught at the State Choreography school in Sofia and which was conceived by two of the best choreographers in Bulgaria, Kiril Dženev and Kiril Horalamplev.

The Folk Dance Department at the State Choreography School offers a three-year course for young boys and girls who would like to work with a performing folk ensemble. The course gives basic information of ethnography, ethnomusicology, basic steps, regional styles, choreography, and staging. Upon graduating from this school, the attendee is usually assigned to one of the thousands of groups in Bulgaria or is asked to form a new one.

The amateur ensembles in Bulgaria follow primarily the methods set forth by the larger professional companies. At present, there are four such groups: The State Ensemble for Folk Songs and Dances (head Artistic Director is Filip Kutev); the State Folk and Dance Ensemble, "Pirin," based in Blagoevgrad and which specializes primarily in folklore from the Pirin (Macedonia) area; the "Rodopa Pee" Ensemble from Smoljan in the Rhodope Mountains; and the "Dobrudža" group in Tolboukhine.

Before World War II, very little was done by the authorities to encourage the formation of folklore ensembles. One must, however, credit the following pioneers for setting up several ensembles that travelled abroad to show the wealth of Bulgarian folk dances: Ruska Koleva, who researched folk dances and taught them to several ballet troupes; Danco Nikolov, who headed the famous Sredec group in Sofia; and Boris Conev, who organized several groups, taught folk dancing in physical education departments, and wrote many books.

The big trend in the formation of folklore ensembles started in 1952 with the formation of the State Folk Song and Dance Company. Chosen to head the group was Filip Kutev, a distinguished composer and authority on Bulgarian folk music. He was assisted by Margarita Dilova who was later to take charge of the dance group along with Kiril Dženev and Ivan Kavaldziev, the future conductor of the orchestra, as well as many other specialists in national folklore. To select the performers, Kutev auditioned over 3,000 singers, 2,000 dancers, and several hundred instrumentalists from every region of the country. Out of this incredible number, only the seventy-five most talented were chosen!


Used with permission of the author.
Excerpts from "Folk Dances of Bulgaria," printed in New York Folk Dance News, 1973.

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