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The Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH)

Hungarian Dances
By Dr. Anthony Shay and Tibor Toghia, 1988

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Tibor Toghia Dr. Anthony Shay

Hungary For the purposes of this article, Hungarian folklorists and ethnographers geographically divide what they call the Hungarian linguistic territory (a term used to include a large Hungarian population outside the national boundaries) into three major districts, based on shared clusters of folkloristic behavior. The first two are within the present boundaries of Hungary, which has a population of over ten million. The first is the Danube, the area west and south of the Danube river, including Hungarian enclaves in Croatia, Slavonia, and Podravina. The second, called the "Tisza," is east and north, from the Alföld (Great Plain) into the highlands, including the Hungarians of Slovakia. The third area includes the almost two million Hungarians of Romania and the Ukraine, that is, Transylvania, Moldavia, and Bukovina. There also are important settlements of South Slavs, Rom, and Jews residing in present-day Hungary.

Fortunately for those interested in Hungarian folk dance, research, recording, and filming among the Hungarians began relatively early, during the period before World War II.

In the second half of the 19th century, rough descriptions of dancing were available, but between the two world wars, increasingly intensive and systematic research was carried out, spurred on by the appearance of a nationalistic amateur folk dance movement in Hungary during the 1930s, the "Gyöngyösbokréta" (the pearly bouquet).

After world War II, state support accelerated and researchers thoroughly covered all the Hungarian linguistic territories in Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, and Yugoslavia: the areas that were under Hungarian administration until 1918. The relationship of the Hungarians vis-a-vis the Austrians under the Austrian-dominated Hapsburg Empire and the loss of much territory under the Versailles (Trianon) Treaty of 1920 deeply affected the Hungarian psyche. One of the results of this was the intensive research into all aspects of Hungarian folklore. The research of dance was further encouraged by and followed many of the methodologies and theoretical viewpoints of the monumental folk music research of Béla Bartók and János Kodály.

The most important and seminal dance researcher of Hungary was György Martin, whose recent and untimely death has been a major loss for dance research.

Hungarian dances can be seen from three points of view, all equally important: 1) historic; 2) type; and 3) geographic distribution.

As Martin stated, "The traditional store of dances in an amalgam of medieval chain dances, of the remnants of 16th and 17th century weapon dances and 18th and 19th century recruiting dances, of the Csárdás and of folksy variants of turn-of-the-century ballroom dancing (1974:7)."

There are three basic types of Hungarian dances within which there are variants and sub-types. These are: 1) girl's and women's group dances; 2) male solo dances, sometimes danced in groups; and 3) mixed dances. It should be noted that the dances of more recent origin, such as the Csárdás, incorporate movements from earlier similar couple dance forms.

In no area of the Hungarian linguistic territory does one find all of the three types. For example, in most areas of Transylvania, women's round dances are no longer done, but there are circle dances performed by couples, which have largely replaced the women's rounds.

When we look at the types of dances, we also see the historical layers. "The present state of research can traced back to the roots of the old dances to the late Middle Ages (Ibid:16)."

Hungarian Maiden Dancers The oldest of all forms would seem to be what is termed by Martin as the Maiden's Round Dance. This form has several terms, but Karikázó (an adjective) is most used among the folk. The term Körtánc or Maiden's Round Dances, can be performed during the Lenten season when true dancing is banned. Young girl's gather to perform the Karikázó (circle dance) is also seen in the literature, but the word "tánc" (dance) is itself a European word that probably came into the language during the course of the Middle Ages from High Middle German. It is interesting that the peasants do not use the word to designate their dances. Instead, they made the adjective of the dance independent: Karikázó (rounder); Lepo (stepping); Botolo (cudgeller); Verbunk (recruiter); and Csárdás. This shows that the word "tánc" remained strange to them even after several centuries (Balassa 1979:447-448).

These maiden's dances, which have analogs in Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania and Slovakia, are accompanied almost exclusively by the women singing as they dance. In Hungary, these dances are done in circles with all the dancers doing the same steps and holding each other with a variety of hand holds. The singing and the words of the song tend to be more important than the steps and movements, which generally employ walking, rocking, csárdás steps, and turning. In the minds of the peasants, doing these dances is not considered real dancing. Real dances are usually done to instrumental accompaniment. In this light, they are very similar to American play-party games. In Hungary, as in the other areas, these Karikázó or Maiden's Round Dances, can be performed during the Lenten season when true dancing is banned. Young girls gather to perform the Karikázó dances in an impromptu fashion, but within a more formal dance occasion, they are done at orchestra breaks or at the beginning when young men will break in and claim partners for the true dancing, and then "destroy" the round.

In addition to these round dances, there are dances such as Üveges (bottle dance) in which the women balance a bottle on their heads. There also are several dances, usually done at weddings, such as the Cook's Dance, during which the dancers carry household items such as kitchen utensils, brooms, or pillows. Geographically, these dances that are found in ritual rather than formal dance events, are spotty. That is, they are performed throughout Hungarian linguistic areas, but they tend to be from the oldest dance strata and so they are most often found in more isolated districts. Geographically, the women's rounds can be found in all three major areas but are most developed in Southern Transdanubia and the Palóc area. "They are absent on the Great Plain and Northern Transdanubia (Martin 1984:18)."

Male dancing can be conceived of as a complex of steps and movements divided into two broad types: 1) those in which weapons or weapon substitutes are carried as props; and 2) those without. By dance complex, we mean that dancers from a particular district will use elements from a common pool of steps and figures in a spontaneous way. Thus one might see a step or figure in a Verbunkos and then again in a Csárdás. Almost without exception, these dances are very athletic and rich in steps and figures. Most have them give a wide scope for improvisation.

The function of these dances varies. In the Middle Ages, the dances with weapons were quite literally of a pyrrhic nature, that is, they were used to a method of training in the handling of weapons and fighting techniques. Because many of the shepherds and cattlemen were Hajdú (irregulars) who fought the Turks and later the Austrians, one can still see echoes of this function in such dances, such as Botolo (swineherd's dance). Today, some of these dances have taken on a playful nature, the pyrrhic aspect having disappeared some time ago.

The dances with no props outnumber the more archaic weapon dances. These, too, can be danced as solo dances, in pairs, or in groups. Generally, the men dance apart from one another, rarely touching. Even in group dances, the deep need for individual expression through improvisation shines through. Only one dance, a mock recruiting dance from Bihar County, is mentioned as requiring the dancers to look exactly alike (Martin 1977:61).

The Verbunkos (taken from the German word "werben" – to recruit) functioned to induct young men into the Army. Corporals would appear at the village inns, challenge young men to dance, get them drunk, and help them induct themselves into the Army for some ten or twelve years. The first Verbunkos is recorded in Túrkeve in 1919 (Martin 1974:34), thus spanning the 18th and 19th centuries.

The recruiting function is now lost, because presumably the Hungarian government has joined the civilized world by issuing impersonal draft notices that most likely begin with the Hungarian version of "Greetings from Uncle Sam." Today, the performance of this dance, in some instances, can announce a boy's official entry into bachelor status.

In Atany, "Youths stand in front of the musicians to perform the Verbunkos, the Bachelor's Dance, at different times (ages) because when a youth does so it is a sign to the whole village that he has attained the status of bachelorhood by first fulfilling several conditions. The first of these is the performance of certain agricultural tasks, such as plowing and mowing (Fel 1969:187)."

In certain districts, especially the highlands where urban life developed earliest, craft dances, of medieval origins, such as the Bodnártánc (cooper's dance) of Erdűbénye, are done. Craft dances occurred particularly in regions where German and Slovak enclaves were found.

Mixed dances are found everywhere. Even the Csángós of Gýmes Pass in Moldavia, and a group of of Székelys from Bukovina, perform dances in couples, although both of these groups have acquired many dances from their Romanian and Ukrainian neighbors. Some of these more distant groups have more foreign than Hungarian elements in their dances.

The Csárdás epitomizes the Hungarian soul. "This dance, conceived in the spirit of national romanticism, occupied its rightful place alongside the new Hungarians folk song and the Hungarian language, and soon became all-pervasive, so much so that in the second half of the century, it pushed every dance into the background, even among the peasantry. The word comes from "Csárdá" (tavern) as opposed to the Palotás (from the palace), which has Populist implications. The Csárdás assimilated in itself the numerous traditions of the various paired dances that were gaining ground from the Renaissance onward (Ibid 457-8). The music grew out of recruiting dance music with a 4/4 meter. With its myriad of figures and freedom of improvisation and expression, the Csárdás is the most popular dance in Hungary to this day.

Most mixed dances are for couples, but there are some for one man and two women. This probably harks back to times when many men had died in war, and this enabled everyone to dance. There also are Csárdás for small circles of couples as well as group play-party games for groups of couples, such as the broom dances and pillow dances.

Other dances, such as the various Ugrós (leaping dances), the Szapora of Transylvania, and the seven-step Polka of Western European origin, can still be seen in specific locations throughout the Hungarian linguistic territory. Processionals, such as the "Tus," are especially seen at weddings.


There are both formal and informal dance events. Informal dance occasions are those in which virtually everyone may dance. This varies slightly from district to district, but weddings, impromptu family get togethers, Christmas and other holidays, dances following working bees, etc., are all occasions for general dancing. "Bachelors who returned from war were especially silent . . . We gave up the ways of youngsters, when the Gypsies played their tunes at our table, we sang. But we did not dance any more. (Ibid: 197)." "A married woman . . . may no longer dance in the tavern, only at family weddings. (Ibid: 202)."

The formal dances are almost everywhere exclusively for the unmarried. It is the marriage mart, and woe betide the excluded. "If a bachelor asks a girl to dance and she refuses, he may take revenge by 'dancing her out' . . . 'Dancing a girl out' is done by the offended youth himself or his best 'Koma'. This plan is made known to all of the 'Koma' group and the musicians are warned. The unsuspecting girl is asked for a dance as usual and her partner makes a few turns with her in the ordinary manner. Then the bachelor exchanges a glance with his 'Koma-s'; at this sign, they clear the center of the room, leaving a large open space. The Gypsies stop the dance tune and strike up the Rákozi march. By this time, everyone knows what is going on and they all move aside. The bachelor dances through the empty space with the reluctant girl, pushing her toward the door. One of the company opens the door and the dancer bundles the girl out of the room. A girl who is 'danced out' is not asked to dance again for a year (Ibid: 195)."

In Atany, "Since about 1900, people have danced mostly in the taverns. Every Sunday afternoon from Easter to October, Roman bands, engaged by seasonal contract, played in both the lower- and upper-end taverns." "The music begins when Sunday service is over. The door is shut. After entering the tavern, the bachelors stand around in groups for a while smoking and drinking. Then, at a summons of the leaders, they form a ring and all start with a Verbunkos." "After dancing the Verbunkos, the bachelors take a rest and look at the girls. As the Rom tune up again, they call the girls to dance. In a loud voice, each bachelor shouts the name of the girl he wants to dance with, and the girl steps jauntily out in front of him. After the dance, he leaves his partner, and the girls walk up and down in their groups. At the sound of the music, they stop and wait for a new call.

It is clear that throughout many parts of Hungary, as well as large areas of Eastern Europe, that formal dance events where young people find their future mates. Often these dance events, for all the jollity, are serious events, for it is often the only time the youth of the village can meet the opposite sex in a socially accepted way. The insistence that each dancer learn exactly the same steps and styling from a "standardized" instruction has only limited appeal to a sophisticated dancer.

It is important to dance well. "Silent, lifeless girls or those who do not dance well, are relatively neglected . . . it is asked whether the girl is 'good at work' (Ibid: 140)." Thus we can see that among the Hungarians, dancing is an integral facet of life, still a living art.

At time of this writing, recreational folk dancing, as it has been known in the United States, has been waning. Younger people are not entering into folk dance halls and coffee houses as they did from 1950 to 1980. This has been the cause of much debate within the folk dance organizations. There are a few exceptions to this trend, such as Hungarian, Scandinavian, and Middle Eastern dance. The reason, in our opinion, is very important. The scope for improvisation, and therefore more personal and individual expression, is very appealing to sophisticated young people who no longer wish to learn dance by rote.



Used with permission of the author.
Printed in Folk Dance Scene, May/June 1988.

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