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Dance in Bulgarian Culture

This is an excerpt from Dance Cultures Around the World With HKPropel Access by Lynn Frederiksen & Shih-Ming Chang.

By Iliana Petrova Salazar

Ensemble dances such as horo and Panevritmia illustrate the importance of unity and cultural identity in Bulgaria, as well as how the geography and landscapes that define the country as a part of the Balkan peninsula play a key role in the dance culture. Borders with the Black Sea, the Danube River, and the Balkan Mountains define six ethnographic areas in Bulgaria: (1) Thracian area/Thrace, (2) Dobrujanska area/Dobruja, (3) Northern area/Severnyashka, (4) Shopska area/Shopluk, (5) Pirin area/Pirinska, and (6) Rodopi area/Rhodope. The characteristics of these six areas differentiate and reflect the form and content of Bulgarian folk dances. These dances also spring from pre-Christian spiritual beliefs of proto-Bulgarian cults that revered the life-giving properties of the Sun. Concepts of the Sun God, whose powers resided in the sun’s rays and its circular shape, are deeply rooted in the ancient history of Bulgarian culture. Images of sun-worshipping dance figures can be observed on the wall paintings in the Magura Cave dating back beyond 8000 BCE, along with figures moving in circles, lines, and serpentine paths on the walls of pre-Christian Thracian tombs. The Thracians were ancient Indo-European tribes inhabiting a vast area of east and southeastern Europe. They were one of the first who populated the region now known as Bulgaria, and they strongly influenced the ancient Greek and Roman cultures. The circular and linear patterns of sun worship and horo can be observed in pre-Christian dance rites, Thracian Orphic mysteries that kept the ritualistic practices alive for centuries, and many more dances, extending even to the present day in Panevritmia. The importance and potency of ensemble dance remains central to Bulgarian dance culture.

Magura Cave
The Magura Cave is situated in the Danube River region in Bulgaria. Its complex cave paintings depict animals, astral bodies, symbols, and dancing or hunting human figures dating back to 8000-4000 BCE. The first Sun calendar in Europe is found in the Magura Cave, as well as one of the first “dancing woman” figures depicted in Europe. Other frequent images show dancers with hands in circle shapes above their heads, evidently in a sun-worshipping enlightenment ritual.

Pre-Christian Dance Rituals

Since time immemorial, dance and spiritual teachings have had the same function: to connect the earthly and the ineffable, synchronizing their eternal cosmic and natural cycles. Bulgarian dances have roots in such pre-Christian practices and continue their mysterious dance codes in choreography, eurhythmic rites, dance plays, and health-based renewal practices. For example, the Thracians—like the Egyptians and Buddhists—believed in life after death, but also in reincarnation, and they bade farewell to the dead with music and dancing. Rites such as these were developed in antiquity and encoded during medieval times, but after the conversion of Bulgarians to Christianity (864-866 CE) the culture took a very different course. The daily life of the people and the views about dance art were dictated through the official Christian church, where the concept of reincarnation was denied. The church successfully banned many dance rituals, and for centuries almost no sources acknowledged the ancient dances. Nonetheless, some pre-Christian dance practices were absorbed into the church calendar and still appear in traditional dance performances and festivals today. Three of the most prominent are the nestinarski dance, kukerski dance plays, and rusaliiski/kalusharski dance

Fire Dancing Rites
Dancing or walking on hot coals is a ritual practice performed all around the globe—Africa, India, China, North America, and elsewhere. In Europe there are the nestinarski dance in Bulgaria, Anastenaria in Greece (Greek Αναστενάρια), and the paso del fuego in Spain. Fire dances are performed for special occasions: initiation, worship, transformation, divination, healing. To this day, many cultures celebrate one or more of these occasions through such practices.

Nestinarski Dance—A Fire-Dancing Rite
The nestinarski dance is performed on hot coals as the culmination of an ancient ritual complex called “nestinarstvo.” It is danced during one of the two main celebrations in the Bulgarian culture, summer equinox, now equated with celebrating the Orthodox Christian saints Constantine and Elena. Its performers are called nestinari—women and men specially initiated in the fire dance steps. The peculiar mental state that allows dancers to cross the hot embers is characterized by little steps and a glimpse into an icon held by the performers that depicts one or both of the saints. The main purpose of nestinarski dance is to make a sacred connection that will secure good health and fertility for the people.

The Kukerski Dance Plays—Masquerade
The kukerski dance plays in Bulgaria are commonly held in the days between winter equinox (around December 21st) and Epiphany (January 6th). In the Bulgarian folk tradition this period is considered as the “dirty days,” when malicious spirits and unclean powers walk freely outside and can harm the people. That is why at this time of year male performers called kukeri don masks and scary animal leather costumes hung with bells and then dance to protect and bless people’s homes, villages, and cities. The dance-ritual symbolism encoded in their masquerade is performed mainly to banish the winter and evil forces, but also to provide a good harvest, health, and happiness in the upcoming year

Rusaliiski/Kalusharski Dance
The rusaliiski/kalusharski dance is a complex ritual connected with the most important periods in the year—winter and summer equinox. In Bulgaria this dance has traditionally had double calendar location: In winter, the rusaliiski/kalusharski dance takes place between Christmas and Epiphany. Similar to the kukeri, male dancers—rusalii/kalushari—parade through the villages with sticks or swords wearing masks and costumes and bells to drive away the evil forces and the winter. They dance to call forth protection, health, and fertility (Arnaoudov 1969, 545).

In summer, the rusaliiski/kalusharski dance culminates in a healing dance rite performed during the Pentecostal Orthodox Feast (the 50th day after Easter), also known as the Mermaid Week or the Rusalijska Nedelya. Unlike the kukerski dance plays, the rusaliiski/kalusharski dance in Bulgaria is an occult dance rite of pre-Christian origins (Arnaoudov 1969; Shapkarev 1884; Venedikov 1995) and has its accompanying healing dance ritual. Connected to biblical rituals in the Old Testament, the dance invokes fertility, herblore, worship, balanced life, and protection from “folklore diseases” caused by mistreated supernatural beings. It can be performed as a healing rite for a specific individual whose illness is seen as the result of harmful actions by these beings.

Medieval Dance Rituals: From Boyan Magesnik to the Kolo Dance

Scholars of pre-Christian rituals note that many elements—such as dance poses and symbols by members of secret societies or brotherhoods—were carried forward into the Middle Ages through Christian mysteries and their practitioners. One of these practitioners, the Bogomils society, founded by Boyan Magesnik (910-970) (also known as Veniamin-Boyan, Bayan, and Boyan the Magician), left lasting influences on folk customs and dances that are still performed today.

The Bogomils—literally “endeared to God”—were people brought together by Boyan Magesnik in his esoteric teachings that rejected the trappings of Orthodox Christianity. They followed the early Christianity and its divine principles of Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood through love (origin of the Liberté, égalité, fraternité motto used in the French Revolution 800 years later [Pophristov 2015, 176-178]), along with the belief in reincarnation. For such Christian heresy, the Bogomils were brutally persecuted by the church and chased out of Bulgaria. Their perception of the body as a tool of the soul led to the use of dance in their mysterious rites.

Boyan Magesnik
Boyan Magesnik, son of the Bulgarian tsar Simeon the Great, was one of the strongest and most famous shamans and enlighteners from medieval times in all of Europe. He renounced his royal life and went to live with, protect, and heal the Bulgarian people. The magical shaman practices were bound with his abilities to transform into a wolf and other animals. In Bulgarian folklore and mythology, the wolf is considered one of the smartest and most powerful animals, and it is a liaison between the material and the spiritual worlds—a function also held by dance in medieval Europe. Similar to North American shamanic practices for calling “power animals,” this son of a Bulgarian king practiced what were known as the “wolf mysteries” and brought his followers, the Bogomils, into his teachings.

As esoteric practitioners, the Bogomils were banned from the church and chased out of Bulgarian land. They spread in small societies around Europe as missionaries of Bogomilism and predecessors of main European esoteric societies. Unfortunately, the Bogomils left few traces of their dance rites and practices, though we do know that the main one among them was the kolo dance.

Kolo Dance in Europe and Bulgaria
Kolo, as a term, can be found in all Slavic languages in variants in both meaning and form, connected with “circle” and circle shape (wheel). It is also found in the ancient Bulgarian word kolobur, a title meaning enlightener/shaman/priest, and in the dance kalabrismos. The kolo existed long before Christianity but was officially adopted through the Orthodox church and is associated with South Slavic traditional dances in several countries. The Serbs preserved the kolo dance as their national heritage, listed in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2017.

The kolo dance is connected with the cultural and archeological heritage left by the Bulgarian Bogomils, who escaped to live outside of Bulgaria. They left gravestones called stechki, on whose surfaces, along with cosmological references about Sun and Earth worship and calendar cycles, the Bogomils engraved a complex system of female, male, and mixed-sex dances that follow circular, row, serpentine, or concentric curving line patterns. Proof of their ancient history can be seen in similar images found in the Magura Cave of dancers moving with hands above their heads. Though for now the dance culture and symbolic elements of kolo remain a mystery, historians confirm the resemblance between the Bulgarian horo and the kolo of the Bogomils, its choreographic shapes, and Sun–Earth cyclicity connections. For centuries, this connection has been preserved in the folk forms and character of Bulgarian dances, especially in the many variations of the horo that define Bulgaria’s national dance.

Table 15.1 gives a brief view on the people and historical periods of cultural development of Bulgarian dance, particularly ensemble dances.

Table 15.1 Historical Periods of Bulgarian Dance

More Excerpts From Dance Cultures Around the World With HKPropel Access