Irregular rhythms, enthralling music sounds, and gorgeous costumes. These are all characteristics of Bulgarian folk dances. When you’re travelling around Bulgaria, this spectacle of upbeat music and captivating dancing is a must-experience for every explorer.
These dances are a frequent accompaniment to weddings and other celebrations, and capture spectators’ attention with the subtle rhythms and intricate footwork. What hypnotises them most, though, are the inherently beaming smiles of the participants. The music and the overall emotions are just that powerful.
This is one of the most skilful and cheerful performances of Bulgarian dancers I have found on YouTube.
*I have a relation neither to the channel nor the wedding photographer who shot it. I just love watching the performers, time and again.
Let’s commence unveiling the mystery behind the Eighth Miracle – that is how some people regard Bulgarian folk dances.
The Captivating Bulgarian Folk Dances Mesmerise Spectators with their Upbeat Tempo and Energetic Moves
The grand majority of Bulgarian dances are line dances where the performers hold hands in a curved or straight line, with their faces towards the centre of the dance space.
In the past, men and women would dance in separate lines to evade gender contact, but nowadays, they join hands together. Here are some of the handholds that are used throughout the various dances:
- Dancers hold their hands at waist level. The arms of neighbouring dancers are in the “V” shape. The left hand is facing back, while the right one – forward.
- Dancers hold their hands at shoulder level. The arms of neighbouring dancers are in the “W” shape. The left hand palm is down, while the right one – up.
- Belt hold – every dancer holds the front of the belt/sash of the two adjacent dancers with the left arm over the right one.
- Shoulder hold – the arms are stretched out horizontally to the sides, while the hands rest on the adjacent dancers’ shoulders. This one used to be a men’s hold.
- The “teacup hold” is really peculiar. Every dancer puts her/his left hand on her/his stomach, creating a “handle” with her/his left arm. The right hand is loosely looped through the arm of the dancer on the right.
The Entrancing Bulgarian Folk Dances Differ from Region to Region
In general, the Bulgarian Folk Dances fall in 6 ethnographic regions – Mizia (Severnyashka), Dobrudzha, Shopluk (Shop), Pirin (Bulgarian Macedonia), Rodopska (Rhodope), and Trakia (Thrace).
Each of these regions differs in the costumes, rhythm, and dynamics of the people, and has been influenced by the history and customs characteristic of the region.
Mizia – Swinging Feet Movements and Specific Shouting
This region, situated in the North-western part of Bulgaria, has been greatly influenced by Serbia and Romania. The typical dances here are characterised by breadth, friskiness, and speed, as well as a specific shouting. The movements are mainly in the feet and are kind of swingy. Everything in this region’s dances makes it look beautiful, vibrant, and exuberant.
Only in this area, one can find the use of wind instruments at different celebrations, such as weddings.
The popular Bulgarian folk dances here are “Dunavsko”, “Sitno Vlashko”, “Shira”, “Elenino”, “Paidushko”, “Chichovoto”, “Daichovo”, and more. The music measures are 2/4, 9/8, and 11/16.
Dunavsko horo, usually danced on New Year’s, from this region.
Dobrudzha – the Cult to Agriculture and Bread
The dances from this region honour the bread and agricultural work. The typical person from Dobrudzha is kneeling, with stretched breasts and a body, which leans forward. All these show the strength and hard work of the people there. The majority of hand movements in men mimic bundling, sowing, and harvesting. Other movements mimic kneading of bread because Dobrudzha is known as the “Granary of Bulgaria”.
The popular Bulgarian folk dances from this region include “Sborenka”, “Opas”, “Varnensko horo”, “Dobrudzhanski rachenik”, and more. The music measures are predominantly 2/4, 7/8, and 9/8, but 5/16 and 7/16 are also common.
Sborenka dance from the Dobrudzha region. The name can be translated as “together” or “a gathering”.
Shopluk – Sense of Humour, Sharpness of the Mind, and Restless Spirit
The so-called “shop people” or “shops” are characterised by an agitated spirit, witty mind, and an intrinsic sense of humour. All these characteristics are an indispensable part of the dance from the Shopluk, which differs profoundly from all other ethnographic regions of Bulgaria.
The dance is so light and agile as if the dancers are not touching the ground. At the same time, however, it is complex, dynamic, and erratic, requiring admirable levels of coordination of the body movements at all times. Mostly, the legs are high in the air, while the hands hold the sash/belt/girdle of the adjacent dancers. A vigorous shout accompanies the dance.
The popular Bulgarian folk dances from this region comprise “Graovsko”, “Chetvorno”, “Petrunino”, “Sitno Shopsko”, “Bistrishka Kopanitsa”, and more. The musical measures are 2/4, 7/16, 9/16, 11/16, and 13/16.
Graovsko horo unites many typical steps from the Shopluk region.
Pirin – Southern Spirit and Quick Movements
Located in the South-western part of Bulgaria, the Pirin ethnographic region’s dances are navigated by instruments, such as zurna, fiddle, drum, and the bagpipe “Jura”.
The Pirin dances are rich and diverse, divided into male and female types. Women usually dance under the accompaniment of a song in a moderate rhythm. The male dance is characterised by a slow tempo, which gradually speeds up. The movements are with high-raised legs, accompanied by light steps, spins, springs, and squats.
The famous dances from the Pirin region comprise “Makedonsko”, “Shirto”, “Djanguritsa”, “Malashevsko”, and more. The musical measures are 2/4, 3/8, 7/8, 8/8, 9/8, 11/8, and 12/8.
Djanguritsa or Djangurica is one of the most diverse and energetic dances from the Pirin region.
Rodopska – Slow Dances and a Cult for Livestock
This region hides in the Rhodope Mountains where people’s occupation is mainly related to stock farming.
The dance movements are a bit limited in their variety. Men dance kneeling, clumsily, and with wide open legs. Women often dance very close to each other, while their movements are performed very low and in a restrained fashion.
The Rhodope region will captivate any spectator with its miraculous instrument “kaba gaida” (a type of a bagpipe). The music is slow and the measures are 2/4 most of the time. Typical Bulgarian folk dances from this region are “Svornato”, “Pravo Rodopsko”, “Choukano”, and more.
This is a Svornato horo. You will hear the mesmerising bagpipes throughout the video.
Trakia – Movements that Unite Agility with Confidence
The Thracian ethnographic region is Bulgaria’s largest. Sometimes, musicologists divide it into two – Trakia and Strandzha.
The dance of the Thracian male is a mirror of his character – sedate, calm, feet on the ground, exemplifying the confidence of the master of a fertile land – while the dance of the Thracian female is smooth and agile, obediently following the male without being intrusive. Characteristic for men in this region are the dynamics of the clapping of the hands on the thighs and the feet, and trampling the legs on the floor during the famous Thracian rachenitsa.
The popular Bulgarian folk dances from Trakia include “Buchimish”, “Kopanitsa”, “Thracian Rachenitsa”, “Trite pati”, “Pravo Trakiysko Horo”, and more. The musical measures are 2/4, 5/8, 7/8, and 9/8.
Trite pati is one of the most diverse Bulgarian folk dances. It translates as “the three times” as it changes its pace and rhythm at least three times.
The Interesting “Science” behind Bulgarian Folk Dances
This will get techy, so you might want to skip to the next part.
In this section, I am going to paraphrase some of the research and explanations of Vessela Stoyanova, an Assistant Professor in the Harmony Department at the Berkley College of Music. I contacted her and she was very kind to grant me the explicit permission to use her research.
The dominant bulk of Bulgarian folk music occurs in odd metres – usually, these are 5, 7, 9, and 11, with some occasional combinations of those, creating 13, 15, 17, and even larger.
These odd metres, according to some musicologists, are attributed to the languages of the region (especially poetry) and are traced back to Ancient Greece. Others relate them to dancing, inasmuch as every odd time signature tends to be escorted by a specific type of dance.
In fact, multitudes of odd-metred song forms bear the name of such dances. Kopanitsa, for example, always implies 11/8. Peculiarly enough, hordes of proficient, Bulgarian folk musicians won’t be able to explain the time signature of the music; rather, they will refer to the signature in terms of its specific dance.
Delving a Tad Deeper into the Musical and Dance Science
In all fairness, the term “irregular” is better than “odd” since the majority of Bulgarian rhythms technically are even – 8/8, 12/8, or 22/8. Despite that, within a specific measure of even time signature, one is likely to encounter beats of different lengths. The Bulgarian word for all these rhythms would roughly be translated as “irregular” or “uneven-beat” music.
In scientific terms, 6/8 music measures are two dotted quarter notes. Compare them to a ¾ measure, which is a three-quarter note. In Balkan metres and their beat ratios, the dotted quarter beats are combined with quarter beats that are from the same measure in different combos.
Here, we are talking about time signature with a denominator of 8 (sometimes 16), not 4. This means that the beat does not equal the 8th note. Instead, it is a group of these 8th notes. The western world expresses this with the 6/8 or 12/8 time signatures.
Bulgarian Folk Dances Do not Miss a Beat
The Bulgarian time signatures are closely related to dances, and it is of utmost importance that the music grooves.
If you are trying to play or feel these irregular metres for the first time, be aware that they don’t miss a beat as many westerners believe. Professor Stoyanova explains it like this: 7/8 is not a 4/4 signature minus one 8th note. In reality, the bulk of westerners are used to 4/4 and their bodies may automatically regress back to it while playing.
These time signatures, characteristic not only of Bulgaria but the whole Balkan Peninsula, may also be perceived as subdivisions of 2’s and 3’s. The musicians in Bulgaria won’t exactly see it like that, but Balkan musicologists in the past, discovered this to be a great method of explaining Bulgarian folk music’s nature of uneven beats to westerners.
In truth, Bulgarian folk musicians think in terms of short and long beats. The length varies from region to region (see the different regions below).
Now comes the question:
How short is a short beat, and how long is a long beat?
Professor Stoyanova gives some practical advice for people who are inexperienced with these rhythms:
- Commence with counting. The 7/8 measure should be counted like this: “One-two, one-two, one-two-three. In English, “Ripe Red Strawberry” will do the trick.
- Visual learners can resort to picturing every beat as a square or a triangle. The square would equal two 8th notes, while the triangle – three 8th notes.
- Another suggestion she gives is clapping along with the music. For the short beats, clap your hands together; for the long ones, clap your hands on a table or on your lap.
Bulgarian Folk Dances – a Must-Experience Spectacle that Will Stay in Your Mind Forever
Bulgarian dances are distinguished for their intricate footwork and subtle rhythms. The miracle in these dances is found in the fact that they do not follow any rational proportions. The music, the movements, the costumes – everything hypnotises the spectator and he/she quickly becomes a participant of this modern-day miracle.
Bulgarian folk dances resemble a colourful bouquet of diverse flowers, demonstrating an unparalleled beauty, an irresistible fragrance, and an unabated emotion.
Do you dare sense them?