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Bulgarian Folk Dance Competition Shows Off Cultural Pride

by Judith Fein
May 29, 2017
Judith Fein is an international travel journalist, speaker, and blogger who often writes about the performing arts and dance. Her website is www.GlobalAdventure.us
It was my husband’s birthday, and we were in Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria, looking for something special to do. Our guide off-handedly mentioned, “there’s a folk festival, and I guess they eat and dance and sell folk art.” We jumped at the chance.

Turns out they weren’t eating, and they weren’t selling folk art, but they certainly were dancing because it was the 7th Annual Folk Dance Competition. The event took place in a large sports and events hall, and young people from all over the country assembled outside, laughing and taking selfies. The majority was female, and many had braided hair, with some of the braids cascading down their backs. Among them were very young performers. It was hard to tell exactly how old they were, but definitely in the single digits.

Inside the lobby of the building, we appreciated the juxtaposition of historic folk dance costumes with elaborate embroidery that was displayed on mannequins, and living, modern folk dancers making last minute adjustments to their regional costumes as they prepared to face the judges during the competition. The embroidered clothes were predominantly red, black and white, and the girls often wore “aprons” in front and sported flowers in their hair.

On the gym floor of the arena, the competition began. Some of the groups performed their dances in a circle, and others lined up like Rockettes, and faced the judges. Line dances were very common, and the dancers joined hands in a low “V” hold, with a few variations including the “W” hold, or crossing hands in front of them. The steps ranged from quick and complex to slow, controlled, and sustained. An occasional group featured girls at the end of the lines waving handkerchiefs in the air.

Off to the side, while group after group performed, young dancers practiced steps or imitated the steps being executed for the judges. One girl said that the pravo horo is the most common dance in Bulgaria, and almost everyone knows it. It shows up at social occasions and is danced to 2/4 or 6/8 music. Each region may have its own spin on the simple steps.

I noticed that most of the dancers were female, although most of the teachers were male. The women were passionate and energetic, but their feet almost always remained close to the floor. Finally, a large troupe from Varna performed and it featured about l0 male dancers. They wore short, black pants; white embroidered shirts; and flaming red high socks. Their bodies were erect, and their hands were crossed in front of them. Their dancing was vigorous, and their leg lifts high. It was a welcome visual balance to the all-female performers.

After the competition, which lasted for hours and featured hundreds of dancers, I spoke to some of the performers. They said that most of the dances performed were originally traditional village dances, and all of them were from their own regions. Some of the dances were fairly simple and repetitive, and others seemed more complex and choreographed. One group, they explained, had performed a fire dance for Constantine and Saint Helena; it was traditionally executed on the 3rd of June or the 21st of May. I grinned and told them that because the only explanations during the competition had been in Bulgarian, I erroneously thought the unusual dance was re-enacting a wedding, and was grateful for their explanation.

I asked a few girls what the criteria for the judges were, and was surprised when they admitted they didn’t know. They said they loved dancing, traveling to competitions, and the camaraderie. They didn’t do it professionally, where the choreography is more complex; for them it was a passionate hobby. And, through dancing, they helped to keep their Bulgarian culture and history alive.

“People around the world do our Bulgarian folk dances,” one of them said proudly.

I told them that we had danced a simple line dance with two delightful babas, or grandmas, when we stayed in a home in a village. The guests in the house all joined in.

“Yes, yes. The babas continue our wonderful dancing culture,” a lithe young dancer said.

“Why do all the teachers seem to be men?” I asked.

“Men like to lead,” one of the girls said with an insouciant toss of her head.

“Why aren’t there more boys dancing?” I inquired.

“They are too busy drinking beer and playing ball,” a few of the girls said, laughing. “They do enjoy dancing, but they are busy doing other things.”

So I decided to approach the men and ask them why there aren’t more men competing.

“Why do they need more men? We are the best,” one of them said with a broad grin.
Amateur folk dancers performing for a panel of judges and the audience.

Amateur folk dancers performing for a panel of judges and the audience.

Photo © & courtesy of Paul Ross


Amateur, enthusiastic folk dancers preparing, waiting or performing for a panel of judges and the audience.

Amateur, enthusiastic folk dancers preparing, waiting or performing for a panel of judges and the audience.

Photo © & courtesy of Paul Ross


amateur, enthusiastic folk dancers preparing, waiting or performing for a panel of judges and the audience.

amateur, enthusiastic folk dancers preparing, waiting or performing for a panel of judges and the audience.

Photo © & courtesy of Paul Ross


Amateur, enthusiastic folk dancers preparing, waiting or performing for a panel of judges and the audience.

Amateur, enthusiastic folk dancers preparing, waiting or performing for a panel of judges and the audience.

Photo © & courtesy of Paul Ross


Amateur, enthusiastic folk dancers preparing, waiting or performing for a panel of judges and the audience.

Amateur, enthusiastic folk dancers preparing, waiting or performing for a panel of judges and the audience.

Photo © & courtesy of Paul Ross


Amateur folk dancers performing for a panel of judges and the audience.

Amateur folk dancers performing for a panel of judges and the audience.

Photo © & courtesy of Paul Ross

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