Bulgaria is a relatively small country but within its modern boundaries a wide diversity of folk dance styles can be found. This is probably the main reason why Bulgarian dances prove so popular among international folk dancers.
The dances that we learn range from the simple village dance with one basic pattern that repeats itself until all "foreigners" are "sick to death" (although the inhabitants of the village concerned seem to be able to continue all night!) to highly complex choreographies which are either "borrowed" from one of the professional dance troupes or else are put together outside Bulgaria. Most of the dances that we enjoy in this country fall in between these two extremes. They are usually slightly more complex arrangements of traditional village dances, possibly combining several figures from adjoining villages or else including several of the more interesting variations performed by the village "extroverts". We usually dance a fixed number of variations in an agreed order which have been "put together" by either a national folk dance teacher such as Belcho Stanev, who taught at the SIFD Summer School in 1987, or a foreign Bulgarian dance specialist such as Eddy Tijssen or Jaap Leegwater. Often people who visit Bulgaria are surprised that the nationals do not appear to have heard of the dances that we enjoy and look at us blankly if we show them a sequence of steps which is very familiar to us. This is because their knowledge of their own folk dances is limited to simple pravos and improvised racenica. Perhaps when our knowledge has increased further we too will be able to feel relaxed and confident enough to improvise freely within the style!
Folk dance in Bulgaria today
1) Village groups
These groups perform only the dances from their own village. These dances are simple and repetitive and variations are usually performed only by individuals. These are the groups who take part in the festival in Koprivshtitsa which has been held around every five years since 1965, the last one being held in 1991, the next is hoped to be held in 1995. The political situation in Bulgaria makes the future of this festival very uncertain as it was funded by the State.
2) Amateur performing groups
These groups were formed in towns under the communist regime. Until the recent changes membership of these groups was very popular among children and teenagers as it could give them the opportunity to travel outside the country to perform. These groups perform choreographed suites of dances from all over Bulgaria, not just their own town or region. The choreographies are based on folk dances and folk customs, and when one watches one of these groups it is often possible to recognise parts of the dances that have been taught to us.
3) Professional performing groups (such as Philip Koutev Ensemble or Ensemble Trakiya)
These are based in the larger towns or regional centres and perform more complex choreographies than the amateur groups and have in the past travelled abroad quite extensively. Although it is still possible to recognise some folk elements in their performances their choreographies are normally far further from the folk idiom than those of the amateur groups.
4) Social dance
Most Bulgarians are able to join in dances, such as pravo horos or improvised ruchenitsas, at social gatherings such as weddings, although many of the younger people choose to listen and dance to western music whenever possible.
Bulgarian folk dances are normally line dances, with hands joined either in low "V" hold, belt hold (na pojas), crossed in front or "W" hold. Footwork can vary from fast intricate steps (as in the Šop Region) to slow sustained cat-like movements (as in some of the dances from the Pirin region). Dances from the north have some of the characteristics of dances from southern Romania, just across the Danube, i.e. fast crossing steps, dances from the Pirin Region in the West have much in common with dances from Yugoslav Macedonia, and dances from the Šop region round Sofia have similar characteristics to those from eastern Serbia. This illustrates how boundaries of dance styles do not necessarily conform with politically imposed nationally boundaries.
Regional dance styles
Dances from the North of Bulgaria are mainly mixed, with similar styles for men and women. They are danced with an upright body carriage, with weight over the balls of the feet which allows the dancer to perform fast footwork with high knee lifts and various crossing steps similar to those found in dances from southern Romania. The impetus is upwards, hops are further off the ground than in the Šop region and knee lifts are less sharp.
A variety of hand "positions" and movements are common in this Region. These include hands joined in low hold and swung backwards and forwards, joined in "W" hold in which case the arms "jig" up and down in time with the music making small circular movements, joined crossed behind backs (na lesa) or placed on hips, thumbs back.
Dobrujans dance with their knees always bent and their backs hollow. They all seem to be of short stature and solid. To get the feel of Dobrujan dancing stand with your feet apart and bend your knees as far as you can comfortably with your feet flat on the floor, push your ribs forward while keeping your back straight and stay there throughout the dance!
The story told is that life is hard for the Dobrud_an farmer as he has to struggle with nature in order to survive, so his dancing, with strong downward movements, expresses his struggle with the land.
When a Dobrud_an dances he uses his whole body. Hands are joined crossed in front, in belt hold, in "W" hold or placed with back of hand on hips palms open and facing outwards. They are also used for strong, firm, positive arm movements. R_ka, which means hand, is one of the characteristic dances of this area.
Men and women dance together, though there are some dances for men or women only. Women's movements are simpler and lighter with slight shoulder twists.
3) TRAKIJA (THRACE)
Thracian style is perhaps the most deceptive Bulgarian dance style. It is often the first Bulgarian dance style that western folk dancers are exposed to in dances such as Pravo Trakijsko Horo or Trakijska Ruchenitsa. It appears a relatively easy style to learn, but it takes a great deal of practice to really dance the dances from this Region with the smoothly flowing, graceful movements evident when watching both men and women who have been born in this area, and it is a style that is easily lost.
The most important key to Thracian style is to dance with relaxed knees. Steps are taken onto the whole foot, with the body weight centered over the feet. Hands are held in "W" hold or low hold or are used for smooth flowing arm movements.
Dances are based mainly on a 2/4 rhythm especially in Eastern Thrace. Irregular rhythms such as 5/8, 7/16 and 9/16 are more common in Western Thrace especially in the area close to the Šop region. The tropoli (tapping) step is found only in Eastern Thrace (Stara Zagora, Sliven, Yambol Districts) and is danced only by men. Women dance with a less flamboyant style than the men. Pair dances are more common in Trakija than other regions.
The Thracian Region extends into Greece and dances from the Greek part of Thrace have similar characteristics to those from the Bulgarian part e.g. the Greek dance Zonoradiko is the same basic dance as Pravo Trakijsko.
The Rhodope mountain area is known more for its strong tradition of open throatsinging than for its dances. The dance style has been subject to religious influences as this is the area of Bulgaria which has the largest Muslim population. This has meant that men and women usually dance separately. The style for both is subdued and heavy, with small steps and low hops using the whole foot. Hands are joined in low or "W" hold. Women's dances are usually accompanied by songs.
Šop style is probably the most difficult Bulgarian style for non-Bulgarians to master, largely because of the speed of the dances and the amount of energy necessary to dance so many steps in a short space of time. Dances are usually performed in short lines, with belt hold or crossed hand hold. Separate hand movements are not common in Šop dances. If hands are not joined they are placed on the hips with palms flat, backs facing out. The body is held upright but with weight slightly forward so it is over the balls of the feet. This allows the performance of fast small steps often referred to as "knitting with the feet". Knee lifts are abrupt and high, and are often coupled with bending the body forward. Men's and women's styles are similar. As the dancer moves the whole body, especially the shoulders, should vibrate with a type of shaking movement called "natrisanne" which gives the impression that the dancer is hardly touching the floor with his feet. Cries and shouts are also common.
5) PIRIN (MACEDONIA)
The Pirin region is part of ethnic Macedonia which is divided between Greece, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. The dances from this Region have closer links with Yugoslav and Greek Macedonian dances than with dances from the rest of Bulgaria. Men and women usually dance separately and if they take part in the same dance the women dance at the rear of the line with a handkerchief held between the last man and the first woman. There are many dances in 7/8 and often the dances begin slowly and increase in speed. The style is either sustained with a catlike feel, weight being taken onto the balls of the feet slightly behind the beat (hesitation), or is characterised by fast low movements skimming across the ground. Men's dances include balancing movements with high knee lifts, often in shoulder hold. Women's style is graceful and light, hands are held in low hold or in 'asymmetrical' W hold in which case the left arm is extended further than the right arm. In certain dances the arms move up and down in time with the music. These movements are stronger and firmer than the jigging of the arms in Northern Bulgaria and Romania.
Summary of regional differences
One of the most interesting ways of identifying the regional style differences is to look at the way that the basic Pravo Horo is danced in each Region. In Trakija it is danced in a smooth flowing, graceful style. In the Šop Region it is jerky with small hopped steps and lifted knees. The Dobrud_an Pravo is called Opas and is danced in a solid "earthy" style with knees always bent. The Severnjaško Pravo, called Dunavsko or Svishtovsko, is more springy, with an upward feeling, and the arms swing or "jig" in time with the feet. Pravo Rhodopsko is a simple dance with a solemn feeling, and small, restrained steps. The Pirin "Pravo" is usually in 7/8 and is what we know as Makedonsko, or Lesnoto. The 7/8 count is long, short, short, and begins with a lift on the first beat. Steps are onto the balls of the feet. Men lift their knees high while the women's feet barely leave the floor. When women only are dancing the leader of the line often performs a variation by moving back along the line of dance and dancing in a pair with the following woman. This variation is also seen in Greece.