Balkan folk dance in the UK
Keywords: Community, Participatory dance
The “Balkan dance” scene emerged as a sub-scene of the recreational “international folk dance” scene in the post second world war period in the US, UK, Netherlands and other western European countries, as well as in Japan, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand.
However the history of interest in dances from south eastern Europe can be traced back further, to the interwar period, and is linked to early travellers to the region and connections built up between the UK and the “Balkan” countries of southeastern Europe including those between Maud Karpeles, Philip Thornton and leading dance and music researchers of the time in Bulgaria (Raina Katsarova), Romania (Constantin Brăilou, Harry Brauner, Romulus Vuia) and Yugoslavia (Jankovic sisters).
A major landmark was in 1935 when the first international folk dance festival was held in London organised by the English folk dance and song society. This was followed by smaller festivals in 1937, 1938 and 1939.
However, these collaborations were interrupted by the war years and it was only in the years following the end of the second world war that participation in dances from the “Balkans” began to take place in the UK. Over the following 30 or so years the history of international, then Balkan, dancing in the UK followed a very similar trajectory to that in the US and the Netherlands documented elsewhere but on a smaller scale.
The popularity of Balkan dance in the UK arose first in the early 1960s, then peaked in the late 1980s and 1990s and has continued since but with smaller groups and a generally increasing age of participants. The majority of these participants were born in the UK and had no genealogical connections to southeastern Europe.
Prior to 1990 (with the opening up of East Europe and the internet) the scene was dependent on a number of teachers that traded on their “knowledge” from their experience and connections to choreographers in East Europe. The dance repertoire was largely determined by a few home grown “experts” with variable experience of life and dancing in the Balkans and the authenticity of the material they taught was seldom questioned. The UK folk movement has a long-standing stance against “professionalism” so the majority of visiting teachers (and qualifications) came from Balkan dance scenes (such as USA and Netherlands) where a structured and professional organisation had already been established.
The early to mid-1990s brought a major change in the inter-relations between the “source” community and the UK dancers. It became easier for visiting teachers and experts from southeastern Europe to visit the UK and a greater number of the UK dancing participants travelled to Bulgaria, Romania and ex-Yugoslavia for holidays that often included organised dance courses and festivals.
During the same period the new waves of Balkan migrants to the UK set up their community activities including dance groups, but the UK Balkan dance scene has continued as a separate parallel genre with only a few members from either “scene” attending the events of the “other”.
Our research into documentary sources regarding the earlier history of the dance and music connections between the UK and southeastern Europe has included collaborative projects involving archival research as well as access to publications in the public domain . We have especially focussed on UK-Romania connections as this forms a bridge between our research in Romania and our research into the UK Balkan dance scene. In particular we have investigated sources from both the UK and Romania regarding the renowned trip of the călușari dancers from the village of Pădureți-Argeș to take part in the 1935 international folk festival in London, followed by participation by Romanian groups in the folk festivals in London in 1937, 1938 and 1939.
The historical trajectory of the UK Balkan scene is only documented to date in fragmented accounts. Our own publications draw on archival material, informal interviews, responses to a questionnaire that was circulated among long term participants in 2016, and our participation in the London and UK Balkan dance scene over an extended period from the early 1980s, or before, until the mid-2000s so our research is based long term “participating” observation of this scene.
As with all our research, we consider “dancing people” in a “dancing context”. We look at participation and community in the UK Balkan “scene as a “cultural cohort” .
Considering “dancing people” we investigate individual reasons for participation, preferences for socialisation versus structured learning, how participants develop preferences for certain dance types from their personal interpretation of foreign music and dance genres, and how dances are re-created to meet these expectations with this mostly resulting in a preference for dancing to “the” recorded track as opposed to live music.
For the dancing “context” we follow how the “scene” has developed over the years, including the changes in group organisation, the repertoire of dances, and the “rituals” that have become part of group culture. We have followed the changing perceptions of “Balkan” in the UK and how this related to dancing from southeastern Europe both among recreational folk dancers and eastern Europeans living in the UK. We gained a semi-insider view of the contrasts between the various dancing contexts and their inter-relationship with the existing UK Balkan dance scene through our participation in Romanian, Macedonian and Bulgarian dance groups set up by dancers from their respective countries.
From the mid-1980s we travelled to southeastern Europe regularly for dance seminars and tourism. From the 1990s we were joined by an increasing number of UK Balkan dancers. We observed their differing expectations as “folk tourists” and their range of reactions to their ‘new’ travel experiences, as well as the ways in which the local organisers adapted to these expectations, and the confrontation between the folk tourists “imagined” village dances and the local dances presented.
These are short summaries of our papers related to Balkan folk dancing in the UK. Follow the links for the full paper abstract and links.
1930s – 1940s
Maud Karpeles: Her Contribution to Dance Research and to the (ICTM) Council .
This chapter is a collaborative work that followed the life of Maud Karpeles and in particular her role in the establishment and development of the International Folk Music Council (IFDC) in 1935 and the International Folk Music Council (IFMC) in 1947.
Click here for more…
Parts of this chapter are relevant to the history of Balkan dance in the UK. Maud Karpeles had contact with European folk dances, through many exchange visits between dance groups in the 1920s and 1930s organised under the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) by her brother-in-law Douglas Kennedy. This led to the organisation of the 1935 international folk dance festival in London. Maud’s correspondence with institutions and visits to the Balkan countries was aided by her linguist friend Philip Thornton.
The 1940s can be seen as a dividing point in England where EFDSS continued as a practitioner based national folk dance revival community under Douglas Kennedy, whilst Maud Karpeles played a pivotal role in the formation of the IFMC that later became the International Council for Traditional Music (ICTM) as an international organisation for academic dance and music research, and Philip Thornton became involved in the early years of the formation of the Society for International Folk Dancing (SIFD) in London.
Liz’s contribution to this chapter was short sections on the Romanian călușari dancers at the 1935 international festival in London, the twelfth annual conference of the IFMC in Sinaia, Romania (1959), and the first Festival of the Balkan and Adriatic Countries held in Bucharest in 1962.
Balkan dance scene in UK
Dancing the Balkans in the UK or a being a little Balkan in London, Manchester, Edinburgh .
The UK “Balkan dance scene” is an urban based genre that forms a sub-scene of UK recreational international folk dance. We argue that this forms a separate dance genre with its own traditions.
Click here for more…
In the UK Balkan dance scene people go to dance, where dancing is the goal in itself, there is not a cohesive community among the UK Balkan dance scene participants. As one participant in in the survey completed for this project said “Our groups themselves have a tradition and a life of their own”. The favourite dances in the Balkan dance repertoire have a catchy tune and a set length of around three minutes with a fixed arrangement of motifs. There is no importance on whether this is what the locals dance at the supposed origin. Hence this results in the dances tending to lose their specific “place connection” forming a separate dance genre within the dance space where the participants temporarily reside.
Dancing the Balkans in the UK or a being a little Balkan in London, Manchester, Edinburgh
Social dancers in Balkan folk dance performance: communities, traditions and sensory concepts? 
The local dances forms of southeasestern Europe have been translated into other contexts, such as stage representations by professional and amateur ensembles, and under the title “Balkan dance” for foreign recreational dancers. Each of these new contexts create their own independent traditions, cultural cohorts and eventually separate as different dance genres.
Click here for more…
The cultural differences created are the main reason for minimal cross participation when “Balkan” folk dancers meet ethnic Bulgarian dancers; so the Balkan dancers, the Circle dancers and the Bulgarian dancers all have different values when participating in UK groups.
A survey revealed a surprisingly wide range of differing ideas about “dance” from those within the Balkan dance scene. This suggests that members of this affinity group do not have a homogenous idea and concept for dancing.
However, it would seem that “Bulgarian dances”, when compared to “Romanian dances”, are far more easily and successfully re-constructed and re-presented to meet the expectations of the “Balkan dance” genre. This appears to be the basis for the lack of popularity for Romanian dancing within the “Balkan dance” genre unless dances from Romania are substantially reconstructed.
Social dancers in Balkan folk dance performance: communities, traditions and sensory concepts?
Immigrant Balkan dance scene in UK
Why do Romanians and non-Romanians, both within and outside Romania, choose to take part in choreographed performances of Romanian folk dances? .
My master’s dissertation examined the reasons why people choose to participate in performances of Romanian dance as this material travelled from the Romanian village to the world.
Click here for more…
The reasons why individuals choose to take part in these performances has not greatly changed in time, from the Communist period until today, and from Romanian regional town to global city. They can be grouped under two main headings: artistic reasons, the desire to perform to an audience, to compete and demonstrate athletic ability; and social reasons, a desire to be part of a community and belong to a larger network of people with similar interests, which gives rise to opportunities to travel, and to satisfy rural nostalgia.
In addition, Romanians have an inbuilt connection with their folklore that non-Romanians cannot acquire, hence performances can provide a link to their Romanian identity, either their local village identity, when living in a city or their national identity when living outside Romania.
Performance groups still perform choreographed suites of village dances, but within Romania the details of these suites has evolved over time in accordance with fashions in music and presentation, with Communist regime elements being removed after 1989, whereas in diaspora groups the material tends to be fossilised at the time when the members of the group left Romania.
The south east Europeans are (still) dancing: recent dance trends in Romania and among south east Europeans in London .
Twenty five years since the changes in regimes in southeastern Europe, local dance is still thriving and has even taken on a new vibrancy both within this area and among southeast European economic migrants living outside the region.
Click here for more…
It has been suggested that the increased awareness of local/regional/new national identities may potentially be a reaction against adopting a totally globalised identity, and in some instances, this has been linked to the effect of the expansion of the European Union. For Romanians I suggest that increased awareness of regional identities is also potentially a counter reaction to the pre-1989 dominant centralism of nationalism.
For those that moved outside their natal locations to seek work as economic migrants, after a period of settling in their adopted country, many begin to look back with nostalgia at their homeland identity. This often leads to the setting up of community groups of those with a similar background that enjoy shared participation in activities that are linked to their homeland culture.
The south east Europeans are (still) dancing: recent dance trends in Romania and among south east Europeans in London
The national festival of folklore in Koprivshtitsa, Bulgaria
Bulgarian tracks: the road to the Koprivshtitsa Festival (and back again, and again .
Contrary to the expectations of many, in 1990 cultural production in East Europe did not cease when the division between west and east became blurred. As migration from east to west has increased so has the number of individuals who follow or re‐follow their tracks from the west to the east to their own or ‘others’ culture.
Click here for more…
For the national festival of folklore held in Koprivshtitsa, Bulgaria usually every five years, a possibly unique conflation of two trajectories takes place. The (relatively) unchanging tracks to the town of Koprivshtitsa and across the festival site during the festival by the local participants has met with the changing tracks as this festival found a new market among Bulgarian urbanites and diaspora Bulgarians who are members of ‘horo clubs’.
Bulgarian tracks: the road to the Koprivshtitsa Festival (and back again, and again
The Koprivshtitsa festival: from national icon to globalised village event .
Although Koprivshtitsa Festival has evolved over time it has still retained its core function: to provide a showcase of Bulgarian ‘authentic’ or village folklore.
Click here for more…
The changes in the Koprivshtitsa Festival have enabled it to enlarge its semantic field to encompass a global urbanised and touristic audience in the twenty-first century, assisted by communication through modern media and increasing ease of global travel, and the semi-traditional scene in the meadows. Aspects have been added, such as the craft fair that provides foreign visitors the chance to buy folklore memorabilia and the opportunity to themselves become performers, but these still play a secondary role to the main purpose of the festival.
In cases where festivals such as Koprivshtitsa evolve over time, the resulting changes can alter the event to such an extent that the festival no longer fulfils its initial role and their audiences dwindle; often this results in their financial backing being withdrawn, or else the locals turn their backs on the now globalized event and create a new festival that can fulfil the original purpose in the local community.
The Koprivshtitsa festival: from national icon to globalised village event
- Turino, Thomas (2008) Music as social life : the politics of participation, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
- Foley, Catherine E., et al. (2022) Maud Karpeles: Her Contribution to Dance Research and to the Council. Celebrating the International Council for Traditional Music: Reflections on the First Seven Decades. Slovenia, ICTM and University of Ljubljana Press.
- Mellish, Liz (2017) Dancing the Balkans in the UK or a being a little Balkan in London, Manchester, Edinburgh. In: Stepputat, Kendra (ed.) Dance, Senses, Urban Contexts : 29th Symposium of the ICTM Study Group on Ethnochoreology July 9-16, 2016 Retzhof Castle, Styria, Austria:. Graz, Austria:260-270 Graz, Austria, ICTM, University of Music and Performing Arts Graz.
- Green, Nick (2017) Social dancers in Balkan folk dance performance: communities, traditions and sensory concepts? In: Stepputat, Kendra (ed.) Dance, Senses, Urban Contexts : 29th Symposium of the ICTM Study Group on Ethnochoreology July 9-16, 2016 Retzhof Castle, Styria, Austria:238-247. Graz, Austria: ICTM, University of Music and Performing Arts Graz.
- Mellish, Liz (2006) Why do Romanians and non-Romanians, both within and outside Romania, choose to take part in choreographed performances of Romanian folk dances? MA Dissertation, UCL-School of Slavonic & East European Studies.
- Mellish, Liz (2016) The south east Europeans are (still) dancing: recent dance trends in Romania and among south east Europeans in London. In: Mellish, Liz, Vlaeva, Ivanka, Peycheva, Lozanka, Green, Nick & Dimov, Ventsislav (eds.) Music and Dance in Southeastern Europe : Myth, Ritual, Post-1989, Audiovisual Ethnographies, Fifth Symposium of the ICTM Study Group on Music and Dance in Southeastern Europe 2016 South-West University “Neofit Rilski”.189-195 Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria, University Publishing House “Neofit Rilski”.
- Mellish, Liz (2016) Bulgarian tracks: the road to the Koprivshtitsa Festival (and back again, and again). Ethnomusicology Ireland, 4, 1-10. Dublin, Republic of Ireland: The Irish National Committee of the ICTM.
- Mellish, Liz (2013) The Koprivshtitsa festival : from national icon to globalised village event. In: Duijzings, Ger (ed.) Global villages : rural and urban transformations in contemporary Bulgaria.153-171 London, Anthem Press.