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Вторник, 29 Декември 2015 14:10

To Be or Not to Be … Bulgarian? On the Commercialization of Folklore

Slavka Karakusheva

Abstract: The paper attempts to explore the processes of (re-)construction of national symbols "from below" through private initiatives in the area of folklore. Folklore was considered as one of the markers of the national identity project during the socialist regime in Bulgaria. Now, abandoned by the state, folklore activities need to adapt to the new economic and social conditions and this leads to significant cultural transformations. Today the knowledge about the national is being produced and consumed in dancing clubs. Thus, the article focuses on three aspects of this initiative, defined as three types of crises: a crisis of the authentic, a crisis of the national, and a crisis of the representative image, and follows the battles over the perception of the meaning of being Bulgarian today. 

Keywords: folklore, dance, national identity, consumption, Bulgaria


“Listen, guys, pull yourselves together, dance schools have nothing to do with folk dance ensembles. It’s like comparing table tennis to tennis… in both cases you need a racquet and balls, but it’s not exactly the same. :) And, trust me, nobody gives a damn which school is better than the rest, since they are all so different… Just one more example – it’s like comparing one person to another. It just doesn’t work. Folk dances should be fun; they are a way to somehow preserve our folklore (before ruining it completely). It would be much more fun if all schools danced together to exchange ideas and party instead of speaking behind each other’s back who is the best. If you ask me, there isn’t such a thing as the best school. What is “the best” is our folklore and it’d be far more spectacular and better-liked if we were more united. To all haters I just want to say – “bite me” – and all my friends know that I mean it from the bottom of my heart :)”

Stefan Liubomirov Vitanov, Facebook status, 14 January 2013

The current paper attempts to study schools and clubs where folk dances are taught and danced.[1] The topic presents a certain interest since it shows a successful private initiative in an area that was until recently regulated by the state. The research is based on 11 in-depth interviews with organisers, managers and choreographers of folk dance clubs and schools, located predominantly in Sofia, as well as on a several-month-long participant anthropological observation.[2] The analysis will trace the historical preconditions determining the mass spread of folk dance clubs throughout the country, and will aim at explaining the emergence of this cultural phenomenon based on the recollections, life stories and interpretations of the organisers of these enterprises. Studying the strategies of the main participants, the article attempts to explore the “bottom-up” processes of construction of the national.

Although dance is an object of study of various disciplines, the current text will leave aside the issues of ethnochoreology and anthropology of dance; it will not discuss the features and the movement changes dance has undergone, neither will it focus on the problems of Bulgarian choreography theory or the ethnological studies of bodily dance practices.[3] The current study puts an emphasis on the interpretation of folk dance clubs in the context of contemporary living and as a socializing element within the concept of collective national identity. Bearing in mind the various points of view and interpretations of the organisers, I shall try to explain what factors have transformed folklore into a fad – this time not as part of a systematic state policy but as a private endeavour.

Historical preconditions

From a historical perspective the development of dance folklore during the socialist period is of primary interest to the current paper – the period between 1944 and 1989, and the 1960s and 1970s in particular. These were the times of attentive state policies directed at the development of folklore-based stage dance art (Ivanova-Nyberg, 2011). The policy of the socialist state was focused exclusively on folklore as a segment of the national culture. It became a mass activity that had to endow meaning to the citizens’ leisure time. Folklore was perceived as a symbolic type of art, which could present the country’s culture at cultural forums abroad. It was also well integrated in the national holidays and political rituals so that it became a recognizable element of the Bulgarian. Numerous institutions and experts were involved in the homogenization of folklore imagery – they had to unify and label the dance steps, stylize the costumes, professionalize the dancers and regionalize folklore. Folklore festivals intended to represent the authentic (the most famous of which was the one in Koprivshtitsa) were another invention of the purposeful state-controlled policy. The state policy created the so-called official folklore; broadly speaking, it “ousted folklore from the villages” and “put it on stage”, thus transforming it into one of the prominent markers of the national identity project. The steps to nationalize folklore and invent a national folklore heritage can be traced back to the times after the Liberation (on the “creation” of the Bulgarian national costume, see: Dechev and Vukov, 2010). It was the socialist regime, however, that legitimized the use of “the people (folk)” (respectively its lore, i.e. folklore) as a key concept in the political ideology of the time.

In 1946 following the example of the Russian Ballet “Igor Moiseyev” the authorities attempted to establish a state ensemble at the National Opera. It was supposed to masterfully combine elements of folklore and classical dance. The initiative proved to be a failure, however, due to the fact that the amateur folklore dancers could not cope with classical dance. As a result of this in 1951 Sofia saw the establishment of the first State Folklore Ensemble.

In 1956 a special class for studying Bulgarian folk dances was founded at the Secondary Ballet School in Sofia (today National School of Dance Art). In 1964 a branch of the Bulgarian State Conservatory was opened in Plovdiv; in 1972 it was transformed into Higher Musical-Pedagogical Institute, renamed today Academy of Music, Dance and Fine Art. In 1967 another folklore school was established in Kotel – the National School of Folklore Arts, and in 1972 – the National School of Folklore Arts in the village of Shiroka Laka. These newly opened educational institutions aimed at preparing professionals, who, having mastered the complexities of folklore, would start working in the numerous folklore ensembles established meanwhile in culture houses, community centres, schools, factories and enterprises throughout the country. Ethnographers, choreographers and folklorists started travelling around villages and hamlets in an attempt to preserve, record and keep the authentic cultural heritage of the Bulgarian people, namely songs, dances, sayings, myths, legends, etc. The dancing art in the country focused entirely on the Bulgarian dances and, combining folklore and classical dances, it created a myriad of movements, compositions, forms and dance exercises, which choreographers could use in their work with adolescents (Abrashev, 1989). Folk dance also became one of the few tickets for travelling abroad; girls in folklore costumes became a permanent sight at official openings and welcoming official guests. The animated folklore dance on the packaging of products such as lyutenitsa became a symbol of their Bulgarian origin. 

The state worked towards the organization of folklore activities in two major directions – amateur folk dance groups and professional ensembles for folk songs and dances (Ivanova-Nyberg, 2011: 138). At that time most regional cities already had their state-run professional ensembles – about 30 groups with educated dancers, musicians and singers to whom the state paid salaries. „Choreographer” and “dancer” became prestigious professions which required special education; they were classified in a labour category that allowed them early retirement, high pensions and various other privileges.

Besides the professional performance however, amateur activities were centralized by the Centre for Artistic Performances, its divisions and state-funded staff – officials and methodologists who were responsible for the correct performance and development of the amateur performances. The mass participation of the citizens in stage arts, the so-called amateur performances, was of key importance to the state. Such activities occupied people’s free time, regulated their activities, and gradually became a prestigious pastime. Local culture committees “took measures” to increase the number of the members in the local amateur clubs. Paun Genov (1966: 63-64) even recommended that citizens “should participate in more and more amateur groups (…) as this broadens their spiritual horizons, contributes to their cultural development and entertainment”.

Already in 1947 the Ministry of Information and Arts published “Lectures on cultural and artistic work among workers and civil servants”. The document outlined the future development of amateur arts and gave a detailed description of the activities and objectives amateur arts had to achieve. Another document (from 1958) – a booklet entitled “Amateur dance art”, written by Margarita Dikova and Kiril Maslarski – stated: “Amateur arts are an essential part of our professional art – national in form and socialist in its content. Just like professional art, amateur arts are intended to educate our people in the spirit of passionate socialist patriotism and proletarian internationalism. Dance groups in particular, with their authentic folklore, inspire the working class in their fight for a new, joyful life” (quoted in Ivanova-Nyberg, 2011: 80).

Amateur arts became an important factor in the process of individual education; they were a means of the mass propaganda and an instrument for collective identity construction. Gradually amateur arts grew to be a mass movement that involved people of all ages and social statuses; they attained a significant position in the state cultural policy.

The concert celebrating the 1300-th anniversary of the Bulgarian state offers a fine example of the large scale of this phenomenon:


„The state “supports” folklore… you should put “support” in inverted commas. You see, this support is accompanied by a great deal of control. Within the system... One had to ask for every single thing – is it allowed or not. Every municipality had its Culture Council, I don’t know how they are called now. There were methodologists for every genre and art, they had to supervise the groups – what they performed and how they performed it. I was a methodologist. Blagoev Region… So put “support” in inverted commas… Socialist culture and so on, everything had its ideological basis. So I took advantage of this. For instance, you see, participation in the 9th September manifestations was obligatory. So I went to the Party Secretary of the Municipality and I told him: ‘We can’t take part, we don’t have costumes. Give us money!’. And of course, they’d give us money – after all it was for the 9th September manifestation. That was important! For them! You see? Well, on other occasions they wouldn’t give money. So I wouldn’t take part. We danced… The Pope (the nickname of choreographer Ivan Todorov) made a composition with some of the groups in Festivalna Hall. So we had to dance there and I brought my people, but they were in their plain clothes. You see, for 9th September, they’d lock and seal all the buildings. Things had to be under control, nobody could enter. So I told them, “You’ve locked the costumes”. And I went there in my plain clothes, on purpose. Well, of course, I protested but I told them, “What can I do?” “Why are you in plain clothes? Why didn’t you call?” And I told them, “How should I know that they’d lock exactly the building with the costumes?” It’s too late, we cannot take part and that’s it. The people are here!” (Emil Genov)

Decentralization and commercialization of folklore practices

After 1989 the sector that was seen as the state’s “darling” was abandoned by this very same state and had to self-regulate and find means for self-funding. As a result of this many ensembles stopped performing. Some of the costumes were thrown away, participations in foreign festivals, if any, were reduced and had to be funded by the dancers themselves. National dance festivals, which before 1989 had to regulate the quality of the performances and select the best ensembles, stopped being held. Instead of this, folklore activities dispersed in various directions, more or less adaptable to the new cultural and economic situation. Ensembles began to organize their own engagements – they looked for opportunities to perform, organized media participations, and communicated with foreign festivals. Now all these activities are entirely decentralized, fragmented in various dance halls, school and private gyms.

Folklore has come out on the market and as a result needs to adapt to the fluctuations of the market. For instance, in 2011 Ensemble Rodopa, based in Smolyan, whose activities, due to financial cuts, were about to be ceased by the mayor and the local council, was rescued thanks to the intercession of the Prime Minister Boiko Borisov. “Smolyan cannot afford such an ensemble!... The annual income is 2100 leva”, the mayor said. The news spread quickly via traditional and social media; people organized a petition “Let’s protect Ensemble Rodopa, Smolyan” as “it preserved Bulgarianness”. The rescue of the ensemble came as a result of the additional state funding provided after Minister of Finance Dyankov’s thorough financial inspection. The ensemble, however, had to adjust to the new economic circumstances: to create a business plan, to improve its management, to work towards more participation in spectacles and shows (i.e. to provide self-funding), to intensify its activities, etc.

„Yes, art is commercial. Art is an occupation, not a hobby. That type of talking, coming from the old times, from the people to the people, it’s over. Currently, there is one market. Culture should find its place and presentation in the market, because the stage of a theatre is a kind of shop, where a specific spiritual product is sold… It is all market-driven.”, said the Minister of Culture Vezhdi Rashidov in BTV’s show Panorama at the end of 2012. Thus he unequivocally reiterated the financial aspects of the state policies in culture, part of which is stage dance folklore.

Another consequence of the post-1989 decentralization is the emergence of numerous new courses offering a degree in choreography at secondary and higher schools.[4] The overproduction of professionals in the decentralized and no longer privileged by the state sphere, as well as the new economic, market and cultural circumstances have given rise to new processes in the field of folklore, new types of products. Neshka Robeva organized shows combining rhythmic gymnastics and folk dance elements, which attract numerous viewers to the National Palace of Culture. Ensemble Balgare appeared in 2001 and claimed to be “the first private national ensemble”. The main idea of their show “This is Bulgaria” is that the foreigner travelling around Bulgaria would be enchanted by the country, by the power of the Bulgarian spirit and culture which has survived through the centuries. Featuring all parts of the country, the show acquaints the spectator with the specifics of Bulgaria’s folklore regions; the words from the foreigner’s diary, read by a narrator throughout the show, intensify the sense of national pride. The second show, “Bulgaria throughout the centuries”, is a dance historical reconstruction of the past, in which khans, kings and national heroes come on stage to fight for Bulgaria. For ten years the ensemble has made over 1000 performances in 20 countries.[5] Most of the performances however are held in the country itself and ensure access to a cultural product at places where cultural life has been otherwise non-existent for a long time. In the last few years the ensemble has also organized the Festival of Folklore Costume in Zheravna, “which will take you 100 years back in time” (a quote from the video, advertising the festival). It is held in the forest near Zheravna and people can visit it only on condition that they are wearing a folklore costume (See: Rules of the Festival).


Fig. 1: Festival of the Folklore Costume in Zheravna. Source: here.

Restaurants where visitors can dance folk dances have appeared. Site Balgari Zaedno (All Bulgarians together) is one of the first examples, and as the name shows, it is full of patriotic zest. In 2006 the initiative Site Balgari Zaedno (the restaurant along with a show under the same name on SKAT TV) collaborated with the Ethnographic Museum at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and published an impressive book, richly illustrated with photos of costumes from the museum’s collection. In Facebook the fan pages “Bulgarian folklore” has more than 21 000 likes (as of 23.07.2015) and “National Folk Dances of Bulgaria” – more than 14 000 likes (as of 23.07.2015). The video “Bulgarian wedding”, which shows the guests at a wedding reception (apparently professionals) dancing a folk dance, has 68720 views, 37572 shares and 11860comments (as of 23.07.2015). Most of the comments maintain that folk dances should become a compulsory element of the contemporary Bulgarian wedding reception.

The last few years have given rise to another intriguing phenomenon – I would metaphorically call it “folklore leaving the stage”. Folklore shows appear in the programmes of wedding receptions and corporate events. Folklore ensembles offer small-size participations – a rich programme of songs, dances, customs, rituals, games with the guests and other types of entertainment. „Our ensemble has about 150 participations per year, 100 out of which are at weddings”, says Ralitsa Nikolova from Nashentsi Ensemble.

Along with the usual orders from ensembles and vocal groups, Balkanfolk Studio for folk costumes gets orders from individual clients too. These are mainly Bulgarians, who, due to the fact that they live abroad, feel a greater need to preserve their national identity. Some brides- and grooms-to-be even order folk costumes as their wedding dress (See weddings with folk costumes here and here). This year there were two boys who did some internet search and ordered “authentic Bulgarian costumes” from the studio for their prom party. „So as to be different!” (Emil Genov).

Apart from that there are numerous cable channels – Folklore TV (raising the slogan “To Preserve the Bulgarian”), Rodina [Motherland] TV, Planeta Folk. What is worth studying in this regard is the style of visualization and popularization of folklore in these channels – the videos are shot in picturesque National Revival towns, with lush lawns and luxurious hotels, the songs are performed by beautiful female singers in evening dresses and heavy makeup, with their hair done. In the background one can see folk dancers.

Pop songs with folklore elements (performed by Elitsa Todorova and Stoyan Yankulov) presented Bulgaria at the Eurovision contest two times. For the last 15 years the famous showman Slavi Trifonov has included at least one folk song in each of his albums. Folklore is intensively used in TV advertising.

Thus pop culture takes a considerable part in the construction of the imagery of the national and its use in the creation of consumption practices, or what Mineva observes as a process of “nationalization” of private living (Mineva, 2008: 87). The national is transformed into an advertising repertoire: particular identities are being advertised and consumed through national stylistics and symbols (Özkan & Foster, 2005; Mineva, 2008).

The last 7-8 years have seen the appearance and mass spread of the so-called schools and clubs for folk (authentic) round dances. They have emerged along with the other processes of adaptation to the new market circumstances in culture. Their appearance is a result of initiatives undertaken by proactive choreographers; they spread throughout the country, gained considerable popularity (and mass participation) and actually filled in niche areas that were left chaotically unattended and relatively disorganized in the 1990s. There is even a discotheque, called the Horotheque, where only folk music is played and only folk dances are danced.[6]

One can also buy Teach Yourself DVDs, videos of which are uploaded in Vbox, so that people can learn the most popular folk dances by themselves. The Satellite Channel of the Bulgarian National Television has its own show – “Bulgarian Lessons”, in which instructors demonstrate various dances and give additional details about the specifics of the folklore region, the measure of the dance, and so on. For two years the Bulgarian National Television has supported the “Outdance me” initiative – a folk dance competition, in which various dance clubs compete.

The first attempts to establish such clubs date back to the 1990s, 2000-2001. They were sporadic and dispersed and were considered somewhat alternative by the choreographic guild for which were rather unpopular.

“We started on 31st January 2006. I dare say we were the second in Sofia and within 4-5 months there were numerous clubs all over the capital city”. (Milena Chirpanlieva)
Today, however “in Sofia, as well as in the country, people dance all kinds of folk dances. Now nobody asks you if you dance round dances but which club you belong to. Everybody dances somewhere.” (Ilona Vaseva)

In April 2007 Sofia hosted the first festival of folk dance clubs. The first edition was experimental as the activities of these clubs were not that popular. In 2008 there were already 37 groups and 967 contesters taking part in the event (Ivanova-Nyberg, 2011: 324). In the latest edition from 30th March 2013 some 2000 people took part in the competition.[7] Nowadays similar festivals are held in towns and cities all over the country.[8]

Kostadin Gospodinov from “Chanovete” estimates that there must be around 200 000 people dancing in clubs throughout Bulgaria. He owns one of the biggest clubs in the country with over 1000 dancers, 20 choreographers and 8 branches in different cities. “Currently in Sofia there are over 100 clubs that I am aware of” he says.

On the one hand, these schools meet the needs of ordinary people to escape the daily grind and routine, they provide a new social environment for shared fun. They create a community in which people (of different age, educational and professional background) find friends with the same interests. On the other hand, schools seem to be successful business ventures, providing benefit for their owners (when the profit stays for the organizers), or operating as a subdivision of an ensemble (when the profit is used to finance the ensemble). Dancing there does not presuppose audience, as it is with the ensembles. Dance schools dance for themselves. They do it for fun, party and entertainment, not because they pursue a kind of public recognition.

“After 1989 we witnessed a ‘drop’, so to say. It came as a result of the fact that people needed to get rid of the old things, and folklore, you know, was substantially tolerated by the communist regime; on the whole, it was supported by the system. But now there is a comeback.” (Ivailo Parvanov)

What can explain the renewed interest of the people is the lack of obligation and control on the part of the state. On the contrary, prior to 1989 folklore was associated with the political regime, which had an off-putting effect on the people. Still, it is the state policies directed towards the stage development of folklore prior to 1989 that happen to be one of the reasons for the cultural transformations we are observing today.

Dance clubs as new places for communication

“... People socialize here... While we are doing the exercise, I usually hear from behind: “So what? Did you manage to make the pickles?” “Wait, wait, I’ll tell you in a minute.” “And the dress?” “I’ll show it to you, just a sec…” So she goes out and shows the dress, you see. “Give me these earrings. Well, yes, they are nice!” I turn around and I see them standing in groups of two or three, talking to each other. Or showing something to each other. This is probably the other thing that appeals to them. They can exchange some kind of information – housewives’ stuff, girls’ talk… It’s mainly women who do this. Men are more disciplined. They come, do their dancing and then stand aside. So I go to them because I think I’m not doing a good job if they are sitting there, they are not interested or what ... “No, no, leave us to talk for a while, there’s no other time.” Clearly, it’s not only the dances or the training, at least it’s not everybody’s motive. Some people come just to talk. Another thing – journeys, parties, the fun part of the school, I suppose, is also a good motivation.” (Ilona Vaseva)

One of the main motives for the massive popularity of the dance clubs is their function to provide space for communication. Clubs replace the gym as a place for physical training by adding a social aspect to it. They unite people with similar interests, who communicate intensively and exchange information in the dancing hall. For them this is not merely a hobby but a place for social contact and participation. Clubs create an environment where people have fun, make friends, fall in love; therefore, the main thing that keeps this industry alive is the emotion. This emotion makes people spend time and money on rehearsals, on special shoes and dancing clothes, on travel, and anything else that can make you part of the group.

“Perhaps people need to be among other people… Ensembles and dance schools provide this. They give… Well, you feel part of something big, something interesting, something beautiful. If there is a problem, we always support each other. One of our dancers, her son is a dancer with us too. And while he was playing football, another child jumped on his leg and broke it… And we said, “So and so. She is divorced, she paid 1200 or something leva for the leg operation. Spare as much as you can to help”. So we raised about 500 leva... If somebody is looking for a job, we immediately spread it among the schools and if something appropriate comes up, we help each other. This is a big family. We often celebrate holidays together. Birthdays too… We’ve often heard that dancing comes to people’s lives in difficult moments. […] And we’ve heard it from many people, “It was you who helped me in a difficult moment of my life”. But it was the whole community we had created that helped them… They feel part of a big family. There is no other thing that can unite people more. We shouldn’t forget that people hold each other’s hands here… A big union. So you feel part of a whole.” (MItko MIhalkov)

Thus, the clubs become a place for collective solidarity and community construction through which holidays and life ordeals are experienced collectively.

“I think people go there because when they enter the hall, for an hour they leave their everyday problems behind, the routines, everything is behind the walls of the hall. That’s the most important thing – for an hour they forget about everything. And many people say this.” (Ivaylo Georgiev)

The horotheque is also a place for social contacts. The owners opened the place with the idea to provide space, where people would have fun while listening to folk music in a modern way, “adapted to contemporary lifestyle” (from a conversation with Kostadin).

“Back in the old days old women would get together in the square, now we get together in discotheques, drinking whiskey or vodka. Yes, we go to the discotheque. […] One comes here and orders a drink or water and dances all night long.” (Kostadin Georgiev)

The horotheque transforms and transgresses the social hierarchies. Unlike in other night clubs, the visitors are not only youngsters but also middle-aged people; for them it is a new type of experience, an entertainment that takes them beyond the daily routines and revives the lost youth. In the horotheque the hierarchy is constructed around one’s possession of dancing skills.


Fig. 2: The Horotheque, source: the Horotheque – round dance club.

The crisis of the “authentic”

The issue of authenticity seems to be the main topic of discussion in the field of contemporary folklore practices. The nation state is thought to have the main function of studying, preserving and promoting folklore by financing institutions and specialists in this area. Facing contemporary challenges, folklore is considered to be endangered and disappearing; therefore the state should direct its efforts to keeping what’s left of it. “The authenticity of our folklore comes from the heroic, pure and genuine past; whenever it gets in contact with the present, it is tainted and loses its authenticity” (Rone, 2011). Folklore is seen as something from the past, a heritage that we, as its heirs, should properly use and preserve for the future. Moving astray from the preserved past is seriously criticized and often negatively sanctioned.

There are two points of view in the debate on authenticity. As we mentioned, the first one argues for the preservation of what has survived to the present day. Folklore is understood as the sanctum that needs to be protected and stored so that any new performances shall be as close as possible to the official models. This view implies that today we have the knowledge and the sense to appreciate the cultural heritage; we also have the technical means to transmit it to the future generations. Therefore, we have the collective responsibility to pass the aspects of the national on to the future. This essentialist approach interprets folklore as the authentic substance of the contemporary nation state. Folklore is sacred, special, pure and significant; any individual interference must be fended off. We are merely passive carriers, mediators between a sacred past and a desired future when Bulgaria will still exist and any individual interpretation of folklore might compromise this future. The diversion from the described norms is deemed unprofessional; it is seen as lacking of folklore expertise.

“It is bad when a choreographer has staged something but he doesn’t know where this round dance comes from. It’s even worse when the choreographer has made up this round dance because he doesn’t know any dances or doesn’t know how to acquaint oneself with them. We dance over 80-90 round dances in the club. And we know the story behind every single one. We know their origin, and origin is something genuine. You see, Milena and I can put our heads together and for half an hour we can come up with 7-10 round dances. We’ll make them up. The music is on and you make up. That’s the easiest thing to do, but it shouldn’t happen. That’s what we should battle against. Everybody might believe in whatever they want. This is a painful subject for us. I told you at the beginning that we aim at going back in time, preserving what we have. As much as possible… This is our battle.” (Kostadin Gospodinov).

There is another point of view however which sees even the contemporary creative practices as folklore:

“Well, it’s quite normal. It’s folklore. It’s not something frozen in time. Even if a round dance is created now… If it is a good thing – it’ll be passed on from a group to a group, from a wedding to a wedding, at celebrations. And it is still folklore since nobody knows who created it… If it is really outstanding, other groups will dance it too. If it is interesting, they’ll get together and learn to dance it. Then they’ll pass it on to other groups that were not there and step by step it’ll become part of the folklore.” (Emil Genov)

In this perspective, folklore is no longer considered something stagnated, something we refer to as a sort of treasury; it is seen an incessant process of constructing knowledge. Thus, the very institutional regulation of folklore is contested and challenged:

“Well, it’s the old school, which, unfortunately, after so many years, we still cannot get rid of. […] It hinders folklore development. The beauty of folklore is that it means free development of this or that art. It is free, people simply pass it on. What’s worthy is passed on, what’s not – it’s out by itself. Which will be the institution that will decide what’s good and what’s not? There can’t be such an institution. Or a person.” (Emil Genov)

Ilona Vaseva is even more radical when sharing how she makes costumes:

“It’s me who decides what to buy, it’s my design, I do not care who likes it or not. Of course, I try to stay within some limits – what’s acceptable for a certain region. But I make the costume the way I like it. These days, for instance, I’m sewing costumes from the region of Thracia. They’ll be yellow, because that’s how I like it. They won’t be green or red. The background of the checked pattern will be yellow because I like it. That’s what I do. Step by step. […] When I have money, then I work on them. I go and get the fabrics myself – it is cheaper that way. And I give them to a tailor to sew them, and she sews them cheaply, so it is an acceptable costume that comes out quite cheap.”

The constructivist approach deinstitutionalizes folklore and gives it back to the hands of the people. The state regulated folklore practices “from above”, establishing structures and institutions, which were supposed to create criteria and monitor the adherence to them. Paradoxically, in spite of the institutional regulation, the state cultural policy interpreted folklore as something created from below, by the people. This, after 1989 many opportunities for real “bottom-up” contemporary folk practices were created. These opportunities are a peculiar mixture of the freedom to create and express oneself and the limitations negotiated within the choreographic community. It delineates a boundary beyond which practices would not be recognized as “ours”, as “Bulgarian”. Although the debate on authenticity is impossible, it shapes the framework of the national and the efforts for its protection and preservation.

The crisis of the national

The national socialist state made folklore one of the main national identity markers. The state homogenized the costumes, selected the dancers according to their body proportions, chose the right make-up, put on smiles on the dancers’ faces and the national was ready to go on stage. Dance had the function to designate a collective identity and demarcate the “local” from the “foreign” within the framework of collective living or at places where different groups interacted (Manos, 2002).

“It emerges from the essence of the Bulgarian folk dance, namely, that we do not dance in pairs, we dance a round dance, we dance in a community… We function as a community, together, hand in hand, sharing the same energy, exhibiting the same mood, performing the same steps (with minor variations). So, you see, if this is one way to unite our society and to make it feel more proud of being Bulgarian, that’s it… Bulgarian people need to nourish their national pride. We are now thrown in a depersonalized space – nobody cares who we are, what we are. We are at the bottom of all possible rankings. So Bulgarian people needed something to boost their self-esteem as Bulgarians. We’ve always known, we all know how valuable our folklore is, how unique it is, how much appreciated it is abroad, etc. So, I think this is one of the reasons for the emergence of this. The second reason, it might be a consequence of the first, is the quest for an identity, a national identity.” (Milena Chirpanlieva)

The narrative about the national identity is one of the main drives of the folk dance clubs. We dance round dances because they are ours; this act makes us feel more Bulgarian and this shared togetherness reproduces the national unity. Dance clubs seem to shift the social interest from salsa and modern dancing towards folklore as the latter is explained as Bulgarian, one of the few things in our state that keeps us” (Kostadin Gospodinov). The national element gradually gains an important part in the dance clubs’ campaigns and discourses; it is also the main drive for participation. Articulating their concerns in statements like “a wedding cannot do without a round dance” (Ralitsa Nikolova) and “today our children seem to know more about India than about Bulgaria” (a conversation with Balkanfolk’s clients), folklore schools strive to compensate for the lack of national symbols and narratives. Today the knowledge about the round dances equals knowledge about the past of the community one identifies with.

“As we have no clear direction, we are trying to find a stable ground. As a Bulgarian saying goes, a stone lies at its proper place. Perhaps, that is what people realize – that they should pay attention to the things that are primordially Bulgarian. They are looking for… how can I explain it, they go to a wedding reception, but they can’t dance round dances. And at the Bulgarian wedding there is a lot of folk music, a lot of dancing. So they want to learn Bulgarian dances. We all look for something to hold on to, something that is only ours. Something like an identity, a way to define ourselves.” (Ivaylo Parvanov)

This is the market niche that schools fill in – they do not simply “sell” and “buy” dances, relaxation, fun. They produce and consume nationalism (Penchev, 2006; Özkan and Foster 2005), selling the emotion of feeling Bulgarian. Rather than constructed by the nation state however this feeling is a result of a private initiative and is embedded in the everyday social experience.

The dance clubs seem to be gender-dominated (with predominantly women visitors) and thus dance is perceived as a “female activity”. The few men present there are usually husbands of the female dancers in the club. The club is the women’s way out of professional and household activities – a place for social interactions, exchange of opinions and building self-esteem. One should not forget, however, that the translation of cultural identity and the upbringing of the generations are traditionally understood as women’s responsibility. Folk dance clubs seem to embody this notion, as attested by Stefan Vitanov’s words:

“Most of the people who go there are women. So later on, they’ll probably tell their children how cool folklore is. And they might even enrol their children in a folk dance club.”

The dancing practices thus have one more aspect – the cultivation and the transmission of the national feeling to the generations.

Today the national is (re)-constructed through dance practices in community centres and school halls; the sense of belonging is built up in the space of the dancing hall. Left in the hands of private initiative, folklore is now revived in an urban environment; it is adapted to the contemporary situation and is reproduced in rituals (e.g. weddings) and in a shared public space. It is the dance club that constructs citizenship, redefines identities and produces national symbols. The majority of the clubs manage this process in their own way. The crisis of the national came about as a result of the absence of a state strategy or cultural policy. An observation at the horotheque is symptomatic of this condition – the clubs dance separately, every club with its own round dance – the one practiced in their small community.

Traditions go through a new revival and reinvention (see Hobsbawm 1992) in a contemporary context. This time, however, rather than being initiated by the nation state, the processes are started by private actors (professional or amateur), which transform folklore into a mass culture industry (Horkheimer & Adorno 2002). The national becomes a consumption strategy, a (more or less profitable) private enterprise – it is produced and consumed on a daily basis. Today the national is a cultural product, a commodity (Wai-Teng Leong 2011). Here the point is not about tourist souvenirs but about relationships within the very community, about individual practices aiming at consolidating citizenship. This is a marketing campaign which advertises, presents and sells a product we buy ourselves for ourselves.

Identity is asserted through shared consumer practices (we all dance!) of nationalized commodities (Bulgarian folk dances!). It is worth noticing that folklore is no longer perceived as part of the heritage, as an artefact from the past, as history that needs to be preserved for the future. Today folklore in the dance clubs is a contemporary practice. It is perceived as an integral part of the present, as a living tradition and a process we are all entitled to take part in. Although it might have been neglected in the socialist period because “funnily, people associated it with the system” (Emil Genov), nowadays folklore is normalized and recommended as something prestigious, fascinating, modern and most important – as something Bulgarian.

The crisis of representation

What happened to be an extremely intriguing angle of this study was the distinction various people made between an ensemble and a dance club. The former is considered to be an organization that has a representative function. As a rule, ensembles dance a “cultivated”, staged type of folklore and traditionally present the country at various international festivals. Dance clubs, on the other hand, do not strive for representativeness or stage performance, the motivation there is learning new dances and having fun. There has been a recent trend, however, for clubs to mix the two roles; many clubs change their functions and start to “upgrade” their repertoire of dances.

On the one hand, dancers get used to the round dances they know, they develop their kinaesthetic intelligence and round dances get a bit boring. On the other hand, clubs expand their activities by including stage-adapted folk dances, thus opening more opportunities for participation in concerts and international festivals. This is where the problem with representativeness comes from. The image of the country is built on the high-quality performances of the professional ensembles. They fastidiously select their dancers and synchronize their movements – in professional ensembles outer appearance and body proportions are just as important as individual dancing skills. The dance clubs, however, do not have this strict process of selection – both fat and slim, young and old, talented and untalented dancers can dance there. People there have a more limited dancing and stage experience, as a result of which the composition is adapted to their abilities. The way professional dancers see it – the performance is poor…

“The festival is meant to present stage folklore. Yes, there are also places to present authentic folklore. But here we are not talking about the type of hybrid activities that folk dance clubs show – it’s simultaneously a workout and a dance school. Along with this we try to stage some performances, to organize some concerts. These festivals, on the other hand, are intended for stage folklore. Not only does it demand a serious adaptation of “authentic dances” but it also requires work on the stage presence of the dancers… leg and hand movements have to be synchronized, you have to teach them how to interact with the audience, how to move on stage, including handling some props, how to wear the costume itself. This is a long and complicated process, with completely different requirements. It’s not like learning five steps and five dances. But here we say – ok, we managed to arrange them in two circles, then we aligned them in a straight line, so we are ready for the stage. Such things are actually elementary choreography. But let’s say that this is acceptable. The lack of stage behaviour, however, cannot be ignored. People abroad see and notice, you see, because they also have groups with choreographers. They already have their ideas what a Bulgarian ensemble looks like. It’s an honour for every festival to have a high-quality Bulgarian ensemble. Our folklore is interesting, difficult; it is adapted in order to grab the audience. And when you present something simple, they say: “Is this what Bulgarians look like now? They are not interesting, standards there have fallen; it’s not what we used to see back then, so obviously things aren’t doing well there”. […] So the result is that in the next five years this festival will never invite another Bulgarian group.” (Milena Chirpanlieva)
“In many cases when a school goes to an international festival it’s a complete disaster. A complete disaster. I’ve seen this… The type of dance I’ll prepare will, of course, not be good enough for an international performance. I see what big choreographers do… These are dances for an international stage. Mine are not. So I think that what schools do is to a certain extent stupid. But there is a moment when you should take the club dancers abroad. It motivates them. Otherwise they would give up. After all, after dancing folk dances for three years, you say – it’s enough, you are sick and tired. You don’t want to dance folk dances any more. You want something more. You want to show how good you are in a different environment. So we make them dance stage dances and go abroad. And here’s the moment when you realize that you are not good enough. You want to achieve something, you go to great lengths. And you do it for the money, of course. You do not care who will go on stage, you don’t care what costume they will wear. The thing is to organize a tour and later on to post the photos on Facebook to advertise the school. So from this point of view, if you ask me, when these clubs go abroad, it is a catastrophe. Recently a school went to an international festival and danced on the stage wearing t-shirts with the logo of the school. This shouldn’t happen; it’s not right! […] You see, there are festivals that are at a local level. For our school I choose this type of festivals. Something nice and easy, you see. Not at an international festival where we will be completely embarrassed. They do not know if we are a school or something. They see Bulgaria. And they see a total disaster, a total flop. How you can have the confidence to present Bulgaria, I simply don’t know! Honestly! I do not dare.” (Ilona Vaseva)

This whole issue exemplifies a crisis in representativeness. The image of Bulgaria abroad is still endowed with an extreme importance. Therefore, its public blemishing is negatively sanctioned. On the one hand, cultural forms are seen as something to be shown abroad. Contrary to Herzfeld’s notion of cultural intimacy (Hertzfeld 1997), there are symbols and practices, considered to be constituent of the Bulgarian everyday life, which are included in the silently negotiated list of representations. The national pride is boosted by the recognition of these practices. Keeping the positive image of the country outside its territory, for the Others, is thought to be a collective effort and shared responsibility. Therefore, many owners of dance clubs are not willing to compromise the quality of the national production.

Nevertheless, today there are symbols and aspects of the cultural identity that are socially incorporated in people’s everyday life and recognized as important to their past – the so-called “intimization” of rituals, practices, discourses and semantically-laden objects – inventions of modernity (Dechev, 2010: 8). These aspects of the culture are not only part of the people’s notions of the past, not only a form of memory but are products so intricately integrated in everyday routines that they have become an imaginary repertoire of images and narratives of the Bulgarian. They are part of the mode through which we presently conceive of ourselves as “We, the Bulgarians”.

Today’s folklore battles frame the concept of the national – at an institutional level, but also at the level of the shared social “Bulgarian” everyday life. The various parties in the various debates concerning the contemporary uses of folklore emerge from the determination to protect the Bulgarian and pass it on to the future. There the nation will continue existing but its foundations will be laid with our present-day mutual efforts. Far from being simply a successful business venture, Bulgarian dance today is a serious and demanding activity – it produces the shared notion of the nation and constructs (should we refer to Anderson, 1983) the collective identity of the “imagined Bulgarian community”.

Instead of a conclusion

"Some say they like going out on Saturdays. Others say they like sleeping on Sundays. We are never together, my girlfriend says. Others tell us that we are not good. Some – that the others are better dancers than us. Our parents say we should think of a degree and occupation… We muse upon it and then we smile... Do they know what dances mean to us? What do they know about the nerves and the stress before going on stage? What do they know about the moments when we danced injured or ill? What do they know about the feeling when we are on stage, when we receive an award and everybody is happy about our achievement? What do they know about the pain when we are not selected to dance in a particular dance? What do they know about warming up a few minutes before we go on stage? What do they know about strained muscles and cramps? Do they know the feeling when you can’t dance? What do they know about how much we love this art? It is our life! Many people say that dances have nothing to do with real life... I don’t know how much they know about life but I do know they know nothing about dances!" (A popular Facebook status, January 2013).


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[1] The research was conducted within the framework of The New Cultural Industries in the Contemporary Urban Imagination Project, funded by the Scientific Research Fund, contract 063/05.04.2012.

[2] The current paper would not have been possible without the help of: Emil Genov (Studio for folklore costumes “Balkanfolk”, Ensemble “Zornitsa”, Sofia); Ivaylo Georgiev (Eremiya folklore dance school, Sofia); Ivaylo Parvanov (Mladost Bulgarian folklore round dances school, Plamatche children’s dance ensemble, Sofia); Ilona Vaseva (Meraklii dance school, Sofia); Kostadin Gospodinov (Chanove Bulgarian folklore dance club, Horotheque); Milena Chirpanlieva (School for authentic round dances at Balkan Ensemble, Sofia); Mitko Mihalkov (Horo Ensemble, Sofia ); Ralitsa Nikolova (Vitosha Dance Centre, Sofia, Nashentsi Ensemble); Stefan Vitanov (Dance Academy). The interviews with Hristo Sheitanov (Chipnitsa Folklore dance club, Stara Zagora) and Dilyana Apostolova (Zagortsi Bulgarian folk dances club, Stara Zagora) are conducted with the help of Anastasia Ilieva during our field work in Stara Zagora, October, 2012. I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to everybody for their time, responsiveness and willingness to share their views, memories, ideas, dreams and achievements.

[3] See: Ivanova-Nyberg, Daniela. 2011. Sastavat za narodni tantsi kato kulturno yavlenie v Balgaria [The Folklore Dance Ensemble as a cultural Phenomenon in Bulgaria]. Sofia: Mars-09; Abrashev, Georgi. 1989. Vaprosi na horeografskata teoriya [Questions of Choreographic Theory]. Sofia: Nauka i izkustvo; Shtarbanova, Аna. 1994. “Antropoogiya na tantsa [Anthropology of dance]”, Balgarski folklore, 2, pp. 101 – 108; Buckland, Theresa (ed.). 1999. Dance in the Field: Theory, Methods and Issues in Dance Ethnography, Basingstoke: Macmillan; Kaeppler, Adrienne. 1978. “Dance in an Anthropological Perspective”, Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 7, pp. 31-49, and others.

[4] BA and MA degrees in folklore choreography are offered at New Bulgarian University, South-Western University, Varna Free University, University of Chemistry, Technology and Metallurgy, Academy of Music, Dance and Fine Arts and many high school throughout the country. 

[5] http://paper.standartnews.com/bg/article.php?article=415051 (accessed 19.03.2015).

[6] See: http://affilate.eshop.bg/index.php?menunode=90&show=material&materialid=3262 (accessed 18.03.3016). The word “horotheque” was patented by the founders of the club, interview with Kostadin Gospodinov, 2012.

[7] See: http://novanews.novatv.bg/news/view/2013/03/30/47294/%D0%BE%D0%BA%D0%BE%D0%BB%D0%BE-2000-%D0%B4%D1%83%D1%88%D0%B8-%D1%81%D0%B5-%D0%BD%D0%B0%D0%B4%D0%B8%D0%B3%D1%80%D0%B0%D0%B2%D0%B0%D1%85%D0%B0-%D0%B2%D1%8A%D0%B2-%D1%84%D0%B5%D1%81%D1%82%D0%B8%D0%B2%D0%B0%D0%BB%D (accessed 18.03.2016).

[8] National festival of Bulgarian folk dances „Na horoto pod tepeto” in Plovdiv, National dance competition „Tapan bie, horo se vie” in Kazanlak, National Festival for folk dances “Trakiiyska broenitsa”, Pazardzhik, Horo fest, Albena, National folklore festival of amateur dance clubs “Bolyarsko nadigravane”, Veliko Tarnovo, and many others.


About the author

Slavka Karakusheva is a PhD candidate at the Department of History and Theory of Culture, Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski. She holds a MA in Cultural Anthropology and a BA in Cultural Studies and was recently a TÜBİTAK visiting fellow at the Cultural Policy and Management Research Centre, Istanbul Bilgi University. Her research interests include ethnicity and nationalism studies, memory, migration, anthropology of media, cultural heritage. 

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