Bulgarian dances are mostly chain dances predominantly in an open circle with a leader at the right hand end and a second place of importance at the tail on the left hand end. There are less dances that are closed circles, these are mainly found in the northern regions. The majority of these chain dances have a “leader” at the right-hand end of the dance and a “tail” leader at the left hand end. These two dancing places of importance transmit the mood and feel to the dancers. There are other dance forms, primarily solo men’s dances such as Rachenik, and some ritual and custom dances for groups of dancers.
In the past many horo were sung by the dancers. Nowadays these sung horo are less common except in the south and south west, where the older dancers still continue the tradition. Often the songs are in the form of answering a theme sung by one or two women, or one singing the melody and two women singing simple lower harmonies like a drone.
The dancers are connected by holding hands, either low at their side or at shoulder level, or holding the belt of their neighbour (na pojas), or holding the hands of the dancers next beyond their neighbours. These latter two ways of holding in a chain dance give a very close and strong connection forcing the dancers to work together as a community rather than as an individual leading to a rhythmical unison in the bodies of the dancers.
As with any chain dance, the predominant dimension of the dances is in the footwork and rhythm, the body in Bulgarian dance being mostly about projecting the mood and presence in the dancer. The footwork can vary from fast intricate steps, particularly in the west (the Shop Region) and northern areas, to slow sustained movements in some of the dances from the Pirin region in the southwest, to strong and grounded steps in the east and north east.
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 Shop 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.
There are many dances that are sung by the dancers, particularly women’s dances, in which there is a simple walking dance pattern performed while singing. Bulgaria has a strong tradition in vocal repertoire, predominantly in women’s “open throat” singing, this is mainly in the southern and western regions.
For all the other dance types an instrumental accompaniment is the norm. In the past this might have been a single musician playing a bagpipe (gajda) or rebec (gadulka), or a small group such as two shawms (zourna) and big drum (tapan). Over time there have been various progressions in popular music leading to the different music groups sounds we hear now. The old traditional instruments pipe (kaval), lute (tambura), rebec (gadulka), drum (tapan) were put together in an ensemble which form the basis of many old recordings from Sofia. Brass band arrangements have become associated with the central northern and north western areas. Later instruments such as the accordion and clarinet have been added to the folk orchestras and the accordion was the main rehearsal accompaniment for the national ensembles. In the past decades the wedding band music and Turkish based chalgia music has displaced the traditional sounds from the social occasions.
The social dance repertoire of Bulgaria is dominated by the Pravo horo which is a simple six count (three measure) sequence to 2/4 music, but interpreted differently in the various regions. The most prestigious Bulgarian dance is the Rachenitsa, rhythmically 7/16 (short-short-long), which started as a man’s dance, then included women in this free dance form, and now has many chain dance variations.
Most of the chain dances have a relatively simple pattern that is continually repeated and moves mostly to the right. Many of the popular dances have a three measure pattern that has two measures to the right and one measure to the left, but based on different musical rhythms, such as Svishtovsko in 2/4, Eleno mome in 7/16, Svornato and others in 9/8, Gankino and Kopanitsa in 11/8. Another common and longer phrased pattern has movement to the right for the first section, returns partly to the left, and then has a few steps in place taking eight, ten or eleven measures. This is very common in the western regions for dances such as Maleshevska (2/4 and 7/8), Selsko shopsko horo (2/4), Graovsko Horo (syncopated 2/4), Petrunino (in approximately 7/8, but many transcribe as 13/16), Kyustendilsko Horo (2/4) and Kyustendilska rachenitsa (7/16), and universally over much of Bulgaria Paidushko Horo (5/16).