Bulgaria is a relatively small country but within its modern boundaries there is a diversity of folk dance styles. Dances from the north share some of the characteristics with dances from across the Danube river in southern Romania such as fast crossing steps, dances from the Pirin region in the southwest have much in common with dances from the dances of Slavic Macedonians, and dances from the Shop region west of 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 or national identities.
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 Shop region and knee lifts are less accented. A variety of hand ‘positions’ and movements are common in this Region. These include hands joined in low hold and swung backwards and forwards, held at shoulder height in which case the arms ‘jig’ up and down in time with the music, joined behind the dancer’s backs (na lesa) or placed on hips with thumbs back.
Dobrudzhan men dance with their knees always bent and their backs hollow. To get the feel of Dobrudzha mens’s 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! When a Dobrudzhan dances he uses his whole body, this can be seen well in the solo men’s dance Rachenik.
Men and women dance together, though there are some dances for men or women only. The chain dances generally are connected by holding the belt of the neighbour (na pojas), or holding the hands of the next dancer beyond their neighbour which gives a very compact chain. When connected by holding hands, such for the dance Râka (which means hands) they make strong, firm, positive arm movements. There are some custom dances for women in which the movements are simpler and lighter with slight shoulder movements.
Thracian style is perhaps the most deceptive Bulgarian dance style. 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. The key to Thracian style is to dance with relaxed knees. Steps are taken onto the whole foot, with the body weight centred over the feet. Hands are held at shoulder level or low level and are part of the smooth flowing arm movements, but women dance with a less flamboyance than the men. Chain dances such as Pravo Trakiisko Horo or Trakiiska Rachenitsa. Rhythms are based mainly on a simple 2/4 rhythm dances 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 Shop region. This area is the source of some complex irregular rhythms such Buchimish in 15/16 rhythm. Women dance with a less flamboyant style than the men. Pair dances are more common in Thrace than other regions. The men’s dances include tropoli (tapping) step that is found only in eastern Thrace (Stara Zagora, Sliven, Yambol Districts) and Kolendari New Year dance custom.
There were substantial Greek communities in Trakia dating from long ago in Byzantium periods and the Thracian Region extends into Greece hence the Greek Trakian dances have similar characteristics to the Bulgarian, and for example Greek dance Zonoradiko is the same basic dance as Pravo Trakijsko.
The Rhodope mountain area is known more for its strong tradition of “open throat” singing 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 should level hold. Women’s dances are usually accompanied by songs.
Shopluk or Shop
Shop style is probably the most difficult Bulgarian style 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 exactly to the rhythm. Dances are usually performed in short lines, with belt hold or crossed hand hold giving a very tight and nimble dance style. The men and women of often segregated within the line with all the men at the front. Separate hand movements are not common in Shop 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.
The Pirin region is part of ethnically ‘Macedonia’ which is now divided between Greece, Bulgaria and the former Yugoslavia. The dances from this Region have closer links with the Slavic Macedonians 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 popular songs in 7/8 to which Makedonsko and Shirto can be danced socially.
Men’s dances include balancing movements with high knee lifts, often in shoulder hold. 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. Often thedances begin slowly and increase in speed.
The women’s style is graceful and light, hands are held in low or at shoulder height slightly ‘asymmetrically’ with 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 interpreted in each region. The Pravo is a simple dance pattern of short-short-long-long taking six musical counts.
In Thrace it is danced in a smooth flowing, graceful style. In the Shop region it is sharp with small hopped steps and lifted knees.
The Pravo from Dobrudzha is called Opas and is danced in a solid ‘earthy’ style with knees always bent.
The Severnjashko (northern) 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 a slow 7/8 rhythm, often known 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.