A Foreigner's Guide to Polish Folk Dances
small, A Foreigner's Guide to Polish Folk Dances, festiwal_polonijnych_zespolow_folk_fot_sowa_forum.jpg, Rzeszów 22.07.2011 r. XVth World Festival of Folk Ensembles. Photo: Waldek Sosnowski / Forum
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An authentic Polish folk dance is one of the most joyful and arresting spectacles a tourist can witness in Poland. These dances are performed all over Poland, but the first step in fully appreciating the experience is to learn more about these wonderfully preserved local traditions.
In fact, there is no such thing as a Polish folk dance. Every dance is rooted in a particular region, and is accordingly treasured by its inhabitants as a part of local, rather than national, culture. In order to learn more about the dances you are bound to encounter, simply select the touristic profile which appeals to you the most and discover the colourful particulars of the region.
I’m on a ski trip in the mountains, and we’re staying in Zakopane.
Can’t go wrong with classics: Kraków all the way!
I’m in Germany, I might as well hop on the other side of the border and check out Poznań…
Going to Bydz..Bygdoz…Bydgoszcz.
I have friends in Warsaw, and my friends have relatives outside of Warsaw.
I’m nowhere near Poland, isn’t there a dance that would sum it all up?
How can you tell that you're in the Polish Podhale region? If you see a bunch of highlanders in woollen trousers doing crazy crouches, somersaults and air kicks, you'll know you're in the Polish highlands – the southernmost part of Poland called Podhale. The most typical regional dance is called the krzesane. These dance acrobats don't need stages or dance studios – they perform wherever, outdoors, on rocks, high up in the mountains (the closer to the peak the better), in meadows or in a crowded room. Their only equipment: bagpipes, gusles and a shepherd's walking stick-cum-axe called a ciupaga. They say that highlanders have music in their veins and feet made for dancing. Polish playwright, novelist, painter and philosopher Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz wrote that nothing could be compared to the "strength, passion and ferocity of this romance expressed through dance". Tatra mountains and Zakopane expert Tytus Chałubiński put it like this:
There is an element of possession in this dance. It expresses savageness and the primitive with so much flair, fantasy and energy! What are the dancers doing? They're walking around in a circle, faster and faster, the rhythm speeds up, the music is hung on the chords by a thin screech. The ringleader, who stands in the middle, is spinning around his ciupaga. His rhythm is different to that of the others. When the shepherd’s apprentice whistles with his fingers everyone stops. Three couples form and they begin to jump. They stretch out their hands while holding sticks. This perhaps illustrates a fight. And again. They're back in the first position walking one behind the other but this time even faster. One at a time they jump into the air. They start to close the circle, the music is as fast as it can be. The shepherd’s apprentice encircles the ringleader who picks up his ciupaga and jerks it in the air. The apprentices sit down and extend their sticks towards the ciupaga. Out of nowhere the music stops and so does the circle of dancers.
The history of the traditional dances of the Podhale region goes back five centuries. Chałubiński described the zbójnicki dance (loosely translated as bandit's dance), a very masculine war dance that imitates a fight with an enemy and the defence of one's herd. By contrast, a typical highlander's dance is zealous and passionate with a love plot. The dancers twirl and spin their female dance partners. Krzesany – the mid-air heel-clicking mentioned before – is part of the highlander's dance. How do they do it? Beginners are told to imagine they are rubbing two stones together to start a fire.
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Typical Kraków dances first developed in the suburban parts of the city and then spread to the nobility and theatres. The fast, syncopated Polish dance in duple time has a number of names: mijany (to pass by), przebiegany (to run past), suwany (to drag your feet) or dreptany (to toddle). It was initiated by a song to which the ballroom guests would first walk and then gallop. The galloping was accompanied by numerous bows, waving and foot stomping. An integral part of the krakowiak, as the dance is known, is the mid-air foot clicking move called a hołubiec.
The krakowiak is one of five best-known national dances and it was named after an opera called Krakowiacy i górale (Cracoviennes and Highlanders) performed at the National Theatre in Warsaw on March 1st, 1794.
Frederic Chopin, Ignacy Padereweski and Karol Szymanowski composed typical krakowiak pieces.
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Wiwat is a dance of Greater Poland. It can be either performed by walking, running or spinning. Its tempo varies from region to region. Dance performances opened important celebrations and rural gatherings.
In the book Biskupianie Professor Jadwiga Sobieska claims that the wiwat puts all the dancing couples in the spotlight:
This is what the dance looks like: a boy stands in front of the village band [...], he calls on the musicians to play, others join in the singing and eventually the band begins to play. Then the dancers run up to the ladies sitting on benches next to the wall and with a bow invite them to the dancefloor. Boys grab the ladies by the waist with their right hand and in his extended left hand he holds her right hand. On the cue of the leading couple all the couples move around the circle counter-clockwise. They take small but fast steps. In the second part they twirl. The boy holds his partner by the waist with both hands, she holds on to his shoulders or waist. All the couples move to the right. The entire thing is repeated.
The wiwat is very popular in Greater Poland, but so are other dances: the weksel, which forces partners to change at each change in melody, the ceglorz, which requires clapping your and your partners hands, and the przodek, which is fun for the elderly.
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The kujawiak – the dance of the Kujawy region – was originally danced with a calm dignity and simplicity, in a smooth, flowing manner. The couples spun around in a seemingly endlessly rotating circle and gently stamp their feet from time to time. The melody of the dance is often compared to the endless and peaceful landscapes of the region. The kujawiak was typically the last dance of the evening.
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The dance dates back to 1827. In the Kujawy area, folk dances grouped under the label of the kujawiak have different names, depending on the particular figures used in them: ksebka (to oneself) – with turns to the left; odsibka (from oneself) – with turns to the right; gładki
(smooth), owczarek (shepherd), okrągły (round), etc. The village DJ or the best man at weddings decided the changes in rhythm and direction.
Famed ethnographer, folklorist and composer Oskar Kolberg knew the dance very well. He wrote down over 1,000 melodies and songs from Kujawy in two volumes describing the folklore of this area. The kujawiak reached peak popularity in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Warsaw and Masovia
The regional dyny dance resembles the contradance. It is danced by four couples standing in a square, usually at the climax of the evening. The dance is so fast that it's easy to get the steps wrong. The rhythm speeds up to eventually make it impossible for the couples to keep on dancing.
Additionally, Masovia is home to the legendary mazurka, which was composed by the greats (Chopin, Szymanowski) and danced by the greats (Pina Bausch). Before it was danced outside of Poland, as painter and ethnographer Andrzej Bieńkowski relates, the mazurka was the music and the dance of peasants under the feudal system who were forced to work on landowners' farms. And so, the rhythm of the music is the rhythm of their work.
In the countryside, the sound of the flail and the mazurka were in harmony. When three people were chopping cabbage at the same time, you would get a triple rhythm. Musicians would often play to ease the process of reaping the harvest or for carpenters at work. Everyone had a different way of decorating the music, I would listen to birds, nightingales and larks, and then puts these trills into the mazurka – one of the village musicians told the ethnographer.
Also originating in the villages of Mazowsze in central Poland, the oberek is one of the most popular traditional dances. It is danced by couples to instrumental music in triple meter and there are hundreds if not thousands of oberek melodies, with new ones being discovered by folk researchers.
An oberek is faster than a mazurek; it is danced by couples who are placed on a circle and rotate both around the whole circle and around their own axis (to the right). Their steps have to be light and flexible – they make dragging movements with their feet. People used to say that a good dancer could be recognised if he could dance the oberek in small steps with a full glass of water on his head. The choreography also involves jumps, stumping and spinning. The oberek dates back to the 17th century.
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The last of the Polish traditional folk dances is the elegant polonaise, a ballroom dance danced at the opening of the evening. It has other names: chodzony (walking dance), pieszy (pedestrian), or
chmielowy (hops). Although it belonged to the repertoire of the nobility, it has folk roots.
Dancing the polonaise requires a straight, upright posture with no hip movements, smooth and elegant hand gestures, and the head held high, with pride. Frederic Chopin composed many polonaises.
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Sources: "Taniec Górali Podhalańskich" by Krzysztof Trebunie-Tutka, TVP Kraków, www.promni.pl/podhale, www.taniec.fit.pl, muzykatradycyjna.pl, taniectradycyjny.pl, Dom Tańca, Muzyka Odnaleziona, portal Polska Tradycja,"TAŃCE KASZUBSKIE", authored by AL, translated by MJ