It's hard to separate Poland's history from the lively dance that began in rural Poland and gradually, over time, worked its way into European ballrooms and the local traditions of far away cultures.
At the outset, the mazurka as a type of music and dance was composed, played and enjoyed by peasants. 'The rhythm of the mazurka is the rhythm of work', painter, ethnographer and lecturer Andrzej Bieńkowski says, "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.'
The dance spread to European ballrooms in the 16th century - through Germany to Denmark and Sweden, where the mazurka remains one of the most popular dances and is referred to as the 'polska' . In France mazurkas caught on thanks to the Polish legions who fought side by side with Napoleon. Like all high-class things, from Paris the fashionable dance reached Italy, Austria, the Iberian peninsula, the Azores, Cape Verde, the Canary Islands and even far-away Brazil. A century later, the vagabond rhythm, melody and steps inspired Pina Bausch to write an amalgamation of mazurka and melancholic fado called Masurca Fogo (Fiery Mazurka) performed at the Tanztheater Wuppertal.
Many mazurkas were adopted into local cultures. The organisers of the annual Wszystkie mazurki świata / All the Mazurkas of the World festival which presents classical, jazz and exotic variations of the Polish folk dance emphasise the significance of the mazurkas for Polish history,
Listening to rural and Chopin mazurkas side by side is like listening to a story about Poland - Chopin's Poland and today's Poland.
Originating in the region of Masuria (northeastern Poland) in the 16th century, it became popular with Polish nobility who began attributing a patriotic ideology to it.
You Know You're Polish When You...
Let's not kid ourselves, folk music is overall viewed as being desperately boring. But that entirely depends on your point of view. 'Just like with the music of Lutosławski, Hendrix or Miles Davis', Bieńkowski talks about his discovery of Kazimierz Meto, a violinist from a small Polish village. 'I got goosebumps when I first heard him play'.
In one of his books on the topic Mazurki do wynajęcia (Mazurkas for Rent), Bieńkowski stresses how important mastery of the mazurka is for Polish culture,
The mazurka, although it originates from singing, is primarily a dance melody subjected to an austere rigour. You have to sing along and embellish it, but don't you dare be late in the dance rhythm or embellish differently! You would probably get kicked out from the wedding. Or you could maybe even get a beating. There's no messing around with the mazurka. No other dance awakened such euphoria in the dancers, the trance of the musicians, and the expressiveness of the singers. Almost every village had its mazurka (and even more often its mannerisms and variations linked with the dance), like a characteristic logo for the village which made it recognisable to the others.
The music of the Mazurka is in 3/4 or 3/8 measure. The musicians are free to improvise and so are the dancers. Nevertheless, it is a very artistic and difficult dance to learn. It was originally performed exclusively as a classic dance, and consisted of numerous figures and steps. Except for a few of the elementary movements, the dance has been deprived of its copious figures. It can be done to up-tempo Rotary waltzes, but really thrives when the music has a strong, Slavic-sounding downbeat.
Author: Ania Legierska, translated and edited by Mai Jones 03.02.2014
Additional sources: NY Times, Merriam Webster, StreetSwing, FolkWords