Many of the most common folk dances belong to a single family, whose basic step provides an ancient and archetypal template for many of the simple dances in our repertoire. There are so many different variations on the basic theme that we tend to overlook their interrelation and treat them as completely separate dances, and it can be surprising to find out how many dances derive from the same root pattern. This discovery suggests that something essential and unchanging is common to dances of many different cultures, and also, paradoxically, illuminates the process of evolution through which dance forms continually change.
The ancient dance family of which I speak is the group of three-measure dances such as the Macedonian Pravo Oro, where the first two measures travel and the third measure mirrors the second. Another way to describe it is `step, step, step, do something, step, do something'. Still another way is `three steps forward (pause), one step back (pause).'
Dance anthropologists believe it to be the oldest dance pattern because it is the most widespread. Found throughout Eastern Europe and Western Asia from India to the Faeroe Isles, it is most common in the Balkans, where it is labelled the `national dance' of Bulgaria, Albania and Macedonia. Frequently, the name just means `dance', and it forms the basic step of many of our most well-known simple dances: Pravo Oro in Macedonia, Pravo Horo in Bulgaria, Sta Tria and Zonaradhikos in Greece, Siganos in Crete, Dropullit and Valle in Albania, the Hora in Israel, and Halay in Turkey, Armenia and Kurdistan. This pattern is also found in the Turkish/Kurdish dance Agir Govenk and Hejsza, a dance of the Magyar-speaking Csángó people in North Central Romania. All of the versions listed above travel to the right (anticlockwise), but occasionally it moves to the left (clockwise), for example Hanter Dro in Brittany, Vrlicko Kolo in Croatia and Zervos in Greece.
In their basic form these are village dances, unarranged and unchoreographed, which everyone knows how to do and which are the main staple of dancing at weddings, feast days and other celebrations. They all share the basic three-measure pattern, and each has its own characteristics of style and variations. These variations, added to the basic form by performing groups, urban dance styles and the improvisation of good dancers, make each one more easily distinguishable as a separate dance. The Bulgarian Pravo Trakijsko Horo, for example, dances three measures into the circle, and then three measures out of the circle, with more elaborate variations based on individual improvisation.
This variation bears little resemblance to Ketri Ketri, an embellished Gypsy chochek, yet both dances evolve from a basic step which is essentially the same. Read on to find out how!
The basic Lesnoto or Lesno is a three-measure pattern (the four-measure pattern with the grapevine step found in circle dance is a choreography) and is an evolution of the Pravo: add the little lift in measure one and you're there. Embarrassingly, I danced (and taught) them both for years before I noticed this - I was too busy painstakingly counting out each movement, one per beat. But as soon as I danced in Bulgaria I sensed how musicians drag out the beat so that it lands somewhere between a 4/4 ( Pravo) and a 7/8 ( Lesno), and the dancers just groove along in sync without consciously changing their steps. Perhaps an example of evolution in progress?
In Macedonian and Bulgarian Rom (Gypsy) music, this relaxed attitude to rhythm can go to extremes. On different occasions I have seen Ferus Mustafov, Yuri Yunakov, and Kochani Orkestar playing live for dancing, with all the musicians syncopating and improvising - not a single instrument played the rhythm consistently. It seemed as though the dancers were holding a steady beat for the musicians to follow, rather than the other way around.
Roma (Gypsies) play an important role in the family history of this ancient dance. It occurred to me some years ago that virtually the whole territory in which our dance has made its home is the area through which the Rom people have travelled on their great migration from India, beginning a thousand years ago. I like the idea of the Roma carrying this dance with them on their journey, and planting it like a fertile seed among the non-Gypsy people across whose borders they travelled. I can't credit the Roma with introducing the dance to Western Europe, because I suspect the dance has been here longer than they have, but clearly they have been instrumental in spreading it around. In Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania, the Roma have their own special version of it: Chochek, queen of dances.
The basic line version of the Chochek feels like the Pravo backwards, or inside out. The directions are inverted to emphasise the movement into and away from the centre of the circle - a simple change that makes it feel like a totally different dance. Now Chochek is widely danced by both Roma and gadje (non-Gypsies), who add lifts or touches, change direction or tempo or handhold, switch back and forth between Pravo and Chochek, fit it to a range of rhythms from 2/4 to 6/8, 7/8 and 9/8, and even dance it solo. The result is an astonishing variety of dances all recognisably evolved from our basic dance archetype. Chochek, Sa Sa, Nishka Sa Sa, Gajda, Ketri Ketri, Chupurlika, Jeni Jol, Rumelaj, Devetorka, Karsilama, Tsifteteli, to name just a few, are all essentially the same dance. (To get from Ketri Ketri to Rumelaj: dance Ketri Ketri in place, then replace the lifts with touches, then travel off to the right for the first measure and dance in place for measures 2 and 3. Amazing, isn't it?)
Another thing that links these Chochek variations is the triangular pattern traced on the ground by the zig-zag step. In the prehistoric art of all of the regions where Chochek is danced nowadays, the triangle is a symbol for the area of the female pelvis, exactly the part of the body which is activated by the hip movements so essential to the dance. And yes, the Chochek is linked to what we call belly dancing, but that's another story....
Further developments of our original three-measure phrase can be found in the family of Gypsy-influenced crossing dances, such as Raikos from Greece, Afet Dude and Pembe from Macedonia, in which the basic form is disguised by doubling the second and third measures.
These `crossing step' dances are called `krsteno' in Macedonian, a word which relates both to the cross as symbol and to the step that crosses over, just as in English. This connection between step and symbol is even more explicit in the 'cross' variation in Siganos, which is not a crossing step but which traces out the four axes of the cross on the ground. When I learned it among Cretans in 1990, one of the local musicians explained to me that it represents moving from the past to the present, into the future, then back to the past. This interpretation fits with what I experience in Siganos: a timeless quality and sense of connection to my ancestors in the human family. According to Gabriele Wosien, a number of variations in the Greek Tsamiko and Syrtaki are also based around a schema of the cross as danced either on the floor (two-dimensional) or in the body (three-dimensional).
The cross in this context is essentially a pre-Christian symbol, but our dance pattern also has a fascinating connection with early Christianity. Its simplest form - three steps forward, one step back - was an early Christian form of danced prayer called the Tripudium or Jubilate, known today among circle dancers as the Pilgrim's Dance. It was danced by pilgrims in the labyrinths of church and cathedral and has been said to represent the path of human prayer and frailty: `I go forward, yet I falter'.
This pattern of three steps forward, one step back can also be seen as a metaphor for the year's seasonal cycle which requires us to rest in order to grow. There is a feeling of being held in all of these basic dances, as we travel, rock, rock; travel, rock, rock. We experience the sensation of moving ahead, yet savouring where we are. Just as with the year's cycle, we need to go through this over and over again in order to remain aware of the truth contained in this rhythm, the rhythm of life. Understanding this can help us begin to address the question: Why this one dance? What is it about this dance that has made it so important to so many people in so many places?
This line of inquiry leads us back to the fundamental theme of the cross in the circle, an ancient and widespread universal symbol. In any round dance, the circle is present in the shape our group makes together, and the cross in the upright stance of each individual human body, connected to its neighbours. In the pattern traced on the floor, the Pravo Oro step emphasises the horizontal axis, mainly travelling along the line of the circle, while the Chochek step, which travels in and out more, emphasises the vertical. Each axis represents a particular aspect of human relationships, and while both axes are present in both dances, each dance gives us a chance to focus a little bit more on one aspect. I believe the variations of style and detail in every dance allow us to do this in a different way, and that this is the key to understanding how this one pattern, whose ancient roots flower in so many different permutations, can have so much to teach us.
I have come to believe that folk dance patterns - especially the simple, old, village ones like those in this family - are energy patterns, with good reasons for being as they are. Each detail of style, step, movement and music elicits a new and unique experience in the dancers, and imports a different message about the basic relationships of being in the body, being on the earth, being in the community and being with the divine. For me, the particular characteristics of each dance are like a secret code containing these and other essential truths. Deciphering the code is a slow practice, and it seems to me that the required habit of inner listening can come only through repetition with awareness: dancing and dancing and dancing. All of these dances are made for that, and that might be one reason why the people of the world, in their infinite wisdom, have found so many ways to dance this one pattern which contains so much of what we need to know.
I'm sure we all have come across, or experienced ourselves, the circle dancer's hunger to always experience more, to learn new ones, to move on, not to repeat. But I now feel that we do not receive all there is in a traditional dance by dancing it just once or twice or even ten times. So when I teach a dance, especially if it's a dance from this family, I like to encourage repetition with awareness, so that we can go deeper. Occasionally people say that they get bored repeating dances they have already `done', but the intention is to enable each dancer to cultivate her or his own relationship to the dance. In this way, whatever message might lie within can be transmitted directly from dance to dancer, without relying on the intermediary of the teacher and the teacher's interpretation.
This practice of direct knowing through experience, or gnosis, is central to the Gnostic tradition of early Christianity, which has another intriguing connection to our subject. Trade routes from Armenia to France were extant long before the Roma (Gypsies) arrived in Europe. Along with their silks and spices, traders carried Gnostic beliefs from the outcast Christian communities in Syria to Armenia, as early as the 3rd century. Armenian settlers in Bulgaria planted the spiritual seeds which flourished as Bogomilism around the time of the first millennium, and which eventually travelled to Southern France to influence the enormously important `pure' Christian faith of the Cathars. After the brutal repression of the Cathars in the 13th century, similar tenets of `true Christianity' surfaced in the teachings of St Francis of Assisi, whose mother, incidentally, was a Provençale trouvère from the troubadour courts which sheltered Catharism.
I can't help but notice that the area influenced historically by these dangerous spiritual ideas exactly matches the range in which our three-measure dance thrives. This is a vast area of Europe and Asia in which an earlier worship of natural cycles has been overlaid by the major religions, each in their own way denying the inherent sanctity of nature. Yet the themes and forms of these early beliefs, affirming the importance of nature, growth, community, the cross and the circle, have never actually been stifled. They have merely been disguised, and continue to surface abundantly in the folk art and folk dance of this same vast area.
Just as the cathedral labyrinths where pilgrims danced the Tripudium formed a bridge between the old worship in Europe and the more newly arrived Christian religion, similarly, the ornately carved khachkhars (stone crosses) of Armenia consciously merge the symbols of the Christian cross and the pre-Christian Tree of Life. The khachkhars flourished in Old Armenia from the 9th century, and their labyrinthine adornments bear a remarkable resemblance to the Celtic carvings and illuminations of the same period, with which we are more familiar - a similarity for which trade routes may be responsible. In the khachkhar, a sun symbol is buried in the roots of the tree to signify the union, as opposed to the separation, of earth and sky. The sun symbol itself contains the petal-like mandorla, which in India is the yoni, symbol of feminine sacred sexuality - an element of the divine honoured in early Gnostic teachings, but long since excluded from the `official' Chrsitian church.
My theory is that from prehistory right up until the present day, people have continued to believe in the sanctity of nature and her life-giving cycles, and to express their appreciation of the miracle of life through a continuity of folk art motifs. As religious and political fashions have made it less acceptable to express these beliefs overtly, the same basic message has taken on hidden forms, encoded in symbols expressed over and over in embroidery, pottery, and dance. This nonverbal language is an open secret, to be decoded by those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.
As we enter into the mystery of the dance, we cannot know what will be revealed. But we do know that the very act of approaching the ancient dance forms with reverence - as pilgrims on a journey - will bring us closer to our ancestors in the human family, and therefore, ultimately, to ourselves.