Bulgarian Folk Dancing

The “Flavors” of Horo and Rachenitsa

A celebration of any kind in Bulgaria would be unthinkable without a group of people joining hands in the inevitable horo or rachenitsa, often to a live band, playing traditional instruments such as the gaida (bagpipe), tupan (drum), accordion, clarinet, tambura (lute) and gadulka (fiddle) with a singer accompanying the musicians. In Northwestern Bulgaria, brass bands sometimes take the place of folk ensembles, playing high energy music.

Most of the time, Bulgarian folk dances are performed in an open circle or a line with the leader at the front of the group, calling the steps.

Horo and Rachenitsa are generic terms for Bulgarian dances and these are the names most familiar to international folk dancers all over the world. “Horo” translates to “chain dance” in English. “Rachenitsa” is derived from the word “rachenik”, a handkerchief the leader twirls to add a flourish to the dance. It’s a cloth usually made from linen or silk. There are as many “flavors” of horo and rachenitsa as there are of ice cream, probably more, and they’re all delicious to dance to!

Rachenitsa is the national dance of Bulgaria. Some are slow, some are fast, some are easy, and some are difficult. It can be danced solo, with a partner, or a group. Horo is done in a group, the larger the crowd, the more fun it is!

The original horo and rachenitsa were probably performed by peasants, in the village square, to celebrate a special event. There are horo dances for holidays such Easter and St. George’s Day. The Nestinarsko Horo is a dance performed on the feast day of the saints Constantine and Helen, and done by a select group, called Nestinari, who dance on hot coals.

There is a rachenitsa for almost every occasion, and many have been composed for weddings. They are recognizable by the word “Svatbarska” (wedding) or “Bulcenska” (bridal) in the name. Aside from weddings, people danced to celebrate other festive occasions, such as saint’s days, national holidays, and successful harvests. Dances, in times past, were often an event for young people of the opposite sex to meet and mingle, under the watchful eyes of the older women.

Bulgarian folk music makes extensive use of time signatures with odd numbers, such as 5/8, 7/8, 9/8, 11/16 and 13/16 which create fascinating, unusual rhythms. The best way to learn the dances is to get a feel for the pattern of the music, and dance instructors often ask the students to chant or clap the meter before they learn the steps. For example, the rhythm for rachenitsa, a dance in 7/8 or 7/16 time, depending on the speed, is apple-apple-galloping.

Bulgarian dances can sometimes be challenging to learn, but believe it or not there are easy, basic, ones, such as Pravo Horo, which just about everyone in Bulgaria knows how to do. It has regional variations, and can be as simple or as complex as the dancers want it to be. “Pravo” in Bulgarian means “straight” and this dance is usually performed in a line; the easiest variation is three steps forward, one step in, three steps back, one step out, over and over again. (This pattern is common in other parts of the world, and not unique to Bulgaria).

Each region in Bulgaria has its own distinct dance style. For example in the southwestern region of the country, known as Pirin, dances are similar to the neighboring country of Macedonia, performed with pronounced leg lifts, hands held in a “w” hold, starting slow and speeding up as the music progresses. In central southern Bulgaria, Thrace, dancers tend to favor graceful, flowing steps, with hands held across each others’ waists in a belt hold or “basket hold.” In northwestern Bulgaria, the Severnjasko region, dancing is almost like flying, the feet hardly touching the ground, arms swinging in time with the steps, with lots of exuberance. In the northeast corner of Bulgaria, Dobrudja, dances are more down to earth, performed with knees bent, strong hand and arm movements, and accented with stamps. Dancers in the Shope region, near the capital, Sofia, prefer short lines, fast steps, and belt holds. In the Rhodope mountains, near the borders of Greece and Turkey, dancing is relatively subdued in comparison to the other regions. Men and women tend to dance separately, due to the Muslim influence in this area.

Although Bulgaria is a relatively small country, it has an extremely rich and diverse culture. There are dances that are specific to a particular area such as: Buenek and Tropanka (Dobrudja), Buchimis and Trite Puti (Thrace) and Lesnoto (Pirin). Padiusko Horo is popular all over Bulgaria. The name translates to “limping” dance and done with a combination of quick-slow steps.

Dances are named after towns or regions and sometimes after people and places. For example: Kyustendilska Racenica is from the town of Kyustendil; and Varnenska Tropanka is from the city of Varna. Elenino Horo is a dance about a girl named Elena. A very famous horo, immortalized by Diko Iliev, who composed in the folklore style, is Dunasvko, named after the Danube River, which separates Bulgaria from its northern neighbor, Romania.

Informal international folk dance groups can often be found at colleges and universities, and some of them hold classes or workshops in Bulgarian dance. You can also do a web search to find the group nearest your city or town.

Bulgarian dancing is an excellent mental and physical workout, a great way to make new friends, and lots of fun. And beware, once you start, it can become so addicting you won’t be able to stop!