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In the mountain areas of the Balkans, which include the former Yugoslavia, Albania, and the rugged mountain region of Lika in Croatia, the natives dance. But it has never been part of their dance tradition to dance with instrumental accompaniment. Most Americans cannot imagine dancing without instrumental music, but there are cultures in the world where this is, in fact, the case, especially the people in these mountains. They danced and never used musical instruments for that activity. Though that would not so much be the case in the last couple of generations because of increased communication, travel, and outside influence, for the sake of this discussion, let's imagine a world, maybe three or four generations ago, when, in those mountain areas, on a Sunday afternoon, the people would get together and dance with no instrumental music. To them, this was the natural way to dance.
As a matter of fact, there is an anecdote that they tell about a mountaineer who had a distant relative living in the city of Split on the Dalmatian coast who was invited to a wedding down there. Neither he nor anybody in his village had ever been out of the mountains, so they wondered what it would be like down there in the city. He was a little wary, but he went, and was down there for a while. When he came back, all the villagers crowded around him asking, "Well, what was it like? What was it like in the big city. What was the wedding like?" He said, "Well, the wedding was very nice, and they had lots of good food and lots to drink, but there was one funny thing. There were five or six guys standing in a corner with some kind of boxes that made noises. Every time they would make noise, the people would get up and dance, and when they stopped making noise, the people stopped dancing." The villagers got the biggest kick out of that. That's basically the reverse of our impression of dancing. We think, "How can they dance without instrumental accompaniment?" The answer is simply that they do. That is the traditional form of their dance.
In the Serbo-Croatian language, the word for unaccompanied dancing varies. One is nijemo, which also means "deaf and dumb, speech impaired, or mute." Another is gluho, which means "deaf." They refer to those dances that way, using common, everyday adjectives. In trying to translate into English, this presents a problem. You're faced with a dance from an area that is done without musical accompaniment, and the accurate way to talk about the dance is to say "dance done without instrumental accompaniment." This would be the really correct way to translate Nijemo kolo into English. Though "mute dance" or "dumb dance" works fine in Serbo-Croatian, neither work in the English language. Well, somebody at some time way back when they were talking about these dances hit upon the word "silent," and they began to call this kind of dancing "silent" dancing.
In Yugoslavia, I first saw a silent dance, Ličko kolo, on a Sunday afternoon in a village in Lika called Stajnice. I was with some friends, and we just happened to be in that village at that time. At one point in the early afternoon, the villagers gathered around in little conversation groups. You used to see this all the time on Sunday afternoons in those little villages. There is always dancing in the afternoons, almost anywhere you go. It takes different forms in different places. In Stajnice, they were standing around in small family groups and groups of guys or girls telling jokes. At one point, one of the guys belted out a song, and moved toward the center of a cleared area in front of the church. A couple of his buddies lined up next to him, some women jumped in, and pretty soon there was a whole curved line, all singing this song. I didn't really pay much attention to the lyrics, but they were doing a really simple, almost a walking step while they sang. You could hardly call it "dancing." It was as if they were singing, and the footwork sort of accompanied the song. What they were doing was Ličko kolo. They did the "dance" for a couple of songs, led by this guy with everyone else joining in on the second measure.
Often, this kind of song is improvised. The leader knows what he or she is going to sing but the others don't, so the others wait until they get a clue from the lead singer in the first measure or two. Then they join in. Historically, the songs were purely random, whatever the leader chose to start outsome were romantic, others heroic, and many of them outright obscene. There were an infinite number of songs and the natives dance to any of them. I picked Pijeva mi pijeva because it's pretty, but you can use any song. Some of those guys, the songs they're singing, are just plain raw, and Yugoslav humor in sexual jokes is absolutely physical and descriptive and rough. Well, you know, they'll be singing with double meanings in these verses, and then there'll be the silence, and then they'll think of another dirty thought and sing about that. I'm exaggerating for effect, but basically that's it.
They did this "silent dance" for maybe a half hour. I can't remember if they repeated it or not, as I got occupied by other things, but I did notice at one point that a little rock band showed up and set up with their equipment and speakers, and pretty soon they were playing what they call "swing" or "rock and roll." It's their own brand of rock 'n' roll. We'd consider the music very square, but they were trying very hard. They'd been listening to American music and tried to imitate it because they loved it. We had to leave, and when we did, the young people were all out there in that same area in front of the church. The people in the area said, "Yeah, if they do Ličko kolo at all any more, it's usually early enough on a Sunday afternoon that they do it as sort of a token opener, but the kids are really waiting for the rock and roll band. That's when the action really starts."
I came back from Yugoslavia that year ('52 or '54, I can't remember exactly which, but I was over there almost every year) and, for some reason, decided to teach Ličko kolo. I thought it would fun to teach people the kind of dance where you don't need a record. The dance is very old, and at one time (pre_World War II) had many variants all over Lika. According to old-timers, the main function of the dance was to demonstrate and test the strength and stamina of the young people. In particular the suitability of marriageable young women was judged by their ability to endure the strenuous movemens of the dance's fast part which, as done by natives, can be very strenuous. The historic formation was a circle of dancers, alternating mixed man-woman-man-woman, the couples in each case being sweethearts or engaged pairs. The dance was always done without musical accompanimentthe first part accompanied by dancers' singing, and the second part of comparative silence, the footfalls of the dancers being the only "audio" element besides shouts and the commands of the leader. In an older form of Ličko, the leader played the role of "dance director," shouting out commands for all the dancers to perform certain standard step patterns; failure to perform them up to snuff meant possible ejection fro the circle!
The dance started out with an ambling, almost casual walking step moving left (clockwise), three steps left and one step more or less in place, to the singing. When the song finished, dancers "shifted gears" into the fast, high-energy Part II. After World War II, the old versions of the dance had pretty well died out, and a simpler form prevailed, in some places called either Ličko kolo or by a new name, Djikac (JEE-kahtz, 'jumping').
At Maine Folk Dance Camp, I taught one of the favorite songs from Lika, Pjevaj mi, pjevaj (or, in local Lika dialect, Pivaj mi, pivaj) and taught the dance, Ličko koli, using that song for the slow, opening part. I also taught two or three variations for the fast Part II (in other words, pretty much as I had witnessed in Stajnice and also as it was done in Upper Michigan by descendants of immigrants from Lika whose parents had come there to work in the copper mines). A little later, Bob Leibman and Elsie Ivancich Dunin taught more elaborate, older versions of Ličko kolo around the country, with old calls and many more variations.
Folk dancers here had never danced a European dance without instrumental accompaniment before, and fell in love with it. It captured a special place in the United States folk dance scene which it still holds today, although natives from Lika might be puzzled at the aura of near-reverence or "mysticism" that surrounds it here. The song/dance took on different meaning amongst the folk dancers than it had with the Yugoslavs. Because it was silent. Psychologically, the word "silent, is pungent and full of power in our society. For example, "let us have a moment of silence, please" in memory of so-and-so, or "the mob fell silent at...." The word "silent" in English is loaded with lots of baggage that a good translator would avoid applying to a dance. When you say "the silent kolo," there is an air of mystique, of mystery, of possible spiritual power involved. That silence kicked in American sentiments of reverence. Anything that's slow and majestic and has silences feels reverent. In contrast, when they sang in the village of Stanice, those four beats without singing did not bring any sentiments of mystique or reverence to the natives; it was just natural. They were getting ready to sing the next verse.
One year at Stockton Camp, a fellow from Lika who had made it in the grape business in California, came and watched us as we did Ličko; he didn't get into it. Afterwards, he said exactly what I would have predicted. "Why the candles?" And "That dance is nothing; you just walk and sing; why would you do it anyhow?" To add to his puzzlement were the dimmed lights, the hymn-like quality of the singing, and this rapt silence. It's only done now around the country as the final dance of the evening and they turn the lights down and light the candles.
In the recreational folk dance movement, Ličko kolo took off and acquired a life of its own. The steps themselves have changed (the natural folk process) over the years, and a purely United States variation of the slow steep has developed: a grapevine to the left: step left, step right in front of left, step left, step right foot in back of left. This is a change from the traditional structure in which the last step by the right foot never crossed in back of the left; rather, it either stepped in place, very slightly to the right or straight or diagonally right back from the center with slight pause.
I think Ličo kolo is a wonderful starting point to discuss many things about folk dancing, about one culture and what it does with the cultural traits of another culture, why and how and just the idea of the interpretationof two different cultures' interpretations of the meaning of silence. This provides a nice exercise in cross-cultural understanding without getting bogged down in heavy, philosophical and/or abstract discussions.
Used with permission of the author.