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Folk Dance Federation of California, South, Inc.

By Richard Duree



Hungary is and has been in the forefront in ethnic dance research, notation, and reconstruction for several decades. We know more about the dance culture and tradition of Hungary than perhaps any other single country, due to the efforts and contributions of Dr. György Martin, director of the Ethnomusicology Department of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. The fortunate combination of a rich and diverse dance tradition, brilliant and concerned scientists, and official government support has not simply provided us with a thorough and continuing study of Hungarian dance culture, it has provided an example and created a model for all to follow.

Recreational folk dancers are familiar with Hungarian dance through the 40-year effort of Andor Czompo, who began teaching to folk dancers in the early 1960s. The Hungarian tanchaz (TANC haaz = dance house) movement – a direct result of research by Martin and others – reached America in the late 1970s and this improvised dancing of traditional "dance cycles" has become one of the most advanced recreational folk dance activities.

It is past time for us to examine this wealth of dance information. Many Hungarian dance names will be familiar to folk dancers; others will be new. Martin's regional and temporal classifications will be generally followed, though the length of this study requires some deletions and adjustments.

Regions of Hungary

Martin divides the country into three regions or "dance dialects." In keeping with the east to west settlement of Hungary, let's begin with the oldest, easternmost region, Transylvania (Erdaly: "AIR dai ye" in Hungarian), a forested plateau surrounded by the high Carpathian Alps, the eastern end of the Carpathian Mountains. Migrating Magyar tribes entered the region in the 10th Century from the Danube Valley to the south, seeking to avoid attacks by other barbaric tribes in the area; thus, "Transylvania" (trans = "across" + sylvan = "forests"). This is the oldest region of Hungarian-speaking peoples and is part of Romania only by very recent political action.

Westward from the wooded slopes of Transylvania lies the "Hungarian Basin," generally flat and treeless, drained by two north-south rivers, the Tisza and the Danube.

The "Tisza Region" contains the Alföld (Great Plain), heart of the Hungarian horse culture, and the northern mountains, site of the famous Tokaj wine.

Further west, across the Danube, is Transdanubia (across + "Danube;" Dunantul: "DOON on tool" in Hungarian), divided north and south by Lake Balaton; this is Martin's "Danube Region." The south is a land of gently rolling hills, with sheep and swine husbandry dominant. Northern Transdanubia is closest to Austria and shows the most Western influence in its dance culture. Other well-known areas of the Danube Region are Sarköz (SHAR kooz) along the southern Danube and Paloc (PAW lotes) in the north. One must remember to include neighboring areas in Croatia and Slovakia in these ethnographic regions.

Dance Classifications

Throughout most of Hungary, the various dances in each region's repertoire are danced in a traditional sequence, a tancrend or "dance cycle." The most common order is: the women's karikázo, the men's verbunk, followed by the couple csárdás. This tradition follows a long period of development, the heart of Martin's research.

Old Style Dances:

Dance historians and ethnologists acknowledge the "chain" or "circle" dance as the oldest form of dance, originating in the dim, unknown past as part of tribal ritual. The form exists still, primarily in the Balkan region of Europe, insulated by the Turks from the influences of Western Renaissance which allowed development of couple dance.

In Hungarian dance, the circle and chain dance is found in several forms, including the hajza (HAY zaw) of the Csángós from Gymes in northern Romania, the left-moving chain dances of Transdanubia, the women's karikázo, found throughout Transdanubia, and to a lesser extent elsewhere, and in the lassü Magyar, a slow turning dance of two couples found in Transylvania, plus numerous other examples found throughout the Hungarian dance region.

The karikázo, well-known to recreational folk dancers, is the most recent of the circle dances and is considered to be more of a singing game than a dance, the women gathering and singing to pass the time while the men engage in a bout of macho drinking. The songs are accompanied by simple dance steps led by one of the singers. Different circles of women – usually of different generations – will dance different steps to the same song. The steps are improvised from within a repertoire of local dance figures and is created anew each time.

"Herdsmen's dances" generally fall within the ugros or "jumping dance" family, and are also very old. Early settlers were, of necessity, both herdsman and warriors, and were known as hajduks (HAI dukes). Dancing with naked swords, staffs, whips, and other tools and weapons was a common, often spectacular entertainment, noted enthusiastically by early travelers. The dances exist today and, though the sword is rarely seen, amazing dexterity with the staff is demonstrated in shepherd's dances of Somogy and horsemen's dances of the Hortobágy. Olahos is a well-known variation of the dance, found in the Alföld and the southern Tisza region.

The ugros takes many forms and is still danced throughout Hungary. Where the newer verbunk did not become established, this is still the dominant dance for men and often for couples, as well.

"Lad's dances" were developed from the old herdsmen's dances and are found mostly in Transylvania. They are considered to be the most highly developed of all Hungarian dances. Competitive in nature, as were many herdsmen's dances, the dance is improvised by the dancer from a local repertoire of figures and movement styles and are performed within a highly structured format which varies from place to place. The dance is marked by dynamic leg gestures, slapping patterns on boot and thigh, leaps, and stamping rhythms. Once observed, no one can fail to recognize one these spectacular dances, known variously as legényes, tempö, pontozö, sürü Magyar, and others.

Old Style Couple Dances

Martin credits the Western Renaissance of the 16th Century with the introduction of the pre-csárdás couple dances into Hungary. Many of the figures of the csárdás appeared very early, including the close-holding of the partner and rapid turning figures. The dance form is still found in Transylvania in such well-known dances as the Székély forgatós, and the csárdás of Mezöség. Transylvanian Romanians perform similar dances (învîrtita, ardeleana, breaza, and ungureasca), characterized by complex 7/16 rhythms and syncopated dance movements in stark contrast to the Hungarians' more straight forward treatment of a 4/4 rhythm.

New Style Dances

In Europe, anything 200 years old is considered "new." So it is with Martin's "New Style Dances," which he traces to the late 18th Century, with new musical motifs which are still with us.

The Hungarian male was most proud of two things: his ability to ride and his skill in dance. These factors combined to become the basis of the creation of a new dance – the verbunk (from verbun, "to recruit" in German). Those were the days of the hussars ("huszar" in Hungarian), the famous, brilliantly uniformed cavalry of European armies. Hungarian youth were of great interest by the Austro-Hungarian army and the verbunk was developed as a recruiting device.

Small detachments of soldiers, specially selected and trained, were sent into the villages, where their uniforms drew great attention from the young men and women alike. The sergeant would hire the local gypsy musicians to play and the soldiers would gather in a circle around the corporal, who was the dance master. Then, with spurs ringing, the dance would begin, soldiers repeating ever more complex dance figures led by the corporal. What an irresistible sight for the young, poor boys! It took little encouragement for them to join the dance circle, a little more from the inevitable jug of wine, perhaps trying on a soldier's sabre or shako, and the young man was heartily welcomed into a lifetime enlistment in the emperor's army! It worked! It worked for over a hundred years. Accounts of the dance, already well developed, date from 1793 in Vienna.

The verbunk is the dominant men's dance throughout much of western Hungary; in the northwest, the dance is very martial in nature, every man performing the same figures (Kapuvári Verbunk and Gencsi Verbunk are two of Andor Czompo's popular dances of this type). Further east and south, the dance disappears, or at least its martial nature disappears, as the older ugros and herdsman's dances reappear in Somogy, Sarköz, and the Alföld. Even further away, in Transylvania, the already mentioned "lads' dances" appear.

Lastly, the csárdás (CHAR dawsh), the national dance of Hungary. Originating in the village csárdá or pub, the dance lacked respectability for generations, since no respectable woman would ever go into a csárdá. Like the Charleston, the dance eventually outgrew its immoral beginnings and became the dance most dear to the Hungarian heart.

The csárdás displays marked differences between regions, varying greatly in richness of figures, tempo, and character. The classic "profile" of the csárdás is a long, almost melancholy beginning, followed by a short, fiery ending in which the slower figures may be repeated or, in some areas, completely new figures may be introduced. In Rabaköz and Palóc in the north, the dance is energetic, with sharp, stamping movements. In Somogy to the south, the dance becomes much more languid and open. To the east, Szatmár County displays a csárdás with immense differences in slow and fast tempos, a rich variety of figures, and the introduction of verbunk figures into the dance by the men – one of the most spectacular versions of the csárdás.

In Transylvania, still further east, though the couple dances are mostly of the older form, the term csárdás is usually applied to the middle section which is preceded by a very slow dance and followed by a very rapid one.

Interestingly, the word páros (PA rosh) means simply "couple dance" and is applied to any couple dance, whether a csárdás or not. It does not identify any specific dance.

If this sounds like a lot of information, it is, but it barely scratches the surface of this most interesting and challenging ethnic dance tradition. And Hungary is only one of many with dance cultures equally worthy of such in-depth analysis. It is hoped that others will continue to apply its methods and lessons to the preservation of this most precious and fleeting of the folk arts.

Used with permission of the author.