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Russian Folk Dancers Folk Dance Federation of California, South, Inc.

Russian Dance and Music
By Jay Michtom, 2011



The first Russian folk music and dance extends back into the 10th century, when Slavic tribes moved into Russia. The Slavs were known for their knowledge and mastery of instruments, songs, and dance. Because of the many invasions of the country and the resulting inter-cultural mix, many of the original dances have either been combined with each other into new forms or been lost over time.

The first dances were only known by the peasants and lowest classes. The upper classes and aristocracy did not dance themselves, but instead they enjoyed watching the performances of dance troupes and clowns. There also were "skomorkhi" (street entertainers) who sang and danced and performed tricks as they wandered from town to town.


According to Russian dance director Mikhail Victorovich Smirnov, the first established record of Russian dance occurred in 907 CE when Vechishiy Oleg, first grand prince of Kiev, was celebrating his victory at Constantinople. Although his troops could not infiltrate the city walls, they did force the Greeks to enter into a treaty. At the celebration, male dancers dressed up like bears, and several dancing bears were clothed like Russians. At the end of the feast, Oleg demanded the bears be released back into the wild and the dancers be executed. Apparently, Oleg, who was partially blind, thought the dancers were from the northern tribes who owed him numerous tiger skins.


Some of the Russian folk songs and dances were associated with calendar events, such as planting and harvesting, and others with family rites, such as births, weddings, and funerals. Most Russian holidays have been celebrated in the fall and winter when the farming is over for the year. The entertainment begins with a prayer and is followed with an abundant feast, singing, dancing, and a series of entertaining fist fights or "stenka na stenku" (wall against wall).


The clothing, that accompanied many of the dances, also was based on the event. Holiday headwear included a "kokoshnik" (headdress) that was decorated with pearls and gold thread; embroidered and decorated blouse or shirt; "sarafan" (jumper), belt, and ornamented apron. The primary color was red, which meant "beautiful." The men wore "kosovortkas" (shirts) fastened on the side; belt; narrow trousers; semi-high or high boots.


In 1937, the Soviets organized the first Russian folk dance troupe under the direction of Igor Moiseyev. The troupe continues to be one of the top performers of folk dance worldwide. The dancing ensemble with its traditional music, dance and song, that is popular in the West, keeps the audience clapping and shouting praise. Moiseyev died in 2008 at the age of 101.

The Moiseyev Company embodies all of the Russian traditional folk dance arts and preserves the folk culture. The classically trained are more than dancers. The men and women in their traditional belted tunics and bright red dresses are also acrobats, like today's break dancers, with bodies spinning and zig-zagging on the ground so fast they are almost impossible to see. The dancers fly into the air with their legs wide apart and their fingers touching their toes. While they are dancing, they are telling the story of the hundreds of years of Russian history and the many changes that occurred during the centuries.


The roots of Russian folk music date as far back as to the middle of the first millenium, when Slavic tribes settled in the European part of the present territory of Russia. Those tribes were famous for their love and mastery of music, singing and dancing, according to Byzantium and German manuscripts. It is known that in 591 CE, Avars' khan sent Slavic singers and "gusli" (the oldest East Slavic multi-string plucked zither) players as ambassadors to the Byzantium Emperor. The music of Kievan Rus, the first Russian state formed in the 10th century, was not homogeneous, just like the tribes that made up this country. It included Finno-Ugric, Turkic, and other prototypes besides Slavic ones.

Guttural singing traditions of Siberia and the Far East are very old. Regional and ethnic (pre-national) traditions remain evident in Russian folklore. Thus, folk singing traditions of the northern, western, southern and central regions, as well as settlements in basins of big rivers of Oka, Volga and Don, have their own distinct features. The majority of still-alive folk songs have pagan roots bearing the impact of Christian rites.

Ethnic (folk) music in Russia can often be categorized according to the amount of authenticity in the performance: truly authentic folk music (reproductive performances of traditional music), folkloric, and fakeloric performance.


This music is closely tied in with the village life and traditions. It was usually not performed by music professionals. In recent years, there has been a marked decline in authentic folk performance practice. Festivals, competitions, and the work of ethnomusicologists have made attempts at preserving what has survived. In recent times, there has been a movement by musicologists to study and reproduce authentic folk music in an authentic performance style on the concert stage. This movement in Russia is spearheaded by members of the faculty of folk music at the Moscow Conservatory.


This category includes music by groups led by music professionals, past and present, who have taken authentic musical material, and then arranged and performed it. It was widely accepted as 'authentically Russian' by Western audiences (conditioned, for instance, by performances of the Red Army Song and Dance Ensemble).

The category includes many of the regional folkloric ensembles and dance companies popular in the Russian Federation. Often, these folkloric ensembles specialize in collecting and maintaining the folk music traditions of the area of their origins which they service. They perform in stylized stage costumes based on the authentic costume designs used in the village, but modified for stage use. Most inauthentic, but widespread, was the practice of performing so-called Cossack "prysiadki" (low-squatting dances in perfect synchronization; as Professor Laura J. Olson observes, "this situation did not reflect actual Cossack traditions as much as it borrowed from the traditions of Russian ballet that dated to the late 19th century."


Fakeloric music includes music composed by city intelligentsia and professional composers in a folkloric manner. Some sixty to eighty percent of contemporary Russian folk music marketed to the West is not "authentic" and can be loosely labeled as "fakeloric." Much of the music of the Russian folk instrument orchestras can also be categorized in this group as it is based on academic music traditions and playing techniques, only taking a folk element as its inspiration.

In recent times, music professionals who have completed diplomas in noted conservatories performing on Russian folk instruments are now questioning their "folkiness" when they perform, as none of their music was ever really performed originally by the (village) folk. Some now refer to their music as being academic folk music that to many academic musicians is an oxymoron.


Authentic Russian folk music is primarily vocal. Russian folk song was an integral part of daily life in the village. It was sung from morning to night and reflected the four seasons and significant events in a villager's life. Its roots are in the orthodox church services where significant parts are sung. Most of the population also was illiterate and poverty stricken, meaning that resources for instruments could not be had and notation of any kind, which is more relevant for instrumentals than for vocals, could not be read.

Russian folk songs and dances were formed in two cycles: one of them is associated with calendar rites (sowing, harvest, etc.), while the other has to do with family rituals (wedding, birth, burial, etc.). The epoch of Old Rus is characteristic of heroic ballads singing the praises of noble princes and instrumental music (pipes, horns, tambourines, and kettle drums). Special place in song, folklore belongs to calendar song cycle; it consists of smaller cycles definitely timed to seasons and pagan festivals (often overlaid with Christian holidays).

Authentic village singing differs from academic singing styles. It is usually sung using just the chest register and is often called "white sound" or "white voice." It is often described as controlled screaming or shouting. Female chest register singers only have a low diapason (a grand swelling burst of harmony) of an octave to twelve notes.


Instrumental music for a long period was suppressed in Russia. In 1648, Tsar Alexis I of Russia, under the influence of then-prevalent views in the Russian Orthodox Church, banned the use of all musical instruments. At that time, it was stated that instruments were from the devil. Not easily verifiable today, but some historians also believe that traveling minstrels singing disrespectful songs about the Tsar to balalaika accompaniment, could have been the real reason. As a result of the ban, instrumental music traditions disappeared and did not have a fertile ground for development in Russia for many years. No musical instruments are used in Orthodox churches (in Russia).

In the late 19th century, Vasily Andreyev, a salon violinist, took up the balalaika in his performances for French tourists to Petersburg. The music became popular and soon Andreyev had organized a club of balalaika players. This club grew into an orchestra, which in time grew into a movement.

From a simple unsophisticated three-stringed instrument, combined with an awakening "Russianness" in the last phases of the Tsarist Empire, the movement led to the development and implementation of many other Russian folk instruments.

The Russian folk instrument movement had its resonance in the cultures of other ethnic groups within Russia, the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Block countries. Folk instrument orchestras appeared in Belarus, Ukraine, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Moldavia, Romania, and Kyrgyzstan.

Taken from Internet sources.
Printed in Folk Dance Scene, August 2011.