Romania's Căluşarii

By Richard Duree

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Calusarii Dancer The 50th day after Orthodox Easter marks the beginning of the fearsome five days when the dead rise to cast evil, sickness, and bad luck about the countryside. It's Whitsuntide or Pentecost or — in Romania — "rusalii." In a world guided by superstition, the people turn to rituals older than memory to protect themselves from these evil forces and ensure fertility, long life, and good luck.

Early on the morning of that day, the women of the village rise before dawn and move silently in the early morning chill to the cemetery where they will honor the deceased members of their "neam," or extended family. Candles are placed on the graves to provide light to the deceased, since their needs are considered to be the same as the living. It is a time of deep mourning for those on the other side of the same universe. And it is a plea for benevolence from the deceased spirit.

The evening before, a group of men from the village, dressed in white trousers and long white shirts, had gathered at a secret ceremonial site to become "căluşarii" — the major force of protection from the impending danger. They are led by a "vataf" with absolute, unquestioned authority over the group. A "flag" or "steag" is constructed to lead them on their coming ritual and represent their power. Garlic and wormwood are wrapped on the end of a 10-foot pole with a white cloth. On a shorter pole, a rabbit skin is stretched over a wood frame — the "cioc" — for the vataf to carry as a symbol of his power and authority.

An oath is taken to abide by the groups' laws and traditions, to obey the vataf, share in the gifts to come, abstain from sex and, above all, keep the group's secrets — under a promise of vile sexual defilement of an offending căluşarii's family. This is serious business. During rusalii they will replace the sorcerer as healer and protector of the village. Once through the cycle of the căluş and the "legares căluşarii" is completed.

The căluşarii are now supernatural beings, removed from their normal lives as farmers or tradesmen. Their task is to bring their magic to the village, healing the sick, bringing luck and health to the young, protection from evil, fertility to parents and crops alike. Their white costume, festooned with bells around the knees and woven strips of fabric crossing over the shoulders and carrying a stick about one meter in length, they begin their visit to the villagers' homes.

The mute accompanies the group, a masked creature who carries a wooden sword and acts as the clown. He represents death and resurrection and being hit with his wooden sword is good luck. Many villagers attempt to touch the mute as he passes by. He partakes in the ritual by scribing a sacred dance circle in the yard of the homes, wherein the căluşarii will perform their magical dance.

As the group reaches each house, the vataf knocks on the door and asks permission to dance. Of course! The căluşarii are welcomed with open arms. To do otherwise could result in illness and even death. The steag is posted in the center of the circle with a bowl of water and a plate containing stalks of grain, garlic, salt and wormwood, provided by the home owner. Preparations completed, the căluşarii begin their dance, accompanied by uncostumed musicians.

And what a dance it is — the "căluş." Beginning with a slow strutting walk around the circle, the dance slowly quickens into a frenzy of brilliant footwork, accompanied by shouts and calls, ringing bells, and magnificent music driving them on. Great agility and stamina is required for the squats, leaps, and athletic movement of the dance. To the căluşarii, the dance is the medium for delivering their magic.

As the căluşarii make their rounds, it is possible that two groups may meet. When they do, excitement runs high. In former years, a fight could ensue, sometimes to the death. In more civilized times, a dance competition replaces the brawl. One can only imagine the theater of it all, much to the villagers' delight. If time and distance permit, the căluşarii will visit other nearby villages, spreading both their magic and rewards.

Mothers bring their children for the căluşarii's attentions. If the child is healthy, the căluşarii may hold the child while dancing, ensuring long life and good health. If the child is ill, the căluşarii will leap over the prostrate child three times in the traditional healing ritual. On occasion, women and unmarried girls may dance with the căluşarii, thus ensuring health, fertility, and attraction of a suitable husband. The căluşarii are indeed very powerful forces.

On the second Tuesday after rusalii begins, the group meets at the vataf's home to share the gifts and to conduct the "dejgares căluşarii," the ritual returning them to the status of villagers. The "steag" and "cioc" are ceremoniously dismantled, each man taking a part of it for himself. Then the pole is held horizontally and dropped. The men flee in all directions, then return and greet each other as though away for a long time. The pole is then buried in a secret place and the rusalii has been laid safe for another year.

Though modern forces have diluted the căluşarii ritual, the căluş is in the repertoire of most of Romania's professional dance companies and has been performed in dance concerts around the world. None who see it are unmoved by its power and energy.

The căluş should not be considered a folk dance, rather a dance of religious ritual. It is not danced by the people, rather by specifically designated individuals who perform it under a specific situation for spiritual reasons. It is related to the Morris Dance of England and to various other rituals throughout Europe where health, fertility, good luck, and sex appeal are encouraged through the dance.

For further readings about the căluş and căluşarii, read Căluş, Symbolic Transformation in Romanian Ritual by Gail Kligman, published by University of Chicago Press.


Used with permission of the author.