By Richard Duree
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Few places in the Western World are as storied as Transylvania. Americans are particularly ill-informed about this beautiful region, recalling only a vague reference to an evil Count Dracula. For those of us who know a bit more about Europe, we know it is the ancient home of the Hungarians, now a major region of Romania and the subject of intense folkloric study.
Europe's checkered and confusing history did not neglect Transylvania, as the present population can attest. A mixture of Hungarians and Romanians exists with an uneasy tolerance in a land with its feudal roots still very evident. Small isolated villages, connected by wandering dirt roads, are populated by one or another of the two ethnic groups, rarely mixed, and the ethnicity is evident in every detail from the village names to the rooflines of the peasant cottages.
In the 10th Century, seven Magyar tribes arrived in Transylvania at the end of a long migration from the steppes of Asia through the Danube Valley over the Transylvanian Alps (thus the name: Trans = across, sylvan = forests). Under the leadership of the leader we know as Atilla the Hun, these nomadic horse people settled in the valleys of Transylvania and eventually spread westward to occupy the Hungarian Basin. For a thousand years, Transylvania remained a major region of the Hungarians as they became a part of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Within the lifetime of many living to day, the spoils of war took this treasured place from the Hungarians and gave it to neighboring Romania. The resulting repopulation upheavals and political suppression are well-known. As Romanians moved into Transylvania, place names were changed and many were deported. The entire Saxon population around Hermanstadt (now Sibiu) was expelled, destroying an entire culture in the process.
Walter Starkey, in his book Raggle Taggle, tells of meeting a strange little man on his travels in Transylvania in the late 1920s who claimed to be the fabled Pied Piper of Hamlin. He claimed to have brought the children to Hermanstadt where they still lived, tall, fair and blonde in a nation of dark-haired Romanians and Hungarians.
Transylvania is a beautiful land of mountains and valleys, green meadows and dark forests. Its remote sheltered location ensured minimal influence by either the Ottomans or Western Europe, allowing a rather undisturbed, organic folkloric development. Hungarians, Romanians and Saxons each maintained their particular identities, yet combined in a natural interaction to create an extremely rich, identifiable Transylvanian culture far more colorful than if only one contributing culture.
Hungarian regions roughly divided Transylvania into Mezöség in the north centered around Cluj (formerly Kaloszvár), Székélyfőld in the east and Kalotaszeg in the east and south. A third group, the Csángós, of Székély stock, live outside any of these regions in the high Transylvanian Alps and in Moldavia to the east.
The folk arts of dance, costume, music, furniture, architecture, pottery, and wood carving are well developed and carefully preserved. The dance is highly organized and contains both archaic and modern dance forms among both Hungarians and Romanians. Interesting comparisons may be observed between the two, in the competitive seriousness of the Hungarians, with even rhythms and complex syncopations and the Romanian's more group-oriented performance of highly complex rhythms.
Dance cycles generally begin with highly regulated men's dances with an amazing array of athletic figures, followed by a slow, then fast couple dance, equally rich in figures characterized by rapidly spinning figures for the women. In some regions the differences between the Hungarian and Romanian dance is slight, while in others it is quite evident in both figures and rhythms.
The Csángás of the Gyimex Pass and Moldavia reveal even older forms, preserved in regions not influenced by the more modern Hungarian culture. Indeed, much of their dance traditions have been adopted from Moldavian and Romanian dance forms, giving them a more Balkan flavor with chain dances dominating.
The Székély of eastern Transylvania are unique even among the Hungarians, having been granted special privileges, such as the right to own land and freedom from taxation by the Hapsburgs in exchange for acting as border guards against the Ottomans just over the mountains. The Széklers to this day proudly maintain their separate identity, having adopted more modern dance motifs into their repertoire.
Many ethnologists have dedicated their entire lives to the study of one small region of Transylvanian dance and folklore. It's story would fill volumes and is still an endless reservoir of folk art treasures. As it becomes modernized in the near future, much of that folklore will naturally disappear. Folklorists and ethnologists are frantically studying the region to save as much as possible of this priceless heritage and those of us who study the dance are richer for it. To many of us, it is the ultimate dance.
Used with permission of the author.