Movement and Dance

Certain definite forms of movement are also very much part of ethnic and regional characteristics. Thus walking itself differs by regions, as may be observed in the difference between the gait of the people of the Great Plain and that of people from the mountain regions.

Those forms of crouching which include resting with or without a stick are most characteristic of herdsmen, especially those of the Great Plain, since mountain regions offer numerous possibilities for sitting down.

The ways of sleeping also vary, because the posture of the body is different in a feather bed and on a plank couch spread with straw, which serves as a place for an afternoon nap. During work, when someone did not want to fall into a very deep sleep, he would put a cut-down log under his head or perhaps rested on the satchel containing his scythe. Women also slept in a different posture during the break in work, lying to the straw, in contrast to their bed at night.

Certain rules existed regarding the way to wear and move in folk costumes. Thus, a woman of a Palots village, when sending off her little daughter in a longer dress, would instruct her how to step out quickly, so that her dress would not ripple like the skirts of the women from the next village, who take longer steps. The women and girls of Mezőkövesd moved in their costume with a taut body posture, chest thrown out, their skirts would swing at every step. When they left off wearing folk costumes, their way of walking changed and the body posture became less constrained.

The characteristic traits of simple and more complex movements are known today only fragmentarily, and in mentioning these we wish to provide a glimpse at opportunities given to research during the great transitions of the present.

256. Mangling board with sealing wax inlay showing dancers, 1868

256. Mangling board with sealing wax inlay showing dancers, 1868
Hövej, Győr-Sopron County

Dancing is a form of movement regulated by tradition and bound to music, known equally in its historical depth and in its geographic distribution. The Hungarian word tánc (dance) is itself a European loan word which probably came into the language during the course of the Middle Ages from Middle High German, perhaps originally with reference to dancing in pairs, which was much condemned by the {448.} Protestant preachers of the 16th and 17th centuries. More and more dances are mentioned from the 16th century, but Táncos in the form of a family name may have been widespread even earlier. However, it is interesting that the peasants do not use the word, or do so only infrequently, to designate their dances. Instead they made the adjective of the dance independent: karikázó (rounder), lépő (stepping), botoló (cudgeller), verbunk (recruiter), csárdás. This shows that the word tánc remained strange to them even after several centuries.

We know that Hungarian dances have been occasionally mentioned and referred to from the Middle Ages. On the Runkelstein fresco in Austria (1320), the Hungarian queen of Polish origin, Elizabeth, leads the dance, which is similar to the round dance for girls of later times.

It seems that herdsmen were in every age not only masters but propagators and developers of Hungarian dances. The first great lyric poet, Bálint Balassi, introduced a dance during the course of the 1572 national assembly: “After the tables were removed the military youth and the grown children of the noblemen danced in the portico of the house; among them Bálint Balassa had no peer, this twenty-two-year-old son of János... in a dance form which is a speciality of shepherds, but which is held by foreign folks to be a common Magyar dance... the {449.} emperor and the king and the other princes regarded him with pleasure from a high platform, as he crouched down to the ground, snatched his legs together, then kicked them apart, then leapt up jumping high.”

Fig. 205. The ways girls hold each other when dancing a round.

Fig. 205. The ways girls hold each other when dancing a round.
a) Holding hands. b) Arm in arm. c) Loosely through hands crossed at the back. d) Holding on to the shoulder. e) Holding on to the neighbour’s waist

More than two and a half centuries later, in 1843, one outstanding Hungarian poet and lexicographer spoke of the herdsmen dances with the authority of an eye witness: “The herdsmen amuse themselves with peculiar music, singing, and dance. Their musical instrument is the bagpipe, or flute, less frequently a clarinet-like shawn (tárogató). Their songs, like the sound of a bagpipe, are muttering, and their dance, at least around the Bakony region, is a stamping dance, danced today only by swineherds, so that it is called swineherd dance. A brief outline of this dance is as follows: “The music consists of the sound of bagpipe or long flute, its rhythm entirely different from the various kinds of recruiting music or fresh [quick-tempoed] Hungarian music, and one’s feet are almost compelled to stamp the rhythm when listening to it because of its very characteristic time measure. And while in the fresh dance man faces woman, here man faces man both stamping the ground, and both twirling a cudgel or stick or a shining hatchet with their fingers, and at times they throw the weapons to each other with frightening speed, and so it happens that, when the hands of one dancer are empty, the other one, armed in both hands, shows off his whirling dexterity; then they both put down their cudgels and jump over them from left to right and right to left, according to the rhythm; then one puts his cudgel between his legs and crouches down on it, while the other one circles it, sometime even jumping over it.”

Historical sources often mention the hajdú or Heyduck dance among military dances. The Heyducks or foot-soldiers appear in the middle of the 16th century in Hungarian history (cf. p. 45). Half a century after the execution of György Dózsa (1514), a historical record already mentions that while the peasant leader was being tortured, his warriors were forced to dance a recruiting dance, also called hajdú, Heyduck dance. The recruiting dance here is still a “stamping dance”, and the term verbunk (recruiting) is not used as that word appeared only after the language reform of the 19th century. In 1565, one of the Hungarian Calvinists wrote: “The bourdon pipe prompted the Heyducks to do the Heyduck dance.” One Hungarian noble in 1615 sent some men with hatchets and weapons to perform a Heyduck dance to honour his son, a student in Wittenberg. They performed the dance to the sound of violins, trumpets, pipes and bagpipes. In the mid 18th century, Miklós Zrínyi wrote in regard to a celebration of the fight against the Turks:

Some Croatian davorits*minstrels holler’d fierce and loud;
Some Heyducks hopped dancing with all their weapons proud.

                                     (The Zrínyiad, Canto IV.)

Brown, an English traveller passing through Hungary, also noted of this dance: “Before travelling in Hungary I had never seen the Pyrrhic dance as practised in the past by the ancients, and now by the Heyducks. They dance with naked swords, hit each other’s swords, by which great {450.} clamour is created, they spin about, jump in the air, throw themselves onto the ground with surprising agility, and finally they sing in their own fashion.” Three characteristic features of the Heyduck dance unfold from this description: the spinning, the jumping in the air, and throwing oneself on the ground. It is noteworthy that meanwhile the dancers also sang.

On the basis of historical notes, descriptions, and research which investigates dancing and music together and recorded them with the help of film, dances can now be divided into two large groups: the old type and the more recent. However, within these groups the possibility for further division is open.

If we look at the character of the dances, we can differentiate three large groups in the course of history. The rondes or chain-, circle-, or garland-dances belong to the first group, in which every member of the group does basically similar movements. These in part still-existing dance forms are characteristic of the Middle Ages, and their features are rooted in the collective spirit of the period. In the Balkans, where the long Turkish rule arrested and blocked development from general European trends, these dances continued to exist and in certain places 30 to 40 versions came into being. In Hungary, on the other hand, these types of dances have gradually been supplanted.

At the beginning of modern times, as an effect of Renaissance culture, the individual personality came more and more to the fore, even in dance. This is the time when a number of individual and couple-dances evolved. The ability of the dancer is clearly evident not only in solo but also in pair dancing, in which case both dancers moved independently of each other to the rhythm of the music. It is precisely in this area that Hungarian dance reached the highest degree of artistic achievement, the fulfilment of individual abilities. As is the case with folksongs, the possibilities for variation are so great that it is difficult to ascertain even the general rules of dancing. In this sense Dániel Berzsenyi, an early 19th century poet, writes the following about the Magyar dance:

Art cannot its hidden laws discover,
Itself it obeys and its fiery soul.

About two centuries ago and originating from the West, where the middle class rose earlier, a newer style of dancing gained ground, one regulating and binding the structure of couples dancing. Individual improvisation could not prevail in this latter form, or it prevailed to a much lesser degree. This layer of dancing spread in Hungary during the last century, but did not replace improvised dancing.

Let us consider some of the older forms of Hungarian dance, especially those that can be traced back to the Middle Ages. Such are the roundels or circle dances (körtánc), also known as ring (karikás) dances, of which some music and lyrics have come down to us, such as:

Ding-ho, way in, ring-ho way in,
Hop in and do the round dance!
Ding-ho, way in, ring-ho way in,
Hop in and do the round dance!
{451.} Up in front is justice Johnny,
Dressed in buckled jerkin,
At the back is goodwife Mary,
Oakum skirt a-swirlin’.

Most roundels are dances of girls, usually danced in the intermission of other types of dances, or as an introduction to the dancing gatherings of a Sunday afternoon, when finally the young men broke up the ring and selected their partners:

Let us stay yet for a while, for a while,
Then shall we go bye and bye, bye and bye.
We came here to dance the karikás
And wait for Mary with the bright blue eyes.

                      Törökkoppány (Somogy County)

The circle is always tight. Dancers hold each other’s hand in various ways and, unlike the Balkan forms, they do not open the circle. Meanwhile, three kinds of movement are made. They all step inward or outward, so that the entire circle seems to be undulating. At other times they turn the circle in two ways. In the first they make two steps forward, one backward, but still moving forward with this asymmetrical form. Sometimes they all move around rapidly, taking small steps, at the same time regularly changing the direction of the ring. The roundels of girls are danced to their own singing.

In the eastern half of the linguistic region, mixed men and women roundels can be found, which fit organically into the sequence of dancing gatherings. Such are danced accompanied by musical instruments, but only two or three couples form a small circle. These are similar in form to those csárdás roundels that have been developing only since the middle of the last century, at the same time that certain circle-dances developed from the couples dances.

We find that the herdsmen’s dances are a direct continuation of the Heyduck dances, and in general of weaponed dances. These are known not only in Hungary but also among the Slovaks, Gorals, Ruthemans, and the Rumanians of Transylvania. Today traces have remained in the north-eastern linguistic region and in the central part of Transdanubia.

The most beautiful forms of the cudgel (botos) dances are known from the north-eastern fringes of the Great Plain. The most important accessory of the dance is the herdsman’s cudgel or stick. Dancers may dance alone, while trying to demonstrate their virtuosity at twirling and jumping over the cudgel. Or they may dance the paired men’s dance with the cudgel, where they fence duel-like with each other to the rhythm of the music. Naturally, the striking and defending always creates new situations, so that there is much improvisation in the dance. More rarely, these dances are danced by a couple. The man playfully attacks the woman with the cudgel, who dodges away while trying to hinder the twirling of the weapon.

Fig. 206. Tune of a swineherd’s dance.

Fig. 206. Tune of a swineherd’s dance.
Dunafalva, Baranya County

Although swineherd dances are known over the entire Hungarian linguistic regions, still, as we have said, the most beautiful versions have survived in Transdanubia. They use either a spontoon, hatchet or {452.} cudgel, and usually jump over it after laying it on the ground. The form shows a certain relationship with Austrian and Slovenian dances, and with dances even farther afield. This also proves that predecessors of the weaponed dances existed all over Europe during the Middle Ages and flourished once more during the Turkish wars. Among the dance tunes the one below is the best known:

What’s a-cooking, swineherd chap?–Lights with cabbage bacon!
What’s thou made it thick with?–Lots of belly-bacon!
Tut, tut, no, no, no! what the heck thou saying.
Easy it’s to tell a herd by his shining hatchet,
Easy it’s to tell a herd by his shining hatchet,
Raggle-taggle haversack and leather sandal latchet.
Tut, tut, no, no, no, what the heck thou saying.
Easy it’s to tell a herd by his shining hatchet.

                                     Dunafalva (Baranya County)

The leaping dance (ugrós) relates in many regards to herdsmen’s dances, except that it is always danced without accessories. In antiquity, ugrós often also meant dance in general. Therefore, we do not always know what exactly lies behind this designation. Certain of its forms were already mentioned in the 17th century: “The highest lords leap the dance with woman folk.” The leaping wedding dance of Transdanubia (lakodalmi ugrós) is one of the most widely spread forms, although it is really a procession dance, performed when they follow the bride to church. The jumping dance of the Great Plain is danced to the same rhythms as the swineherd song, and a similar type of dance is known by the Bukovina Székelys.

The more primitive versions of the young men’s dance (legényes) are known among the Székelys; however, this type of solo dance developed {453.} in its complexity in the Hungarian villages of Kalotaszeg and Mezőség. It is part of a whole dance programme: the young men dance it in front of the band, while the girls waiting to dance surround the lads in a rotating circle.

Come on laddies, do a round!
Let your boot-heels beat the ground!
Here I help ye go around!

                      Válaszút (former Kolozs County)

The legényes is one of the most developed, extremely varied forms of dancing. Its music and wealth of motifs are equally connected to the Heyduck and to the herdsmen’s dances, and, after assimilating several European influences, it became the forerunner of the recruiting dance and its music.

Certain paired dances must also be briefly discussed, versions of which can be found in different parts of the linguistic region as the last remnant of the old style. Various western dances also affected these, and most of them can be viewed as a transformation, a Hungarianization of some of them. Among its motifs there are several resembling the csárdás, but differences in rhythm still preserve old traditions. Most of these dances have survived in Transylvania, where the rapid spread of the csárdás did not push out the older forms with such boisterous speed as it did in other parts of the linguistic territory. In Transylvania, the melodies of former paired dances are often sung to the more novel forms, such as the slow dance of Mezőség or the gypsy dance, and while singing the couples walk about for a while to the rhythm of the music.

As we end our review of old Hungarian dances, we ought to say that in the sequence of the dance programme mentioned above, a slow dance comes first, then a faster one, which is finally followed by a completely fast dance. The expression “three makes the dance” is a survival of this sequence. The expression already occurs in the 17th century: “They did not jump about goat-like, as they do now, but danced nicely and quietly, shouting every so often: ’Three makes the dance!”’ The expression also appears among rhymes shouted out during dancing:

Three the dances we are dancing
Till the light of day be glancing!

                      Mezőkövesd (former Borsod County)

The tradition of such a threefold sequence existed in the Hungarian villages right up to the most recent times.

The new Hungarian dance style reached maturity in the 19th century, but like the new folk music, it was closely linked to the traditions of previous centuries. Western paired dances became well known and served as a foundation for the development of new dances. The rhythm of dance music changed, the 4/4 rhythm being replaced by 2/4 rhythms, while for the faster dances the accelerating eighth note was added.

257. The

257. The legényes dance at a wedding, in front of the church
Méra, former Kolozs County

The most well known and most representative dance of the era is undoubtedly the verbunk or recruiting dance. The word itself, originating from the German werben (to recruit), was in some places replaced by the old dance name toborzó, revived by the language reform. At first the {454.} dance was closely related to the recruiting of soldiers. That is, the Austrian army supplemented its permanent soldiery from 1715 until 1868–when they introduced general compulsory military service–by means of recruiting. They determined the number of soldiers a certain market town or village had to muster and then the recruiting soldiers appeared, under the leadership of a corporal or sergeant. They praised the beauties of the soldier’s life with songs and dances:

Kunhegyes’s a fine old city,
Every lad there looks so pretty.
At his side a sword in scabbard,
Copper chako on his forehead,
Shining highboots very genteel,
Tinkling spurs bedeck his boot heel,
For his arse a saddle yellow,
What a fine hussar’s this fellow!

                      Kunmadaras (Szolnok County)

Any young man who drank from the wine and on whose head they placed a soldier’s cap could no longer escape joining, and in many cases had to serve 10 to 12 years, far outside the country’s borders, from where he was unable to come home on leave.

{455.} An excellent observer during the 1840s describes graphically the course of the recruiting dance: “... the young men stand in a circle, the corporal occupying the centre of it; the gipsy band–generally in uniform–starts up a new song, and the recruiting begins. While they are playing the first verse no kind of dance movement begins, rather the men either stand in their places making their spurs jingle, or walk around the circle, studying the ins and outs and the rhythm of the song, and sort of setting to the dance. Now come slow dance movements, in the course of which it is mostly determined who the dancer will hold eye contact with, or if it had not yet been decided then the corporal announces it, so that each takes care of the partner he has eye contact with. It is characteristic of this part of the dance that it is structured from systematized and less embellished steps, and if the song has eight beats, it goes two beats to the right, one to the left, again two to the right, one to the left, finished by a two-beat stamping back in place. After five or six such slow verses have been danced, the time comes for the embellishment, which is fresher, livelier than the former, so that now leaping here and there and up in the air follows. With the addition of the clattering of the tossed-about swords and the hesitant floating of the sporrans, the men project a real picture of a heroic dance.”

Fig. 207. Various forms of spurs for dancing and the ways they are fastened to the boot.

Fig. 207. Various forms of spurs for dancing and the ways they are fastened to the boot.
Early 20th century

One important accessory of the dance is a pair of spurs, differing from those of the horseman, which could easily have caused harm to the dancers with their point and blade. Therefore the young men wore clattering spurs, fastened to the counter of the boot, where a small piece of leather prevented them from sliding off. This type of spurs consisted of one or two rowels. On others a single or double rowel gave the sound. The young men wore those not only to dances but also on holidays, and because of them the girls recognized their coming from a long distance away:

Late at night come not to see me,
For they guard me vigilantly;
See that noise of spurs you smother
Just in case you wake my mother.


The role of the spurs is especially great at recruiting dances, partly because they are an inevitable accessory of the equestrian soldier, partly because the rhythm of the dance is beaten with them.

258. The dance called

258. The dance called forgatós.
Sandstone relief Region of Nyárád river, Rumania

The recruiting dance included the elements of several former men’s dances (young men’s dance, leaping dance, etc. ); its unified style developed in the last century. It was generally the opening dance in the dance programme, and somewhat prepared the way for the paired dances. Two kinds can be differentiated. One is free in structure, assuring plenty of opportunity for improvisation and for displaying individual dancing skills. Mihály Csokonai Vitéz, the Hungarian poet of the turn of the 18th to 19th centuries, wrote the following, most certainly about the recruiting dance: “When during the time of the French war many English noblemen lived in Vienna, one Englishman counted 300 movements in the dance of the Hungarians who were there.” We find the music and steps of the free-form recruiting dance {456.} among the Rumanians, the Slovaks, and even the Moravians. The recruiting dance of the more regulated form consists of fewer and mostly slow and brisk parts. They dance it in a half circle under the direction of the dance leader. Certain versions are also known among the Eastern Slovaks.

The best known dance of the Hungarians, the csárdás, expresses in its name (csárda, tavern) the opposite of the palotás (palota, palace), the dance of the nobility. It came into general fashion in the second quarter of the 19th century, when the recognition and discovery of the Hungarian people’s values, and the use of these values against Habsburg oppression, broke forth as a phenomenon involving national feelings. János Garay, an eminent poet of this era, wrote: “Who would deny that the dance is just as much of a permanent part of the nation as any other kind of custom, its language and its songs, as well as its theatre, its music, its costume, and its law? All these together mark a nation’s identity, making it different from any other; a nation that does not possess these is no nation but a mass of people, not independent, the soulless imitator or even the slave of others.”

259. Dancing the

259. Dancing the forgatós at a wedding
Méra, former Kolozs County

We first meet with the name csárdás in 1835, when the composer Rózsavölgyi named one of his works lassú csárdás (slow csárdás). Very {457.} soon it was danced over the entire country, and it gradually replaced various German and western dances. This dance, conceived in the spirit of national romanticism, occupied its rightful place alongside the new Hungarian folksong and the Hungarian language, and soon became all pervasive, so much so that in the second half of the century it pushed every dance into the background even among the peasantry.

260. Dancing the

260. Dancing the forgatós at a wedding
Méra, former Kolozs County

The csárdás assimilated in itself the numerous traditions of the various paired dances which were increasingly gaining ground from the {458.} Renaissance period on. The music itself grew out of the music of recruiting dances, to the tunes of which a great many different kinds of csárdás were danced among Hungarian ethnographical groups. Only men have an active role in paired dances, and in the Hungarian csárdás of 4/4 beat, they do a movement at every quarter-value. The basic double step is partly repeated, partly the couples spin around in different fashions. As a relic of the old round dances, 2 to 4 pairs sometimes join together and dance in a circle.

261. Children’s round dance

261. Children’s round dance
Szada, Pest County

{459.} We have already referred above (cf. p. 447) to the numerous occasions for dancing. The dancing games of children form a separate world of their own, and children learned to dance when they organized children’s balls, or when at weddings the dancers attempted the first steps in a solo. The young celebrated the conclusion of certain bigger work projects (harvest, threshing, processing of flax, etc.) with dancing. Dance was an inevitable, important element of communal work (corn husking, hoeing, spinning, etc.), and such work was undertaken in the first place with the prospect of the celebration that followed it. Smaller gatherings (spinning, pig-killing feasts, stripping of feathers, etc.) have rarely taken place without dancing, when one instrument or another (zither, bagpipe, violin, flute, etc.) provided the music. At other times dance was the sole purpose for getting together among the young people (in a dance house, and at Sunday afternoon gatherings, etc.), and in the winter they even held balls. At baptisms, only a smaller dancing celebration was organized, but the entire wedding procession was built of the most varied dances. Records also show that at one time people even danced in the cemetery, and the funeral feast also had its characteristic dances.

In short, as we have said before, dance played a significant role in every aspect of the life of the Hungarians.