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Folk Dance Teaches a Culture of Mutual Recognition- A Conversation with Folk-Dancer András Bethlendi

Hungary Today 2018.01.16.

“It teaches confidence; it provides you with a map of yourself: who you are, where you come from and perhaps where you are headed,” András Bethlendi has this to say of folk dance in his talk with Mandiner. According to the winner, along with his dance group, of 2017’s Fölszállott a Páva, the ‘Táncház’ movement teaches us about our own culture and the culture of neighbouring peoples.   

The following is the translation of an interview conducted by György Szalma that originally appeared on conservative news site Mandiner. It has been translated and republished with the permission of the author.


Fölszállott a páva is a television show that people aren’t embarrassed to admit they watch every broadcast of without fail. To take part in the show is an achievement that a participant can showcase with confidence. I am filled with unbounded pride to be able to say I am friends with one of the winners of 2017’s grand finale.  This is my conversation with Fölszállott a Páva’s Group Dance category’s first place finalist, András Bethlendi.

Where did your group come from? László Varga Zoltán, Andor Okos- Rigó, Roland Vincze-Pistuka, László Mezei and I make up the Kalotaszeg “legénytársulat”, or Kalotaszeg’s ‘lad-troupe’, which is made up of the men of the Kalotaszeg dance group. All of us originate from the Kalotaszeg region of Transylvania: Zoltán Varga and László Mezei are from Méra, and the other three of us are from Bánffyhunyad. László is still at boarding school, making him the youngest amongst us at 16 years old; we have a doctor in the group, and an engineer while Zoltán is an ethnographer and works in cultural management alongside his work as a folk-dance instructor, and I am a lawyer besides being a folk dancer.


How did your group come to be?

The dance group was created by Zoltán and myself; this is how we came to be great friends. Both of us were studying law when Zoltán invited me to a táncház in Méra where we both came to realize that it would important to create a dance group. For 8 years now, we’ve been co-leading the group, giving assignments and coming to decisions together.


Is folk dance a career or a hobby?

Folk dance is a hobby, but regardless it holds the same importance as a career would to us. I am a lawyer, and I also deal with cultural management in Kalotaszeg; these two parts of my life hold the same value to me. I’m not sure how well one can lead two lives parallel to one another, but I strive to be successful in both. Folk dance is a year-round activity and there’s never a period of time when I take a break from it, or from any related cultural projects. As I stated before, Zoltán is a dance teacher on top of all this and in his case folk dance is definitely a full-time job, but all of us consider it our profession.


Fifteen years ago, as a student in Budapest, I witnessed the popularity of the Táncház movement and the masses it attracts. What is the status of folk dance nowadays in Transylvania and Hungary?

I am not researching the movement, so I cannot objectively compare how many people are active now in comparison to 15 years ago.

Life for someone who attends táncház is incredibly dynamic,

and continues to be the most widespread network in the Carpathian Basin, with its own lobbying power and social force.  Whoever spends a little bit of time at a táncház can sense just what kind of power lays hidden within the social scene. If a folk dancer from Felvidék, Upper Hungary (present-day lower Slovakia, a region where many ethnic Hungarians still reside), meets a folk dancer from Transylvania, they can create a bond within two minutes and form such a level of trust that it would take ages to recreate a comparable relationship if folk dance didn’t tie them together. Folk dance creates a very strong community. I think that folk dance has become even more popular thanks to Fölszállott a Páva. The biggest criticism the show faces is that folk dance shouldn’t be made into a competition. There are both pros and cons to the competition, but I think the show delivers aspects of folk culture to great masses of people, and this is important to me.

The members of the Kalotaszeg “legénytársulat”

Competition in folk dance has roots in tradition, does it not?
I, too, have felt as a 10-year-old that I should be dancing better than I am to be on par with the other boys involved in folk dance. In the ‘legényes’ dances, or ‘lad dances’, there is a drive to be more energetic, to be better than your peers, but this element of competition isn’t organised the way it is for television. I don’t want to argue with opinions of the critics or their right to criticise; what I can say is that the situation here isn’t so horrible that you’ll hope your fellow participants will fail on stage. There are people who are so overcome by the spirit of competition that they will be more aggressive in their will to succeed, but it is uncommon.

We never compared our lad dances to the dances of the other groups, as it would be like comparing apples to oranges; we simply strived to be as authentic as possible to the origins of the dance. The judges dissect how credible the music production is to the original, and they don’t take the production of other groups into account. What’s really happening here is an authenticity competition, and of course, sometimes, the panel of judges can be mistaken as well. After all, they too are human.


Is it true that more Transylvanian dances are represented in the dance house movement?

Yes, the dance house movement started in the 70’s with mostly Hungarian dances being the focus, but the movement itself was built on the dances of Szék; the ‘táncház’ word itself originates from Szék, where the people referred to a ball in this way. Transylvanian dances have the most prestige for multiple reasons. The moves and motifs are truly enjoyable and vivacious, and perhaps this is why they became so popular.


Are there any folk dances that are dying out?

Essentially all of them are. We have to understand, that within the Carpathian Basin,

excluding gypsy dances, all other ethnic groups and their cultures have stopped evolving.

If we take the Kalotaszeg region as an example, there hasn’t been anybody since the 70’s who has been raised traditionally, where they would develop their own way of dancing to the village’s music. Everyone who dances nowadays learns from old reference material.


Is there a generational break?
Yes, this is one of the biggest achievements of the dance house movement for Hungarian culture. And not only for Hungarian culture, because we as Hungarians also dance traditional Romanian folk dances, a lot of times even better than the Romanians themselves. The value that the Táncház movement has injected into the universal Hungarian culture is immeasurable; it has brought traditional folk culture into the general social sphere and introduced village traditions into the urban landscape, while also generating such a level of interest in amateur dancers that many go on to study dance methodically in a professional environment. This is indeed a unique phenomenon. The masses started to take interest in folk culture and began to collect dances from various villages with film equipment. From the Táncház movement in the Carpathian basin emerged a ‘collecting’ movement as well. Laymen, who were not ethnographers and were never paid for their work, decided to go to villages with video recorders and microphones to immortalize these ancient dances and traditions. This was a huge development for academic knowledge as well.

There is a big difference in the way we dance today in comparison to the way our predecessors danced, let’s say, in the 50’s in Kalotaszeg. The steps of the dances have not changed in the past decades; what is different is that we adapt folk dances while infusing it with our own aesthetic tastes, still striving to remain authentic to the dance and using the archive videos as inspiration. The influence of other genres of dance and music, for example pop, is impossible to avoid as well. We are affected by these other genres a lot more than say a peasant living in the village in the 50’s would have been. If we rely only on our own personal tastes when dancing, then the influence from other genres will seep in through the cracks. In the old days, if somebody were to create a new line to a folk song or come up with a new move for a lad dance, then they were much less likely to be affected by outside influences, and their innovation would likely correspond to the style of the dance dialect. Today this is not the case. We learnt these dances through the Táncház movement and not through tradition.


A photo from the Kalotaszeg region of Transylvania

Is there a Romanian folk dance movement?

There has yet to be a Táncház movement in the world of Romanian folk dance, and they haven’t adapted the tools or methods used in the Hungarian movement. Romanian folk dance is in the same situation that the Hungarian once was before the birth of the Táncház movement. The way I see it, the Romanian folk dance movement doesn’t create the same desire in people that drove the ones in the ‘Collecting movement’ to go to villages and research folk traditions in its purest form. It also doesn’t develop the need to archive recordings or to consider the older sources available to us today as an example to follow; they won’t use a 20-year-old choreography from a dance group as a learning resource. It doesn’t create in people the ability to see the value in neighbouring cultures or the knowledge that this culture is not an ethnic culture in itself, but a regional one first and foremost, where the influences from surrounding people affect the traditions and culture around them. Some time ago, Mandiner wrote an article about the Romanian Academy of Sciences claiming that the lad dances of Kalotaszeg are Romanian in origin, danced to Romanian music, the same to which Hungarians dance as well. All the while we are talking about music played by gypsy musicians to which Hungarians dance. It’s difficult to determine if it is a Romanian, or a Hungarian dance, because the lad dance doesn’t differ too much in the region, making this a regional dance. When the archives were being compiled there were dance motifs that the Hungarians danced, there were those that the Romanians danced, and there were gypsy dance motifs as well. The music differs a little when Romanian gypsies play as opposed to when Hungarian gypsies play, but overall, it’s still gypsies playing.


What are their obstacles?
The Romanian folk dance world’s biggest disadvantage is that they didn’t create the opportunity for people to dance freely without a predetermined system. The Romanian folk dance movement is exhausted in the act of performing, while the Hungarian movement’s goal isn’t focused on creating a show for the stage, but rather for people to come to a táncház and dance; to make it part of their everyday lives. This is where a mutual incomprehensibility between the two cultures is created.  We don’t understand why Romanians enjoy what they do, and they don’t understand why what we do is good for us.

In Upper Hungary the situation is different, there exists a Slovakian Táncház movement, and thanks to this the dances tend to be ethnically diverse. In Transylvania the Táncház movement has a strong identity, while ethnically it is quite homogeneous, and it has a certain staying power thanks to this.


Is folk dance and folk culture essential to the preservation and strengthening of identity?

I am in full agreement that folk dance and the Táncház movement is a powerful tool and medium in forming a strong identity. Within Kalotaszeg we primarily do what we do, because we think that it has identity-strengthening capabilities and it has great value to us. The Táncház movement approaches national identity in such a unique way that it brings forth within us the appreciation for all cultures. As a folk dancer, you begin to appreciate the culture of neighbouring countries with ease. It’s astounding how Hungarian folk dancers can enjoy the Romanian folk tradition as well, for the authentic Budapest youth can dance in basement bars in high spirits, mimicking the Romanian lyrics without comprehending them. The moment that someone acknowledges and learns to appreciate their own culture they recognize the value of the cultures of other nations as well.

Folk culture shouldn’t even be considered an ethnic culture. The dance, that we call Hungarian folk dance, belongs more so to the Carpathian basin than being expressly Hungarian. This makes it a regional culture, as it’s an amalgamation of all sorts of influences and has inspired the dances of other cultures too. When we take heed of the dances of Kalotaszeg, then, it’s impossible to speak of it only as a Hungarian folk dance; parts of it are gypsy dance and folk music, and parts of it are Romanian dance and folk music. Sometimes the neighbouring cultures preserve elements of a dance that were likely once part of our dance, but have since fallen out of practice, for example, the forgatós- or in English, ‘to rotate’- which appears more commonly in Romanian folk dance than in Hungarian. This creates a healthy acknowledgement of culture in people, and as a result, it doesn’t bring about an identity through the ‘opposing of others’ but exists in and of itself.

It teaches confidence; it provides you with a map of yourself: who you are, where you come from, and perhaps where you are headed.

The significant role of Hungarian folk culture’s manifestation is embodied in the Táncház movement and acted as an ideological foundation for Bartók and Kodály. Bartók is a superstar. In Japan, those that do not know Bartók’s name are considered to be uncultured. Bartók is the primary herald of the Carpathian basin and of Hungarian folk culture. It’s thanks to his work that we can recognise the importance of having unity with neighbouring nations, and because of this deep interweaving, the value of other cultures and common values becomes undeniable.  Of course, since folk culture isn’t part of everyone’s life, this mutual respect becomes more difficult to discover.



Written by Szalma György

Translated by Nagy Edward Gergely

Originally published on mandiner.hu


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