November 19, 2018
Culture
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Hungary
A Political Dance

As Communism flagged, the dancers stepped up

By Jenna Makowski

The dance hall was dimly lit; the floor was packed. With weak strobes illuminating the stuffy room, the club must have looked like a typical European disco.

But rather than grinding their hips to pounding techno, the dancers marched evenly to the husky tones of fiddlers on stage. The strobes sporadically froze the twirling folk dancers mid-spin. Rich tones plucked from the upright bass resonated. Once the music started, the tiny dance floor quickly filled, drawing lingering people from the outdoor seating area and the bar.

I was trapped in the corner.

My friend leaned toward my ear. “Should we try?”

The steps looked simple enough, dictated from within the shallow space between the haphazardly matched couples; folk dance steps that everyone seemed to know. But it was my first time at a Budapest folk dance club, a tanchaz, and I was feeling shy.

A couple veered in front of my wallflower space, the man raising his partner’s hand in the air and rotating her around his body. Her long skirt billowed behind, mimicking her spin. As the fiddler beat time with his foot, his arm followed with accented jerks. Dozens of skirts swished on the dance floor, filling the gaps between the beats.

Patriotic Dancing

Tanchaz folk dance houses are a lively part of Budapest nightlife. A few times a month, cultural centers  hire a local group of folk musicians - usually fiddlers, bass and percussion - build a small stage, and clear space for a dance floor. With dances staggered through the week, it’s possible to go folk dancing, somewhere in Budapest, almost every night.

When I’d asked Atilla, my friend in Budapest, if he had any information about tanchaz houses, he’d quickly pulled up a schedule on his computer screen.

“Almost everyone knows at least a basic set of dance steps,” he said. “We learn them in school. Then just before graduation, there’s a big, formal school dance, and we all dance together. That’s why everyone who goes to tanchaz houses on the weekends knows the steps.”

He paused. “How did you hear about tanchaz houses?”

I explained that I’d had a long-time interest in the Hungarian folk revival, and that I was curious to see such old traditions morphed into modern form.

“That’s great,” he smiled. “Budapest is the best place to dance.”

Hungarian folk dances are not new; the steps and tunes are rooted in 19th and 20th century rural village customs, and often of mixed Hungarian, Romanian and Gypsy heritage. Young people would gather for formal evening events, to dance, relax, drink and flirt.

Though hugely popular in rural villages for centuries, folk dancing only gained popularity in Budapest and other cities during a revival of Hungarian folk traditions in the early 1970s.

***

The air in the dance room was hot and stagnant above the spinning dancers. Punctuating the final riff of the tune with his bow and a jerk of the wrist, the fiddler stepped off stage, and the room quieted. A dancer close to my corner shrugged, wiping his forehead with his sleeve. His shirt was damp.

I needed air. I stepped outside.

The outdoor concrete amphitheater surrounding the club was just as crowded — but at least the air was circulating there. Dull streetlamps sputtered hazy light on to another folk band, playing from the semi-darkness of the outdoor stage.

A dancer in the center shouted out the steps. Fifteen couples obeyed his voice. He clapped his hands above the fiddle; a few men answered by smacking their palms to their heels. This looked like my chance to learn a few steps — but fear that my Hungarian language skills weren’t sharp enough to follow his quick calls held me back.

I walked up the steps leading out of the amphitheater, which had been converted into a huge outdoor seating area. Each level was lined with tables, and every chair was full. Couples and groups lounged on the edges of the steps, reclining on blankets spread among wine bottles, bicycles and backpack cushions. I paused for a few minutes, wine glass in hand, taking in the laid-back atmosphere of the impromptu picnics. The fiddles echoed the clapping hands and stamping feet.

***

“We Hungarians have always been very conscious of who we are,” the guide on my Budapest walking tour had stressed earlier that day. She wasn’t shy about expressing her opinions about anything: her political views, her experiences, her nostalgia for her country, viewed through the lens of an immigrant who had lived in exile. “I’ve always been Hungarian.”

When I asked for her advice about how to visit the tanchaz houses, she confirmed the information Atilla had given me.  She recommended Thursday night folk dancing at the  Godor Cultural Club, near the Erzsebet Garden.

“It used to be the site of the National Hungarian Theater during the days of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, but it was torn down during the Communist era to make way for a public theater,” she explained. “[The theater] was never erected, and the empty space became a hangout for city youth, a place to experiment with freedom of expression.”

The first tanchaz houses in Budapest had political roots, too. The decision to begin holding tanchaz events in the city, modeled after the rural dance traditions, was a purposeful one.

During the 1970s, tight state Communist control in Hungary began to weaken. Tanchaz events in Budapest were part of a folklore revival that developed on the heels of this loosening political environment.

The first tanchaz houses drew inspiration both from the traditions of rural villages, and from the folk revival in the United States. Expressions of identity challenging an old repressive system, Budapest dance houses grew popular almost as soon as they began opening.

***

Stepping back into the tanchaz house, I was hit with a wall of heat. A third band was playing in another room in back. I was also confronted by a wall of people.

Dancers had choreographed themselves into two long facing lines. Shoulder to shoulder, their arms wrapped around one another’s backs in a giant braid of elbows, shoulders and hands. The music structured their steps into sets of eight.

Eight steps in: the lines moved toward each other.

Eight steps out: the lines moved apart.

Nobody seemed to be leading, or following. To me, it looked as though everyone moved serendipitously.

There was space at the end of the line; the last person’s outstretched arm ended the chain. I stepped in and linked my arm into the braid.

Step forward, step forward. Step back, step back.

Simple steps guided by collective movement, I picked it up intuitively. My back was sweating. My feet stumbled once or twice — fleeting moments of self-consciousness.

Those soon evaporated. I was having too much fun.

Dancing at a Tanchaz House

I danced at the Godor Cultural Club, where the national Hungarian theater once stood. The grandiose building was torn down during the Communist era. It was to be replaced with a state theater for “the people.” But that was never built, and the space became a hangout for Budapest youth. Tanchaz happened on biweekly Thursdays, but recently the club was ordered to shut down.

Neighborhood cultural centers hold tanchez events, both during the week, and on weekends. The Budapest Dance-House Guild maintains a good events list.

Washington, D.C.-based writer Jenna Makowski has a master’s degree in folklore and ethnomusicology.

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