The Bear Dance

The fact that there used to be a master of ceremonies in charge with keeping ceremonial customs confirms the magnitude of these sumptuous and typically Oriental manifestations. The Bear Dance, highly appreciated, took place regardless of the date. Victor Bilciulescu placed it “especially during the spring holidays”. The dance consisted of a series of silly moves performed by the poor animal to the rhythm of a bandsman tapping into a sieve that was turned into a plate at the end of the show to collect the few pennies thrown by the spectators gathered by the side of the road. Hence the saying: “Crowds crammed together as if to see the bear”. The animal kept on a leash, concluded the memorialist, looked so weak and weary from the daily work and following his merciless master everywhere for a fistful of small coins that he had nothing left of the wild beast roaming the woods. The poor animal had also performed other “missions” around the neighborhood: he cured people’s back aches by pressing on them with his paws! It looks like “the bear cure” brought more money than “gaping at the dance”. François Recordon, in his Letters on Wallachia 1815-1821, also confirms the fact that the bear dance had turned into a regular practice among gypsy fiddlers and bandsmen as early as the 17th or 18th century, since it didn’t occur only “during the spring holidays” (V. Bilciurescu). Gypsies with bears were frequently mentioned when seen in town fairs and on the outskirts of Bucharest, and the foreign traveler provided a full and detailed description of them, with all their instruments and ornaments. With the sound of the flute and especially that of the tambourine in the background, the fiddlers kept “rhythm with a sort of large and very noisy spurs tied to their heels”, making the poor animals carry on with their dance called Tananaua in Moldavia and Zoralia in Wallachia. What we find surprising, however, is the mention of Imperial General Charles von Tige, discovered by researcher Claudiu Neagoe in his Report on Oltenia, 1727. He confirms having seen “a lot of gypsies who used their flutes and cembalo to make 12 bears dance very gracefully” at the court of voivode Constantin Brâncoveanu (Music and Society in Wallachia and Moldavia 1550-1830). The large number of bears in the Carpathians justifies the amazement of a foreign traveler when seeing so many wild animals, but for the “bear” gypsies in Bucharest – considered as a separate category of fiddlers and bandsmen – the bear dance had turned into a common and normal occupation practiced on a large scale by these village tamers and artists. Accepting “bear-leader gypsies” at the princely court in Bucharest in the 18th century confirms not only the tradition of this age-old practice (nowadays passed on to circus performers), but also the amount of appreciation it received.
From Bucharest – Secular Citadel of Romanian Fiddlers and Bandsmen (1550-1950)
Translated by Daniela Oancea

by Viorel Cosma (b. 1927)