Russian Folk Dance: A Cultural History

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Russia. What can be said about dance in Russia? Aside from the granddaddy of them all in this significantly spacious area of the globe, ballet, what else does Russia have to offer from their culture in the means of dance? Stemming from the depths of the many cultures that inhabit Russia, folk dancing seems to be a huge part as well. With costumes that are designed with intricacy and are quite beautiful, three types of folk dance have sprung up.

A fast dance consisting of expeditious music and Russian squat work or knee bending, called the Barynya is among one of the folk dances that are prominent in Russia. This dance is not choreographed, but consolidates a lot of stomping. This kind of dance was notably used in the musical Fiddler on The Roof. The term Barynya which means “landlady” in Russian is used to address a woman of higher class. Often compared to chastushkas and frenzied dancing, the refrain is often vulgar and humorous, however, more refined versions of the dance exist.

Another dance, originally a Slavic art form called the Khorovod, is a combination of circle dance and chorus singing, similar to the Chorea of Ancient Greece. This dance is mostly performed by women, to adorn the ritual forthcoming or the dying of the seasons as well as celebrating the rotation of life. Khorovod also offers a girls-only dance in which couples would dance in the center of the circle of girls. The dances that took place within the circle were improvisations, men showing off their strength and women displaying their vocal capabilities. Calendar songs which are sung by the dancers while incorporating the words with a variety of actions carried a ceremoniously role for family events like weddings and funerals. In the wedding dances, the girls will run their hands up and down their arms to embellish the beauty and embroidery of their costumes, for pulling the sleeves up during movement is key. The bride who dances with a handkerchief presents it to her husband, who then ties it over her head symbolically.

The final folk dance, which is thought to have been originated in Paris in the time when the Russian tsar army, called the Cossacks were stationed there, is called the Troika. Troika, which means “three-horse team” or “threesome” consists of one man and two women whom prance around like horses pulling a sleigh. Often they would dance in circle together or the man would dance with one female at a time while the other female dances alone. Included in all repetitions of Russian dance ensembles, Troika is similar to other Slavic dances as well as the Polish Trojak. A Cajun dance bearing the same name is also very similar to the Russian Troika.

Russia offers many other alternatives to ballet with folk dancing being very prominent in their culture. Although it doesn’t get as much attention, since ballet dominates the cultural arena with its beauty, folk dance is stepping out from the shadows and making itself known by spreading across the continents. Grace and tutus have become overcast by rambunctious dancing and elaborate costuming as Russian dance troupes form on the American east coast and onward across the nation.

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