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Táncház: Hungarian diversity on the dancefloor

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Joss Corner


Fifteen or so ‘Táncház’, or ‘dance houses’, attract amateur folklore enthusiasts to Budapest. Young and old alike come here to take part in traditional dances, both from Hungary and elsewhere. A way to celebrate a multicultural society

‘Collective traditional dances based on steps which are relatively easy to master, offer a space in which different generations can meet and share an special experience,’ says Orsolya Strack, teacher and leader of ‘táncház’ at the Akku social-cultural centre. Here, the Friday night ‘dance’ is preceded by a three hour session dedicated to disabled adults and children

From 9pm, dancers of all ages and from all over the town, even if the majority live in the quarter, get together, invite others and challenge one another in a boisterous atmosphere

Numerous beers are ordered and drunk at the bar, on the spectators’ chairs are those who accentuate the rhythm with enthusiastic cries of ‘hop hop hop’, sing along to the Hungarian music as well as the syncopated rhythms of the southern Slavs, Greece or even Romania

These ‘táncház’ generally follow a national theme (Greek, Macedonian, Slovak, Serb…) in the music and type of dance practiced. However, far from being a melting pot of identity claims, they are places to share and exchange in a convivial atmosphere

At the Erzébetvárosi Kozossegi centre, for example, people come in families or young groups, to listen to the group Balkanethric, in which the singer, Margareta Szabo plays on her double Hungarian and Greek heritage to offer repeated jazzy snippets of southern Slav music. She sees no aspect of communitarianism in the public’s taste for this traditional music. On the contrary, for her it’s a sign of what we call in western Europe ‘multiculturalism’, and what she refers to as ‘multi-nationalism’: a lively and positive asset for the citizens of Budapest

The appearance of ‘táncház’ in contemporary Hungary is directly linked to a turning point in the history of the country. In 1920 the treaty of Trianon was signed: two thirds of Hungary was handed over to neighbouring Serbia, Romania and Slovakia. Carried out without any geopolitical regard, this split lead to the dividing of Transylvania (or Erdély), nowadays a multinational territory inhabited by a Hungarian-speaking population which has maintained close links, in the first instance familial, with present-day Hungary. Even since before the first world war young people in Transylvania used to let out one of their houses in which to drink and dance all night, celebrating this way the key moments of village life

In the footsteps of Bela Bartok, groups of young Hungarians returned to Transylvania in the 1970s to rediscover their roots, also a way of defying the communist Romanian government, which was hindering relationships between Hungarians of both countries and blithely destroying the folkloric tradition. Among these were musicians and ethnographers attracted by the traditional music and rural culture, which had survived until modern times due to the isolation of the villages

During the eighties, when protests began to emerge against the regime, the organisation of these ‘táncház’ at the weekends offered an alternative community experience and became popular throughout the country

A large part of their success was due to the musical accompaniment : still today, Transylvanian peasant themes and ‘csangos’ (from Moldavia) are played on original instruments and singers add a voice, when it isn’t one of the instrumentalists which plays this role

Translated from Táncház : la diversité hongroise sur un parquet de danse