Bulgar (1*)- Yiddish Music and Dance

*1st Generation dance. A dance that developed in a traditional way – not ‘taught’ by a teacher or choreographer, but ‘learned’ by observing and imitating others in your “village”, where the village’s few dances were the only dances anyone knew. It usually is ‘generic’ – the dance pattern is fairly simple and not tied to any particular piece of music. The dance phrase may or may not match any musical phrase, but the music’s rhythm must be suitable for performing the footwork. This dance may have many variations, but they’re performed at the whim or inspiration of the leader or (sometimes) any other dancer so long as it doesn’t interfere with the flow of neighboring dancers. For more, click here, here, and here.

Bulgar – the Music   See further below for Bulgar – the Dance

Bulgar is a type of Yiddish music.  Originating in Bessarabia (now Moldova), where northeast Romania meets Ukraine, Bulgar has a distinctive rhythm that is supposed to be “Bulgarian” (not a common Bulgarian rhythm, to be sure, though a significant Bulgarian minority lived in southern Bessarabia).  It’s tempo is a medium to fast 8 beats to the bar, broken up into Slow, Slow, Quick; 123,123,12, 123,123,12, etc.

Below is Itzhak Perlman displaying his Yiddish roots playing with the pioneering revival group the Kezmer Conservatory Band.

Bulgar became the most popular style of Yiddish dance music among immigrants to the USA.  Here’s Naftule Brandwein in a late 1920’s? recording made in New York.

Bulgar even got a shot at mainstream American popularity when former Klezmer clarinetist Benny Goodman and his band had some Yiddish hits.  Benny’s trumpeter Ziggy Elman had written a tune called “Fralich in Swing” (Freylekh in Swing).  Johnny Mercer later wrote lyrics, changing the title to “And the Angels Sing”. It became a hit in 1939.  Listen for the Bulgar rhythm after Martha Tilton’s singing, and Ziggy’s Klezmer trumpet.

Nowadays it seems the distinctive Bulgar rhythm is not connected to dances with the name Bulgar.  Many modern Bulgars are played in an even 2 or 4 beats.



Bulgar – the Dance

Noted Yiddish scholars Walter Zev Feldman and Steve Weintraub lead a Bulgar dance seminar in Weimar, Germany.  Notice the striking similarity between the Yiddish Bulgar  and what I call the Taproot Dance – that 6-step pattern found everywhere.

Nobody has been able to prove the Taproot dance’s origins, but it is generally assumed to have been in the Bessarabia area long before the Jews got there.  It’s also assumed that the Jews learned the dance from their Romanian neighbours.  In Romania the Taproot pattern is a very common dance, which they call Sârba (pronounced SIR-bah).

However the most common Romanian word for a group dance is Hora, which has a different foot pattern.  Jews were also dancing a slower version of this Hora pattern, which they variously called Slow Hora, Hora, or Zhok (see Zhok under 1st Generation Dances).  As the Jews started leaving Romania for Israel and the USA, Hora gradually became the most common name for Romanian-inspired lively Jewish line and circle dances, replacing both Bulgar and Freylekhes.


As was said earlier, the Bulgar rhythm, (and dance) became very popular among Jewish immigrants to the USA.  When after a generation or two, Yiddish music began to fade in North America, the new land of Israel became the rallying cry of American Jews

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