Joc de Leagane, (ZHOK deh LAH-guh-neh), literally means “Dance of the Cradle”. Recreational Folk Dance (RFD) groups were taught a choreography to this song, said to have been learned by Theodor Vasilescu from a village performing group. He goes on to say the dance is no longer performed as a village dance. Nicolas Hilferink then learned it from Vasilescu, who taught it extensively to RFD’s. Below is the music and translation Hilferink provided to accompany the dance.
And a couple of RFD interpretations of the dance.
However, when Vasilescu later saw the results of Hilferink’s presentation, he felt Hilferink misinterpreted his dance, and left a video of his (Vasilescu’s) interpretation, but no written notes. Viewers of the video apparently could not agree on exactly how Vasilescu’s version differed from Hilferink’s, so the Folk Dance Federation of California Dance Research Committee produced a “combination in an effort to standardize and thereby reduce the confusion”.
Confusion still reigns if one tries to find any instances of Joc de Leagane in Romania. I can find only one, [by a performing group,] and they aren’t singing the same lyrics, or doing the same steps as the Vasilescu version. Fact is, they’re just walking in time. Note this group is from Sācel, recorded in Dragomiresti, though Hilferink says he learned his version in Baie Mare.
So we’re left with a single instance from the home country of a performing group identified on the YouTube as a singing group doing simpler, more “village” steps, while singing, but not the lyrics presented to RFD’s. Though the song is likely a folk song, there can be doubt whether the dance shown to RFD’s is a “village” folk dance. It could be a performing group’s stylized presentation of a folk song.
There are at least three interpretations of the circumstances in which this song [and possibly dance] become part of a ceremony.
According to the notes of the Folk Dance Federation of California Dance Research Committee, “It is said that when a child reaches the age of one to one and a half years, the mother would put him in a leagane [cradle] in front of her chest, and the village women would celebrate his good health by doing this dance.”
According to notes published by the Evansville International Folk Dancers, “The dance is in honour of the midwife’s birthday. All of the women come to bring the midwife food and gifts, asking for forgiveness for the burden they have given her in bearing their children. The midwife calls them her daughters and tells them they have been no burden. The women do not dance this with their children; the children are put down on the ground while they sing and dance. When they do dance as they reach their arms upward, this is a symbolic gesture for the powers above (i.e. the sun, God, etc.) to bring health and favour onto their children.”
Dick Oakes, in his notes to the dance, writes “This dance is a ceremonial dance from Maramureş. Maramureş is a valley totally enclosed by mountains. Oaş, Gutâi, Ţibleş and Rodnei to the west and south, Maramureş Mountains and Ukrainian Carpathians (Wooded Carpathians) to the east and north, with a thin opening at Khust, a city located on the Khustets River. It is forested and not easily accessible. The dance honors the midwife on her birthday. It is believed that when a child reaches 1 to 1-1/2 years of age, the village women would gather, put their children in front of their chests, and do this ceremonial dance to show that their children were strong and in good health.”
The lyrics to the song Hilferink provided seem a strange choice for a mother to sing to her child, or for that matter to a midwife. They’re written from the perspective of a mature woman who is “caught by longing…I have no respite…”. Hardly the kind of sentiment one would sing to one’s child to celebrate their health, or as a request to a midwife for forgiveness. The title of a folk song is usually the first line, so I googled “Mama cind m-o leganat” and came up with 4 versions of the song, the last being the version supplied by Hilferink. Two of these identify the song as a doina; a lament.
The website below translates Joc de Leagane as “Cradle Song” [not Cradle Dance], labels the song a lullaby, and offers a slightly different translation;
Clearly the song is a doina*, lamenting all the sorrow carried through at least two generations of women. It’s also believable as a lullaby, sung to calm an infant while a worried mother consoles herself. Mothers know that a child is most vulnerable in the first year – its survival is cause for celebration, and who better to celebrate with than the midwife?
*For more about Doina, see https://folkdancefootnotes.org/music/doina-romanian-blues/
Conclusion: The song Mama când m-a legānat is a popular doina/lullaby, sometimes called Joc de Leagane. The song may have been used some time ago as part of a ceremony where mothers celebrated the survival of their young children on the occasion of their midwife’s birthday. That ceremony no longer exists, but one local singing group was filmed in 1990 singing the song while walking, one holding a representation of a child. It appears the footwork is secondary to the song. Joc de Leagane is to me a dubious candidate for a “village” dance, which is usually a choreography independent of whatever music is at hand. No examples of the dance can be found in Romania on today’s internet. It could possibly be a 1stG dance from an obscure village kept alive in some form by a local performing group, but it’s more likely a folk song retrofitted to a choreography. To call Joc de Leagane a dance is to me putting the cart before the horse.