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 Săcel, recorded in Dragomiresti, though Hilferink says he learned his version in Baie Mare. All three towns are in Maramureș County. For more on Maramureș, see: https://folkdancefootnotes.org/culture/ethnicity-history-geography/maramures-romania/
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 the melody, 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.
Recreational folk dancers know of 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.”
However a fourth interperetation has recently come to light, at least to me, when I discovered the excellent book on the folklore of Maramureș, ca. 1979, (specifically Ieud) called The Wedding of the Dead by Gail Kligman, U of California Press, 1988. In it, Kligman writes: “A midwife, or moaşă, is recognized as a symbolic grandmother, or godmother…The mothers are the midwife’s nepoate, meaning both goddaughters and neices. The children born with her assistance, her nepoți, are simultaneously her godchildren and her nieces or nephews…Once a year, on the second or third day of Easter or Pentecost, the moaşă’s goddaughters honor her…The goddaughters go to the midwife’s house late in the afternoon. On entering, each woman ritually purifies the midwife; after dipping her hands in a bowl of blessed water, the goddaughter runs her hands over the midwife from head to toe three times…Each goddaughter brings a gift of grain, meat, sugar or flour for the midwife. In return the midwife provides food and drink. The women celebrate together. There is a great deal of singing, strigături *, and gossip…There is a name for this celebration with the midwife – the Celebration of the Goddaughters, or sărbătoarea nepoatelor, which, says Kligman “is a holiday that celebrates female solidarity in terms of the shared ability to give life…” For more excerpts from Kligman’s book concerning the role of midwife and women in general in the folk beliefs of Romanians in Ieud, see https://folkdancefootnotes.org/culture/ethnicity-history-geography/purity-blood-women-midwives-and-milk-in-maramures/
*for more on strigături , see https://folkdancefootnotes.org/dance/dance-information/strigaturi-romania/
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 its 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? Given the new-to-me discovery of the sărbătoarea nepoatelor in Kligman’s book, the song also makes sense as but one song of many that women would sing in a shared celebration of their womanhood and commiseration for their harsh lot in life.
*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 likely stood alone, though was also likely sung in a sărbătoarea nepoatelor. Kligman says the celebration was still going strong in the 1980’s, and 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 with added choreography. To call Joc de Leagane a dance is to me putting the cart before the horse.
John Uhlemann writes: I have the Gerge Vancu recording. He was a very well-known and well-connected arranger of Transylvanian music during the Ceaușescu era, and was respected for keeping his ensembles small, not succumbing to the trend in the ’60s and’70s toward having large folk ensembles. Every once in a while he did relapse into that style, though, and this is one of them. For one thing they do NOT sing in harmony anywhere in Romania traditionally (except in Szászcsávás among the Hungarians, but that is another story [they learned it from theology students who studied in Germany]). The melody does have a traditional Maramureș melodic contour, but the rest, as Pece Atanasovski once said is “fantazia”. I suspect the dance is beloved in the US because it is slow and pretty. Maramureș men’s dances are gritty, and the most common dance was (and is, from what I saw in June) a couple dance (many American IFD groups are allergic to those). It does not surprise me that The dance was learned in Baia Mare – really a small city originally of German and Hungarian origin, whereas Dragomirești and the other location are both villages in the Iza valley, with wooden churches and some log houses, still. You would be more likely to find good square dancing in Chicago than an Învârtita in Baia Mare.
hatlevis writes: The notes from the Evansville Indiana group come from me. I had put these out quite some time ago after interviewing Theodor Vasilescu. I have 3 different videos of Theodor Vasilescu doing this dance, one with Lia, his wife. He saw this dance being done at Stockton Folkdance camp in 1992. He realized it wasn’t correct. Steve Turner was taping for the camp videos and I was watching. Tieneke Van Gheel was there since she was doing a couple dance with him. From what both Theodor and Tieneke told me, Niko learned this dance from Theodor at a master class in the Netherlands. Tieneke was there learning it with him. I have no comment on Niko’s story about where he learned it, but Theodor was quite adamant about this. Steve Turner taped Theodor doing the dance and he sent me a copy. I passed on the dance to others as done by Theodor. The dance, per the examples given in your site, are not quite correct (especially the hand hold). I wrote out dance notes for it and had Theodor review it for me. I’ll look for them (it’s been quite a while ago). He later came to teach at the Corvallis festival where he explained where he got the dance and what it was about (video 2). And yes, he learned the dance from a woman’s group at a performance in Dragomiresti. They told him it was no longer done there. But, it was to honor the midwife; see the story from the Indiana group. Theodor and Lia put out several dance videos. I have several and this is from No. 8 in the series: 19 dances from their program of Romanian Folk Dances (video 3). It is number 13 on the video. I have put this onto a DVD to preserve it. I just reviewed the dance and I am still doing the correct steps. For one the hand hold is unusual in the beginning, with the person in front putting their left hand back over their left shoulder, palm up and the person behind them, putting their right hand onto the front person’s left-to hold their hand that way. I’ll look for my dance notes or write them all out again! I am very glad that Theodor and Lia put out these videos as I urged him to do, so his knowledge wouldn’t be lost. He has put lots of extraneous information about the various regions as well as videos he collected from performances and villages. He has also put some corrected versions of other dances that were mistaught, such as Briul de la Fagaras. I was lucky to have him show me the entire dance to the correct music in my kitchen. I taught it to my kids group and they performed it.
To give a quick update on my prior post. The 3rd video from Theodor and Lia Vasilescu is NOT number 8 in the series. It isn’t in the numbered series, just has the title for 19 dances.
A Jan 17, 2020 update from hatlevis: Hi, I have new YouTube video for the Joc de Leagane dance, done by Lia and Theodor Vasilescu from the 19 Romanian dances along with the folklore story given by Theodor Vasilescu at the end. I have an interesting introduction and dance notes for this dance if anyone wants it. My email is: email@example.com. The YouTube video is at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Stpy7PF44to
Jeremy writes: I have always interpreted the mournful lyrics of the Joc de Leagane song as reflecting sadness at the too frequent deaths of infants in past times, even as the survival of other children is celebrated. The verbal explanation of the dance that I heard when I learned the dance was that the dance was done to celebrate the children who had reached one year of age, or had survived their first winter. This seems to conform to the Hilferink explanation of the dance’s background.
Laura Shannon writes: Don Buskirk has wonderful information which he is constantly updating – he is definitely another true researcher in the original sense of the world (‘searching with intensive force’). Great collection of videos and explanations to help people sift through the different versions of Joc de Leagane. Obvously he does not mention Anna Barton’s dance Healing and Wholeness, since that is clearly her choreography, he is only looking at some of the different versions which are around in the folk dance network.
However, there is one very interesting video of a singing group, which I think is dancing what might be the best candidate for an ‘original’ dance for this song:
Don says they are ‘just walking in time’, but if you really watch how they are moving – or try it yourself – you will immediately see that this is not normal walking. There is a side-to-side sway as the steps advance slowly, which consciously maintains an open space between the legs. This specific way of moving is a feature of women’s ritual dances in the Balkans, Armenia and Greece which are particularly connected with fertility. A very similar step is danced by women in Armenia in dry riverbeds as a powerful ritual to bring rain and end drought. Together with the deliberate lift of the foot before each step, the special handhold, and the presence of the baby, I would say that this not only qualifies as a dance but is likely to be one of the most ancient and powerful women’s dances in existence. And, although it may look simple, I believe most groups would find it very difficult to really dance it in perfect relaxed synchrony as these women do.And what singing!! Incredibly powerful voices.
The rituals honouring the midwives, BTW, are found all over the Balkans and are still living traditions. I have written about one such in the villlage of Kitro in northern Greece in my article ‘Tis Babos’ at this link:https://www.laurashannon.net/articles/63-tis-babos-the-dance-of-the-one-who-gives-life There are also many women’s songs mourning the hardships of their lot in life. So far I have not come across those laments in the context of public celebrations of midwives’ day or private celebrations of a child’s first steps which I have witnessed in other places, but it might be the case that laments form part of those rituals in ways which outsiders can not easily see. The women’s ritual dance traditions surrounding the mysteries of birth are some of the least known, most secret, and most hidden from visiting ethnographers (and even from males within their own communities).