Širto, ШИРТО, – Macedonian Bulgaria [Revised]

ШИРТО (Cyrillic) is a Bulgarian/Macedonian spelling, Širto is the transliteration, (pronounced sheer-TOH) of the Greek Συρτός and Syrtó (pronounced seer-TOH).

When is a country’s dance not of that country? If the American Jive-Lindy-Jitterbug-Swing dance is enjoyed by those in Mexico living near the US border, and if dance teachers in Mexico City begin teaching it accompanied by Mexican music, calling it El Swing – a Mexican dance, does that make it a Mexican dance?

Greek Syrtó, Kalamatianó

The most popular, widespread dance in Greece [and possibly the most ancient] is called Syrtó or Kalamatianó. It’s a prime example of what I consider one of the two most fundamental dance patterns in the Balkans. See https://folkdancefootnotes.org/begin/uneven-walking-the-other-basic-dance-pattern-sqq-qqs-ssqqs/ In Greece, Syrtó and Kalamatianó are considered essentially the same dance, except that Syrtó music is in 8/8 time [the 1st Slow step takes up 4 quick beats], and Kalamatianó music is in 7/8 [the 1st Slow step takes up 3 quick beats].

Here’s a Greek syrtó, with the longer slow step of 4 (quick) beats.
And a Greek kalamatianó with the shorter slow step of 3 (quick) beats. The footwork is the same as syrtó.
Here kalamatianó is taught in Greek Macedonia. Of all the kalamatianó instruction YouTubes (there are MANY), this one is best at demonstrating the connection between footwork and rhythm.
Here’s a performing group showing what can be done once the basic step is mastered. This YouTube is labeled Kalamatianó, but uses Syrtó music. Notice the 3-step turns, which everyone does together. In informal situations, the turn is usually left to individual discretion.

Buglarian Širto

Bulgarians dance what they call Širto, in the 7/8 rhythm typical of North Macedonia and Pirin (Macedonian Bulgaria). Greek Kalamatianó and Bulgarian/North Macedonian Širto are essentially the same dance – at least in terms of footwork – a set of 4 groups, 3 steps, each, with a Slow, Quick, Quick rhythm (S,Q,Q,) each step on the alternate foot. R,L,R, L,R,L, R,L,R, L,R,L. As in the Greek syrtó, the 1st two sets of 3 steps move to the Right, the 2nd two sets stay pretty much in place or back up a bit. There are variations both within and without Greece (and Bulgaria) as to exactly where each step is placed. The Bulgarians also add an arm dip at the end – something I’ve never seen in a Greek syrtó.

As taught at a dance club in Sofia, Bulgaria. Jump to 4:53 to see the dance demonstrated.
Basic with step-lift variation on counts 11-12. Jump to 2:00 to see demonstration. Notice the music is “Makedonsko Devojče”, North Macedonia’s most popular song. North American folk dancers ususally do a dance they call “Lesnoto” to this music.
Basic with turn variation on counts 10-12. Jump to 3:23 to see demonstration.

The Bulgarians kept the Greek name for the dance (with Bulgarian spelling and pronunciation), but don’t seem to acknowledge its Greek origin. Also, the music I’ve seen accompanying Širto YouTubes is very Bulgarian, as are the arm swings.

An “official” version.
Music for above. Musicians unknown.
These guys have 2 arm-swings – twice as Bulgarian!

So clearly, Bulgarians consider Širto a Bulgarian dance [from ‘Southwest Bulgaria’ – code words for Pirin], and it seems to be popular around the country today – at least among young people.

Delvite, a restaurant in Sofia, 2014
Širto & kopanitsa at a wedding of urban folk dancers, some of whom are wearing t-shirts of Club Chanove from the city of Ruse, Bulgaria, 2012
Zheravna, 2011. Notice the independent couple doing a Taproot Dance.

Širto is also popular with performing groups:

Turning a simple dance into an extravaganza. Ripni-Ka Dance Club, Armeec Arena, Sofia.
Brussels, Belgium
Rockhampton, Queensland, Australia, 2013.

And with recreationl dancers;

Elena Dimitrova demosntrates in Tucson, AZ.
Širto, the Macedonain-Bulgarian-Greek dance, performed to the Macedonian song Makedonsko Devojče in Cambridge (England?)

I’m guessing the YouTube below is showing Macedonians living in Budapest, rather than a recreational folk dance club. Just a guess.

Ferencváros Cultural Center, Budapest, Hungary. Macedonian medley: Songs – Makedonsko devojče, Strumica, Bitola, Jovano Jovanke. Dance Širto/Kalamatiano – Macedonian songs performed by the Kolo Orchestra.

Is Širto a Living dance? Can it be seen in its supposed region of origin, danced by non-performers in a ‘village’ setting? It seems it WAS Living in the 1970’s…

Herwig Milde, in her excellent blog Tanzrichtung, Feb 22, 2016, wrote of a “traditional 7/8 dance from the Pirin, which he [Jaap Leegwater – DB] had already learned on site, the Širto. This is something like a standard dance in the Struma area in Bulgarian Macedonia (such as Pravo Horo des Pirin), in the region between the cities of Petrič, Bansko and Goce Delčev. Širto also occurs in Greek and Yugoslav Macedonia and is related to the Greek Syrtos. Not only the word, but also the steps are related. The basic steps of the Širto consist of two three-step steps (rhythm long-short-short) in the dance direction, followed by two three-step steps on the course and /or back. The basic steps are also more or less the same as those of the famous Greek dance Kalamatianos. You can also cross at the front or back during the steps of three. This leads to different variants of the Širto, as can be found in different villages.” [Google translation]

Struma, just across the Struma River from Sandanski, Pirin (Macedonian Bulgaria).

John Uhlemann says: “Shirto is very much a living dance. The Pirin Bulgarian immigrants here in St. Louis do Shirto to what American Folkdancers do Lesno to, as you say. They do not do the version in most of your videos, but one ms. Dimitrova taught. No, they did not learn it at any workshops, it is what they do . It does not get on youtube as much because it is so typical and basic to them that they would not see the point in videoing it (except to document a wedding). It is a regional dance, not a “Bulgarian” or Greek” dance, as you say.

“Leb i vino” dance CLUB 2011, Panagir, St. Atanasij, village of Kulata. John Uhlemann adds: Leb i Vino is very much legit – they are a folklore cooperative that makes its own clothing, cooks only traditional foods, and promotes the old ways. They are centered in Melnik and, it is true, support themselves with demonstrations, etc., but they are very much a purist group, only showing what the locals do (not what they did)“. It appears that in this demonstration “Leb i vino” dancers (in costume) are joined by oldtimers (in street clothes) who still remember Širto.

If the above YouTube doesn’t play, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5GtTfTM6nCQ

Is Širto a Bulgarian dance?

At what point are two dances with the same footwork and rhythm (but all else different) different dances? At what point can a country claim a dance as their own? What does it matter, anyway? The answer lies not in the dance, but in the perceptions, intentions, and attitudes of the dancers.

This conundrum has existed since the beginning of dancing. People learn dances from their neighbours. A war changes boundaries, and suddenly their neighbours are living in a different country. Over time the once ‘foreign’ dance becomes a ‘native’ dance. Consider the last 2 maps above, which show the ‘home territory’ of Širto – very near the Greek border.

We need to remember that land in what is now 3 countries – North Macedonia, (Greek) Macedonia, and (Pirin), Bulgaria was, only 108 years ago, united in the Ottoman Empire. For the previous 500 years Greeks, Bulgarians, Turks, Macedonians, Roma, Jews, Albanians, and many other ethnicities lived intermingled with no ethnic or political boundaries. In 1912, Greeks (the country was independent only 80 years) and Bulgarians (quasi-independent 34 years), shared a historic animosity long pre-dating Ottoman occupation. They briefly united to defeat the Ottomans, then just as quickly began squabbling over control of former Ottoman territory. Arbitrary border lines were drawn, and most people on the wrong side were pushed out, to be replaced with those who were pushed out of the other side. When the dust settled, most but not all Greek-speakers were in the New Greece, most but not all Bulgarian speakers were in the New Bulgaria, and those who remained on the wrong side were for the most part denied their previous ethnicity, becoming second-class citizens who had to speak their ‘new-native’ tongue – at least in public.

That much is known; now for my speculations. Those newly-arrived Bulgarians had been living on the other side intermingled with Greeks for centuries, and probably danced with them, too. After the exchanges of 1922, a few Greeks still remained in Bulgaria, their Bulgarian neighbours had often danced Širto with the Greeks; both probably enjoyed dancing Syrtó with their new Bulgarian/Greek neighbours. To them it was their familiar dance, not a case of national identity. However, Greece and Bulgaria had just fought a war in 1913 then found themselves on opposite sides in WWI and WWII. The Greek/Bulgarian border then became the line between Communism and Capitalism. Their new border had to be secured from infiltration, people near the border had to be counted on for loyalty. It simply would not do to be seen dancing the Greek national dance inside Bulgaria. However, if Bulgarian music was used, a few Bulgarian moves added, maybe nobody would notice.

It’s been nearly 100 years since the population exchanges; each nation’s reluctance to acknowledge the roots of a ‘foreign’ dance are likely for a combination of reasons. Originally, official government policy was designed to forge a national identity among newer citizens. Later, repeated usage established a ‘fact’ – over time, people who knew better died off.

Currently, young people in Greece and Bulgaria who are learning ‘folk’ dances are mostly city kids with little personal connection to a past they’ve only read about in books. They’re learning their dances not from ancestors, but from urbanites like themselves who learned in dance academies & clubs; from other teachers trained according to government-approved standards. Their information is second-hand or more – much like how folk dances are learned in North America. Also like their North American counterparts, many of these people just want to dance, have fun. To those people, a dance’s origin is of little significance. Those who want to understand a dance’s origins are a minority. So information about a dance is often reduced to simply its country.

However there are those who pursue ethnic pride as a form of cultural chauvinism; my country right or wrong, is better than your country, we have the best dances and dancers, the best of everything resides here, etc. These types often label dances, not to inform, but to aggrandize.

I’m not saying its technically wrong to call Širto a Bulgarian dance, but to label it Bulgarian without acknowledging its Greek roots is misleading. Širto is a relatively minor dance in Bulgaria, a dance native to only a few. In Greece, Syrtó is the country’s most important dance. Syrtó/Širto would be better labled, in my opinion, a Regional, Greek-based dance with variants in neighbouring countries. Bulgarians, even Bulgarians of Argentinian or Spanish descent who dance tango or flamenco would not label them Bulgarian dances.

One of my major beefs with recreational folk dancing is that it is taught as an infinite collection of individually separate units – as if there aren’t a few major families of dance to which most Balkan dances belong. Dances seem to stop at borders, belonging to one side or the other, and each gets a different name and a different recording, masking their similarities. This puts dancers at the mercy of instructors (often single-country specialists), who may or may not know they’re peddling old wine in new skins, but need to come up with ‘new’ dances to justify another workshop.* By the sheer number of dances available, dancers are discouraged from looking for similarities, from the feeling of empowerment that comes from realizing “I recognize this rhythm and tempo, even if the melody and instrumentation are different – I know something I can do to this music”. They are thus discouraged from dancing the way the ‘villagers’ did. The ‘villagers’ knew only a few dances, so when they heard a new tune, they applied to it a dance already in their existing repertoire.

*Conversely, instructors are at the mercy of dance clubs, who keep demanding more, different, dances.

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