Nijemo Kolo (Ličko Kolo) – Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro

Croatia is a very diverse country geographically.  The Adriatic coast, known as Dalmatia (yes, the Dalmatian dog is from there), is a land of sunny, dry islands (backed by steep mountains) with an Italian flavour, having been ruled for centuries from Venice.  Croatia’s northern inland is a fertile plain, Slavonia, ruled for centuries and strongly influenced by Hungary (in fact, it WAS Hungary until 1918).  

Dividing the two regions are the Dinaric Alps, a mountain chain stretching from Italy through Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, and Montenegro into Albania.  The mountains made the area remote and poor, so few bothered to conquer it. That isolation fostered a distinctive culture.

The Dinaric region’s dance culture spans Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, and into Albania and North Macedonia. It is home to a unique mode of dancing. Called Nijemo Kolos or ‘Silent’ Kolos, the dances are anything but silent (more on the ‘silent’ designation later), but they do lack instrumental accompaniment.  Dancers sing while doing simple steps, usually but not always progressing to faster, non-singing footwork, while keeping time by the sound of their feet on the ground, or the jingling of metal costume jewelry (often dowery coins). Each region has its own name(s) for this type of dance – Starobosansko & Glamoč in Bosnia, Crmnički Oro & Zetsko in Montenegro, Ličko, Vrlicko, in Croatia. This may seem a mite confusing to newcomers, but it’s a fact: there is no single dance called Ličko kolo by the natives of the Dinaric Alps.  There is a category of dances, sometimes called Nijemo or “Silent” Kolos.  Ličko Kolo references “Silent”-type dances from the Lika region of Croatia. I can find no YouTube examples of Living Nijemo kolos, [other than the singing-only ones in Lika,] but local performing groups consider it a core dance of their region.

This YouTube below gives a general overview of the Nijemo kolo genre as it exists in Croatia. The dance shown from 5:15 – 6:00 minutes is closest to the Ličko kolo we recreational folk dancers do.  

Zetsko Oro, Crmnički Oro, Montenegro

From a movie made in 1948, as the two-part dance was disappearing, Zetsko oro, then Crmnički oro from Cetinje, Montenegro. While the outside circle does their version of the Taproot Dance (Zetsko), couples dance in the centre. See explanation below:

A quote from this site: http://www.panacomp.net/montenegrin-culture-folklore-and-music/A dance of ethnic Montenegrins is called the Oro, with the forms being the Crmnički Oro, Zetsko Oro, Katunski Oro and the Riječki Oro. It is as much a communal gathering and a game as it is a dance in the strictest sense. Typically, young men and women would gather and form a circle (kolo), then start to sing, usually in form of playfully mocking someone from the other side and daring them to enter the circle to dance. One of the more daring young men would then enter the circle and start to dance in a stylistic imitation of an Eagle. The aim here is to impress, just like in any modern disco club. The gallery crowd will immediately respond with a “feedback” song, either praising or ridiculing him. Soon, a girl would join, quite often his girlfriend or possibly someone attracted by his display. She would also imitate an Eagle, but in a more elegant way. The gallery also keeps up. When the couple gets tired, they kiss each other on the cheek and another couple jumps in to keep the kolo going, while the singing of the surrounding crowd never stops. Usually the young lads finish oro by forming a two-story circle, standing on one others shoulders, inside the greater circle and this is the scene that is the most recognizable and most often photographed part of the dance.

Here’s a modern performance of Crmnički Oro, starting at 8:07

Dance note for Zetsko Oro can be found here: http://www.socalfolkdance.com/dances/Z/Zetsko_Oro_B_Montenegran.pdf

Vrličko kolo, Croatia

From that same movie made in 1948, the kolo from the Croatian town of Vrlika, Vrličko Kolo, a slow Tapoot dance while singing, followed by a faster, more energetic Taproot Dance.

In 1987, Nena Shokčič taught Vrličko kolo at Stockton. Below are her notes (and corrections plus details in pink).

Bosnia – Glamoč, Starobosansko nijemo kolo,

I suspect some choreographic creativity in arranging for the women to come on solo first.
The energetic second part of this dance begins with a demonstration of male prowress before putting women through their paces.

Detailed notes on Glamoč (Glamočko)/Starobosansko can be found here: http://www.socalfolkdance.com/dances/G/Glamocko_A_Bosnian.pdf

LIČKO KOLO (LEECH-koh KOH-loh) – Croatia

At it’s simplest, Ličko Kolo simply means “dance from Lika” a rather large region in Croatia.

Simple Ličko kolo – ‘Living’

Often, Ličko kolo refers to singing while doing a simple step. This type of Nijemo kolo is definitely stilll Living in Stajnica. Dick Crum wrote, in the April 1997 issue of Folk Dance Scene, about seeing it in the early 1950’s. : “In Yugoslavia I first saw a silent dance, Ličko kolo, on a Sunday afternoon in a village in Lika called Stajnice… At one point in the early afternoon, the villagers gathered around in little conversation groups. You used to see this all the time on Sunday afternoons in those little villages. There is always dancing in the afternoons, almost anywhere you go. It takes different forms in different places. In Stajnice, they were standing around in small family groups and groups of guys and girls telling jokes. At one point, one of the guys belted out a song, and moved toward the center of an area in front of the church. A couple of his buddies lined up next to him, some women jumped in, and pretty soon there was a whole curved line, all singing this song. I didn’t really pay much attention to the lyrics, but they were doing a really simple, almost a walking step while they sang. You could hardly call it “dancing”. It was as if they were singing, and the footwork sort of accompanied the song. What they were doing was Ličko Kolo. They did the “dance” for a couple of songs, led by this guy with everyone else joining in on the second measure.

Often, this kind of song is improvised. The leader knows what he or she is going to sing but the others don’t, so the others wait until they get a clue from the lead singer in the first measure or two. Then they join in. Historically the songs were purely random, whatever the leader chose to start out – some were romantic, others heroic, and many of them outright obscene. There are an infinite number of songs and the natives dance to any of them. I picked Pijeva mi pijeva because its pretty, but you can use any song…some that they use are downright obscene. Some of those guys, the songs they’re singing, they’re just plain raw, and Yugoslav humor in sexual jokes is absolutely physical and descriptive and rough… Well, you know, they’ll be singing with double meanings in these verses, and then they’ll think of another dirty thought and sing about that…I’m exaggerating for effect, but basically that’s it.”

This Ličko Kolo is very simple – 3 steps forward, one step back, while singing a song.
This appears to be the same Stajnice that Crum wrote about.
Somewhere in Lika’s Gacka River valley…Starting 4:08, looks like we have a wedding!

Two-part Ličko Kolo – 1st Generation (no longer living)

Some of the same folks as above. At 1:07 the tempo picks up briefly.

Similar to Bosnia and Montenegro, the Croatian two-part Nijemo kolo (Ličko kolo) has a more energetic second section, sometimes breaking into couples, where, like the Montenegran Crmnički Oro, the man ‘tests’ the woman. Dick Crum again: “The dance is very old, and at one time (pre World War II) had many variants all over Lika. According to old-timers, the main function of the dance was to demonstrate and test the strength and stamina of the young people. In particular, the suitability of marriageable young women was judged by their ability to endure the strenuous movements of the dance’s fast part which, as done by natives, can be very strenuous. The historic formation was a circle of dancers, alternating mixed man-woman-man-woman, the couples in each case being sweethearts or engaged pairs. The dance was always done without musical accompaniment – the first part accompanied by dancers’ singing, the second part of comparative silence, the footfalls of the dancers being the only ‘audio’ element besides the shouts and commands of the leader. In an older form of Ličko, the leader played the role of ‘dance director’, shouting out commands for all the dancers to perform certain standard step patterns; failure to perform them up to snuff meant possible ejection from the circle!” The dance started out with an ambling, almost casual walking step moving left (clockwise), three steps left and one step more or less in place, to the singing. When the song finished, dancers ‘shifted gears’ into the fast, high-energy Part II. After World War II the old versions of the dance had pretty well died out, and a simpler form prevailed. in some places called either Ličko kolo or by a new name Djikac (JEE-kahtz, ‘jumping’).

Otočac, a town in the Lika region. Around 1:23 the kolovoda [leader], picks up the tempo. At 2:30, he begins naming steps for the group to excute in unison.
Gospić, another town in the Lika region. At 2:49, Gospić shows it’s unique steps.

Dick Crum’s Ličko kolo

In 1957 Dick Crum assembled a song popular in Lika; Pjevaj Mi Pjevaj, and a few typical Lika region moves, labeled it Ličko Kolo, and taught it to recreational folk dancers.   In the same April 1997 issue of Folk Dance Scene excerpted above, Dick said his assembly was “pretty much as I had witnessed in Stajnice and also as it was done in Upper Michigan by descendants of immigrants from Lika, whose parents had come there to work copper mines… I thought it would be fun to teach people the kind of dance where you don’t need a record.” Although that song Pjevaj Mi Pjevaj is still popular in Croatia today, I could find no instances of its use accompanying a Nijemo kolo.  Lead singer is Dobrivoje Pavlica.

Here’s the dance taught by Dick Crum as Ličko kolo as done in North America.
I’m indebted to Karia Leschke for teaching it to me. Notice in the version above the slow step is a grapevine.

In his 1997 interview, Dick had this to say about the slow grapevine “In the recreational folk dance movement, Ličko kolo took off and acquired a life of its own. The steps themselves have changed (the natural folk process) over the years, and a purely U.S. variation of slow step has developed: a grapevine to the left: step left, step right in front of left, step left, step right foot in back of left. This is a change from the traditional structure in which the last step by the right foot never crossed in back of the left; rather, it either stepped in place, very slightly to the right or straight or diagonally/right back from the center with a slight pause.

Why no instrumental accompaniment?

Here’s the maestro himself, in an interview published in the April 1997 issue of Folk Dance Scene: “Most Americans cannot imagine dancing without instrumental music, but there are cultures in the world where this is, in fact, the case…especially the people in these mountains. They danced and never used instruments for that activity. Though that would not be the case in the last couple of generations due to increased communication, travel, and outside influence, for the sake of this discussion, let’s imagine a world maybe 3 or 4 generations ago when, in those mountain areas, on a Sunday afternoon, the people would get together and dance with no instrumental music. To them, this was the natural way to dance.

There is an anecdote that they tell about a mountaineer who had a distant relative living in the city of Split on the Dalmatian coast who was invited to a wedding down there. Neither he nor anyone in his village had ever been out of the mountains, so they wondered what it would be like down there in the city. He was a little wary, but he went, and was down there for a while. When he came back, all the villagers crowded around him asking ‘Well, what was it like? What was it like in the big city? What was the wedding like?’ He said, ‘Well the wedding was very nice and they had lots of good food and lots to drink, but there was one funny thing… There were five or six guys standing in a corner with some kind of boxes that made noises. Every time they would make noise the people would get up and dance, and when they stopped making noise the people stopped dancing.’ The villagers got the biggest kick out of that...”

What’s the problem with ‘silent’ in ‘silent’ kolo?

Again I’ll quote Mr Crum’s interview: “In the Serbo-Croatian language, the word for unaccompanied dancing varies. One is ‘nijemo’, which also means ‘deaf and dumb’, speech impaired, or mute. Another is gluho, which means ‘deaf’. They refer to those dances that way, using common everyday adjectives. In trying to translate into English, this presents a problem…You’re faced with a dance from an area that is done without musical accompaniment, and the accurate way to talk about the dance is to say ‘dance done without musical accompaniment’. This would be the really correct way to translate Nijemo kolo into English. Though ‘mute dance’ or ‘dumb dance’ works fine in Serbo-Croatian, neither work in the English language. Well somebody at some time way back when they were talking about these dances hit upon the word ‘silent’, and they began to call this kind of dancing ‘silent’ dancing.

Folk dancers here had never danced a European dance without instrumental accompaniment before, and fell in love with it. It captured a special place in the folk dance scene which it still holds today, although natives from Lika might be puzzled at the aura of near-reverence or “mysticism” that surrounds it here. The song/dance took on different meaning amongst the folk dancers than it had with the Yugoslavs. Because it was silent. Psychologically, the word, “silent,” is pungent and full of power in our society. For example, “let us have a moment of silence, please” in memory of so-and-so, or “the mob fell silent at…”. The word “silent” in English is loaded with lots of baggage that a good translator would avoid applying to a dance. When you say “the silent kolo”, there is an air of mystique, of mystery, of possible spiritual power involved. That silence kicked in American sentiments of reverence. Anything that’s slow and majestic and has silences feels reverent. In contrast, when they sang in the village of Stajnice, those 4 beats without singing did not bring any sentiments of reverence to the natives…it was just natural. They were getting ready to sing the next verse.

I think Ličko kolo is a wonderful starting point to discuss many things about folk dancing, about one culture and what it does with the cultural traits of another culture, why and how and just the idea of the interpretation…of two different cultures’ interpretations of the meanings of silence. This provides a nice exercise in cross-cultural understanding without getting bogged down in heavy, philosophical and/or abstract discussions.

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