Scenes from Budapest, Evening dances underground

Kalotaszegi legényes
«Danseurs en rond», aquarelle

As November draws to a close, wooden huts of motley wares mushroom across the squares of the city, giving shape to Christmas markets that will soon illuminate the darkness of Central European winters.

The wailing arabesques of fiddles cut through the late autumn air, surprise you at corners, mingle with the sweet aroma of roasted chestnuts. Night falls shortly after 4 o’clock, and all anyone would like to do after work is squirrel himself away in some cozy niche with warm company and mulled wine.

One such frosty evening, V took me down to the Gödör Klub on Erzsébet tér (management has since changed hands, and it is now called Akvárium), an underground pit in the middle of the city that hosts various nocturnal and cosmopolitan parties of music and dance. But that evening, Gödör had donned on the aura of one of Gogol’s country tales, becoming the “light burning somewhere at the end of the village as soon as evening comes on,” where “laughter and singing is heard in the distance, there is the twang of the balalaika and, at times, of the fiddle, talk and noise […] lads burst into the cottage with the fiddler, there is an uproar at once, fun begins, they set off dancing, and I could not tell you all the pranks that are played.”1

In the dimness of candlelight and Christmas garlands, a music ensemble composed of contrabass, violins, the hurdy-gurdy, the zither, and the cimbalom, performed for a dance floor filled with men and women of all ages holding one other by the waist and shoulders, twirling madly about, now clockwise, now counter-clockwise. On the men were sleek polished leather boots that glinted softly and reached just below their knees and slim trousers topped with a billowing white shirt. On the women were flowing skirts that flared as they spun around, their heads tilted back, their eyes fixed on their partners.

The entire scene did not give one the impression of being too folkloric, but rather of something pulsing and vibrant, of a past woven seamlessly into the present.

When the couples’ dance had ended, the women parted to the edge of the floor and the men formed a circle to perform for the women a dance, the legényes from the Kalotaszeg region of Transylvania. The musicians took to their instruments and one by one, each of the men puffed into the circle, executing a series of improvised leg flourishes with his black leather boots, now tapping the ground with his heel and boot tip, now kicking the air and bending his knees to the melody of the fiddle. Like a marionette, he seemed to leap into the air in starts and spurts, his torso straight, his head level, with his limbs in autonomous animation. All the while, the women looked on sternly, amusingly, their hands on their hips, swaying also to the music, admiring, evaluating, reveling. How like life!

We took part in the next couple’s dance, but this part of the night with men in a circle, dancing, vying for the feminine gaze, was most memorable. I shall be sorry when I leave this city of underground dances whose folk roots flourish on modern dance floors.

1 Nikolai Gogol, (Evenings in a Village near Dikanka, preface to Volume I, 1831)

A performance clip of a Kalotaszegi legényes

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