Surviving through the Dance: Sung Round Dance as the Expression of Defiance and Croatian Pride


Surviving through the Dance: Sung Round Dance as the Expression of. Defiance and Croatian Pride

Croatia is small, southeast European country with its coastal shore along the Adriatic sea and the river Danube flowing through the northern inland region. During the last few years, more has been heard about Croatia because of its divisive war, which started at the time of democratization and the separation of the former Yugoslav republics from the socialist federation. Slavonska Posavina (the Slavonian Save River Basin) and the surroundings of the town of Slovanski Brod was one of the regions in Croatia which remained under fire from constant or periodic attacks - even after the singing of numerous peace treaties during the war in 1991 and 1992 - from Serbian positions on the southern, Bosnian side of the Sava River.

It was a time when a large number of Croatian villages were under direct attack or embroiled in the war. In some villages, young men had been mobilized, and the halls in which the folklore groups held their rehearsals were being used for military purposes. Despite such circumstances - and many others which were much more tragic with the suffering being endured at that time, and the general alerts to ensuing attacks - many village folklore societies continued with their rehearsals. They were potential participants in the International Folklore Festival in Zagreb, and they expressed their wish to take part when it still was not certain whether the festival would be held or not. Enquiries came from the most threatened regions of Croatia. For many of them, performing at the festival in Zagreb was a symbol of resistance and defiance. It was an opportunity to show publicly that material things - villages, houses, and churches - can be destroyed, but the spirit cannot be broken. By song and dance, in reconstructured and sometimes borrowed costumes, they wanted to show their skill, identity, and spiritual and moral strength.

In spite of the conflicts, and to a certain degree because of them, many Croatians maintained an active cultural life during that period. Often in a conflict-ridden region, communities at once preserve the past and create something new in their efforts to maintain both identity and autonomy. The 1992 performance of a "new song" (a new song text) in a traditional form by members of a small village at the 26th International Folklore Festival in 1992 demonstrated how something new can emerge from something traditional, and my follow-up interviews with members of the community reveals a variety of motives for their participation in the event.

The sung kolo round dance from Oriovac

The kolo round dance is a vital part of Croatian folklore and cultural life. In the past, many kolo round dances and songs portrayed the Ottoman wars. They were created at a time when the danger from the Turks was part of day-to-day existence in Slavonia. Until the 1950s, the kolo round dance was the center of village social life in Croatia. Both as a dance and a social event, the kolo was where young men and women met and expressed mutual attraction; where blood brotherhoods and sisterhoods were sealed. It was also an event in which village social life was criticized and mocked through the songs sung in a kolo.

In 1992 members of the Luka Ilic Oriovcanin folklore group from Oriovac, a village near the town of Slavonski Brod, wanted to perform at the folklore festival in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. Their hope was to draw the public's attention to their situation through their performance of a sung kolo round dance, which they had prepared especially for the festival. It was no accident that the people of Oriovac wanted so very much to go to Zagreb. At that time, their village and those near it were under continual general alert and exposed to shelling from the southern side of the Save River.

The selection board of the festival accepted their proposal, understanding the strongly expressed desire of the members of the cultural club from Oriovac to perform. In the selection board's choice of participants that year, priority was given to groups of displaced persons and inhabitants of villages directly touched by the war, and Oriovac certainly met that criterion.

When the cultural club from Oriovac performed in Zagreb, however, they performed a traditional kolo round dance but with verses they had composed themselves, titled "Slavonia at War." The song referred to their current reality of war in Slavonia and Croatia.

The verses and melody of the song "Slavonia at War" were the work of two older female group members, which ensured that it would be performed in their traditional, strolling step round dance in four steps. They sang slowly while walking to the left. One woman started to sing and the others followed her. The song and dance were accompanied by tambura, musical instruments which have also had symbolic national connotation during the last two centuries, and once again have taken on a special significance (especially in the years since Croatian independence).

The kolo continues to be danced in Oriovac - and the broad Slavonian region - as an enduring cultural tradition, a commemoration of long past events, and also a contemporary vehicle for the expression of criticism as a part of a new social context.

The performers' views

To interpret the message of this dance and its context, I needed to learn the interpretation of the performers themselves. A year after the performance, I prepared a written survey and asked the performers to fill it out, but not to put their names on it, so they could express what they thought anonymously. Their responses revealed their attitudes toward the 1992 festival, and about dance in general during those stressful times.

When asked what the kolo, dancing, and song meant to them personally, the people of Oriovac provided a wide range of answers, from mild statements about dance as a type of hobby and a pleasant way to pass time, to more intense expressions such as joy, delight, pleasure and satisfaction, a feeling of ease, relaxation, and a remedy for heart and soul. Some of them gave statements important for the interpretation of the feeling of social and cultural belonging, according to which dance is for them at once recreation and socializing, love for a rich tradition, and a feeling of belonging and pride.

My impression of song and dance as identity symbols was strengthened by the participants' answers to the question of what it meant to the villagers to travel to Zagreb for the 1992 festival at the height of hostilities. The answers stressed the communicative importance of the messages transmitted to the audience in these performances. They replied that going to Zagreb meant a lot - joy, happiness, a good time, and an honor. During the period between the two world wars, going to Zagreb festivals was a privilege for the better prepared groups which had shown their worth at regional festivals. In the selective way participants were chosen, the International Festival retained such a reputation that the people of Oriovac also felt honored by being invited.

"We are proud to have been there, we rehearsed while the shells were falling, so the festival was an unrepeatable event for us. Going to Zagreb was a symbol of defiance; we showed that despite the aggression we can succeed. It was proof that we have our pride, our passion, our bravery; an extraordinary experience."

Their responses also indicated the importance they gave to their costumes - that they also went to show their magnificent attire. They were particularly proud of their costumes and stressed them as a unique aspect of Oriovac culture in comparison with neighboring villages. They did not feel their song and dance distinguished them from their neighbors as clearly as their costumes.

Participants described their visit to Zagreb as something to remember. However, they did not fail to mention that among the benefits of going to Zagreb was escaping from what they left behind. Some of their responses follow: "forgetting the everyday reality which had shaken us so much during those days in our village and the surroundings; flight from war into peace; coming to rest in a place where there was no war; forgetting the sadness and to see life unfolding without war in Zagreb; it cannot be described, to come out of the cellar to freedom, to leave the shelling, to perform at the festival and sing and sing." In this respect, going to the festival was a means of collective unwinding, and relief. For one member of the group it was also "the joy of Croatia in one place, because they can destroy our Croatia, but not its customs and traditions."

Yet the festival was also an opportunity to make a new statement through the kolo. They recalled what the kolo "Slavonia at war" meant to them when they performed it at the festival: "The song came into being as an expression of our bitterness towards the enemy and as defiance and obstinacy that he could never subjugate us, written at the time of the most violent attacks on Slavonia and Oriovac." It was prepared "solely for the festival in Zagreb and we did not perform it again - there was no such opportunity." One person replied that "it was created just for the festival because of the circumstances we left behind to come to the festival; the kolo was born as a response to what was happening around us at that time." Another respondent said, "The kolo was nothing new or unusual because the war was part of our lives then, and we wanted to conjure it up for everyone throughout Croatia." Through the media of direct television broadcasts, Croatian Television regularly shows the festive procession of the participants and the opening of the festival. Going to Zagreb was thus a rare opportunity for public presentation that would be watched by all of Croatia.

One person wrote, "The song grew out of indignation against the Serbian soldiers, and the kolo dance marked important historical events. [It is] the suffering of the Slavonians in war expressed in song. [Our performance was] something which evoked strong emotions because of its very name, but also because of the time and place in which it was performed. It was war-time, and for that reason we performed it with deep understanding of all that the words say: love towards Slavonia; defiance to the aggressor; an expression of spiritual satisfaction."

Unity, however, was not the only message being expressed by the villagers. Along with positive sentiments of local, regional, and national identity, there were also statements that expressed feelings of antagonism towards the capital of Zagreb where the war was not being waged. For these people the performance was "an expression of the soul which inhabitants of Zagreb cannot feel. We wanted to show Zagreb that the Slavonians are indestructible, that we have big hearts, a huge love for Slavonia and that we are unflinching." At the same time, this was "a warning to Zagreb; a reminder to the gentle folk of Zagreb that there is a war in Slavonia."

Crises and wars are thankless times in which the examination of mutual human relations are more emphasized. Thus, the relations between the displaced persons and the inhabitants of Croatia who were not directly exposed to aggression frequently were the subject of discussion and reproach. This was also expressed through the public media which often imposed the ideas of the metropolis on the provincial areas, and caused the voicing of recriminations against the capital as the political center and source of authority. The many difficulties being encountered in all aspects of life at that time only contributed more to this state of mind. Through its performance at the folk festival, a small village was able to present its perspective (and gentle recrimination) to a large national audience. The dance group's performance was a political ritual. The sung kolo round dance, "Slavonia at war," was composed solely for the festive performance by the group for the festival, and was a form of symbolic ritual action.


In traveling to Zagreb to perform at the 26th International Folklore Festival in 1992 that lasted only for a short time, it was difficult for the people of Oriovac to tear themselves away from their village, even if it meant escaping from the everyday hostilities of war. They prepared for that moment with particular fervor and during the performance of the sung kolo they transmitted their feelings to their Zagreb audience, which reciprocated with tumultuous applause. The audience experienced and recognized the energy in the message expressed in song and dance.

In order to better and more fully express themselves, the Oriovac group performed a sung round dance wearing elaborate local dance costumes. They sang the messages that were of exceptional importance to them while dancing the kolo. Their performance was about their people at war. It was a moment of collective unwinding and reconciliation. In a compact circle of dancers, firmly holding each other by their interwoven hands, they were symbolically demonstrating a community. They sang and danced simultaneously, thus strengthening the impression and importance of their message.

The Slavonians went to Zagreb and expressed their feeling of war-time dejection and fear, but at the same time expressed their local, regional and national identity - their pride and defiance. They displayed their identity according to the habitual and proven scheme of the stage life of folklore, augmenting it with a current theme, a sung round dance about the war. Through song and dance they made the Zagreb audience understand their war-time reality and - apart from local, regional, and national identity - communicated a certain antagonism towards the political center of the country as a city living in peace. However, the Zagreb public welcomed them and did not hide its affinity with them, its sympathy for them, its human and national solidarity, and its common opposition to the aggressor.

For all performers, dance is a display of positive life energy and an expression of the emotions of each individual in a social community. Feelings range from happiness, which fills one with positive force, to feelings of ease and relaxation by which the performer is freed from emotionally negative, excess energy through the dances and songs. If one adds the culturally determined feeling of belonging and pride towards one's traditions, the picture of dance as a phenomenon of human behavior becomes more complex. It confirms the idea that energy expressed through dance can be an indicator of social norms. The sung kolo round dance as a living part of Croatian folklore can obviously be transformed into a political ritual in which the performers express their feelings of regional and national identification - their unity, but also their diversity.

Yet the supportive audience in Zagreb could not spare the dancers from the future attacks on Oriovac. The day after their return from the festival in Zabreb, their village was again under fire.

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