Back to Balkan

by Dorotea Lechkova

Abingdon is a quaint, Northanger Abbey-esque English town. The rows of proud poplar trees stretch toward the melancholy sky. The Gothic arches, the patches of moss on the rooftops, and the stone walls, wet from the light spring rain are unexpectedly inviting. A message engraved in the façade of the town hall reads, “Through this wide opening gate, none come too early, none return too late”— a reminder to those who have left in search for their fortunes, a comfort to those who have found misfortune, and a welcome to travelers. Quite romantic.

This picturesque atmosphere set the backdrop for last month’s folk festival. Groups performing Irish, Indian, and Japanese dances, to name a few, took the stage at Abingdon’s center square. Among them was Oxford’s very own Balkansko Oro. The Balkan dance group took part in the program with four dances from various Eastern European regions. The dancers being of several different nationalities including English, American, Turkish, Bulgarian, and Polish, are themselves a colorful patchwork of cultural backgrounds. They were all dressed in traditional folk costumes, some of which were collected from trips to the Balkans. Parts of other costumes, such as the headscarves and aprons, were hand-sewn by group members. The intricate floral patterns and vivid greens, blues, and reds lit up the stage. The dancers were wearing “tsarvuli”, handmade, leather footwear, traditionally worn by Bulgarian villagers, jewelry, which in the olden days indicated wealth and social status, metal belt buckles, and red headscarves with contrasting ivory flowers clipped to the side. Balkanso Oro meets every Thursday here in Oxford during the term seasons and since the 1960s, has been preserving and popularizing folk dances from Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Serbia, Greece, and Macedonia.

It is lovely to see such cultural initiatives, especially in the light of current economic difficulties. Folk dance, in particular, is a genre bursting with creative energy, a genre that embodies all of the struggles and passions of nations, a choreographed history. Folk songs reveal the character of a people. Unfortunately, another festival with a long history, the Oxford Folk Festival, was cancelled this year due to a lack of funding. This is where you, the reader, can help. The only way these events can continue is through popular interest. It is not very often in our modern societies that we choose to celebrate cultural differences and perhaps many countries would be surprised to find that their cultural heritage is being kept alive by pockets of foreigners around the world. That’s precisely what is so wonderful about it—its sheer randomness and sincerity. Being able to look past common clichés, stereotypes, political disputes and appreciate a culture different from your own is a true mark of progress.