Bear dance in…Bucharest!

This website was meant to be about Maramureș. And yet this post is about traditions coming to Bucharest, which is about 600 km away. I’ve started writing about Maramureș, my home county, because there is the place where traditions still exist, but I am very glad to write about all Romanian traditions, in whatever form and place they survive. As you will read, this was a totally unexpected, unplanned for, and thus an exceptionally rewarding experience and I can consider myself lucky to have had the chance to be around at the right time and place.

I was back to Romania after more than one and a half years, heading to Sighetu Marmatiei (Maramureș) for Christmas and for the renowned Customs and Traditions Festival “Marmatia”, which takes place every year (post coming soon). I stopped over one day in Bucharest. While heading to my in-laws’ place, in the Aviatiei quarter, I stumbled upon this group of mostly very young boys and girls who was taking a break on the ground, in an alley across the large concentration of apartment blocks in the area. It was on December 23rd and it was cold but not wet, so they all were sitting on the ground, on  the edges of the alley.

They were all eating. What struck me from the very beginning was how hungry they all were and how they were devouring some home made sandwiches – some of them resembled just plain bread loafs to me. They were about 20 of them, mostly adolescents but also about three or four adults. Four of them – the bears, i.e costumed in real bear furs – were lying slouched on the iron rails delimiting the alley, with their suits open, eating hastily. Several large plastic drums with their sticks were also laying on the ground.

They looked at me with interest, saw my camera. One of the adults started asking me: who was I, if I were from a television channel, or a newspaper. I said neither, I am just an amateur interested in promoting Romanian traditions. Another adult guessed I was a foreigner. No, I have a website about Maramureș, about traditions, that is all. I could write about them, promote them but I cannot make any promises this will be of direct help to them. I was told they were already featured on television, on ProTV (a main private Romanian channel) but they never  received any money for their performance.

As I started to discuss with one of the adults, I learned a bit more about their long journey to Bucharest. They were from a village from Bacău, in the Romanian Moldavia. Like many other groups from the area, they were coming yearly to Bucharest to perform on street traditional rituals and dances, to raise some money for the holidays. There was little money involved, considering the transportation and housing costs for the journey, all they could hope for in the end was pocket money. And indeed, for the one and a half hours I was with them, they collected very little. It worked like that: people would hear the loud, rithmic drums and shouting, and come to the balconies and windows to see them in action. Some of them – very few – would come downstairs and give them money or food, as appreciation. I only saw one man who gave them a big box with biscuits (the well-knows Romanian “eugenia”), with 30 RON (about EUR 7) attached. One of the adults collected the money and they all split the eugenias, which made for their desert that morning. With the daylight very short – it got dark by 4 pm – they had to start early – but not too early, as this meant disturbing the neighbourhoods – and cover a large area.

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I’ve heard of such groups before, coming to Bucharest in the eve of holidays, but had never seen one in action. I was told there were many of them, afterwards I saw myself other bear-boys at the Bucharest North Train Station. People in Bucharest were usually weary of them – they have seen them every year – and many assume they are of the rroma population, just making noise, just for money. Therefore, few people give anything. There is some truth in this. As I told some of my friends about these boys and girls, how professional they were, how disciplined and authentic their dance and attitude were, they were surprised.

It was an extraordinary time. I followed them as they moved through the all alleys, performing their rituals and dances. They were very glad to see that somebody had taken an interest in their little performance, there, in the maze of concrete block of flats,  on a cold December day. A few days later, I would arrive to my beloved Maramureș, to the winter festivities on the 27th December. There, I was just one of the many photographers documenting a well established event by now (46th edition). The participants there were by now used and even expected to be photographed. Here, however, I felt the performance was all for me and I was enjoying it to the full; they surely made me feel like it.

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The bear boys were spectacular. The four boys were all the height of the bears suits and watching them you could almost forget these were not actual live bears dancing in the alleys. One of the bear-boys was in particular living the moment with all his heart, looking at him I felt he was in some kind of trance, like feeling the animal he was embodying.

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I do not know what it will be made of these talented boys and girls. I could see them giving a fascinating television performance at any time, mesmerising the TV audiences just as they mesmerised me. Their performance was so unappreciated. I felt sorry that so few people came out to watch them, not knowing what they were missing. There is some slim chance that an open minded television could bring them to a Romanian traditions show, but I know this is not likely.

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Well, this is Romania. For the open minded local or tourist, there are so many beautiful things yet to discover in the very mundane around us. I am well aware these traditions are altering with the passing of years, losing their authenticity. Soon enough, as incomes rise, there will be little incentive left to travel through half the country to brave cold days in Bucharest in the middle of the winter for elusive monetary outcomes. As it is the case with Maramureș, the time to visit the country and experience the authentic before the globalisation wave destroys it all, is RIGHT NOW.

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