polish national dances


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The oberek (also referred to as the obertas, drygant, okrąglak, okrągły, wyrywas, wyrwany, wyrwas, zawijacz, etc.) is characterised by a three-measure metre, mazurka-like rhythmic, fast tempo, whirling, and a significant degree of improvisation manifested through numerous ornaments added to steps, holds, and hand gestures. In its national form, the oberek is a dance fashioned after the country dances of the Mazovia region, as remodelled by the upper classes in the 19th century, and subsequently adapted for stage and ballrooms, fitted to the requirements of the national ideology, popularised and standardised in line with the common convictions about its inherent physical and musical features.

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In the light of  musicological research, the rhythmic akin to that of the oberek appeared no sooner than in the 17th century[1], as corroborated by such terms of the epoch as: wyrwaniec (Hieronim Morsztyn, 1624), skoczne obwertasy (Adam Korczyński, 1675), or wyrwany (Jan Chryzostom Pasek, ca. 1690-1695)[2]. Still, due to the lack of descriptions of dances denoted by the aforementioned terms, it is difficult to identify them with the oberek. What should be noted, though, is that these dances were indeed mazurka-related genres which preceded the oberek. Danuta Idaszak claims the oberek emerged from the mazur as late as between 1750 and 1830[3], gradually superseding its country version. It was likely what Kazimierz Brodziński (1829) had in mind when suggesting the impact of the whirling dance introduced in Warsaw by the local German community at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries[4]. The first Polish image of a whirling dance (by Michał Płoński , currently exhibited in Nieborów). Jan Prosnak argued the oberek was already danced in the late 18th century vaudevilles: Gaetano’s (Kajetan Majer’s) Żółta szlafmyca, albo kolęda na Nowy Rok [The Yellow Nightcap, or a New Years’ Carol] (1783), and Maciej Kamieński’s Słowik, czyli Kasia z Hanką na wydaniu [The Nightingale, or the Matchmaking of Kasia and Hanka] (1790)[5]. The oberek also appeares in the 1816 opera Superstition, or Cracoviennes and Highlanders by Karol Kurpiński and Jan Nepomucen Kamiński, as well as the 1823 ballet Wesele krakowskie w Oycowie  [The Cracovian Wedding in Ojców] by Karol Kurpiński and Józef Damse (featuring fragments of Stefani’s vaudeville and choreographed by Julia Mierzyńska and Maurcice Pion[6]. It was also used in the final movement of Franciszek Lessel’s Piano Concerto in C-major. The name “obertas” occurs in Fryderyk Chopin’s 1825 correspondence, in which the composer describes a harvest festival in Obrowo[7]. Chopin was among the first composers to include oberek-like fragments in some of his Warsaw period mazurkas. Still, the name “oberek” first occurred in literature as late as in 1831 in Łukasz Gołebiowski’s Gry i zabawy różnych stanów… [Games and Plays of Various Social Classes..].[8] Chile the first composition bearing this name was Kazimierz Lubomirski’s 1839 Obertas-mazur . Then there is Karol Hauser’s Oberek from his 1846 collection Kwiaty karnawałowe [Carnival Flowers], the earliest known evidence for the performance of the oberek in Polish ballrooms.

The first description of the ballroom form of the oberek, perhaps inspired by the concurrent descriptions of its country forms[9], comes from Arkadiusz Kleczewski (1879). Kleczewski lists the whirling leftward and rich ornamentation (clicking of heels, “wyrwasy”, i.e. alternating right and left leg kneels, and swiping one’s leg along a curve) as the fundamental traits of the oberek[10]. Karol Mestenhauser ‘s 1888 text includes a list of advanced figures, including  Nie uciekaj dziewczę, Zawadyjaka, Harne dziewuchy, Z wyrwasem, Obertas z Wieliczki, and Przepiórka [11]. Mieczysław Rościszewski’s handbook takes note of the fact that the oberek would often be danced towards the end of dancing events, with dancers also using the mazur steps (clicking of heels, pas marché) and the “wyrwasy” kneels[12].

The history of the dance in the 20th c. was guided by didacticism as first delineated by Zygmunt Kłośnik[13]. In the interwar period, more educational publications were released by Jan Ostrowski-Naumoff[14], Józef Waxman[15] and Zofia Kwaśnicowa[16]. More of such works continued to be published in the post-war period, noticeably blending the social and stage forms of the oberek [17].

The post-war era also saw the development of the stage form of the national oberek. Particularly impactful in this respect was Feliks Parnell, who supplemented the dance with à la chasse and pas de basque steps, as well as a series of squats and jumps, including jumps with turns, while also adding various forms of cabrioles and a wide range of ornaments, such as accentuated steps (e.g. in such stage works, as Umarł Maciek, umarł [Died, Maciek has died]and W parku [In the Park]). The dance was then complemented with the elements of the grotesque and acrobatics, including the trademark “kozioł” jumps[18]. Still more novelties were introduced by Jadwiga Hryniewiecka who, despite drawing from Oskar Kolberg’s canonical descriptions of the oberek (particularly those from the Kujavia region), nonetheless grossly exaggerated their choreographies[19].

Present-day performances mostly use the form set in 1987-1989 by the Council of Experts on Folklore appointed by the Ministry of Culture and Art. The Council precisely determined the positions, holds, and embraces for the dancing pair, along with the positions of hands and types of steps, male and female ornaments, as well as the figures performed by the dancing pair. All of these elements were described by Czesław Sroka in his Polskie tańce narodowe – systematyka [Polish Folk Dances: A Typology][20].


[1] E. Dahlig-Turek, „Rytmy polskie” w muzyce XVI-XIX wieku. Studium morfologiczne [“Polish Rhythm”s in the Music between the 16th and 19th c.. A Morphological Study], Warsaw 2006, p. 193.

[2] As cited in: Z. Gloger, Encyklopedia staropolska ilustrowana [The Illustrated Old-Polish Encyclopedia], vol. 4, Warsaw 1903, p. 356.

[3] D. Idaszak, Mazurek przed Chopinem [“The Mazurka Before Chopin”], in: F.F. Chopin, ed. Z. Lissa, Warsaw 1960, p. 246.

[4] K. Brodziński, Wyjątek z pisma o tańcach przez Kazimierza Brodzińskiego [An Excerpt from Kazimierz Brodziński’s Texts on Dances], in: “Melitele” no. 1, 1829, p.. 97. Karol Czerniawski, who as late as in 1847 saw glimpses of the mazur (referred to as drobny or wyrwas) in peripheral settlements of the Mazovia region, later argued against Brodziński’s thesis; cf. K. Czerniawski, Charakterystyka tańców przez Karola Czerniawskiego [A Typology of Dances by Karol Czerniawski], Warsaw 1847, pp. 51, 59-60. The thesis was subsequently supported by such scholars as O. Kolberg (Pieśni ludu polskiego: serya I, zebrał i wydał Oskar Kolberg [The Songs of the Polish People: series I, collected and published by Oskar Kolberg], Warsaw 1857, p. VIII); K. Mestenhauser (Szkoła tańca Karola Mestenhausera w trzech częściach, t. 2 Tańce kołowe: galop, polka, polka mazurka z troteską, walce, oberek. Tańce figurowe: kontredans, lansjer, imperial, polonez, krakowiak, kotylion [Karol Mestenhauser’s School in 3 Volumes. Volume 2: Circle Dances: the gallop, the polka, the polka mazurka with trotting, the waltz, the oberek, figurative dances: the contredanse, the lancers, the imperial, the polonaise, the krakowiak, and the cotillon], Warsaw 1888, pp. 143-144; and Z. Kwaśnicowa, Polskie tańce ludowe. Mazur [Polish National Dances: The Mazur], Warsaw 1953, p. 8.

[5] J. Prosnak, Kultura muzyczna Warszawy XVIII wieku [The Musical Culture of the 18th c. Warsaw], Cracow 1955, pp. 131, 137.

[6] K.A. Jürgensen, Reconstructing la cracovienne, “Dance Chronicle” 1982, no. 6, pp. 233-234.

[7] Fryderyk Chopin’s letter to his parents dated August 26, 1825.

[8] Ł. Gołębiowski, Gry i zabawy różnych stanów w kraju całym lub niektórych tylko prowincyach [Games and Plays of Various Social Classes in the Country or its Selected Provinces], Warsaw 1831, p. 246.

[9] K. Czerniawski, Charakterystyka tańców przez Karola Czerniawskiego [A Typology of Dances by Karol Czerniawski], Warsaw 1847, pp. 59-60; K. Zakrzewski, Obertas, supplement to “Lutnia Polska”, Poznań 1855, no. 8, p. 58; O. Kolberg, Lud, jego zwyczaje, sposób życia, mowa, podania, przysłowia, obrzędy, gusła, zabawy, pieśni, muzyka i tańce, Seria IV, Kujawy, Część druga [The people, their customs, way of life, speech, legends, proverbs, rites, pagan ceremonies, games, songs, music and dances, Series 4, Kujavia, vol. II], Warsaw 1867, pp. 199-203, 206-207; idem, Lud…, Serya XII, W. Ks. Poznańskie. Część czwarta [The people..., Series 12, The Grand Duchy of Posen, vol. 4], Cracow 1879, footnote on p. 321; idem, Lud…, Serya XIII. W. Ks. Poznańskie. Część piąta [The people..., Series 13, The Grand Duchy of Posen, vol. 5], Cracow 1880, pp. V, IX-X.

[10] A. Kleczewski, Tańce salonowe [Solo Dances], Lviv 1879, pp. 99-104.

[11] K. Mestenhauser, Szkoła tańca Karola Mestenhausera w trzech częściach, Część II, Tańce kołowe: Galop – Polka – Polka Mazurka z Troteską – Walce – Oberek, Tańce figurowe: Kontredans – Lansjer – Imperjal – Polonez – Krakowiak – Kotiljon [Karol Mestenhauser’s School in 3 Volumes. Volume 2: Circle Dances: the gallop, the polka, the polka mazurka with trotting, the waltz, the oberek, figurative dances: the contredanse, the lancers, the imperial, the polonaise, the krakowiak, and the cotillon], Warsaw 1888, pp. 143-158 (II 1901, III 1904, pp. 149-155).

[12] M. Rościszewski, Tańce salonowe. Praktyczny przewodnik dla tancerzy i wodzirejów uwzględniający tańce najnowsze i najmodniejsze z illustracyami [Ballroom Dances: A Practical Guide for Dancers and Dance Leaders, Including the Latest and Most Fashionable Dances, with Illustrations], Warsaw 1904, pp. 103-104.

[13] Z. Kłośnik, O tańcach narodowych polskich [On Polish National Dances], Lviv 1907.

[14] J. Ostrowski-Naumoff, Polskie tańce narodowe [Polish National Dances], “Teatr w Szkole” 1936/1937, no. 9, pp. 253-261.

[15] J. Waxman, Tańce narodowe [National Dances], Poznań 1936 (II ed. – 1936, III ed. – 1937, pp. 58-62, 100-109, IV ed. - 1946).

[16] Z. Kwaśnicowa, Zbiór pląsów II [Caper Collection II], Warsaw 1938, pp. 168-174, 180-205.

[17] J. Hryniewiecka, Polskie tańce narodowe w formie towarzyskiej [Polish National Dances as Social Dances], Warsaw 1967 (ed. 2 – 1971; ed. 3 – 1973), Różne formy tańców polskich [Various Forms of Polish Dances], ed. I. Ostrowska, Warsaw 1980, pp. 109-115, 295-315; B. Bednarzowa, M. Młodzikowska, Tańce: rytm – ruch – muzyka. Wybór dla potrzeb wychowania fizycznego [Dances: Rhythm – Movement – Music. A Selection for Physical Education Curricula], Warsaw 1983, pp. 125-145; O. Kuźmińska, H. Popielewska, Taniec, rytm, muzyka [Dance, Rhythm, Music], “Skrypty” no. 116, Poznań 1995, pp. 122-127.

[18] F. Parnell, Moje życie w sztuce tańca (pamiętniki 1898-1947) [My Life and the Art of Dance (Memoirs 1898-1947)], Łódź 2003, p. 239.

[19] J. Hryniewiecka, Sześć scenicznych układów polskich tańców ludowych [Six Stage Arrangements of Polish Folk Dances], Warsaw 1961 (ed. 2 - 1962); idem, Tańce Harnama: polonez, mazur, oberek, kujawiak [Harnam’s Dances: the polonaise, the mazurka, the oberek, the kujawiak], Warsaw 1961; idem, Pięć tańców polskich [Five Polish Dances], Warsaw 1970; idem, 5 tańców polskich [Five Polish Dances], Warsaw 1990; Różne formy tańców polskich [Various Forms of Polish Dances], ed. I. Ostrowska, Warsaw 1980.

[20] C. Sroka, Polskie tańce narodowe – systematyka [Polish National Dances: A Typology], Warsaw 1990, p. 38-43.