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Photograph by Jan E. Watson

Voices Rising: Popular Eastern European choral group Kitka perform at COPIA in September.

Balkanizing the Bay

Balkan folk dance draws a crowd

By Sam Hurwitt

They're drawn to the Berkeley dance barn Ashkenaz like pilgrims to Mecca. On any other night they could be there to learn Cajun, African, Brazilian, swing, but tonight they're Balkan dancers. Or if they're not yet, they soon will be. A couple dozen people hold hands in a semicircle, stepping, stomping, and leaping on command. They range in age from single digits to their 60s, mostly white but with a smattering of other hues.

"So these are the Balkanites of Berkeley," my traveling companion says. "They look like normal Berkeleyans, but they're not."

And they're everywhere. A clerk at the Copymat is chatting up a woman from Bosnia, asking in Russian if she speaks Russian. ("No, we have our own language," she sniffs. "Serbo-Croatian.") The guy at the bookstore is playing Romanian Gypsy brass-band music, and asking about the recording leads naturally into discussion of his travels from Bratislava down to Zagreb. "Are you one of us?" you want to ask. You settle for the more casual, "Are you into this stuff?"

One of the perks of living in the Bay Area is that you can learn pretty much any folk tradition that strikes your fancy, from belly dance to the guttural throat singing of the South Siberian grasslands of Tuva. The local women's Eastern European choral group Kitka recently wrapped up its award series of Balkan singing workshops down in Oakland, and now there are two back-to-back week-long camps in the Mendocino Woodlands: the Mendocino Balkan Music and Dance Workshop from June 29 to July 7, and the Barátság Hungarian Dance and Music Camp from July 7 to July 13. The Bay Area boasts a bumper crop of homegrown Eastern European talent, such as Kitka, Danubius, and Edessa--the Balkan band at Ashkenaz on this particular night--playing wailing, whirling Balkan music on clarinet, accordion, cimbalom, percussion, and fiddle. (But not just yet--they start a bit slow so the neophytes can get up to speed.)

As the dance class continues, the hardcore Balkanites start to arrive, most of whom seem to know each other. Among them is Joyce Clyde, who maintains the Bulgarian/Balkan Music and Dance Events e-mailing list.

Clyde got involved in the local folk-dance community about 30 years ago, starting with a Greek folk-dance class in college and gradually finding her own niche in the folk-dance scene. "A lot of people know each other," Clyde confirms after making the rounds of familiar faces, "but, luckily, so far there is still an undercurrent of new people, which is always the fun and joy of it. And we need more of that, otherwise it's going to die ultimately. But generally there's a big crowd of us that are all known to each other--too well, for too long."

Clyde says the scene has shrunk since the '70s, though the unrest in the Balkans and the rise of the Internet have made it easier to bring top-notch musicians over from Eastern Europe. Ferenc Tobak and his wife Mary bring the entire teaching staff of the Barátság Hungarian dance camp over from Hungary each year to introduce dance cycles from different regions. In the 20 years since Mary Tobak (then Wallace) founded Barátság with Howard Franklin and Éva Kish, there have sometimes been as many as 140 participants at a time, but the dragging economy has taken its toll. There was a plan to incorporate a Tuvan Camp into Barátság this year, but they've had difficulty attracting enough people to make that expansion feasible. The Balkan camp the week before has been sold out for months, but Ferenc Tobak points out that there's just a lot more of the Balkans than there is of Hungary.

"The Balkan camp takes so many countries and different cultures, they have a much, much bigger following," he says. "They go from Croatia down to Turkey and up to Romania. So we are in a much, much harder position in that sense to recruit people, because we focus only on Hungarian stuff."

It would be awfully convenient just to stay in the Woodlands for two weeks and go to both camps--and a few do--but Mary Tobak says the Eastern European folk communities don't cross over as much as one might think. "There's a lot of interest that crosses, but the actual active interest--where a Balkan person will also go to Hungarian stuff, or someone who's heavily into Hungarian will also go to Balkan--is very small," she says. "And most people can't get two weeks off in the summertime to go to camp."

What's more, yet another Hungarian camp--the Aranykapu Tábor, or Golden Gate Camp--has arisen the same week as the Balkan camp, June 30 to July 6, at Camp Cazadero near Guerneville. So if the hardcore Hungarians who return to Barátság year after year needed even more nonstop dancing, they'd probably go for that.

People may start off rushing between Bulgarian choir practice to learn Hungarian thigh-slaps, whirls, leaps, and whistles, but after that, they tend to get heavy into one thing or another: learning the language, living abroad, gorging on goulash. Mary Wallace met Ferenc Tobak, a musician and bagpipe maker, while living in Hungary for seven years, and they had their first two children there. She'd first learned Hungarian dance at Razzmatazz--a yearly folk dance camp now in the Mendocino Woodlands--and founded Barátság in 1982 in order to get her Hungarian fix when the other camp stopped offering it.

"The third year Razzmatazz decided not to do Hungarian," she says, "and the people who had been going for the Hungarian--I was one of them--we said, 'We can't have this. Have a summer without Hungarian dancing?' Since Razzmatazz was not going to offer it, we decided we would make a camp."

For Joyce Clyde, the Balkan list started as a way of getting her own Bulgarian fix. "I started to try to learn how to play gadulka (a Bulgarian folk violin), and I was trying to find a teacher. And I found that the easiest and probably about the only way I could get a teacher was to invite groups out," she says. So she started the list initially to promote the Bulgarian events she was putting on herself.

"As far as I know, I'm not Bulgarian at all, and yet I decided to play a Bulgarian instrument just because I liked the sound of it. But now do I have lots of friends from Bulgaria? Of course. Another friend who plays gadulka asked, 'How can I get better at this?' I said, 'You have to make a life for yourself where playing gadulka makes sense.'"


For information on the Bulgarian/Balkan e-mail list, go to groups.yahoo.com/group/bbmde. You can find out about the Barátság Hungarian camp at www.baratsag.com, Aranykapu Tábor at www.aranykapu-tabor.org, and the Balkan camp at www.mindspring.com/~ginbirch/eefc/. The Marin Balkan Dancers meet Thursday evenings at Sherry's, 4140 Redwood Hwy., San Rafael, 415.456.0786. There are Hungarian dance classes on the second and fourth Sundays of every month at Ashkenaz, 1317 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, 510.525.5054. Ashkenaz also hosts the Dimovski Quartet from Macedonia on July 9 and a Balkan concert with Edessa on August 17. Every Friday and third Saturday of the month, Danubius plays Eastern European folk music at Bistro E Europe, 4901 Mission St., San Francisco, 415.469.5637. Kitka return from Bulgaria for the Balkan camp and play Sept. 9 at COPIA, Napa, 707.265.1600. And there's an International Folk Dance party every third Saturday at Hermann Sons Hall, 860 Western Ave., Petaluma, 707.546.8877. Find more events at www.bayfolk.com.

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From the June 27-July 3, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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