I know, I know, I say this at almost every celebration I visit… but this has to be one of the best. Seriously.
It was National Geographic veteran photographer Jim Richardson who said something like “If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff.” I’ve always liked that saying and it has been the fuel for many of my travels. For me, This festival was that interesting stuff Jim said I should stand in front of.
Of course, the interesting stuff is only half the battle to producing great photography, but it certainly helps.
I was fascinated when I discovered this tradition several years ago and it has been on my list of things to see ever since then. I very nearly made it last year, but last-minute Christmas family commitments changed that. This year I was determined to be here.
In this part of rural Romania, it’s traditional to dress up in real bear skins and dance through the streets to ward off evil spirits and provide good luck for the year ahead. The ancient tradition (named dansul ursului – or simply bear dance) is said to have roots that date back to the ancient Roman.
In particular businesses and wealthy families pay these dancing troupes to come and dance for them. These dances take place throughout the entire winter but are much more common between Christmas and New Years Eve. Often extremely cold during these months, we were faced with extremely warm temperatures. I was told that it wasn’t many years ago they faced -20 celsius, this year it stayed above zero for almost the entire week.
The thing about these dances is that they can be unpredictable. There is no schedule as such, no designated route for most days, in fact, information, in general, is sparse. The reason is that they just seem to happen. A business owner may phone the troupe leader and ask for 20 bears to come and dance for them. They will agree a time (and a price per bear) and that’s that, the performance happens.
Other times troupes simply travel around a village banging their drums, hoping to be invited into someone’s garden for a private performance in exchange for a small amount of cash. The troupe can spend hours visiting many different houses in several different villages. This had the potential to make things difficult for a visiting photographer.
Fortunately, I’ve been very lucky and had some excellent local contacts who have given me accurate details about what was happening and where. So much so I’ve been shooting almost non stop, even dreaming about the things. Had I turned up unprepared I would have missed most of what I saw. Contacts like this are invaluable and make the difference. You may see other photos from this years festival, but I don’t think any other photographer had the chance to cover it in as much detail as I was able to.
I visited the home of a family of 3 generations who participate every year in the performances. They explained the finer details of the history of the event, the preparation that goes into storing the skins, what the tradition means to them, we even shared a joke or 2.
On the 30th December in the small town of Comănești, there is a competition between the local troupes, where over 200 bears dance on stage and are judged by the local mayor and his team. The competition is fierce and preparation of the skins can be time-consuming. Almost the entire outfit is made from a real bear, including the teeth. The only parts that are not genuine are the eyes and the tongue. The eyes are the same as you may find on a teddy bear, while the tongues are crafted out of wood and painted red.
During the communist era (1947 – 1989) this tradition was officially forbidden. But the Communists failed to stop the performances and the tradition spread through the Trotus Valley. Nowadays many towns seem to copy each other and organise events in an attempt to bring much needed money to the communities.
I had such an amazing experience during this week it has made me want to share this experience with you. So I’m thinking of putting together a photo tour for next year’s event. Nothing too big, just 6 participants. Let me know if you’d be interested in coming along. I have no fixed prices or anything at the moment, but send me a message I’ll be sure to keep you updated.
I’m now back in Spain now and already missing Romania it’s definitely back on my list of places to visit. I’m going to leave you with a collection of photos from the celebration.