Bear Dance Traditions

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.

Men, women and children wearing real bear skins take to the streets to dance in this unusual New Year ritual. Moinești, Romania.

 

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.

A Bear dancer has a quick cigarette before the start of a parade. Comănești, Romainia

 

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.

Bears performing outside a local bank in Comănești

 

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.

Bears dance in a private garden in Ardeoani

 

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.

A local retired man explains to process of protecting the bearskins throughout the year, when temperatures can range from -20 degrees to over 35 degrees

 

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.

Mother and daughter with the family bear skins that have been handed down through the generations for decades

 

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.

A man lights a cigarette while preparing the bearskins for a parade

 

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.

It really is an impressive sight to see the bears calmly walking upright down the street

 

Locals love the sight of the bears

 

Children practicing the bear dance at their school

 

Troupes can travel by bus for several hours for a performance

 

A young boy yawns during a morning parade in Comănești

 

Refreshments and locally produced alcohol are always on hand.

 

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7 Comments Bear Dance Traditions

  1. Anca January 3, 2018 at 4:02 pm

    It’s a tradition not a festival . Using that word takes away centuries of commitment and makes it just a thing to photograph. Some things need more and better explanation or to be well documentated . I speak as a Romanian .

    Reply
    1. Tom Bourdon January 3, 2018 at 7:52 pm

      Hi Anna. Thanks for your comment. I understand what you are saying and I totally agree that things need to be well documented. I was very surprised how little documentation there is about this tradition. Not just in English but even in Romanian, we couldn’t find many details.

      I spoke to someone who works at the town hall who wants to employ someone to spend a year or so just doing research and gaining real facts about the bear dance. But as with many things in the region there simply isn’t the money.

      One Romanian I spoke to claimed the tradition dates back 4000 years. Other were less extreme but without documentation it’s difficult to check the validity of such claims.

      The word festival does not imply something is photogenic, or made for photographers. For example Christmas is a religious festival.

      Regards

      Tom

      Reply
      1. Alina Lazaroiu January 3, 2018 at 9:06 pm

        Hi Tom!
        My Master degree is about our beers. In this end of the year, probably for Christmas i will launch my book about this tradition.
        I am from Comanesti city i know about you from Gurushots.
        Regards!
        Alina Lazaroiu

        Reply
        1. Tom Bourdon January 3, 2018 at 9:13 pm

          Wow! That’s super interesting. I wish I had met you before. As I said I really struggled to find consistent information about it. (I assume you mean bears, not beers!)

          I’m so glad you have been doing research and would love to see it once complete (if it’s in English!)

          Great work.

          Tom

          Reply
        2. Oana Adiaconitei January 6, 2018 at 1:01 am

          Well done Alina !!!!! I ve painted our bears for my UNIVERSITY Of East London projects as well. Hope you are ok.Oana Adiaconitei

          Reply
        3. Anca January 7, 2018 at 9:09 pm

          Am happy for your achievement, Alina! People should find out the real story of the bear skin dance in our region! Well done! Looking forward and let’s make this old tradition typical to our region to be exposed in the right way( even is a pagan tradition)

          Kind regards and nice shots, Tom!

          Chapeau bas!

          Reply
  2. Harpulea Romel January 4, 2018 at 11:24 am

    Masters degree in beer? You really like drinking! 😀 LMAO

    Reply

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