News Going Back to the Source - Online Film Archives of Hungarian Dances

Going Back to the Source – Online Film Archives of Hungarian Dances


an article by Józsa Tamás

We probably all know the famous quote from Béla Bartók: “Only from a clear source”. In the age of the Internet, which offers an abundant amount of data, including that of Hungarian folk dances, it is imperative to identify and distinguish between the different sources of information when it comes to our folk dance related activities, such as getting acquainted with a certain dance material. I use the word “acquainted”  on purpose because before diving into the learning process it is key to gather as much information about the dance in question as possible. Thankfully, there are a number of online databases created, curated  and maintained by such central institutions of research as the Institute for Musicology, Research Centre for the Humanities, Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the Hungarian Heritage House (Hagyományok Háza). Thanks to the meticulous work of esteemed ethnochoreologists we can embark on our journey to explore these sources according to Bartók’s words.

source: Fortepan / Ungvári György

The most important and fundamental online source of information is the Knowledge Base of Traditional Dances by the Institute for Musicology. http://db.zti.hu/neptanc_tudastar/ This database publishes research data, documents and sources kept in the Archive of Traditional Dances of the aforementioned institution. First, we have to talk about the archive itself and then the part of it that has been made public online.

The archive was founded in the 1940s and stores one of the largest traditional dance collections in Europe including materials made both before and after World War II. The majority of the materials are silent films, recorded during decades of ethnographic field work. It is an extremely extensive collection. It houses 700 hours of footage on approximately 400,000 meters of negative, positive, and reversal prints, from more than 1,500 localities and over 10,000 dances. The unique nature of the collection lies in the fact that it captures the dance folklore of a generation born between the two world wars, or even before World War I, who acquired their dance culture in traditional circumstances. It also provides a complete overview of the characteristic dance genres, dance types, and their regional differences of the Hungarian traditional culture in the 20th century, not to mention it also covers the dances of minorities in Hungary and in the neighboring countries. The reason why this collection plays a central role for folk dancers is because the collected dance data primarily supplies professional material for the amateur folk dance movement. Thus it is also the source of information dance teachers consult when learning a certain material.

In the early 2000s an initiative was launched to make part of the archive public on a designated website, The Knowledge Base (see the link above), by digitizing the films and uploading them online. Over the past years there has been a significant development both on the sections of data and specifically in the number of dance recordings published. Currently the online database consists of 11 collections of which the most important for us, folk dancers, are the sections titled “Films” and “Dances”.

“Films” basically presents the list of archive dance recordings along with a set of related data including the location and date of research, the names of the researchers, the content, primarily the names and the genre of the recorded dances, the names of their performers, and the occasion of the research, that is whether the dancers were gathered specifically for the sake of the recording or it was an event organically part of traditional village life such as a wedding. This section has no multimedia data, only the most important pieces of information on the films.

The section where you can actually watch the moving clips is “Dances”. Here we arrive at the most important part when it comes to the availability of information specifically required for learning Hungarian folk dances. These films are uploaded in the best resolution possible listing all the important pieces of additional  information, such as the ones listed above and also the dialect, the type, and the subtype of the dance as established by György Martin in his work Magyar tánctípusok és táncdialektusok (Hungarian Dance Types and Dance Dialects) (second edition, 1995). The website, along with all the sections of it is available in English and the search engines are very straightforward to use. You can browse based on locality (e.g Szék), county according to the so called  Gazetteer 1913 (administrative divisions of lands belonging to the Hungarian Crown at the time, e.g. Kolozs county), ethnographic region or dialect (e.g. Mezőség), the type and also subtype of dance (e.g. csárdás). You can be sure to find the original versions of all of your favourite Dance House “hits” such as the dances of Szék, Kalotaszeg, Mezőség or Szatmár.

Two other sections highly recommended to look into are “Lexicon” and “Bibliography”. In the former you can find important folk dance related terminology explained and in the latter comprehensive studies of ethnochoreology, though only a limited number of English translations. Also, if you really want to give that something extra to your dancing you might want to check out Dance Rhymes, although you cannot search for localities or dialects, but browsing is always an option.

As you can see there is so much more to the learning process than just the steps. It is important to know their background as well in order to have the full picture and really immerse in the material of your choice. We should all be eternally thankful for all those professionals who collected, systemized, analyzed and made publically available these unique materials. Processing these pieces of information and analyzing archive recordings, however, is another scientific and very complex process.

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