Young city dwellers bring mazurka folk dance to life in Poland – arts & culture

The couples rotate to the lively rhythm of Polish mazurka folk dance in scenes reminiscent of peasant life in centuries past.

On rhythmic violin and accordion, they could almost be back in simple cottages in Mazovia, the region around the Polish capital, Warsaw, from which dance and music were named.

Taken across Europe and beyond by Polish soldiers and migrants around 200 years ago, the traditional mazurka evolved, before almost disappearing later.

But now he is making his comeback and not only in Poland, putting a spring in the urban youth stage and making hearts and hearts beat faster.

“It was forgotten, but when I see all these young people who come to learn from me, I forget that I am old,” says violinist Jan Kmita, 83, one of the last surviving masters of the mazurka.

He spent hours teaching young people fast paces and rhythms at workshops in Warsaw.

The Polish mazurka, also known as the mazur, mazurek or oberek, “really has little to do with the ones we know in France,” explains Nicolas Roche, a French violinist eager to learn from. Kmita.

“It has a very specific sound, rhythmic subtleties and a way of transmitting the rhythm which is completely different, with slowing down, accelerating, a whole swing, a feeling which is very different,” Roche told AFP.

“Like discovering Atlantis”

Choreographer Piotr Zgorzelski, a specialist in Polish folk dances, describes the dance steps of the Polish mazurka as “minimalist, without jumps”.

The couples stay very close, twirling “like a whirling dervish, but they do it together … a good dancer can even spin with a full glass on his head without spilling a drop,” he says.

Zgorzelski also said he saw interest in mazurkas growing among young city dwellers eager to reconnect with the rural origins of their ancestors.

Among the ardent new fans of Mazurka, Agata Kotlicka, a 27-year-old professional speech therapist, says: “You go into a trance, you forget yourself, you don’t need alcohol to feel it.”

Self-taught, Kmita received her first violin at the age of six and performed her first marriage at the age of 12.

Forgotten over the years, his talent has been rediscovered by a group of passionate folk, who have spent 30 years traveling Poland in search and preservation of traditional music.

Janusz Prusinowski, a 50-year-old singer and multi-instrumentalist, is among those who stumbled upon Kmita almost three decades ago.

“We came across these old musicians, it was like discovering Atlantis, a Poland doomed to disappear,” he told AFP, about his first meetings with elderly Mazurka masters.

It turned out that “Poland was not a land of musical illiterates but a people capable of speaking with an original musical language from which (Frédéric) Chopin himself was inspired”, explains Prusinowski.

He co-founded the annual Mazurkas of the World festival in Warsaw, which has led the mazurka revival for 10 years, now also visible in dance halls and other organized events.

Soldiers and refugees

Mazurkas are dynamic and daring, with accents often placed on the second or third beat and changes in tempo that may surprise the dancers.

Some experts believe their earliest traces can be found in transcriptions of religious music dating back to the 15th century.

According to Warsaw University musicologist Tomasz Nowak, the term itself first appeared in 1708 in musical notation in a Bernardins cloister in Lowicz, central Poland, where a Catholic nun suggests to interpret a passage as “a real mazur”.

By the turn of the 19th century, Polish soldiers fighting for the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte took their music wherever they were deployed, even in the Caribbean.

Likewise, a few decades later, the Polish insurgents who lost the fight against the Russian Tsar’s army fled to France, taking the mazurka.

In France, dance becomes fashionable, changes and evolves as it adapts to local tastes.

Meanwhile, back in the Polish countryside, the mazurka could be heard at weddings until the 1950s.

But that was almost forgotten with the advent of radio and the new music it was playing in the villages.

Read also: In fractured Mali, the dance competition offers a feeling of unity

From shame to pride

The Polish Communist authorities tried to transform folk dances like the mazurka into “national dances”, by making elaborate performances on stage for tours in the country and abroad.

The 2018 film, “Cold War” by Oscar-nominated Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski, focuses in part on how these shows were developed.

The last vestiges of the mazurka survived until the 1980s in the depths of the Mazovia region, despite the indifference and even contempt of the inhabitants.

After the collapse of communism in 1989, the Poles embraced synthesizer-based pop music, turning their backs on some of the music of the past. “We started to feel ashamed to play those old tunes,” Kmita told AFP.

But shame turned to pride, as young mazurka enthusiasts started flocking to dance halls to breathe new life into the music and dances of their heritage.

“It’s only just getting started, the Mazurkas are going to survive, they were almost dead and now they’re coming back,” says Kmita.

“They must like it, I think,” he adds, modestly.


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