There’s nowhere to sit in Slavi Begov’s classroom at the back of the ABC building in Drumcondra, even though there are stacks of tiny fluorescent green, yellow and orange chairs at the back of the room. Not that his students would want to sit anyway. They’re here to dance.
A preschool by day, the room turns into a makeshift dance studio at night, but the kid stuff is everywhere. Three giant sash windows at the front of the room are painted to look as if globs of brightly coloured slime are dripping off them. An inflatable pink flamingo hangs upside down from the ceiling.
Underneath the flamingo, Begov’s class warms up, doing shoulder rolls and a series of hops. It would look like an aerobics class if it wasn’t for the Bulgarian bagpipe music coming out of the speaker at the front of the room.
Bread and Salt
Begov, 39, grew up dancing. From age seven, he danced in folk ensembles back in Bulgaria. But when he moved to Dublin in 2006, he was more focussed on his career than his hobby, so for a few years he didn’t think about dancing at all.
As he settled into a career in IT, he looked in vain for somewhere to dance in Dublin. So he started doing courses and going to dance festivals in Bulgaria on his holidays. This sparked his ongoing study of regional Bulgarian folk dances.
“For me it’s very precious to be able to dance with people in the villages because in this way you can see the styles they have,” he says. “In Bulgaria, there are so many styles of dancing, and they’re absolutely different. In the north, they’re very jumpy. In the southwest, where I’m from — the Macedonia ethnographic area — things are different. Dances are more physically demanding.”
He realised becoming a teacher was the only way he could dance like this in Dublin. In 2014 he started the dance group Bread and Salt, named after the traditional Bulgarian way to greet guests.
“I’m always continuing with the research. It never stops.”
While there has been a resurgence of traditional folk dancing in Sofia in recent years, it’s often marketed as a way to stay fit. There are also plenty of stage performances kind of like Riverdance, he says. They’re modern and theatrical. Begov isn’t into that kind of thing. The dances he teaches were handed down through the generations in villages around Bulgaria.
One of Begov’s students calls him “a purist”. He doesn’t disagree.
The Spirit of Home
While his students are mostly Bulgarian, there is a small international contingent — two Polish people, an Italian, and an American, Anna Hernick, 25.
Originally from Atlanta, Hernick is fresh from a two-year Fulbright Scholarship in Bulgaria, where she taught English. Now in Dublin studying for a master’s in public policy at UCD, she found herself seeking out Bulgarian culture. She joined Slavi’s class in September.
She had been looking for a Bulgarian choir as she loves music, she says. “But I found this class, so I thought why not? I’m not a big dancer normally, but it’s been a fun way to meet people, especially being new to Dublin.”
“I was always really intimidated when I lived in Bulgaria. I would do the super simple dances but the adults there have been dancing their whole lives,” she says. So this seemed a good opportunity to learn the basics among others who were also new to it.
The students are a mix of beginners and improvers.
Toward the back of the room, Tzvetanka Mangourova, 60, improvises during the warm-up. She moved to Dublin 20 years ago to work for Irish Rail. She’s been dancing for four years now, since Begov started the classes.
“I used to dance when I was young,” she says. Both of her parents are from the countryside.
“They used to dance in the square in the village — every celebration, every bank holiday, not just weddings,” she says. “But it was in the past, because now the villages are empty. When I was a child it was like that.”
Friends Stanislava Veliklova, 25, and Iva Ivanova, 24, started dancing only two weeks ago. For Veliklova, who’s been in Dublin for four years, the idea of meeting up with other Bulgarians interested in learning more about the culture is what drew her in.
Ivanova found the course on Facebook. She got to Dublin a year and a half ago and thought dancing might bring her “the spirit of home” twice a week.
“For us, I think it’s very important to dance the Bulgarian dances because there is a spirit inside the beat of the music and part of our history, so you just feel like you’re home,” she says.
When the proper dancing starts, the students line up in a half circle. There is a gentle scuffle over who’s shorter than whom — they line up according to height so their hands match up better. For now the students hold hands, but when they’re more advanced they will hold each other’s belts.
The dancers usually stand in a half-circle or straight line, and the formation moves around the room. Sometimes, if there are a lot of dancers, the line becomes snakelike.
Balkan music in general, but especially Bulgarian music, is famous for uneven rhythms that feature quick and slow beats. “At some point you start feeling the pulse of the dance,” Begov says.
The students dance for two hours, with a short break in the middle. Begov keeps the rehearsals pretty strict so no one gets distracted. There is time to talk before and after class, and Slavi organises more social events every few months.
When the last of the students has gone home, Begov laments the gradual loss of Bulgarian dance culture. The people who know these traditional dances are getting old and dying, and the dances are dying with them.
“That’s why I’m trying to save as much as I can,” he says. “My idea is not completely to go back and live the way they used to live, don’t get me wrong, but at least to preserve some things that are dying out.”
Slavi Begov teaches at the Arts and Business Campus in Drumcondra on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6:45pm to 8:45pm. He’s organised a Bulgarian wine and dance evening on 31 January.