Albanian folk dances, an introduction
Albanian folk dances show a very diverse pattern of styles and characteristics, which makes it impossible to make a general description in order to distinguish them as “Albanian” . On one side there are big differences between the dances from the Gheg people in the north and Tosk people in the south, on the other side we have the influences of the neighboring countries and the influences from foreign invaders from the past.
In this respect we have to take into consideration that Albanians lived and still live also outside the political borders of the Republic of Albania and Kosovo, where the majority of Albanians live in these days.
The influence from Greeks and Slavs, as well as from Turks and Italians is reflected in some of the Albanian folk dances to a greater or lesser extent, but also Greek, Slav and Italian folk dances are influenced by Albanian folk dances vice versa.
The well-known Greek folk dance Tsamiko clearly refers to the Çam people of Albanian origin, living in the border areas with Greece in Epirus, a disputed region between Greece and Albania. The well-known Macedonian folk dance Beratçe refers to the city of Berat in Albania. The Albanian folk dance Vallja e Katjushkës is in fact the same as the Pajdusko oro or Baidusko from Macedonia and Greece, known in Bulgaria and Rumania as well. The Greek Tsamiko dance also seems to be related to the Pyrrhic dance, an epic dance described in early Greek writings, but not of Greek origin. The history however is not clear on this point and may be an issue of discussion without any conclusions.
In parts of Albania, close to the Macedonian border we encounter Albanian folk dances with Slavic names, like “Zensko”, in Slav language meaning women’s dance. The tunes may be the same or just the names may be the same, but the character and style of the dances is very different. We also find dances with the name “Hora”. The Tirana wedding dance “Napoloni” has the looks and feeling of an Italian Tarantella like dance in couples, but the steps are typical for Tirana. And of course we should not forget the Greek minority with their “Albanian” versions of Kallamatjana, Karaguna and others, within southern Albania, nor the Slavic villages in the eastern and northern parts of Albania. A relation to Turkish influence can be found in the dance from the Mati region called “Zebekshe”, translated as the dance of the freedom fighters, referring to the Turkish Zeybek fighters. The dance however has no characteristics in common with the Zeybek dances of western Turkey. In Kosovo the term Alaturca is used for some folk dances in the same way as the term Alafranca is used for certain costume parts, stating clearly that this comes from the Turks or from the French fashion.
But apart from this, Albanian folk dances have a character and style of its own. Albanians may have folk dances on Greek or Slav tunes, their style of dancing to it is much different from what their neighbors dance to these tunes. Although the steps of the Vallja e Katjushkës are more or less the same as the Pajdusko steps in Macedonia, the dance is executed as an open circle dance without hands held, more a solo dance with a lot of solo turns and arm and hand movements, specific to the Albanian tradition.
It also should be mentioned that several folk dances, originating from one region in Albania or Kosovo have become popular throughout the entire Albanian communities. Vallja e Kuksit, originating from the Kukës region in the north has become popular as a wedding dance throughout Albania, while the Pogonishte from the south has made its way up to the northern parts as well. These are recent developments and of course modern society with modern transportation and communication through radio and television have made this possible in a rapid way. On the other hand exchanges between different regions have had their impact as well. Interaction between the Albanians of different regions still occur and are proof of the evolution of folk dances within the tradition of Albanian folk dances and folklore in general.
During the period after WWII a lot of research have been done on the folk dances in the Republic of Albania with some expeditions on fieldwork in Kosovo too. This has resulted in the description of about 5000 dances and a minor number of dances from Montenegro and Macedonia. Fortunately these dances were recorded on film and made it possible to create descriptions in Laban notation as well as in a step by step description to the measures of the music or songs involved.
In general the folk dances might be divided into two groups: the Urban and Rural dances. The city dances from Tirana, Elbasan, Berat and other cities are very different in character and style than those of the rural areas around those cities. This is also the case with the folk music. The urban style developed differently from the rural regions, which expressed itself in different costumes, music, songs and dances. This urban style had its reflections on neighboring villages also, but not an overall influence to the country side.
As for the rural folk dances we might divide them in dances from the North, the South and the Middle of Albania, but no strict borders between these regions. The south is generally divided in Toskëria, Myzeqë, Labëria and Çamëria, but there are specific areas within these regions which have a specific tradition: Lunxhëria, Tepelenës and Zagoria for example. These areas have their specific style and character of folk dances which cannot be classified in the general division and do not match with the overall common folk dances within the region.
The North, being Gheg country, is rather clear, the style and character is almost the same in each district, although there are some minor differences. Folk dances from the Tropoja district have a distinct character and style, as also the Dibër district has, but originates from the same source as the other districts in the region.
The Middle of Albania is something quite different. Here we find a combination of Gheg and Tosk elements, especially in Shpat, Polis, Berzezdha, Dumre, Verca, Sulova and other places on one side of the river Shkumbin, Rrajca (Librazhd), Myrselina and Krraba on the other side of the river. The river Shkumbin is considered the borderline between the two ethnic groups. Considering these places, Tirana, Elbasan, Berat, Kavaja, Durrës and Kruja are part of this central Albanian folk dance tradition. The Valle dyshe in this region is often named as Kavajës, but also named as Krujës. The dance is the same and in that respect better mentioned as the Valle Dyshe e Shqiperisë së mesme , the dance for two from central Albania.
The ethnic division of Ghegs and Tosks is well illustrated by the difference in dances and costumes, but also in the music accompanying the dances. The music to the dances of the Ghegs is often accompanied by either zurla and tapan (Surle and Lodra in Albanian) , def or daire or orchestra with ciftelije, sharkije and flutes. The ciftelije (probably equal to the Turkish instrument which disappeared) is unique for the northern Albanian music. The southern Tosk dances are usually accompanied by a “sazet”, an orchestra with def, violin, clarinet, llauto and fiz-harmonika. The central Albanian dances, especially the urban dances are accompanied with orchestras which combine the instrumentation of both northern and southern regions. The clarinet is often leading here, but might be in the company of a tapan (Lodra) or def. In the Myzeqë region a smaller variant to the zurla is also in use. No need to say that in these days the electric key boards have replaced instruments like the gajda and other traditional instruments.
Where the dances of the Ghegs in the north have a more solo character, those from the Tosks have a more social character, expressed in line and semi circle dances. Apart from this regional division we might mention some distinctive Albanian folk dances.
As said before many dances are executed as solo dances, sometimes with a complete individual improvised set of steps within the traditional frame, but most of the time within a given order of steps and movements. Especially the epic dances are examples of these unique solo dances. Certainly this way of dancing distinguish the Albanian folk dance from neighboring countries.
From north to south there are many couple dances, not just male to female, but also female to female couple dances, which have no equivalent to the dances of other peoples on the Balkans.
There is however one folk dance in particular, which can only be found in Albania: Valle dyshe.
This folk dance is just for two men (although there are some female examples too). They exist from the northern part of Albania to the south, each in its specific regional style, but the concept is the same all over Albania, from Kosovo in the north to the extreme south in Sarandë, and can be considered as a specific dance style for the Albanians.
Two dancers start the dance with the first (right) dancer to execute some figures on the spot. The second dancer is just supporting the first dancer in his movements and moves along. The figures he makes might be difficult and look like improvisation, but it is a prescribed set of figures he has to make. Then they change position and the second dancer is becoming the first one and makes his own movements (also prescribed) . When he is finished the two men break apart, moving away from each other sideways with solo steps, coming back again to meet each other and ending the dance together, usually arms to shoulders or hands held.
This structure of dancing, no matter what the movements are, can be noticed in all Albanian regions.
Prof. Ramazan H. Bogdani in his book “Vallëzimi popullor Shqiptar” also mentions a division according to the motives, the 2 step motive (with 6 variants), the 3 step motive (with two variants) and the 4 step motive (with two variants) which cover a great deal of the more than 5000 dances registered, but he also mentions the 5 step, 6 step, 7 step and the two sided 8 step motives, followed by the multi step motives. This clearly illustrates the diversity of the folk dances. One remarkable motive is mentioned by him: the twofold 3 step motive (4 + 2) of which the equal length of the steps is fundamental. Usually in group dances only one motive is used, for solo dances more motives can be involved. This statement also refers to the irregular use of measures in the musical style of the Ghegs. Melody lines can vary from line to line in different measures and rhythms.
The names of the dances
Although the separate dances had their own names (and some still have) the dances are often named by the region where they come from. The most common form is Valle, but also Vallja is used.
This might cause confusion as one Valle Korçare is not the same dance as another Valle Korçare. Both dances are from the Korça region, but might differ in character and style. Valle Kuksit or Vallja e Kuksit are both accepted as names for the same dance. The best way to translate this is Kukës-dance and Dance from Kukës. Especially in Kosovo the old term Kërçim, or shortened to K’cim, is also in use. In order to make it clear which dance is mentioned the title of the song to which the dance is executed, or the specific style or gender of the dancers can be added to the name.
Other usual names refer to the profession, the work, the gender, historical events and people, animals, arms etcetera.
To conclude this introduction we can say that despite the diversity in styles the folk dances of the Albanian people have their own unique character and styles, which distinguish them from those of the neighboring countries, Slav and Greek. The main characters are: many couple dances, often without holding hands, solo dances, much more vertical movements, wide arm and hand movements, using all the space there is. The character is often described as being related to the desire of complete freedom of the Albanians.
However, we should not forget that research on folk dances started only after WWII within a changing world. The preservation of the folklore under the socialist regime was encouraged, but also brought some changes to the traditional dances. A lot of dances were recorded at festivals, with adaptations to the choreography to make them fit for presentation on stage. In 1976 during a congress on the ethnology of Albania Prof. Ramazan Bogdani already mentions this phenomenon as well of the loss of many dances in 3/8 measure. Also ritual meanings in dances have been lost in the process.
The most popular dances are the Valle Pogonishte for whatever festivity, Valle Napoloni for wedding parties, Vallja e Kuksit and the Vallja e "Shamia e Beqarit", which is the last dance at a wedding party, danced by the bride and groom, burning the bachelor’s scarve.