Let me say, Polish national dances have their roots in folk culture, but over time, they’ve transformed significantly. I think it’s worth mentioning that even though they have little in common with their original rural forms, they still retain characteristics of the regions they originate from.
The earliest records of these dances, found in notes, diaries, and chronicles, date back to the 15th century or even earlier. However, the limited source material doesn’t allow for a precise determination of the history and evolution of their musical and movement forms.
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The Cultural Significance of Polish National Dances
Polish national dances have always been associated with specific communities and served particular functions. I am convinced that magnate, noble, and bourgeois circles, as well as the Polish stage, played a crucial role in shaping their musical and dance forms. These dances are intertwined with Poland’s history, patriotic content, and national liberation struggles. I believe that for almost the entire 19th century, they symbolized the „Polishness„ of a nation whose country wasn’t on the world map.
The Five Main Polish National Dances
If you want to know more about Polish national dances, it’s essential to know that there are five main dances that have spread all over Poland. These include the Krakowiak, Polonez, Mazur, Oberek, and Kujawiak. Besides these five, there are twenty-two lesser-known folk dances, which have mostly been forgotten.
So, being in Poland, you need to know that these dances hold a special place in Polish culture, and their rich history and cultural significance make them an essential part of the nation’s identity.
The Polonaise – Most Famous Polish Dance
I can tell you that the most famous Polish dance is the Polonaise, which probably didn’t originate in Poland. The name we use today is a Polish version of one of the names used when the dance was created. First mentioned in the 16th century, the Polonaise was known by various names such as Chorea Polonica, Paletto Polachio, Polnischer Tanz, Polonoise, and Polonesso.
Today, the dance is also referred to as „walking„. The Polonaise has changed over the centuries, containing different elements in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s believed that this dance, with its specific musical and movement features, was formed at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Polonaise Across Social Strata
The Polonaise dance appeared at court, performed by the nobility and the bourgeoisie, and even on stages and in schools. Since 1730, the name „Polish dance” has also been in use. Before the 18th century, references to the Polonaise come from accounts of foreigners staying at the Polish court. Acording to their descriptions, the walking dance, as it was called, opened or closed the ball. It was also a chance to say hello, bow to the ruler, or present one’s costumes.
Characteristics of Polish Polonaise
The Polonaise is a ceremonial dance belonging to the three-dimensional group. It has a 3/4 time signature and an even, moderate, slow tempo. The dance Polonaise has a very simple arrangement, always beginning on the strong part of the bar. It is characterized by a dignified attitude, chivalry in relation to one’s partner, and very fluid movement. Two steps are followed by a third with a knee bend. Couples dancing the Polonaise form a procession, moving along circular lines and often intertwining other dance figures, especially in modern versions.
Polonaise in Music
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Polonaise was often associated with texts of a patriotic or historical nature. One of the most famous from that period is Kosciuszko’s Polonaise with a text by Rejnold Suchodolski. In the 19th century, the Polonaise often appeared in artistic music as a manifestation of the composer’s patriotism. Pieces that use elements of dances are called stylized dances.
Most of them were created during the Romantic period when Poland was under partition. Some of the most famous composers inspired by the Polonaise include Fryderyk Chopin, Stanisław Moniuszko, and more recently, Wojciech Kilar.
Polonaise as a Folk Dance in Poland
It is worth to say that the Polonaise is also a Polish folk dance, not only a national one. Each region had its own variety, differing in melodic and rhythmic features, which often came from local folklore. The features of the Polonaise, however, developed in a specific environment — at the royal court, among the nobility and magnates. Currently, it is performed all over Poland. It is most often danced at important ceremonies, especially in schools. All you need to play a melody is a keyboard, making it easy to dance almost anywhere.
The Mazurek is a folk dance that probably comes from Masurian villages, where it functioned under the name „mazurek„.The current nomenclature comes from the period when this dance gained the interest of the nobility. It does not appear in written sources until the eighteenth century, although scientists find mentions of it in earlier texts.
The mazur dance was very popular among the nobility in Poland and abroad, especially at the beginning of the 19th century. It is characterized by a 3/4 or 3/8 time signature and a lively tempo. The couples move around the circle with a gliding step, often stamping their feet. The basic movement is very complicated, it includes many difficult figures.
This dance is also characterized by point rhythms and accentuation of the weaker part of the bar. Some of the most popular figures performed during the dance include: Hołubce, krzesanice, or multiple turnovers. Polish national dances, including the mazurka, inspired numerous composers. An example of a stylized mazurka is Stanisław Moniuszko’s piece from the opera „Halka„:
Kujawiak is a dance originating from the Kujawy region, whose origin is not clear. It probably appeared at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, separating from the mazurka genre. It appeared on the manors of the nobility only in the second half of the 19th century.
The „kujawiak” dance is maintained in a moderate pace, in the 3/4 meter and a smooth rhythm. It is often referred to as rocked or swayed. It has a moody, lyrical character, especially in the national form. The step in the dance is flexible, decorated with many dance figures. Numerous Polish national dances, kujawiak, krakowiak, or polonaise, are still danced willingly. They did not lose their importance, and even gained more popularity after World War II.
The Krakowiak dance, as the only one of the five Polish national dances, has a 2/4 meter. It comes from the vicinity of Krakow, in folk music it often began with a suitable chant. The name probably dates back to the 18th century and originally referred to all regional dances. A characteristic feture of the krakowiak are numerous syncopations, i.e. shifting the emphasis to an unstressed sound.
This dance appeared not only in folk works but also inspired composers of classical music, including Fryderyk Chopin and Ignacy Jan Paderewski. Krakowiak is lively and lively. The dancers usually perform it in a folk costume from Krakow. In the traditional form, this dance was interspersed with the singing of successive couples. In the national version, the krakowiak is stylized on the country dances of the Krakow region.
The Oberek is another important Polish folk dance. The characteristics of this dance are primarily 3/4 or 3/8 meter and a cheerful melody. Oberek is the fastest Polish national dance. It is also called obertas or obyrtan. The name of the oberek comes from the quick turns performed by the dancers. This dance occurs mainly in the region of Kujawy and Mazowsze.
The couples whirl effectively, move quickly and agile, stomping energetically from time to time. The oberek dance is exuberant, joyful, and energizing. It is performed in a folk costume, characteristic of the region it comes from. The man is dressed in high boots, belted trousers, a belt made of wool, a white shirt called a white shirt, a vest with strings, i.e. a lejbika, and a hat with a ribbon wrapped around it.
Please read more about polish fold costumes here: Poland’s Culture Clothing – Discovering Regional Traditions
The dancer wears shoes, a striped apron, a corset made of velvet material, a wide patterned skirt, a white shirt, and a silk scarf. Oberek comes from rural areas but was adopted by the nobility in the 19th century. Together with the kujawiak and the mazur, it belongs to the group of mazurka dances. As one of the few folk dances, it does not occur in vocal form due to its very fast pace.
Oberek often appeared at weddings as part of a set that also included other dances – kujawiak and polka. This is how mazurkas were connected, among others, by Fryderyk Chopin. In his compositions, these dances often overlap in one piece.