By Tibor Horváth, Former Dancer with Hungarian State Folk Ensemble
My passion for Hungarian folk dance can be attributed largely to two factors: my parents, and my dance instructors. My parents, because they passed on to me a love of Hungary and things Hungarian, and my dance instructors, because they taught me the language of Hungarian folk dance.
Sándor Timár, one of the founders of the Hungarian táncház or “dance-house” movement, believed that the ability to learn Hungarian folk dance was comparable to learning a foreign language. First, you learn words, then phrases, then whole sentences. Once fluent, you can construct these sentences in any manner to express yourself. Such was the method by which I learned the dances of Hungary and Hungarians in Transylvania.
I grew up in Seattle, Washington, to parents who had emigrated from Hungary, and began dancing in my early teens with the local Hungarian dance group. While we learned choreographies to perform, the goal of the instructors in my group was to learn the dances inside and out, allowing us to dance freestyle, just as these dances were originally danced in the villages. In some places, most notably among Hungarians in Transylvania, they are still danced today at celebrations and village events.
Learning Hungarian folk dances allowed me an avenue to connect with my heritage. Each region has distinct costumes and step-work associated with it. The music, as collected by greats such as Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, shows an amazing diversity from region to region. The folk costumes are equally diverse, and in some cases, are covered in intricate beadwork or embroidery. The men’s dances, in particular, demonstrate a virtuosity of complicated slapping and footwork that is not found elsewhere. I feel I learned more about the customs and people of Hungary through dance than I could have in any other way.
In the fall of 1990, following a tour of Croatia with a Seattle-area Croatian group with which I also performed, I travelled to Hungary to study on a scholarship with a university in Budapest. Shortly after arriving, I was afforded the opportunity to audition for the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble, then under the artistic direction of Sándor Timár. As nervous as I was, I was surprised that I didn’t fail the audition. Being the first foreign-born Hungarian to be awarded a contract, I felt extremely honored.
The next two years were difficult, but also rewarding. I had arranged to take my university classes in the evening, allowing me to go to rehearsal five days a week, from early morning to mid-afternoon. On days we had performances, I would leave class early and race back to the theater in time for group warm-ups and preparations before show time.
I still dance today, and especially enjoy dancing at táncház parties. The band plays cycles from different regions, and everyone dances that particular region’s dance freestyle, improvising motifs and footwork based on the appropriate “vocabulary” of that region. While I believe there is always more to learn, I consider myself to be quite fluent in the language of Hungarian folk dances.
I was excited to learn that the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble would be performing in Chicago at the Auditorium Theater. It gives me an opportunity to see some friends that still are with the company, but more importantly, it gives a chance for others to see the beauty and majesty of Hungarian folk dance. From the military-style “verbunk” or men’s recruiting dances, to the dizzying spinning of the women in many couples’ dances, the audience will see the variety of Hungarian dance and appreciate the years of training and hours of practice put in by each dancer. From the moment the dancers burst onto the stage, the audience will be treated to the sights and sounds of rural village life presented in a dazzling fashion. In so, they will begin to recognize the language of Hungarian folk dancing.
Tibor Horváth has performed Hungarian folk dance for nearly thirty years in front of audiences in the Pacific Northwest, California, western Canada, and Hungary. His tours with the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble also allowed him to perform on stages across Europe. He has taught Hungarian dances to dancers and aficionados, both beginners and advanced dancers. A recent transplant to Chicago, he is currently dancing with the Borozda Hungarian Ensemble based in Norridge, IL.