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European-American Topics - Culture - Koprivshtica

Bulgaria: "With Koprivshtica in Our Hearts"

By Natalia Miteva
Published September 2005

Ask an avid Balkan dancer from Seattle what makes this year special in the calendar of dance events, and why a number of local dancers packed up last month for a long overseas trip. Ahead of a long explanation, you are sure to get a long word: Koprivshtica [Pronounced "Kop-riv-shtee-tsa."] That's right, a small town marked by this big name just hosted, for the ninth time, one of the most phenomenal folk dance festivals: the National Folklore Festival of Bulgaria. Not only does the event bring together performers of different genres, generations, and traditions from all (I mean, ALL) parts of Bulgaria. The Festival is also held only once per five years, which makes it a unique attraction for Bulgarians, expatriates, and foreigners alike.

It took a lot of planning to attend the Koprivshtica Festival. The interest of foreign tourists and dance connoisseurs has been so high that the whole town (of approximately 3,000 people) has been taken up in accommodations long in advance. Teamed up with other dancers from Seattle, back in January we were lucky to reserve the entire house of a local teacher, George Dorosiev, and his family.

Along the curvy road to Koprivshtica, the 110km (65 miles) from Sofia took more than expected. The small town was hidden in a valley on the southern slope of the Balkan Mountains, southeast of the capital. As we approached the town, we saw buses pulled to the side for check-ups after long journeys from all corners of the country. Performers, some already in full costumes, were dancing and singing alongside the buses. That spirit, so contagious and electrifying, filled up the mountain.

Upon entering the valley, one could not help but notice that the town was a living museum, a unique settlement, which had preserved over 250 historic monuments from the period of the "Bulgarian renaissance." In the 19th century, Koprivshtica was the cradle of Bulgarian enlightment, its citizens active in building schools, churches, and monasteries and participating in the anti-Ottoman liberation efforts.

It was precisely because of the town's rich history and cultural tradition that the organizers of the First National Folklore Festival chose Koprivshtica as its host in 1965. Prof. Nikolai Kaufman, one of the Festival's initiators says, "[The First Festival] was a real triumph of old Bulgarian traditional culture." Over the years, thousands of singers, players of musical instruments, dancers, and performers of ancient rituals and work practices have gathered in the lovely Voevodini meadows near Koprivshtica. This year, more than 18,000 participants performed on the 7 stages in the meadows during the three days of the festival (4-7 August). The hosts expected 30,000 guests in town, of which several thousand foreigners.

A lot of singing and dancing went on at the stages and outside them. Music spread from the meadows, at the restaurants and small stands in the alleys, and in the tent camp that hosted performers and guests. It was hard to capture the entirety of cultural variety, since performances went on simultaneously at the 7 stages, divided by folklore regions. At the stage that hosted the Rouse region (North Bulgaria), I unexpectedly saw a group from my native village! Armed in a costume from my great-grandma, which looked identical to theirs, I fit right in with the crowd.  

Though not performing among the foreign groups, Seattle's own Balkan dance community had sent a distinguished sample to the Koprivshtica. Our group included four Seattle-based Bulgarian and several American dancers. Ramona Wijayratne, a Michigan-born, residing in Seattle, came to Bulgaria especially for Koprivshtica. She brought along her father, Doug, also a folk dancer in the last four decades. "I've heard this music all my life and I have always wanted to come," says Ramona about the Festival. Adds Doug, "Bulgarian dancing is my favorite. I enjoyed seeing all the costumes, the dancing was great - I enjoyed the whole thing." In retrospect, both agree, "There were some amazingly talented people! It was just phenomenal."

For a shot at grasping some of Koprivshtica's magic, try out the Festival's website: Even better, experience Bulgarian culture and dance by joining Seattle's Radost Folk Ensemble - In any case, try to make it to Koprivshtica in 2010, I bet you it will be just as fascinating. Until then, as the Japanese visitors wore on their T-shirts, we who experienced it remain "With Bulgaria in Our Hearts" - and with the hope and trust that this unique culture perseveres.

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