Origins of the circular dances go back to the dawn of time. We see them in most of the native cultures, from Asia to the Americas. In its most primitive form, the dance happened around the sacred pole or a totem, usually placed in the central square of the village, or a remote sacred space. This type of dance is still very common in minorities of South-East Asia, Siberia, and South America.
The pole represents the Axis Mundi – an invisible line around which the universe rotates. Interestingly, Homer in the Iliad depicts a circular dance that took place around the spear of Achilles. Here, we will not focus on this ancient form of dance. We will discuss a more “recent” version, a traditional form of dance that survives mainly in the region between the Middle East and Southeast Europe.
Most of the countries from Greece to the Balkans share a common word for the traditional circular dance. This word is Hora and its variations Horo/Oro etc. In the 20th century, the Jewish diaspora picked it up and brought it to Israel, where it became Horah. The meaning of the word is simply “circle”. However, many other important words share this root. For example, Greek Horae – seasons, and even English “hour”.
Obviously, the original meaning of the dance was astronomical and related to time and the change of seasons. Indeed, most of the festivals that involve this kind of dance take place around the solstices and equinoxes. New Year, spring, and autumn (harvest) are typical dates. However, the dance also celebrates birthdays, weddings, and other important events in the life of an individual. Therefore, we can say that the dance brings the symbolism of a new cycle – a new beginning.
From Khoros to chorus
In the old days, this circular dance had ritualistic, religious significance. It was not only about dancing, but also singing. At first, there was a priest/shaman who would lead the ceremony. He would read the sacred stories of gods and their adventures, while dancers recreate them. With time, ceremonies became more complex, and dancers started to participate in singing.
From here we get the words “chorus” and “choir”. Both words relate to a group of dancers singing religious texts. Ancient Greek tragedies typically had these elements. But they are later additions, drawing inspiration directly from the older Thracian cults of Dionysus (inventor of tragedy). However, this practice is not exclusive to the Balkans. Even the Sakha people of Siberia have dancing choirs in their solstice celebrations.
From Khoros to Kolo
The Greek name χορός (khorós) exists already in Linear B – the first written form of Greek. However, rhotacism from L to R was a common trait of this early Greek. And if we apply it to the word ‘khoros” we get “kolo”. Kolo is an exclusively Serbian word, as most of the neighboring languages have oro/horo form.
Kolo or Khoros, and why does it matter
The Serbian word “kolo” also means “circle”. In the earliest days, it meant “wheel”, then “wagon” (kola), and finally car (kola). Interestingly, in Bulgaria, the word for bicycle is “kolelo” (“the wheel thingy”) but the name of the dance is Horo. However, in Slavic languages, there is a much more important meaning than “circle”. Koleda was an old Slavic name for the Sun (and Christmas). Slavs saw Sun as a wheel, not unlike some other Indo-European cultures. Two versions of the same god, North Slavic Rod and South Slavic Koliada hold a wheel, representing the Sun.
In this case, Serbian “kolo” makes more sense than “khoros” which means only “circle/season”, even though they clearly share the same root. Of course, this is another problem, as for the last two centuries, mainstream history had tried really hard to prove that Slavs came to the Balkans from some mysterious location, in the 6th century AD.
Indeed, most of the earliest, rock art depictions of circular dance often contain the wheel or a Sun symbol.
The origins of the Balkan dance
The origins of Kolo are so ancient that every culture considers them as their own. The earliest depiction of dancers in Greek art comes from the Minoan civilization (if we can call it “Greek”). But in general, there are no depictions older than the Bronze Age in the Greek world. Interestingly, the famous Minoan dancers of the 4th century BC, wear almost identical traditional clothes, as the Macedonian dancers of the early 20th century.
Of course, one can speculate that it was the Macedonians who inherited the ancient Greek tradition after the Slavs settled in the 6th century. However, the fact is that the Balkan depictions of dancers go all the way to the Neolithic period.
The following image comes from the article “Dance in Prehistoric Europe” by Yosef Garfinkel, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Their research grouped most of the Neolithic sites of Southeastern Europe that have depictions of dancers. Only three sites were in ancient Greece. The dominant area was by far around the Vinca-Cucuteni civilizations.
Moreover, many Vinca-Cucuteni figurines depict the same kind of traditional clothing that still exists in the Balkans, so it is highly unlikely that it was a Greek import of a later date.
Of all the Neolithic Balkan dancers, I found the Dumesti dancers most interesting. These are twelve figurines, that belonged to the Cucuteni culture and date to 4,200 BC. Scholas believe that they represent two separate groups of dancers – a male circle and a female one. Apparently, it is unlikely that in those days the male and female would mix (see the article by Yosef Garfinkel).
However, I strongly disagree with this notion. First of all, the number twelve is not an accidental choice. It obviously relates to the twelve signs of the zodiac. And the male/female dualism matches the ancient division of a year on light and dark part, not unlike the Yin Yang principle, or the later Pythagorean philosophy.
But besides this philosophical reason, there is another one, much more rational. For centuries back, Balkan dancing festivals were an opportunity for young people to fall in love. Each village had its own celebration, and these events were perfect opportunities to visit each other and maintain a healthy gene pool in an otherwise small community.
Even though in the Middle East the dancers were strictly separated, there is no such notion in the Balkans in any period of history.
Depictions of the dancers appear first in the Neolithic Anatolia and Balkans, then Greece. Mr. Yosef Garfinkel concluded his research with the statement that circular dance was a part of the “Neolithic package” which followed the spread of agriculture, from the Near East to Europe. He adds that the depictions of dancers from the Middle East are a few millennia older.
This is a sound argument. However, we must not forget that the roots of the circular dance are significantly older. A proof for this claim is that we see different variations on all continents of the world. And even in Europe, there are depictions of dancers dated to the Paleolithic period. Therefore, one must be careful whether we see the advance of the circular dance or the advance of pottery. Pottery developed in Europe only around 5500–4500 BC, later than the Near East. In other words, it was pottery that could have been the original context of the “Neolithic package”. As for the circular dance, I guess that we will never know for sure where it originated.
Here is my video of a circular dance of Ba Na people, one of the minorities in Vietnam.