Thursday, September 06, 2007

The End of the Dancing Bears

The ascension of Bulgaria and Romania into the EU this year has resulted in some major cultural changes, most of them positive, especially if you are a bear. In July the last dancing bears in Bulgaria were bought from their owners and “retired” to a bear reserve in the Rila mountains. While fans of cute toothless bears rejoice I personally wonder about the fate of the families that led the bears. To be sure, the bears were not models of proper pet care. They often had their teeth pulled, were malnourished, and were taught to neurotically “dance” by making the cubs stand on hot coals while music played, strikingly similar to the training of Wal-Mart employees.Leading dancing bears had been a part of Balkan culture with roots going back to early Byzantine times, when bear leading Gypsies were a regulated guild in Constantinople. Dancing animals were required for Imperial processions. This was Byzantium, remember, where foreign policy practice often meant hanging ambassadors upside down over smokey fires before poking their eyes out. My how times have changed! Leading dancing bears is still widely practiced in India and it may have been brought to Europe by the migration of the Roma towards Europe from India sometime before the first millennium AD. Most of the bear leaders working in Bulgaria and in Istanbul were Romanian speaking Gypsies who lived in the east central hills of Thrace. These were Ursarii Gypsies, and they didn’t refer to themselves as Roma but as Romanii (Romanians) having lost the use of the Romani (Gypsy) language. In Romania proper the Ursarii still speak Romani and refer to themselves as Richinari. Nobody has led dancing bears in Romania for years, but the musical tradition of the Ursarii is maintained by Napoleon Constantin and the Shukar Collective, which is a world music collaboration between some Bucharest DJs and the Ursarii family that featured on the Taraf des Haidouks’ Dumbala, Dumba CD. Bear leading was banned in Turkey about ten years ago and about the only place it survived was in Bulgaria. During the summers Ursarii would bring their bears to the to the Black Sea resort towns like Varna and Balchik hoping to scoop some change from tourists taking photos of the dancing bears. Often an Ursar would lead his bear right into a café and people would throw money just to get the beast away from them. I mean, think about it... A trendy sidewalk café. A 350 kilo Carpathian brown bear. It works on so many levels.In Romania the bears danced to songs accompanied by drumming and wooden spoon percussion. In Bulgaria, however, bear dance music was always accompanied by the gadulka, a pear shaped fiddle with as many as twelve sympathetic strings which give the instrument a shimmering, ethereal sound. I dabbled a bit in bear leading about five years ago while traveling in Bulgaria. Everybody has a little “extreme sport” story somewhere – the time I bungee jumped or the time I parachuted on a dare. Mine is playing for the dancing bear. I was traveling from Ruse to Varna by train and had met a couple who were carrying a gadulka. They spoke Romanian and were going to play street music along the beach in Varna. Dimitru, the gadular, had sold his bear to the western bear protection agents and was now seeking to make a living… without a bear.We sat in the same compartment and Dimitru played for hours, and later in Varna I met them on the street and asked how business was. “Terrible. You have to have a bear.” The other alternative is a monkey, usually a rhesus obtained from a university lab. Monkeys are a definite step down from bears, and they are usually old and neither cute nor happy. And they really don’t dance well, compared to bears, causing their owners to fling them around by their chains while trying to play the gadulka. I saw one monkey actually break his owner’s gadulka bow. Dimitru’s competition in Varna had a monkey which would terrorize café patrons, snarling and pinching at their dresses and pants legs and showing off his pathetic little moneky thing until someone paid the gadulka player to get the horrible little primate away from them. Bears don't behave like this. Bears have a sense of dignity. In a whole day of bearless street playng, Dimitru had made about four Euros. “It doesn’t work without a bear.” Based on my own experiences with hip European café life, I suggested he try an act involving a dancing poodle… or maybe a parrot… but no. “It has to be a bear.” A few days later I saw another bear leader in downtown Varna… Fumie wanted to take a picture, but the bear leader’s wife wanted money. I was just interested in the gadulka, so when the bear approached I said in Romanian “Nu vine cu ursul!” (Don’t come with the bear!) “Are you a journalist” “No. I’m a musician.” Suddenly I was something they could understand, and this thing spoke Romanian… so the bear leader handed me his gadulka. And the the bear started coming towards me… so I played. And the bear stopped and began swaying. Finally, I had a truly captive audience. The end of bear dance leading in the Balkans, however, is tragic in its own way. What happens to the Gypsies who lived from bear leading? Most are given a few thousand Euros to hand in their bears and the press is told that they can use this money for job training, but to this day I have never seen an Ursar who has actually completed a course in computer networking systems… It seems a sort of historical watershed has been reached. 2007. The Year the Dancing Bears Vanished.

13 comments:

Alex D-F said...

The moldavian aristocrat Nicolae Gane met some Romanian-speaking gypsies outside Paris in 1867. They had come to perform at the Exposition Universelle but the authorities would not let them into the city. See N. Gane, Pacate marturisite (1904).

Alex D-F said...

sorry - I omitted the reason the authorities would not let them into the city, namely their performing bear.

Sara said...

I like bears.

Kayla said...

At least the people taking the bears aren't demonizing the gypsies and can understand their plight. I would rather not see their culture be chipped away at bit by bit but there needs to be a line drawn on what can keep going and bear dancing, as fun as it seems isn't fair to the bears or the impoverished people who have to use the bears and then have them taken away.

Kiarasbooks said...

I really wonder what happens to the families after they had to give their bear away, too!

I guess they will purchase another bear cub, if they are not convinced/ educated that it is better to give the bear away. And I dope they are paid enough, and (!) given an alternative oportunity to earn money.

Otherwise, where is the reason in givng a bear away if it means to starve in poverty?

It is good the bear dancing in closed, but it must be done in a human way. Otherwise it is a neverending story.

徐若瑄Vivian said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Hi,
I am a journalist from Poland, researching about dancing bears. I really like your post but I cannot find your email adress. Could u please contact me via wszablowski@tlen.pl. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

this is one of the worst things i have ever seen. i was never aware of the bear dancing culture until i saw an ad about it. how would people feel being treated that way. using animals cruely for your amusement and for you to make money instead of being a productive, decent human being and making a salary on something that doesnt force these animals to be harmed. anyone involved in bear dancing is a disgusting human being and should be damned for what they are doing to these innocent animals. dirty people is what you are, and now that i am aware of this i will be going out of my way to do something about it. i understand everyone has to make a living but there are ways to do it that will not harm animals or people. your taking the easy way out, and using this as a cruel way to quick money.

Crystal said...

You are right that the bears have harsh lives, but think about the people that are slowly losing all elements of their culture to westernization which is a disgusting process in and of itself. It's one thing to offer new medicine and technology, but completely another to outlaw all of the practices of any meaning in their culture just because some WSPCA people noticed that the bears are not willing participants. But do you think horses want to be ridden, Dogs want to eat only scraps, or that cows and pigs and chickens want to be eaten? Fuck no.
But unlike western culture; Native and nomadic people like the Ursarii use every part of the animal once it dies. So I say that you can change how they train the animals, but you do not get to tell them they can't keep the practices of their culture.

Griz said...

I understand that bear dance leading is a cultural tradition but it is a tradition that has been left on history's trash dump. We may wonder what happened to the families that made their living in this way just as we may wonder about the jobs lost running concentration camps at the end of World War II. Sometimes people just have to change in response to changing societal mores, and this is no different.

Iskra said...

"There was also one 34-year-old she bear we knew would not make it for long even under our care. Her owner had cut her neck with a knife and left an infected wound on her belly by stabbing it with an iron rod. She died in November 2003," the worker said.

Some parts of cultural heritage should be allowed to die out.

Daniel said...

The Rom or Roma, otherwise known as Gypsies, certainly did not introduce the cruel practice of the dancing bear into Europe from India. Dancing bears existed in Europe long before the migration of Gypsies from India to Byzantine Greece around 1000 AD.

Isocrates, a teacher in ancient Greece who lived from 436 to 338 BC, describes dancing bears in Athens as “...bears which dance about and wrestle and imitate our skill.”

The father of the Byzantine empress Theodora, who lived from 500-548 AD, was a man named Acacius who was a bear-keeper in Constantinople. Theodora is of course never described as being a Gypsy.

Medieval manuscript illustrations from Western European countries such as France show jugglers, acrobats and bear-keepers who are obviously white Europeans and not Gypsies.

The dancing bear tradition of the European Gypsies would have come from the Kalandar Gypsy caste of India and therefore has a separate origin to that of the European dancing bear tradition. The Kalandars have traditionally had a number of occupations including puppet theatre and acrobatics as well as bear-keeping. Similarly, many Gypsies in Turkey and the Balkans have traditionally put on puppet shows, or worked as blacksmiths or musicians and in other occupations that have not involved the exploitation of bears.

Aleksandra said...

I would be happy if the truth was that the bear dancing is extinguished. I still remember vividly the day when gypsies came to our neighborhood with the bear on a leash. I was 7. I know I felt like something was wrong there, although the whole situation was screaming "fun is here": while dancing, the bear was panting and drooling. Don't get me wrong, but I don't worry much about the gypsy families. I have talked to gypsies for numerous times, when they come to beg for money. I would ask "Why don't you work?" or "Why don't you go to school?", and the answer I would get is "Why should I when you gave me some money a couple of minutes ago?" It is much easier to make money out of "something" that doesn't talk and can't complain. I say 1:0 for bears. This mankind has disappointed me so much, that I would rather see humanity wiped out than any animal tortured. I am sorry... Best regards from Serbia.