Traditional dance has been present in Polish history from the very beginning – many medieval chroniclers mentioned the Slavic “frolics” and “jumps”, later called “sways” and “dances”. It is no surprise that for all these years the story of Polish traditional dances has been surrounded by myths, stereotypes and fantasies. Those, if repeated thoughtlessly, can reduce fascinating phenomena of music and movement to primitive images and clichés. It is impossible to name them all in here, but the key ones concern the supposed ancient character of traditional dances, their changelessness, universal folk origins and, finally, their authenticity (or lack thereof). Meanwhile, dance is a vital part of human existence, so its fates can be as complicated as lives of individuals and communities, with which dance often becomes entwined.
Unfortunately, we know relatively little about peasant dances before the 19th century. We can only draw conclusions from iconography depicting dance scenes, several dozen literary descriptions and some musical themes put in writing. It can be assumed that most traditional dances, preserved until the present, originated no earlier than the 16th century. Most of dance genres we know now come from the 18th and 19th centuries. However, we know much more about the dancing culture of Polish nobility, eagerly chronicled by foreigners. By the 17th century, the nobility realized how different their dances are from the dances of other European nations. Travelling nobles willingly presented Polish dances abroad, relating to the ideas of glorifying Polishness, propagated by authors such as Stanisław Orzechowski, Szymon Starowolski or Wojciech Dębołęcki. This social climate was instrumental in the Saxon politics of the 18th century – the royals in Dresden welcomed a new, courtly version of polonaise and mazur, readily leading the dances (this will later be imitated by the Polish king, Stanislaw August Poniatowski). These dances, alongside French and English ones, as well as selected peasant dances from Polish provinces, were taught in gentlemen’s schools by the French dance masters. Because of the teachers, the dances such as “mazurkas and Polish kozak (sic!) became thus contrived, to exceed the beauty of English dances”, wrote the Polish author Hugo Kołłątaj. We can already see that a notion of mazurka covered many different concepts of that dance: the favorite of Saxon princes was different than the version taught in convent schools, which in turn was something else than the fiery dances of noblemen’s houses, and finally that variety differed greatly from what Mazovian peasants danced.
The 19th century brought trouble for Poles – deprived of the king and rights, split between hostile countries after the partitions of Poland, they sought uniting elements of culture. Alongside history, language and literature, also music and dance, particularly of folk origin, became a link for the divided nation. Particular dances, as emblems of national pride and a political instrument, achieved the status of “national dances”, meant to express and strengthen the sense of Polishness. This group of dances, apart from polonaise and mazur, included krakowiak, and later also kujawiak, oberek and mazurka. Types of mazurka varied in terms of their social, generational and regional context. In the early 19th century, mazur consisted of several simple figures, while at its peak popularity, at the turn of the century, over 150 – adapting elements of other dances such as quadrille, contradanse and cotillion, and even oberek or krakowiak. Innovations came mostly from the Warsaw society (Karol Mestenhauser!), Lviv or Poznan stuck to more conservative forms. Changes affected also peasant dances. In 1829 Kazimierz Brodziński wrote about mazurka transforming into oberek in some villages near Warsaw: “Because of the proximity of the Germans, or rather German soldiers, the dance has lost its folk character and became a clumsy kind of waltz”. Today, we see differences not only between the descriptions of 19th and 20th-century mazurka, we can also observe how it is danced now, by comparing performances in the regions of Radom and Łowicz respectively. In various regions, from Kujawy to Rzeszów and Lublin we can see a diversity of local oberek in terms of spatial conditions, flourishes in movement, and approach to vertical motion. Frequently, the oldest and most primal versions of the dance exist in distant peripheries, while in its place of origin it tends to become highly modified. For example, krakowiak is still danced with its primary two-three figures in Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine, while the many original varieties of Krakow region, described already by Oskar Kolberg, melted into one elaborate form, transformed under the influence of other national dances.
However, the paths of dance are sometimes even more winding. Mazurka and mazur expanded outside Poland due to migrations. In the time of the Great Emigration, Paris society became enchanted by those dances, expressing sympathy to gentile, romantic and “nobly” defeated Poles. Still, the style of Polish dances was unfamiliar to the French, causing trouble in performance. Fortunately, creative teachers helped – as a result of mixing genres, many simpler dances were invented, e.g. waltz-mazurka (Henri Cellarius c. 1845), polka-mazurka (Markowski c. 1850), or warszawianka (Alphonse Longueville 1848). All that was fashionable in Paris, had a guarantee of international success – thus, we can still encounter French mazurka in Chile, Peru or the Philippines, not to mention Poland. Here, they are preserved in the regions of Silesia and Lesser Poland, yet they also exist in other parts of the country under other names. To complicate matters even more, we should add that the peasant versions of French mazurka differed from the bourgeois, because of distinct stereotypes regarding movement patterns related to everyday work, community norms, or manifestation of social status. This observation applies also in the case of other dances the peasants adopted from the upper class, like waltz, polka or contradanse, which had always been “Polonized”.
Traditional Polish dances also had their crises. As the country regained independence, national dances gradually lost their function and popularity. They were saved from demise, though, by being included in school curriculums and used in artistic performances. Similarly, traditional folk dances began to fade away due to the rise of popular culture, new economy and mentality. However, the history of Polish dances is not a closed chapter yet. We are keeping it alive through our dance. Much depends on where and from whom we learn to dance, and which styles, genres and varieties we use to enrich it. Each of us has an individual set of movement experiences – dance-related or not – which is strikingly different from the experience of past generations, peasants, merchants and nobles, and our fellow dancers, too. These phenomena are definitely worth observing, especially because they allow us to answer the question of who we really are. So – “Band, play on!”.