On a normal day it would be another quiet morning in the sleepy north Romanian city of Comanesti, but not today. Since sunrise, the calm has been broken by the deafening drumbeats of the band warming up, as they prepare for the big show. The show is called Ursul, The Bear Dance Festival, and is a ritual that symbolizes the death and rebirth of time. A tradition, preserved since ancient times that is still kept alive today. It is an annual tradition which takes place every winter when New Year is approaching, in the rural area of the north-eastern Trotus Valley. Men and women of all ages dress in bear skins and dance to the rhythm of flutes and percussion to drive away evil spirits and welcome the New Year. The origins of Romania’s bear dance date back to the pre-Christian times when gypsies,
who had originally migrated from India, would descend from the forests bringing with them bears which would dance to entertain the crowds. They would also visit every house to bring luck and protection in exchange for scraps of food and liquor. While this tradition is still observed in many villages, in cities like Comanesti it also takes the form of a parade. Hundreds of spectators approach and position themselves on the side of the roads waiting for the parade. Children blow colorful horns, others immerse their faces in enormous pink cotton candy. They are heralding the arrival of the people who spent the night preparing their costumes and are now ready to parade these through the town.
Here they are. It is a thrilling moment. Groups of enormous bears pour out from the back of old vans. It is only a matter of minutes and the City Hall square is filled with them.
They quickly line up one after another in order from smallest to largest. In front of them, in red uniform and black leather boots, the tamers start to lead the procession down the village streets. The bears march and dance following his commands with precise movements set by the rhythm of pan flutes and hypnotizing large tambourines. They roar loudly mimicking the sound of a bear, swinging the enormous head, imitating their gait and movements. The two blood-red tassels pinned to each shoulder sway from side to side, but it is not at all as easy as it seems. In fact, the furs can weigh over 40 kilos and to give the idea of a natural and graceful movement, the dancers have to make a superhuman effort.
Even though they have been practicing for months before today's ceremony, people are sweating and straining inside those skins. During the ceremony, several acts are played.
At the beginning the bear tamers hit the bears with whips made from horse hair. In the central act the bears pretend to roll over and die before they are miraculously resurrected in a symbolic dramatization of nature rebirth. In the final act, one of the bears is lifted on a stick by two other characters. The last parade group are the noisiest. Characters dressed as women, wearing colourful and fluorescent dresses with bells all over them.
Their clothes are impregnated by the smell of the acetylene from the homemade plastic guttering carbide cannons that they carry around. As soon as they fire them, the explosion stuns you and your whole body is rocked by the noise. If you don’t manage to cover your ears in time, you can be sure that you will be left with a whistle, such is the strength of the blast.
The noise is incredibly loud and it never stops. Sometimes a strong smell of alcohol hits me. It is the smell of Țuică de prune that comes out of plastic bottles hidden inside the brown fur.
Another kind of spirit of which people are not scared of. We are all directed towards Parcul Central, the main square in the center. Each troup there, will perform on the stage and a group of judges are going to vote on the best performance. They will judge on the quality of their skins, their costumes and the dancing. The most beautiful scenery will also be rewarded.
Wearing these skins may seem like a sadistic act against such a rare and precious being but people really respect and love this creatures. Bears are sacred creatures in Romanian mythology and it is believed that the life cycle of these animals are responsible for the changes of the seasons due to their almost mystic ability to reappear after winter and their hibernation.
It is an ancient ritual that brings together the whole community, as they gather to watch the performance.
Tradition holds it close to their hearts.