Step in Time

On the Black Sea coast, a revival of folk dance

By / April 2015

Find flat ground along the Black Sea coast of Turkey and sooner or later you’ll find someone dancing. In fact, these spirited mountain-dwellers will kick their toes just about anywhere and everywhere, on the exposed side of a highway or within a concealed hazelnut orchard. I’ve even seen young ladies, heads covered next to herded cattle, skipping on the hills to music from their cellphones.

The horon, a folk dance native to the Black Sea, at first glance mirrors the Irish jig. Hand in hand, participants leap and jerk knees in unison. They sweep forward together, tighten ranks and interlock arms. With head bowed, they step briskly and shout, spread their arms like wings.

Their pace is feverish as they shimmy their shoulders, a move said to mimic cavorting anchovies in the teeming sea. Every phase of the horon conveys meaning. The dance passes on cultural significance, reflects aspects of daily life. It teaches new generations about ways of the past. And, of course, is a way to celebrate the present.

I was initiated into Turkish folkdance on an impromptu wedding trip to the coastal city of Trabzon. The day before the marriage, a friend asked if I would be willing to make the four-hour trip with him to the evening reception. I accepted, even though I had never met bride or groom. At the time, I also had no idea that my travelling partners were guests of honor, a dance team invited to get the party started.

Photograph by Brian McKanna

After the newlyweds were introduced, my companions rose from the table and took the floor. One by one they filled the spotlight. In turn they performed dances from different regions of Turkey. First the Kafkas, a traditional step from the Caucasus region that strongly resembles a Ukrainian Cossack dance with deep squats and seemingly impossible kicks from the floor. Next came the Kurdish halay, the bar, the zeybek, and, finally, the horon.

From that night on, I was keen to learn more about Turkish folk dance. A few days after the wedding, back home in Erzurum, I found a dance club at the local Ataturk University and started attending weekend practice sessions held in the bowels of the soccer stadium. It was there that I met Emre Murat, a 22-year-old college senior studying gastronomy. He’s a native of Trabzon with thinning hair and a thick beard which hides gaunt cheeks. Emre brought the Black Sea horon to campus when he arrived as a freshmen, and he’s been giving classes ever since. Seven students showed up for the first try-out. In his words, they weren’t any good.

In between practice drills, pacing his heavy breath, Emre tells me that students who are not from the Black Sea initially struggle with the tempo and complexity of the horon. Unlike him, they haven’t grown up with the dance. Despite the challenge, and in part due to the energetic and exhilarating nature of the horon, Emre’s class has grown every year. This year he had 90 try-outs, a record number he had to whittle down to 24, a dozen guys and a dozen girls, to form a proper team. Later in the year they will represent the university in a national collegiate tournament.

As I watch, Emre turns to work with some students who are struggling to keep time. Each step is said to depict movements of life. One represents a farmer planting corn. Another reflects the strength and step of a horse. When I ask Emre why he’s done this every weekend for the last four years, he doesn’t hesitate. “I’m here to represent my culture,” he explains, “to preserve it. Because if someone doesn’t know where they’ve come from, they can’t know where they’re going.”

The history of the horon is certainly full of lore, as well as a bit of mystery. Almost everyone acknowledges that the dance has roots in Greek and pagan traditions. The word itself can be traced to the Greek word for circular folk dances. Still today the peoples of the Black Sea in Turkey trace much of their heritage to Pontic Greek peoples. There is even speculation that the horon could be related, at least in part, to the Irish jig. Gaelic peoples once populated the Anatolian plains—even bagpipes have deep Middle Eastern roots. Others speculate that tradesmen or Crusaders from Medieval times imported dances from the Black Sea all the way to the green shores of Ireland.

These days in Turkey the horon is experiencing a kind of cultural revival. Gradually, exposure is growing. Tourist spots along the Mediterranean and Aegean coast offer nightly dance shows which resemble Riverdance in choreography and composition. Local clubs, like the one in Erzurum’s university, have begun promoting the dance as a competitive sport, just like soccer or tennis, with tournaments and awards. There is even a Horon Turkish Folk Dance Ensemble that performs as far away as Monterey, California.

At Ataturk University, two of Emre’s female students hail from the Black Sea. Both of them started young, learning the horon from gradeschool. They tell me that in almost every school, public and private, folkdance classes are offered. For İnci Gözlüol, a junior studying industrial engineering, she can’t imagine life without the horon. Her friend Azize Bıyık, a junior who is majoring in international relations, agrees. “The horon,” she says, “is a part of me. When I dance, I realize who I am.”

Both of these young women see themselves continuing to dance beyond college, perhaps professionally, perhaps on the side or as a part-time dance instructor for youngsters. In the Black Sea highlands, kids grow up surrounded by the horon. They dance in the classroom and in the fields. They dance alongside old men and women in summer festivals on mountaintops and plateaus. Sometimes, İnci says, they dance for days.

At competitions and carnivals, dancers dress in traditional garb. Women don vibrant, if occasionally gaudy, outfits. Most wear colorful skirts, long stockings, a vest and some kind of tasseled sash. On their heads a jeweled scarf, usually of another brilliant color combination. The men’s uniform is far more subdued, often black and white, with tall boots and a bandana of sorts. Their accoutrements come in the form of elaborate leather belts and chains.

At weddings, professional dancers, much like DJs, come as part of the entertainment. When finished, they turn the floor over to the guests who vigorously dance to the ear-piercing squeal of the local music. “If the kemençe (lyre) or tulum (bagpipe) is playing,” Azize boasts, “we’re going to get up and dance. For hours, without ever getting tired of it.”

Dancers have been known to take over airport terminals or stop cars to romp in the emergency lane of the highway. Just last year, a bus driver in Istanbul was fined and lost his license after repeatedly standing up and dancing the horon while driving his bus full of passengers through city traffic. As Azize admits, “I suppose the only place we wouldn’t dance is a funeral.”

But the horon is more than just a dance. It can be a greeting, a competitive sport, a cultural narrative, a celebration, a tearful farewell. In this culture it stamps time, from cradle to grave, at school graduations, national holidays, military send-offs, and wedding ceremonies. “For us,” Emre says, “the horon is worship.”

Brian McKanna is a writer and frequent contributor to EthnoTraveler.