Martin Koenig: Folk dancing keeps your brain alive

I do believe that there is a need that people have for shared cultural enterprises

Photo: Alexander Petrov Martin Koenig

I should say that being in Bulgaria was a very life-transforming experience, that it really moved me into the line of work that I went to, basically because of the reception I got here and the opportunity I got here to do this work, says American ethnographer Martin Koenig in an interview to Europost.

Mr Koenig, when did you first feel the magic of folk dances and music, and how did they become your profession?

It was very interesting. If university is to bring you in touch with your passion, then my university did do that. I went to my first folk dance when I was a senior in high school. In college I joined this folk dance club, and it was just this recreational thing, but by my last year in college I was dancing every night of the week. I found it very powerful, and the Balkan dancing was the most exciting for me of all the dance forms - both Scandinavian and Balkan. I started out first as a high school teacher, teaching history, and then I went from there to teach dance. But as far as I was concerned, I was still teaching culture because even (with) the history I was teaching, I was interested in the cultural history - what makes a people a people. And so I was teaching in Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence College, and then I taught Balkan dance workshops all over the US. It was about five years of teaching in Columbia, and then I was asked to work for the Smithsonian, and then I worked for the American Folklife Festival in Washington DC for another five years, and at the same time I kept teaching dance because I loved to dance. After the bicentennial, I started my own not-for-profit arts organisation to present doing research, documentation, presentation and publications of different ethnic communities in America. So the research that I did in Bulgaria was the same sort of research that I did in the US. You all know me here for the work that I did here, but that was not the mainstay of my work - the mainstay of my work was working with American communities of different ethnicities and doing the same research that I did here, doing the same documentation that I did here, but then I took that material and I put it on festivals, concerts, classes and then also did publications of videos, books, magazines, different things like that. And I am still doing it (all those years later).

What good wind brought you to the Balkans and to Bulgaria in particular?

I had been working in high school, a very unique one in New York during the 1960s. It was unique in that it attracted people from all sorts of communities around the city; it was open enrolment. One of the groups that was there was the children from the trade mission of Bulgaria. I had a folk dance club in this high school, and these Bulgarians (they were all boys actually) who were in my homeroom class or my history classroom, I invited them to come to the folk dance club that we had and they used to dance. One of the boys in my class said to me one day, “Why don't you simply go to Bulgaria and learn some dances there?” I answered, like, “Now, that is a great idea!” So he gave me the idea and so I came to Bulgaria in 1966 for the first time.

And what were your first impressions of our country?

My first memory is, as I cross the border, I see this guy on the side of the road, and he is watching a cow, his responsibility was to stay with that cow as the cow ate on the side of the road. I spoke with him in broken Bulgarian - I knew some Russian from college, and I had learned some Serbo-Croatian because I was there for part of the summer. I started speaking to him, asking him permission if I could take this photograph (shows photo). And you could see the quizzical look on his face, like, he did not quite know what I was saying, but he was very amused, he just looked great. So that was my first impression of Bulgaria. That was the first person I photographed.

How did the idea for the exhibition in Sofia come about?

Well, I can give you my viewpoint. I was putting out this book for the Smithsonian, and Ivo Hadzhimishev had done the curating for a Bulgarian exhibition I did at the Ethnographic Museum in 2006. This time I said, “Ivo, why don't we do another exhibition together?” Now, I asked him in 2006 to do an exhibition of Balkan photographs, and he said, “No, no, no, it's better to do an exhibition of Bulgarian photographs.” So we did that in 2006. And this time I said, “Let's do an exhibition of Balkan photographs, and there we can present the book of the work that I did in Bulgaria.” He said, “Yes, OK, we'll do that.” So, Ivo then came to the US and worked with me and my archive, and we made a selection of 75 photographs (which is what you can see there) from seven different countries in southeastern Europe - Greece, Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Romania and Kosovo.

Do you really remember the places and names of people you met in Bulgaria half a century ago?

Is it not remarkable that I remember that, and I do not remember people that I met an hour ago?! It is very strange how the mind works, but yes, I do. Some people I remember; there are some incidents I do not remember, some people I do not remember, but, by and large, the people I worked with I have a very strong memory of what occurred. My comments in the book are my memories. For many, I had not written anything down and yet I remembered so much that had occurred. I should say that being in Bulgaria was a very life-transforming experience, that it really moved me into the line of work that I went to, basically because of the reception I got here and the opportunity I got here to do this work.

How would you explain the enormous interest in folk dances as of late, not only in Bulgaria, but abroad as well?

Well, it was more before. When I came to Bulgaria, there was a receptivity to this that was very remarkable. Well, in Bulgaria they should be, because they have skipped a generation. This also happened in America, where old-time music and dancing was rejected for 10-20 years, and it has come back now. And not necessarily with village people, it could be urban people, educated people, people who had nothing to do with that culture before doing it. I see it in the US with Bulgarian Americans. It is the only group, really, where that has occurred in large numbers, which I find very curious. You do not have that with Serbs. You have it with Greeks, they are also very strong in that way, and they participate mostly within their churches, but they also folk dance with a larger community. That is so strange to me, though, because when I was working here, it was such a living thing. Once you do that, it is because it is not alive in its natural setting, so that is why you have folk dance groups in America. But that is because no one is doing folk dancing in the community or the communities are not as strong as that. But it is great that it is happening.

Some say folk dances heal both the body and the soul. What do you think?

I totally agree. There is a whole thing of keeping track of how if you move and working those aspects of your brain, that keeps your brain alive and healthy. It goes completely against the whole thing of senility; it just keeps your brain healthy, it makes you think in ways that are crucial, which older people do not do usually. So that is one of the things that people say, “Go folk dancing, it is helpful.” And you are joined with people moving in synchronised fashion, which makes people feel good, it is a very joyful experience.

Is it not curious that no matter how distinct national folk cultures can be, they are uniting people rather than dividing them, and they share many common elements?

I totally agree with that. It is a thing that attracted me at the first time - you are joined with people and you are participating with them and not necessarily talking to them because not everybody is verbal. It is an enhancing experience to do this, it makes you feel good. I do not think anybody feels bad when they dance in that manner.

Do you have a favourite Bulgarian folk dance or song?

You know, I think I do like all of them and I love the Dobrudzha dances as a whole. I love all the dances and all the music that is played, traditional music that is passed down from generation to generation. So I love all music from each area and region. The Dobrudzha music has expansiveness, though, that is particularly sympathetic to me. But then again, I love solo kaval playing a Thracian shepherd's song - it is beautiful, especially played by someone who is a master at the instrument; it is totally fabulous. But I also love the small brass bands or fiddlers from north-west Bulgaria. I love the traditional drum down in south-west Bulgaria. Each one has its own uniqueness and attractiveness.

Could you please tell us more about your Centre for Traditional Music and Dance in New York?

I have been retired now for 25 years at this point, but I worked with it for the first 25 years (of its existence). I think it is a unique organisation. We basically have an attitude of: every community should have its music and dance forms championed, presented, they should be honoured, respected. That is the basic orientation that we have as a centre, and it is a thing of cultural equity that people should have exposure to this music. If you listen to the radio in America or watch TV, you see very little ethnic music or dance. You have so many Spanish ethnics that you have some stations that are Spanish, but it is mostly newer music rather than older music. But there are some stations that play ethnic music as part of their mission. The centre works with different communities and tries to give support to these ethnic communities that have a really hard time of maintaining themselves culturally and to try to reinforce the sense of the beauty of their culture and to reinforce in them an appreciation of what their music is, what their dances are, what their folk ways and food ways are, their language, that they should not just get rid of it to become big earners of money in America and then forget who they are and where they come from. That is very important - that they do not throw the baby with the bathwater. It is important that ethnic communities maintain not as a nationalist thing, that is not what I am saying, but just as a thing of pride and feeling good about yourself, what you come from and who you are. And then you can go wherever you want in America and embrace a new culture if you want, but it is important to hold on to that other aspect of yourself. And that is basically what the centre is all about. We have been very active and done it now for 50 years. I remain on the Board of Directors, and it is doing its job.

The world is changing at an incredible pace. Are music traditions endangered? Or would, instead, new technologies be beneficial to their preservation?

I wish I could be positive. I do believe people have needs. I am saddened at the state of villages, not just in Bulgaria but across the world - that population leaves, you cannot make a living working in a village. Millions of people everywhere are leaving, trying to look for a way to make a living, raise their families, educate their children and give them a better life. It has been my experience that folklore comes from villages, that has been the nursing place for traditions. Yet, that place is being destroyed. So I do not know what happens or where or how it is going to happen, but I do believe that there is a need that people have for that music and dance form and for shared cultural enterprises. I do not know if it will be the same as before, but I do have a feeling that we cannot exist without it. So they, we will find some variation on it, and I have no idea what that will be. At least, that is my hope. I really have no insight into it, but I think it is our need, and it is my hope that that is going to happen.


Martin Koenig was born in New York City on 24 October 1938 to parents who emigrated from what was then Poland and is now Ukraine. He was educated in the City University of New York and graduated in 1959. After that he worked as a teacher in history and dance. In 1965 he and his colleague Ethel Raim managed to set up the Balkan Art Centre, later known as the Centre for Traditional Music and Dance in New York. On one of their visits to Bulgaria, they recorded Valya Balkanska's song which was later selected to fly into space on board the Voyager shuttle.

On 18 September, Martin Koenig opened his photo exhibition, entitled '20th Century. Balkan echo. Sounds and Images from Bulgaria', at the National Art Gallery in Sofia. On the following day he presented the supplemented bilingual edition of 'Voices and Images from Bulgaria', along with two CDs featuring authentic folklore music.

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