Ursăreasca: Bears and other masks 

It is not uncommon for folklore dances to refer to animals with their names. (1) Some examples are Raca (Serbian/Vlachian, duck), Rața (Romanian, duck), Zaeškata (Bulgarian, hare), Capra (Rom., goat), Ovčata (Bul., sheep), Pateškata (Bul., duck), Murgulețul (Rom., foal), etc. Often these are „mimetic“ dances, i.e. those that mimic the typical movements of an animal, or masked dances in which the dancers (in traditional customs it is always men and boys, no girls) wear animal disguises; this is the case with the Romanian goat dance (Capra) and the bear dance (Ursăreasca).

While most animal dances confine themselves to a rudimentary presentation of the figure as such and are simply a „rabbit“, a „duck“, etc., the bear dances – in addition to the mentioned Ursăreasca („Dance of the Bear Leader“) they also include the Bătuta ursului („Stampimg dance of the bear“) – go far beyond that. That’s why they are particularly interesting for us. We do not want to speculate here about why these two – and perhaps other bear dances that are not known to us – play practically no role in our recreational folk dance scene; the reasons are certainly manifold and require more detailed research. (2)

In our presentation of the customs and ideas that form the context around the bear dances, we largely follow the study of Marianne Mesnil: Les Héros d’une Fête – Le Beau, la Bête et le Tzigane (Bruxelles 1980, 153 p.) (English: The main characters of a festival – The Beauty, the Animal and the Gypsy). It relies on her observations in Tudora, a largely isolated village in Bukovina, located about 40 km southeast of Suceava, whose pre-industrial (M. Mesnil: „medieval“, „archaic“) way of life – and thus old customs still very little touched by modern influences – has been preserved for a long time; the custom that we speak of here are the mask processions on New Year’s Eve and New Year. These may be taken as exemplary due to the spatial and temporal situation of the village of Tudora – temporally in the sense of socio-economic development. We want to bring Mesnil’s detailed and highly differentiated scientific analysis to a simpler, generally understandable level. 

In order to understand the action and its actors, it is helpful to take a look at the village and the worldview of its inhabitants.

The traditional village was structured in concentrically arranged zones: around the settlement were the cultivated areas, the gardens and fields, around it the grassland with the cattle pastures, which in turn were surrounded by the forests – largely wilderness, which was also exploited (wood, mushrooms, berries). The contrast „culture – wilderness“ was experienced by the villagers at that time as much more massive than today by us modern city dwellers. We just have to bear in mind that in the wild forests at the time – and in some landscapes of Romania until today – dangerous animals were at home such as wolf and bear. In addition, in the imagination of the people there were a number of ghosts and demons, such as the elves, who, apart from the forests, also wreaked havoc in the transition zone, the meadows.

Just as culture and wilderness face each other here, there is a similar opposition between „we“ and the „others“ in the self-understanding of the population – and this „we“ does not simply mean the villagers. They are those who are closely linked, on the one hand, due to their common economy, the collective use of the village’s resources and neighborhood aid, and on the other hand through kinship (endogamy). The „others“ are both those who do not come from the village, as well as the members of another class living or moving in the village (the priest, the doctor, the official) and another ethnic group – Jews, Arabs and Gypsies. Jews and Arabs belonged to rural everyday life as traveling traders, while the Gypsies on the one hand, as tinkers, could repair the copper kettles and other metal equipment, on the other hand as respected musicians probably were indispensable, but were only tolerated on the edge of the village because of their different way of life. This social distinction is picked up and exaggerated in the New Year’s play; we do certainly not exaggerate if we refer to the representation of the „others“ as caricatures. The opposition of the audience on the one hand and the masked figures on the other hand emphasizes this. 

For people who live by and with nature, the course of the year with its clearly different seasons plays a central role, which is of course reflected in many cultural elements. Among them, the activities at the turn of the year stand out particularly conspicuously – actually no wonder if you take a closer look at its deeper meaning for people in pre-modernity.


On New Year’s night and New Year’s Day, groups of disguised figures move through the village. Very similar mask parades are still organized in the Alpine region as „Perchtenläufe“ during the ”Rauhnächte” (or ”Zwölfnächte”). While the parade has an „official“ character during the day, supported (and controlled) by authorities and politics, the visit of the groups to the farmers at night reveals its original ritual function in a rather private setting. The following main characters appear:

The „horse“ (Căluțul) – its costume is a frame attached to the „rider“ and covered with cloths, which represents the head and body of the animal. The „horses“ appear in larger numbers as a group. 

The „beautiful goat“ (Capra frumoasa) – a wooden goat’s head with a movable lower jaw and a white cloth that covers the performer; he makes the lower jaw rattle by means of a string and thus accentuates the rhythm of the dance. 

The „bear“ (Ursul) consists of a bear head mask that the wearer wears on his head and a costume made of brown sheepskin. 

The „bear leader“ (Ursarul) with an unmasked, black make-up face and grotesque costume represents a caricature of the real gypsy according to the stereotypes of the peasants; he wears a tambourine as a rhythm instrument during the dance and a shoulder bag for the collected gifts. Other „gypsies“ of the group such as the „wife of the bear leader“ (Ursărița) are similarly disguised. 

The „old“ (Moșu, Baba) in particularly ugly, dirty, damaged peasant costume. 

The „wild goat“ (Capra salbatica) similar to the „beautiful goat“, but with a costume made of wool blankets. 

The „Gypsy tinkers“ (Căldărari) similar to the „Bear Leader“ and the „Old“, but costumed in even more grotesque, tattered clothes and equipped with all kinds of noisy accessories as well as with copper cauldrons with which they make as much noise as possible. 

In the parade on the day also occur: 

The „doctor“ (Doctorul, Doctorița) in white gown, white hood, with stethoscope or syringe. 

The „finance official“ (Funcționarul) in an urban suit with briefcase and papers. 

The „Turk“ (Turcul) in red costume, red made up with black mustache and wooden saber, riding on a real horse. 

The „wolf“ (Lupul, newer) similar to the „bear“ with head mask and sheepskin costume. 

The „traders“ (Negustorii), „Jews“ (Jidanii) and ”big landowners“ (Boierii) – caricatures according to the usual stereotypes, eagerly in ”business” with worthless money.

The bear play 

The performances of the horse group („horses“ in larger numbers and a „beautiful goat“) and the bear group always take place together one after the other, both in the day parade and during the nightly visits to the farms. First the horse group dances, then the bear play follows. 

The „bear leader“ enters the scene and pulls the „bear“ running on all fours on a chain behind him. At his sign, the „bear“ rises on his two feet and dances to the rhythm of the tambourine that the „bear leader“ beats. The rhythm slows down and the bear falls „dead“ to the ground. The „bear leader“ laments the death of his bear, bends over him, „operates“ him with his knife, blood splashes and the „bear“ gets up „healed“ and dances to the restarting tambourine rhythm. All members of the group unite in the joy of the „resurrection“ or „healing“ of the „bear“.

„After the performance of the „Bear Play“ there is a Hora for everyone, which expresses the general joy of the resurrection of the animal and at the same time marks the conclusion of the play. All masks of the group take part; on this occasion, the „tinkers“ and the couple of the two „old“ also appear.“ This is how Marianne Mesnil writes on page 51. (3)

We see here at this point of the process the place for our bear dances, Ursăreasca and Bătuta ursului. The description of the New Year’s games also shows, among other things, the place of dance in the action: such as the assembly of the people, eating and drinking together, music and singing, as well as ritualized actions, dance as an original element of all festivals is also part of it. In the New Year’s game, the „horses“ dance with the „beautiful goat“ and the “ bear“, as well as, at the end, the whole festival community.

The meaning of the bear play 

Already in terms of its nature, the bear is almost predestined for his role in the games at the turn of the year. He is at home in the wild forest, and with his hibernation he has a seasonally particularly structured way of life. 

However, he also has special relationships with man, which are probably due to the fact that he faces him upright on two legs – on the one hand as a hunting game, which therefore deserves special treatment „as a partner“, on the other hand as a mythical personality that takes shape in numerous folk tales and beliefs. After all, as a villager (in possession of a gypsy), he occupies a respected, but ambivalent position, endowed with power and giving benefits. The topic of transformation is also often present in the folk narratives: A man becomes a bear (and sometimes turns back to a man). Women appear as companions of a bear.

Since the bear comes from the wild forest, where all kinds of demons and spirits are also at home, such as the ”Iele”, which we have already reported elsewhere (4), he is suitable as a mediator „between the worlds“ – the natural and the supernatural. 

And finally, he disappears from the earth’s surface in autumn (to keep his hibernation) and only reappears in spring; a Romanian peasant rule explicitly makes him a messenger of spring. This is not his only significant reference to important calendar data. Who would therefore be better suited than the bear to embody the turn of the year, i.e. the end and new beginning, in the middle of the uncertain twelve nights, in which all kinds of eerie beings threaten man and the world? For his ritual „death“ in the village bear play symbolizes nothing more than the end of the old year, his „resurrection“ the beginning of the new, the expectation of spring and the awakening of the forces of nature. By staging this extremely important change of ending and beginning in their symbolic bear play, the farmers make sure that everything that constitutes their basis of life, even life itself, is continued. 

This makes it clear that our „bear dances“, Ursăreasca and Bătuta ursului, together with the various Călușarii dances and the Bulgarian Nestinarsko, occupy a prominent position in that they represent constitutive components of highly symbolic, even originally magical rituals.

(1) For general information on dance names, see Die bulgarische Tanzfolklore, p. 70 

(2) Music recordings:

Bătuta ursului: Jocuri Populare Românești – Danses de Roumanie, LP Electrecord – ST-CS 0206 (1987) Collection Danses et Folklore No. 330503; 

Audio sample: Bătuta ursului (Electrecord – ST-CS 0206)

 Ursăreasca: Roemeense Volksdansen 2, LP Nevofoon 15005 (1971); 

Audio Sample: Ursareasca (Nevofoon 15005)

Ursăreste de la Tudora: Interpreți Din Moldova – Vasile Vițalariu – LP Electrecord – EPE 03647 (1989) from Theodor Vasilescu’s Repertoire Video No. 4. 

Numerous other recordings of Bătuta ursului and Ursăreasca can be found on the Internet, as well as other bear dances (e.g. a Jocul Ursului). 

Dance descriptions:  Bătuta ursului and Ursăreasca on herwigmilde.de. 

(3) „Après l’exécution du „jeu de l’Ours“ a lieu une „ronde de tous“ (hora de toți) qui est à la fois le signe de réjouissance générale devant la résurrection de l’animal et marque la clôture du jeu. Tous les masques de la bande y prennent part; c’est à cette occasion que se manifestent les „Caldarari“, Tziganes chaudronniers, et le couple de „Moșu și Baba“ (le „Vieux“ et la „Vieille“). 

(4) See the article Călușarii here on Tanzrichtung.eu.