The Táncház Movement

by Béla Halmos

In Hungary, the latest wave of “folklorism” began with the folk revival of the early 1970s. It was a period of intense interest in every kind of folk art. The most novel and most original aspect of this focus on folk culture was the birth of the táncház movement. Though beset by professional problems and political obstacles, the movement has grown steadily in the past twenty-five years, spread beyond the country’s borders, and acquired an international dimension. The success of the táncház movement in Hungary and abroad owes a great deal to the living traditions of Hungarian folk music and folk dance (particularly in Transylvania [Erdély]), the highly-developed state of these forms of art, and the fact that both folk music and folk dance have been researched in detail, and are being taught in an organized fashion using techniques based on these research findings. But the real secret of the movement’s success is a functional approach, which aims to make the whole complex of folk traditions a part of everyday life.

Fourty Years in Pictures

The táncház, thus—expressive as it is of “the natural”, an outlook on life that modern man can ill afford to be without—has come to serve as an example the world over of how to salvage for future generations the viable elements of our disappearing—or worse yet, transmogrified—traditional cultures. In this sense (and this is not a hypothesis, but a conclusion based on over two decades of táncház operations in Hungary and abroad) the táncház movement can help ease the palpable tension between the various national traditions and the new world culture now in the making, and help forge a network of communication between them.

Of the features distinguishing the “modern” táncház, the following are the most essential:

  1. The táncház is not a production, but a form of recreation in which folk music and folk dance appear in their original forms and functions as the “native language”—musical language and body language—of those taking part.
  2. The folk music played and the folk dances danced at a táncház have not been passed down from one generation to the next in the traditional way, but have been incorporated into the táncház repertoire as a consequence of considered value judgements based on the comparative study of the traditional material.
  3. The táncház movement is a loosely-knit association of informal “communities” whose members (rather than being passive consumers of the artificial products of the music industry) play an active role in their own entertainment, and do some hard work in the process, for it takes years of effort and practice for dancing and music making to become pure pleasure—though there is joy enough in the first dance steps mastered and the first tune learned.
  4. From the very beginning, the táncház movement has treated the folk cultures of Hungary’s non-Magyar ethnic groups, and indeed, of every nation, as treasures of coequal value (and, in this sense, followed a principle and a practice which anticipated the “Common European House” idea by some twenty years).

To date, there has been no comprehensive study offering a complex analysis of the history of the táncház movement from the moment of its inception. From the very outset, however, journal articles, 30reports, and interviews have documented events in the life of the movement, and/or addressed some of the issues raised by its existence (this published material in its entirety is to be found only in private collections). The táncház movement has also been the subject of several books and studies.

The Táncház Movement: Past and Present

The Archetype

The word táncház has always had a twofold meaning: on the one hand, it means the place—the house (ház)—where the dancing (tánc) takes place; on the other, it means an occasion, the opportunity to dance. The place was either a space within a building or an outdoor area: the inn and its courtyard, according to Hungarian peasant tradition. The exception was Transylvania, where the young people met to dance at some villager’s house, and called it the táncház. In the winter, they danced in one of the rooms of the house; in the summer, in the csűr (a shed with a roof and open sides, standing in the courtyard of peasant houses, and used to store tools and crops).

In Transylvania, as elsewhere, the peasant way of life provided many occasions for dancing, but the táncház was reserved exclusively for single young men and women. A married man who wanted to dance had to wait for a holiday, a wedding or a ball; for him, the táncház was off limits.

Tivadar Kovács, Romanian first fiddler (cigányprímás) of Méhkerék (Békés County, Eastern Hungary) playing in Szeged in 1973. He was the first folk fiddler that Béla Halmos studied with. Photo: György Hidas, Táncház Foundation.

Tivadar Kovács, Romanian first fiddler (cigányprímás) of Méhkerék (Békés County, Eastern Hungary)
playing in Szeged in 1973.
He was the first folk fiddler that Béla Halmos studied with.
Photo: György Hidas, Táncház Foundation

In the traditional táncház, the music was usually provided by semi-professional Gypsy musicians (making music was not their only means of livelihood). From time to time, one would come across a Hungarian táncház band.

For generations, the táncház was the only form of recreation available to young peasant men and women in Transylvania. The operation of the táncház was regulated by customary law. The youth of the village, or a certain group of village youths, themselves elected their leaders, called the “underwriters”. It was they who chose the house to rent as the village táncház, engaged the musicians, administered the finances, and made sure that there was no rowdiness, etc., at the dances. Their agreement with the owner of the house and the musicians was verbal, and for a specified period of time. The musicians were generally engaged for ten Sundays at a stretch; the house was rented for a year or longer. The young people who frequented the táncház all contributed to paying the rent and the musicians in cash, labor, or produce.


István Ádám, “Icsán”, prímás of Szék (Sic, Romania),  Béla Halmos’s “musical father”, in 1974.
He was the first Transylvanian fiddler to teach Béla Halmos.
Photo: Táncház Foundation

Like the other branches of folk culture, the music played and the dances danced were passed on in the traditional way from one generation to the next. The dancers were still children when they began learning the local dances, songs and customs from one another, their parents, and their fellow villagers. There were regular “tiny ones’ dances”, where small children were taught how to dance. There was no dance teaching at the táncház, which was meant to be nothing but fun. The musicians providing the music had learned to play in much the same way as the dancers had learned to dance. But playing, for them, was work, and they were paid by the dancers accordingly (although music making was not considered to be a “job”).

Márton Maneszes and  Zoltán Kallós

Zoltán Kallós (right), ethnomusicologist of Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca, Romania)
and Márton Maneszes “Kántor” (left), prímás of Mezőség in Magyarszovát (Suatu, Romania) in 1994.
Photo: Béla Halmos, Táncház Foundation.

In any given village, only the local dances were danced. In villages of mixed ethnicity, people would learn the dances of every ethnic group, and dance every one of them in turn at village events attended by all; at their own táncház, however, each ethnic group would dance only their own dances. Most of the musicians would play not just in their own community, but in neighboring villages as well. In ethnically mixed areas, they know the music of every ethnic group. In Transylvania, it is not unusual to find “polyglot” bands, who play for Hungarians, Romanians and Gypsies equally, and equally well. Comparing the “know-how” and practices of village dancers and village musicians, we can draw the following conclusions: while the dancers know only the local dances, the musicians are at home in several musical styles, and play the music of several villages and ethnic groups. In any particular táncház, however, they will be expected to play only the music that goes with the local dances.

In Hungary, the dissolution of the traditional peasant way of life was essentially a fait accompli by the late 1960s. In Transylvania, on the other hand, this process was delayed until the 1970s, when, however, it speeded up with a vengeance. The gradual repression of the táncház in Transylvania—its practical disappearance in certain places—coincided with the táncház revival in Hungary. There was, in short, a point in time when the táncház as folk culture converged with the táncház movement as a part of the folk-cultural revival: skills and knowledge were passed on in this encounter, and seminal personal ties were forged.

The Táncház of the Táncház Movement

Much as the essence of the archetypal táncház—dancing folk dances to folk music as a form of recreation—remained unchanged when the institution was revived by the táncház movement, there are significant differences between them. The most salient difference is that in the táncház movement, the táncház functions as a form of recreation not for some homogeneous Transylvanian village community, but for the very heterogeneous urban populations of Hungary’s towns and cities. This is the reason why we include the táncház movement under the heading of “folklorism”, and this is what explains all the other differences between the two kinds of táncház. Those frequenting an urban táncház have no family tradition of dancing and music to fall back on; they have to learn everything from scratch. The táncház is fun only for those who have already learned to dance and sing. Teaching, therefore, is part of what the táncház movement is about. Instructions in dancing are given separately from lessons in the various musical instruments, with the best dancers and musicians acting as instructors. Dancing is taught in the táncház. The instructors—generally a man and a woman together—give dancing lessons at the beginning of the táncház, and continue to instruct the beginners at the back of the hall the entire time during the dance proper. Like in Transylvania, there is a special táncház for children—between the ages of 3 and 10—generally before the adults’ táncház begins. The average age of those frequenting the táncház in Hungary today happens to be the same as of those attending the traditional Transylvanian táncház, but within the movement, there is no age or marital-status restriction on attendance. The táncház movement welcomes anyone interested in folk music and folk dancing.

Musicians of the Bartók Ensemble

The musicians who played for the Bartók Dance Ensemble
(from left to right: Ferenc Sebő, Béla Virágvölgyi, Béla Halmos and Márta Virágvölgyi),
in Szeged, in 1974, at the International Trade Union Folk Dance Festival
with members of the Méhkerék (Békés County, Southeastern Hungary) Romanian Gyspy Band.
Photo: Táncház Foundation

But for a few exceptions, urban Gypsy musicians do not play in the táncház. The “táncház orchestra”, as it is called, is generally comprised of Hungarian musicians, semi-professionals, like their Transylvanian counterparts. They all have some other occupation, or are still studying. The musicians learn to play outside the táncház. Many of those playing today have never had any formal musical training, but learned to play and picked up the tunes from the peasant or Gypsy musicians of the Transylvanian villages. In the last ten years or so, the teaching of folk singing and instrumental folk music has become a part of the curriculum of a number of schools of music, and special adult workshops are now also being taught.

Sebő Ensemble

The Sebő Band (Ferenc Sebő, left and Béla Halmos, right) in concert at the Municipal Cultural Center in Budapest in 1974.
Photo: Táncház Foundation

The táncház is generally managed by the members of the orchestra and the dancing instructors. They are the ones who sign the written contracts with the state-run cultural centers which, to this day, are likely to be the location of any given táncház. The cultural center provides the dance hall, the staff (ushers, coat-check ladies, refreshment stand operators, etc.), and pays the musicians and the dance instructors. Those attending the táncház pay an admission fee, which goes to the cultural center. Since the fees do not cover the expenses, the operation of practically every táncház depends on state subsidies.

There are two things that need to be noted. One is that in the Hungarian táncház movement, it is the “orchestra”, the musicians, who have the leading role and the final word. Even the dance instructors are often selected by the musicians. The other difference as compared to the Transylvanian táncház is that a Hungarian táncház will play not just in one particular musical idiom or the music of one particular village, but successive sets of tunes. (A “set” comprises the sum total of all the dance tunes of a particular village or locality, with the dances succeeding each other in a definite order—a “dance suite”, so to speak.) In an urban táncház, therefore, both musicians and dancers are familiar with several styles of folk dancing. A good táncház dancer will be comfortable with eight to ten “dance suites”, and a good táncház musician with a corresponding diversity of dance tunes.

Béla Halmos with students

Béla Halmos with his pupils at a workshop for táncház musicians
in Jászberény (Jász-Nagykun-Szolnok County, Eastern Hungary) in 1983.
Photo: Táncház Foundation

The Antecedents of the Táncház Movement

Though folk cultural revivals are not specific to this century, we shall confine our retrospective to the more significant twentieth-century movements.

The first of these was the so-called Gyöngyösbokréta movement of the period between 1931 and 1944. Coordinated by a Budapest newspaperman, Béla Paulini, the village intelligentsia organized peasant dance troupes which performed folk dances, folk plays, and skits of folk customs at Budapest theaters once a year. In the latter part of the period, these troupes, organized under the auspices of the Bokréta Szövetség, would play several times a year and not only in the capital city. The impact of the Gyöngyösbokréta movement was twofold. On the one hand, it gave townspeople some first-hand experience of folk dancing and folk music. On the other hand, it awakened the peasantry to the realization of the value and importance of their own art—something which has definitely contributed to the survival of folk art.

The second movement started in the late ’40s and continued into the early ’50s. By this time, Hungary was a “people’s democracy”, and “the people” were required to sing folk songs and dance folk dances in this dark period of the country’s history. It was not so much a movement, as a terror tactic. The result: several generations learned to abhor folk art for the rest of their lives. The decline of folk culture in Hungary dates to that time.

The third movement was the formation of amateur folk dance groups: begun in the late ’50s, for all practical purposes, it continues to this day. Modeled on the highly successful Soviet folk ensembles (some of which toured the entire world), several hundred amateur folk dance groups came into being, and still flourish today. To the 1970s, it was these groups which kept folk dancing and folk music alive. Their operation was confined to performing folk dances on stage, according to a learned choreography. For all that, the amateur folk dance groups were one of the immediate antecedents, indeed the hotbed, of the táncház movement.

Táncház in Székesfehérvár

Táncház at Székesfehérvár (Fejér County, Western Hungary) in the late 1970s.
Photo: József Princz, Táncház Foundation

The fourth precursor—and the second immediate antecedent of the táncház movement—was the folk music revival triggered by the Röpülj Páva TV Talent Show that made its debut in the late 1960s. The approach to folk music here was the same as would be formulated by the táncház movement which started in 1972: folk music (and folk culture in general) was of value just as it was; there was no need to “elevate it” to the realm of classical music, or to “elaborate” on its “themes”. It was the people who had taken part in the Röpülj Páva movement who began to focus on instrumental folk music, too, particularly the polyphonic dance music of traditional folk dancing. They would be the ones to form the first táncház orchestras.

Sebő and Janika

János Kovács, “Janika”, violinist,
member of the Méhkerék (Békés County, Southeastern Hungary) Romanian Gypsy Band
with Ferenc Sebő (left) in Szeged in 1973.
Photo: Táncház Foundation

The Social Milieu Which Shaped the Táncház Movement

Whether a movement will ever be born, let alone flourish, depends on the social milieu. Something that a few people do for a hobby will grow into a movement only if the particular activity meets the needs and interests of the majority, and if the political and cultural constellation is propitious for its growing into a movement. The early 1970s in Hungary were such a propitious time. The most important positive developments from the point of view of the táncház movement were the following:

  1. As a consequence of the revolution of 1956, the political pressure on the population began to ease up in the last years of the ’50s. The gradual liberalization was attended by a rise in the standards of living. The early 1970s saw the coming of age of the first post-1948 generation which could freely decide, for instance, what it wanted to sing and dance.
  2. There was a gradual “thaw” in Hungary’s international isolation; foreign relations were not as one-sided as they had been. A thriving multilateral tourist trade and an ever-widening ring of cultural contacts meant that Hungarians came in touch with the folk culture of Hungarians living outside the country’s borders, and got news of the folk song revivals sweeping Western Europe and the United States. By the end of the ’60s, beat music, the first musical language understood the world over, had made its way into Hungary. It would have a definite impact on the development of the folk music movement and the táncház movement, in both a negative and a positive sense.
  3. There were some breakthroughs in Hungarian folk music research, and folk dance research had grown into an independent discipline. The new technology (records, microphones, VCRs, etc.) modernized the recording and dissemination of folk music collected on location. By this time, folk dance and instrumental folk music research were qualitatively on a par with folk song research, both as regards the volume collected, and the scholarship involved.
  4. Most importantly, however, the folk culture of Transylvania continued to thrive and flourish right into the 1970s. This extraordinary wealth of folk tradition would come to form the basis of the táncház movement.

Certain negative societal developments also served as an impetus to the genesis of the táncház movement. One cardinal negative circumstance was that by the 1970s, traditional folk art and folk culture had all but disappeared in Hungary. This was a natural consequence of the sham ideology and forced urbanization which had totally altered the peasantry’s way of life. The peasantry ended up repudiating their own folk culture, and with this, cut short a tradition that had been handed down from generation to generation for centuries.

Sándor Tímár

Sándor Tímár, choreographer and earstwhile artistic director of the Bartók Dance Ensemble in 1973,
at the International Trade Union Folk Dance Festival, Szeged (Csongrád County, Southern Hungary).
Photo: Táncház Foundation

Folk culture had become relegated to the status of a school subject, and folk art to an artistic style. And by the 1970s, folklore and folk art were being snubbed as outlandish and passé. There was a total chaos as to values.

Which gave rise to yet another set of negative developments. Folk singing was made a compulsory part of the school curriculum; a child would either learn the folk songs the same way he learned algebra, or would come to hate them as something shoved down his throat—in neither case would he ever think of singing folk songs for his own pleasure. Instrumental folk music was something that simply no one taught. Gypsy musicians had practically stopped playing folk songs: they played operetta, popular songs, themes from the Hit Parade, and so on. As for the classical music of the time, the best-case scenario was that folk motifs provided the composer with at least his raw material; in fact, however, very few of the contemporary Hungarian composers paid any mind to their musical mother tongue. Folk music in its original form was practically never played. When it came to folk dancing, it was much the same situation, the difference being that you could see folk dancing on stage; but they danced not folk dances, but a choreographed composite of various folk dance steps. Far and wide, there was no original folk dancing to be found.

By the end of the 1960s, thus, it looked as if folk art and folk culture had disappeared in Hungary. The peasantry had ceased to pass on its own traditions, and the attempts to integrate folk cultural elements into the school system had proved a failure. With the exception of a few fanatics, everyone believed that a total cultural vacuum had set in. It was at that point that the newest wave of folk art movements stirred up the country.

The Story of the Táncház Movement, and Its State Today

The first táncház was organized in Budapest by Ferenc Novák and the Bihari Dance Ensemble on May 6, 1972. The idea was to set up a members-only club modeled on the Transylvanian táncház, the membership being restricted to Budapest’s four best amateur folk dance ensembles.

“Outsider” interest was strong from the very beginning, but initially the organizers did not let in anyone who was not a member. However, in view of the ever-growing interest, the four founding dance ensembles soon began wondering whether or not they should continue to insist on the dance club’s members-only policy. In the end, György Martin, Sándor Tímár, the members of the Bartók Dance Ensemble and the Sebõ Band—the first táncház orchestra—jointly decided to open the táncház to everyone. From then on, anyone could go in and join in the dancing, because the club’s managers/organizers, in opening it up to the public, committed themselves to providing dance instructions as well.

Beginning with the spring of 1973, the Fõvárosi Mûvelõdési Ház (Municipal Cultural Center) was the scene of weekly táncház sessions, with dance instructions being provided right there on every occasion. The same year yet, the second táncház orchestra, the Muzsikás Band, was formed, and from 1974, there were two táncház events a week: one run by the Sebõ Band, the other by the Muzsikás Band. In both places, the dance instructors were Sándor Tímár and members of the Bartók Dance Ensemble. The táncház movement was on its way. Several new “orchestras” were formed (the Virágvölgyi, the Jánosi, the Téka, etc.), and new táncházak were springing up everywhere. In the first while, both the musicians and the dance teachers trained with the Bartók Dance Ensemble.

The next stage in the development of the movement was the two-year training course which the Hungarian Institute for Culture organized for táncház musicians and dance instructors between 1976 and 1978. The result was an upsurge of táncház founding in the provincial towns, and several more were established in Budapest. They also enlarged the dance repertoire, adding to the dances from Szék dances from other regions of Transylvania, as well as Hungary. The dances of Hungary’s minority nationalities—Romanian, South Slav, and Gypsy dances—had been taught from the very first. Before long, independent ethnic táncházak were being set up: South Slav, Greek, Bulgarian, and so on.

György Martin and Imre Seres

György Martin ethnochoreologist (left), the father of the táncház movement and piper Imre Seres (right)
Photo: Táncház Foundation

From the late ’70s on, would-be táncház musicians and dance instructors received regular training, though only on the peripheries of the official educational system. More and more people attended the special workshops and summer camps—held primarily under the auspices of cultural centers and dance ensembles—and more and more of the students were Hungarians living abroad. For it did not take long for the táncház movement to cross state boundaries: táncházak were springing up in Romania, in what was then Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, in Germany and Switzerland, as well as overseas in Canada, the United States, and Australia. But it was not just Hungarians living abroad who were drawn to the táncház. People of all nationalities will be found among táncház musicians and dancers today. The táncház movement has become truly international.

Today, there are about 60 or 70 “táncház orchestras” throughout Hungary, to say nothing of the folk singers, the solo instrumentalists, and the dance instructors. Besides their work at the táncház, these people give concerts and appear live at various functions, help both amateur dance ensembles and professional troupes with their work, and take part in folk music education at home and abroad. The number of táncházak held regularly has also grown: in Budapest alone, there is one or two Hungarian and/or ethnic táncház every day of the week; and several provincial towns have regular táncház sessions once a week or once a month. The ethnic táncházak, too, have shown a growing diversity, with attempts being made to set up ones devoted exclusively to the Gypsy, Jewish, Flamenco and Cajun dance traditions.

The countries that are Hungary’s immediate neighbors have also seen a táncház revival, with the Hungarians living there rediscovering their folk dance heritage at dance workshops and special summer camps. In Western Europe and overseas, there are about as many regular táncházak today as at the beginning of the 1980s.

Sándor Fodor Neti

Sámuel Fodor, “Neti Sanyi”, with his American pupils in Enon Valley, Pennsylvania, USA in 1996.
Photo: Béla Halmos, Táncház Foundation

Magyar Family

Sámuel Fodor “Neti Sanyi” and the Ökrös Band at a folk dance camp in Enon Valley, Pennsylvania, USA in 1996. Dancing in the foreground: Kálmán Magyar, Director of the American Folklore Centrum, New York and his wife, Judit.
Photo: Ildikó Magyar, Táncház Foundation


First published: Hungarian Heritage, Budapest, 2000 Volume 1 Numbers 1-2 Spring/Autumn

1 From the Hungarian folklorizmus, defined as “the adaptation by professional artists of folklore elements and folklore motifs”.

2 Siklós László 1977. Táncház. Budapest. Part sociography, part documentary, part fiction, the book is a review of the first five years of the táncház movement. Martin György 1981. “Szék felfedezése és tánchagyományai” [The discovery of Szék and its dance heritage]. Tánctudományi Tanulmányok 1980-1981. Budapest. 239-277. The only truly scholarly study on the subject, by the “father” of the táncház movement, a world-famous folk-music and folk-dance scholar. Martin examines the discovery of the folk traditions of the Transylvanian village of Szék (Sic, Romania), and its impact on Hungarian national consciousness. Since the folk music and folk dances of Szék played a crucial part in the birth of the táncház movement—the archetypal táncház was the táncház in Szék—the study includes a detailed discussion of the early years of the movement. Bodor Ferenc (ed.) 1981. Nomád nemzedék – ifjúság és népművészet Magyarországon 1970-1980 [A generation of nomads. Youth and folk art in Hungary 1970-1980]. Budapest: Népművelési Intézet. A generously-illustrated work with text in English and Hungarian, the book presents a panorama of the various branches of the folk art movement of the ’70s, the táncház movement among them. Széll Jenõ (ed.) 1986. Húzzad, húzzad muzsikásom – a hangszeres népzene feltámadása [The revival of instrumental folk music]. Budapest. The book introduces the so-called “táncház orchestras”, their solo players and vocalists, but these reports and essays deal with the táncház movement per se only tangentially.

Béla Halmos (1946- ) architect, fiddler, ethnomusicologist, a founding member of the Sebő Band, first first fiddler (prímás) of the táncház movement. Presently, a senior fellow of the Hungarian Institute for Culture, and director of the Táncház Foundation. He has authored several studies on instrumental folk music, released numerous folk records and cassettes, and directed films and documentaries on folk music and the táncház.

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