The Romanian “Joc”: music, dance, connection and ancestrality

(by Bogdan Octav)

While we were working on this project, we realized as soon as we wanted to translate the original name “Casa Jocului” into English, that the noun “joc” (pronounced “zhok”, literally: “the play”) bears a very specifical concept, that is very familiar to most Romanians, especially among the elder generations. But interesting enough, we didn’t find any proper English translation for it. So, here a brief introduction. What is the “joc”?

In ancient Romania, and surviving in some more isolated villages and in the Republic Moldova, the social life had two main pillars:

On the one hand, the church, representing introspection, sobriety, restriction, seriosity.

On the other hand the “joc”, the mostly weekly gatherings were villagers would come together, often on an open field next to the village, where they would dance the “hora” dances, the ancient circle dances, play and sing, and socialize after a week’s work. This was the counterpoint of village life. The place where experssion was not only allowed, but actively encouraged. People would generally express through singing, stomping, which was an important part of most dances, and “strigături” (lit. “shouts”), short shout-out verses over the music in rhyme and meter, often highly witty and alusive, mostly making fun of each other, carrying symbolic messages or sexually explicit . These “strigături” were somewhat a more roots version of what battle-rap does, albeit in a more easy-going way, as no single person would do more than 4-6 verses at a time.

Easter-joc, 1926 in Hunedoara county

The joc was place for seeing and being seen, in full expression of oneself. People would have special clothes to wear on these occasions, often with intricate embroideries, made by the wives during wintertime. It was an occasion for the elders to shine through their singing, their witty verses and special individual dance moves, and for the younger ones to learn to “belong” to the specifical groove of their village. Most marriages would come out of crushes at the joc, and the pair dances that would allow the younger ones to get acquainted to each other. Children would usually be allowed into the hore with coming of age. Until then they would be around, playing by themselves, observing and imitating the adults, and thus, learning.

But most important of all, the repetitive nature of these gatherings would mark the passage of time. From one joc to the next, from one year to another, from one life stage to the next.

Besides of being highly fun and exciting, people playing together in a ritualized manner, would have a great opportunity to observe the changes of life of their members, that would reflect in changes in dance moves, content or style of the verses or shifting of attitudes.

Me personally, I have been born into a time and place where the “joc” was something my parents and grandmother would tell occasional stories of, but had become mostly inexistent in my area through the cultural politics of the so-called communist regime in Romania (might become a future post). My first hands-on contact with ritualized play was through capoeira and during my stays in Brazil, where these meetings for community play and dance are still a commonplace in many areas, even in some places of the bigger cities, as Salvador. Capoeira Angola, samba de roda, jongo, coco, and other community arts, form strong and resilient communities, that give people a different outlook on life than individual achievement. Members of a community would often help each other out, because you can’t have a good community play, if the individuals aren’t well.

Back in Romania I started researching more and more about the ancient traditions, and had the opportunity to learn that many of these dances are still practiced nowadays within some Hungarian communities. In the city these “joc” evenings go by the name of “táncház” (lit. dance-house), and I had the opportunity to participate in the first proper hora-dances in my life through the introduction of Ferenc Ségercz, master of the Romanian flutes, and excellent teacher of traditional dances.

My researches led me to the conclusions, that there are few art forms as efficient as the Romanian hora dances to get a community into a common groove, but their form needs to be updates to the 21st century, and their value as a practice outside of Romania needs yet to be discovered.

But this future “joc” needs a proper house – Casa Jocului. The House of the Joc. The House of the Playful Spirit.

Hope to see you there!

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