The Seattle Balkan Dancers meet every Friday night on Capitol Hill to work on their moves (and their singing).

Share story

DO BALKAN DANCE long enough, and you not only have the potential to learn hundreds of dances; you also learn to count in many languages — Croatian, Serbian, Romanian and Macedonian, among others.

While I heard dancers singing along to songs, dancer Steve Bard joked that their language skills were limited — they can count only to four in any given language.

My goal was simpler, though similar to learning a foreign language — pick up some new footwork.

The Seattle Balkan Dancers gather every Friday at the Russian Community Center on Capitol Hill. They usually dance to recorded music, though occasionally they have the treat of live music.

I arrived on a night when the focus was Romania, though they played music from all the Balkan countries. They often have intro classes, but I showed up on a night without a class, so I hung back to see whether I could learn the steps by watching.

Balkan dances include a variety of traditional dances done with people holding each other’s hands or shoulders. Some are wedding dances; some are danced Sunday after church. Some are flashy, others more demure. The music often has an unusual tempo, with a 7- or 11-count, unlike the more typical 4- or 6-count in Western music.

The tempo can make the dances harder to follow for a novice. When I first watched the line of dancers, they made it look simple. When I lined up behind them to try to mimic their steps, as I was starting to get the rhythm and pattern, an unfamiliar beat would come in, and it often would throw me off.

There are so many dances, from various countries, and regions within each country. There is one dance traditional to Serbians and Croatians, but they go in opposite directions, said Susan Flagler, president of the board. For fun, they once had two groups of dancers going the opposite way at the same time.

At the Friday night dance, someone who knew the song took the lead for each dance, and others joined hands and followed. I stood back, behind the main line, along with others who didn’t know the song.

I watched one Bulgarian dance, as everyone crossed hands and stomped, and another vigorous Serbian song adopted by the Bulgarians. I had some mild success with a few slower songs, picking up enough of the footwork that I could join the main dance line.

Dances often had knee lifts, grapevines and steps forward and back. The more vigorous ones included stomping and jumping around. Bard, 79, who has been dancing for 45 years, said he has toned down the energy in his dancing as he has gotten older, but still feels dancing keeps him young.

The dancers took mercy on me and played one song, “Lesnoto,” to make sure I could join the group. It had a slight pause on the second step to accommodate a 7-count beat, but otherwise, I picked it up fairly quickly. As we danced, Bard told me it was a Macedonian song that people sometimes played for 30 minutes at a time.

But when the penguin dance came on, I got out of the way. The dancers counted, with gusto, to four in their best Romanian.

Flagler told me she learned Balkan dance in college because it was popular in the 1960s and ’70s on college campuses. She loved that it was easy to learn, and a social dance that didn’t require a partner, though she met her husband at a Balkan dance.

As far as she knows, none of the dancers has a direct connection to the Balkans. In 30 years of dancing, she’s never been to the Balkans, either, though some other dancers have been. She just likes to dance.