The Mystic and Tradition of a Folk Dance: Calusarii

Once this was a sacred dance danced only in the spring by a chosen number of men. Today Calusarul is a form of entertainment and the members of the groups still dancing it probably don’t even know its mystic signification. The ancient rules behind it are no longer respected, but the dance, even in its commercial form, is still mysterious and stunning.

Calusarul is probably the most famous Romanian folk dance. It’s believed to be inherited from the Dacians, Romanian’s ancestors.

Its primordial meanings are lost in time, but folklorists and historians believe that the dance was either a fertility ritual or a ritual performed to cure off delirium caused by possession by “iele” (fairies).

Judging from the meanings of the word “calusar” the costumes and the movements in the dance, we could safely conclude that Calusarul was all of the above and more. The secrets of the dance are probably lost in time, but what’s interesting to know is that the original dance had a deep mystic course.

Calusari by Padur3.

Members of the calusari, regardless of marital status, were bound in the group for 3, 5 or 9 years and also bound to refrain from any sexual contact with women during the ritual dance period. Luckily the ritual period was limited to Spring.

Group of calusari.

The calusari group has a very clear hierarchy: vataful din coada (the overseer at the tail end), ajutorul de vataf (overseer’s helper) and the vataf (overseer). Modern forms of the dance include the presence of the “fool” or the “mute” – character who wears a mask, carries a sword and a red wooden phallus. His presence on the stages of the modern folk dances is however rare. The leader of the group is responsible for selecting and training new members and for passing the secrets of the group orally to his successors.

Calusari from Transylvania.

It’s hard to say what “calusar” means – there are many definitions of the word, each derived from other beliefs.

  • Some say the word comes from Latin “collosium” meaning a dance group and a secret society.
  • Others relate the Romanian word “calus” which means a small piece of wood placed in the mouth to prevent talking.
  • The word calus could be also seen as a diminutive of the Romanian word “cal” (horse) derived from the Latin caballus.
  • Last but not least, it’s believed that “calusar” is derived from “Salii Collini” – Roman priests of Mars whose duty was to keep Rome safe in battle. There are of course similarities between “calusarii” and “Salii Collini”, but the number of differences almost excludes the possibility that they are related. It is however interesting to know that the word “saliens” means dancing and that the Salii Collini, 12 in number, were performing their rituals (including singing and dancing) in March and October.

Jumping calusari.

Unlike Salii Collini, the calusari need to gather in odd numbers (7, 9 or 11, although you’ll see more today, probably because the dance looks even more spectacular if performed by perfectly synchronized larger groups) and their attested role was to “cure” and “protect” from evil spirits. Although members of a ritual group, the calusari were not priests, despite their “healing” powers. They had to perform their duties as calusari for nine years and only after these nine years were they allowed retiring from the group and still being under the grace of the spirits. Early retirement would result in sickness, possession, paralysis, misfortune and other “curses from the spirits.”

Calusari - archive picture.

The dance spread abroad in Bulgaria and Serbia and it is also believed to be closely related to the Morris dance. Speculations suggest that the dance was borrowed from Dacia by the Celts. The dance originated in the south of Romania, specifically in the region of Oltenia, but there are variants of the dance in other regions too: Trilisesti and Tantaroiul in Moldavia, Barbatescul and De Sarit in Maramures, Fecioreasca in Transilvania, etc.

More information about Calusarii: