Balkan Music & Golden Fest NYC – ALLAF 011

Belly Dance Podcast balkan music and golden fest nyc

Belly dance to rocking music from the Balkans, try the Čoček Hip Tip, and dance while you hold hands with people you love. 




Seeing people hold hands has often made me smile. Children holding hands, a parent and their adult child, seniors, friends, people who are obviously in love in less-conservative contexts like much of France and the US.


And seeing strangers hold hands can be quite special. In belly dance, we don’t hold hands with other dancers often. Maybe in a circle at a workshop, or briefly in a performance. Dancing in a circle holding the hands, fingers or shoulders of the people beside you is pretty ancient community building.


At Golden Fest in New York city in January, I saw thousands of people holding hands and dancing. Holding the hands of strangers.



This made me think of when I hold hands with someone else in my every day life. My husband, my son, with friends in crowded places, when helping someone who is physically unsure of their next step, when sharing a blessing.


Next time you hold hands with someone, consider sharing the blessing of a tiny dance with them and making it into a Danceable Ritual. It could just be walking in rhythm or add a little figure 8 with your hips. Or pause and sway to the music playing out loud or in your mind. Or go for it and do a grapevine step or the damn sexy dabke dance move from show #2.


Maybe you’ll become known as the friend or aunt or grandmother who can’t help but dance when you hold someone’s hand. Wouldn’t that be fun?


Doing Balkan dances and returning year after year to festivals like Golden Fest must be a bit of a danceable ritual for many people. Dancing in lines, open and closed circles, repeating steps over and over like a prayer. Returning to a song or dance that was learned earlier in life, and seeing how things have changed. Holding hands with strangers and friends and family late into the night. Circling a cluster of musicians over and over like the earth around the sun, the tuba’s brass bells collecting and reflecting the soft lights above the dance floor. Losing oneself to become an ever changing contour of the floor. Like the shifting borders of the Balkans. Like the path of a river fed by mountains for millions of years.


Most rituals have at least some choreography. Some behaviors or movements that give it the feel of something special. In many Balkan dances, dancers are moving not independently but together and moving in a way that both supports and gives space to the musicians. There is choreography that helps this flow. Not just the dance steps, but how a line is entered. For those of us who long to comfortably jump into an authentic Balkan line dance next time we have the chance, it’s good to know some of the less obvious aspects of the choreography. Here are a few tips from the site of a folk dance enthusiast named Steve Ayala.


  1. Two main hand holds are the “V” hold with hands down at your side and the “W” hold with hands up near your shoulders.
  2. If everyone keeps their right palm facing up and left palm facing down when doing a W hold, then everyone is supporting the person on their right and being supported by the person on their left.
  3. You can follow apart from the line until you get it. Pick a good dancer and try to move like them. Once you know the step, you can join the line.
  4. Join the line in the middle or near the end, but not the front. The person on the end of the line may also be leading in addition to the leader at the front of the line in some dances so join in the middle or near the end.
  5. If it’s a closed circle dance, try not to join between two people who look like they want to dance next to each other.
  6. The leader is at the head of the line and people want to be able to see them in case they change the step, so resist closing the circle to watch the leader closer. Step back and keep the circle from shrinking.
  7. If you are struggling with the steps, it’s totally fine to smile and leave the line before the songs ends and keep working on the steps apart from the line until you get it.



Good stuff. And even relevant to the big dance that is life

  1. Position yourself to hold someone up and allow yourself to be held
  2. Learn from someone who is already rocking it. In this case, it’s the leader of the line and any other confident person you are following to learn the steps.
  3. Be aware of what other people want, and get out of their way when you can.




Since the Golden Festival is hosted by the brass band Zlatne Uste, we’ll feature a song they play in this show.


Just to be clear, Golden Fest is not a belly dance festival. There are definitely a lot of us there doing our belly dance moves in regular clothes, and loving it. The Balkans do include Turkey, where belly dance is quite relevant even today. And much of the music at Golden Fest is easy to belly dance to. But at it’s core, it is a folk dance festival focused on circle dances. There was one band playing Arabic music that I’m used to, and watching them brought such contrast to the rest of the festival for me. There was no audience participation. There was a dancer in a beautiful and shiny costume and then there was the arc of people watching her.


The name of the band Zlaht-nay Oo-stay means “Golden Lips”. Golden Festival now takes place in The Grand Prospect Ballroom in Brooklyn. And this over-the-top Victorian banquet hall is golden and sparkling from head to toe. Hundreds of performers and thousands of attendees are intermingled beneath extravagantly jeweled chandeliers hanging like stars in the night sky.


Folk music and folk dance are the core of this festival. And even though it is indoors in this context, a lot of folk music is related to the natural world. Birds, flowers, seasons, night and day, rivers and lakes and oceans. Much folk music is born and lives in villages where people spend a lot of time outside rather than in tall buildings with closed windows, wall to wall carpets and temperature control.


The danceable song we’ll feature is Reka Zelja. Reka means river. The song appears to be named after the Zelja river, fed by the mountains of Austria just north of Slovenia. I could not find any lyrics in alternate versions or explanations of the song. It is also played by a band called Ekrem Sajdic Orchestra and featured on a compilation named “Rivers of Happiness”, so I’m assuming there are more great river songs played in this genre as well.


This song Reka Zelja has a straightforward 4/4 rhythm. A lot of Balkan music has non 4/4 and complex rhythms like 7/8, 9/8, etc. Our band Taskim plays Bucimis, a Bulgarian song in 15/8. Sometimes there will be a measure or two in a completely different time signature in parts of a song and that’s really cool. This song Reka Zelja is beautiful, exciting, and easy to belly dance to.

The song starts with drums in the Zlatne Uste version. That’s always good. And the horns are hot. They are ooey gooey and exciting. And they have a mariachi vibrato quality to them, having many horns play at the same time. And the pauses are predictable, and they happen often. And then there’s a horn solo.


There is something so sexy about a melancholy trumpet solo. Transportive and heavenly. Maybe it’s because of angles playing trumpets in Christianity and that’s what I grew up with. Trumpets sound all through the bible. Well, not really trumpets or trombones as we know them, but the much less advanced horns than the Romans would play for war, etc.


Back to the sexy part. The trumpet speaks to many parts of the body moving many different ways. I can dance to a trumpet solo with everything. Eyes, hips, chest, shoulders, hands, arms and legs. Circling, shimmying, undulating. There’s body to it. It’s infused with breath, spit and sweat lunging out of a brass neck and forever open mouth with golden lips.


In show number 3 I talk more about Oriental Brass Bands and how amazing they are. Check that show out if you haven’t already.


According to their website, the “Zlaht-nay Oo-stay” members are American-born. One of them is percussionist Jerry Kisslinger (pronounced “KISS ling er”), he plays and carries a big a double headed bass drum played with mallets, often called the tupan or davul. Jerry was part of a fabulous series of interviews about Golden Fest by Aaron Kisslinger. Possibly his younger family member? Jerry so eloquently addressed something I’ve been struggling with as an American belly dancer with no belly dance heritage in my family.


(Interview starting around 4:03) Jerry Kisslinger said: “I don’t think culture belongs to any one particular person or group. I don’t think it’s in the blood. I don’t think it’s property. Even the concerns about appropriation, while we need to be thoughtful and sensitive, it implies a kind of sense of ownership that I think is foreign to the spirit of many of the people who actually do art and do music. So while it’s good to think about those issues always, I think when you talk to a lot of the people who play jazz and a lot of people who play any kind of music the concerns about what is real are not about what peoples’ backgrounds are. It’s about what they bring to it. The authenticity that is there is the authenticity of their commitment to learning and their humility about who they are within the tradition.”


So well said. And Jerry said more that I have longed to hear a musician say about the importance of dance. I paraphrased it slightly here excluding some phrases, hopefully not changing his meaning:


The festival was founded by musicians…It’s a meeting point between music and dance as well, and that’s harder and harder to find …Because the music that I play and the drumming that I do is completely rooted in dance traditions, it’s very important to have dancing, and that is disappearing. When we played…Pontic Greek music from the black sea…Music that goes back more than 150 years to the black sea cost of Greece …Not just pontic music, western Pontic music. This is really niche…. …To look out and see, I don’t know, a thousand people, and they weren’t just jumping up and down –  That’s ok too. They were actually doing the steps. That…it’s hard to put a word on it, but I’m proud of the role the festival plays in helping to disseminate participation in forms of music and dance that I think are wonderful and endangered and belong to the world.


Jerry says some pretty amazing things, right? It reminds me that there are so many dance teachers in the world that are keeping us dancing along with the musicians who keep us dancing. Keeping really rich movements, and songs and concepts alive for us to keep learning and enjoying.


There is one other part of this interview that I think is really relevant to us as belly dancers as well. When women in Morocco and India have invited me to dance at celebrations or behind closed doors, I have tasted a drop of dance life in a village.

Jerry talks about the exotic fantasy of village life. “The center of a village with live music playing. People of all generations. Little babies and the most feeble old people connected by something they share in a circle, creating their community. Expressing their community. Jerry said that Golden Festival realizes that ideal…We are outside of time…Every year we conjure our own open village…with really open borders. There is no “other” there. It is an open place.


Folk dance groups allow people to keep dancing later in life. Holding each other up. Many of the line dances cycling through small walking steps. And to be up close to the music


The festival was so friendly. Free of negativity. Robust with musicians of all ages. There was a kids ensemble. Comfortable for kids and people who are not ready to dance. Straight up good vibes. And they fed all of us! 5 stages. The first night was a dance lesson. Musicians and dancers have been going for decades and they are reunited in this ballroom each year. The musicians are donating their talent. Organizers, caterers. It’s an outpouring of generosity.



The Čoček Hip Tip

Stand up relaxed with good belly dance posture. Shoulders rolled back, chest open, chin and gaze raised. Feet hip width apart, knees soft, pelvis tucked. Here are three good options for your hands: Palms facing out, hands stacked, or loose fists.


Your hands can be open with palms facing out a little bit to the sides. Open hands facing straight forward are usually not that pretty, so tilt those palms out to the sides a little and add occasional wrist circles. You can also put the palm of one hand on top of the back of your other hand and hold your stacked hands out in front of you at a level just below your face, arms extended with soft elbows but not straight. Palms facing away from you. Or just hold your hands in loose fists up around shoulder level. Just choose one hand position for now.


Now release the pelvis just a little, allowing the belly button to drop an inch and the butt to stick out just a little. It’s not a full release. It’s a small subtle movement that does not impact your lower back. Just a little tip back in the hips, and then bring the hips back to the tucked neutral position and repeat with the music. It does take practice to get used to doing it more than 8 times in a row. But if it’s just added into a song for a couple measures and then umis or hip circles resume, this Čoček Hip Tip can look really hot. And this dance could be done while standing in place waiting for a circle dance to start if the right music is playing.


The word Čoček is mysterious to me. First the mystery started with the spelling. There’s no “c-h” in this word. The Cs in this word have a little bowl on top, making it sound like “ch”.


Another dance enthusiast Andy Bettis had this definition of Čoček on his website:

“Čoček describes a family of traditional Rom (Gypsy) dances from the southern Balkans”


So that adds more mystery. It’s Rom. Elusive. Hard to trace, research, and explain.


I first learned this dance move in the Turkish Rom context. Turkey is definitely in the south eastern part of Europe making it at least very close to the Balkans. Some maps of the Balkans include Turkey and Greece, some don’t. According to Wikipedia, “Čoček is a music and dance genre that originated from Ottoman military bands in the early 19th century, which at that time were scattered across the region, mostly throughout SerbiaBulgariaMacedonia and Romania.” And now there are of course many variations.


The Balkans as a whole are mysterious to many of us Americans. For those of us alive in the 1990s, the concept of the Balkans is also confusing because of war. The borders of Yugoslavia were redrawn and renamed with bloodshed and many of us watched from the US bewildered and appalled, never knowing if our maps of Eastern Europe were still current or where the suffering was going to go next. When I hear the words Kosovo or Bosnia I think of war and refugees. I could be thinking about music and dance moves I have yet to discover and enjoy. The recent unrest doesn’t need to overshadow everything else.


There’s a lot of great Čoček dance and music out there. Let us keep honoring and appreciating it.




White beans. Kind of like white meat or dairy. White beans can be combined with other flavors to make creamy sauces on pasta, hearty dips that go with crispy vegetables, or a satisfying main dish when served with vegetables and a whole grain.


There’s a traditional Macedonian vegan dish made with butter beans called Tavče gravče. Meat can be added, but the base is butter beans, onions, dried red pepper, salt, parsley. Sounds good to me. It’s also served in Greece and Turkey. It is very special to find a traditional dish that is normally vegan, especially in Eastern Europe. What we serve food in does make a difference. This dish is often served in a clay pot, which gives it a different look, smell, and keeps it warm longer.  Nice idea.


I love cooking with white beans. Navy beans, cannellini, butter beans. At the time of recording this podcast, there is not a white bean recipe on my website. It’s coming. You might want to visit my site and take a look!


Another special part of Golden Fest is that they feed everyone beautiful food. It’s included with your ticket. They call it “meze”, which means presenting the guests with everything that is in the house. So many vegetables, stuffed grape leaves, olives. There was this cabbage dish that looked like stewed meat, but it was vegan! Something everyone could enjoy.




This gorgeous woman at Golden Fest was rocking her big fancy necklace on top of her simple black high necked long sleeve shirt. She was wearing simple stretchy black pants too. She was a silhouette with a slamming necklace and a scarf covering her hair. The focus was on her necklace. She looked great. And it made me think. Wearing a big fancy necklace on top of a conservative dance costume or a simple shirt with a high neck line can look really good. And your necklace will finally get the attention it deserves. Feature that necklace!



Bring earplugs to brass band shows and get up close to the music. It feels so different to be physically close to live music, and with Balkan music it’s appropriate. The more connected to the music you become, the better you will dance.



I did not step up and join a line dance at my first Golden Fest. I practiced the steps apart from the line, but just didn’t feel ready. A lot of these circle dances are not easy to pick up. It was good to be reminded of the feeling of just starting to learn moves in a dance genre. To return to the mind of the beginner and be in awe. To realize how much work some of these dancers have done in order to make it look natural and easy. So next time I go to Golden Fest, it would make sense to get to the dance lesson on Friday night earlier and be really focused on learning the steps. When I join the line I will experience the festival on another level.