The lack of clarity in the definition of the oberek and its differentiation from related dances was further increased by a variety of names that had been used in reference to it. In addition to obertas and ober, the dance was also called: obertany (from "turn"), wyrwas (from "pull out"), wykrętacz (from "turn"), drygant (related to "move"), zwijas, zwijacz (from "roll" or "twist"), drobny (from "small or "minced"), and okrągły (from "round"). These names reflect the fast tempo, circular movement, and the whirling character of the dance.
According to Oskar Kolberg (Kujawy, vol. 4 of Complete Works 1867), in central Poland dances from the family of the mazur (kujawiak, mazur, oberek) were often performed in a set preceded by a chodzony (walking dance, a folk polonaise) and organized in an increasing tempo. The set ended with a frenzied oberek (MM=160-180). According to Aleksander Pawlak, this 19th-century practice was abandoned early in the 20th century (Pawlak, 1981, 14-15). Interestingly, Pawlak's field studies reported even faster tempi for the obereks; the majority of the melodies discussed in his study had a tempo higher than MM=190, reaching up to MM=240 (Pawlak, 1981, 141).
The folk dance groups often perform the national form of the oberek in the costumes from Łowicz Mazovia (the central part of the region). The State Folk Song and Dance Ensembles Mazowsze and Śląsk perform "a most artistic, but stylized rendition" of the oberek. It has also become a recreational dance growing in popularity and providing competition to the Polish American polka.
In classical music, the name oberek was used by composers of stylized dances starting with Oskar Kolberg who collected obereks from Mazovia in four volumes of his study dedicated to the Mazowsze region (vol. 24-27 of the Collected Works) and in two volumes from the Kujawy region (vol. 3-4 of the Collected Works). Kolberg's own arrangements are in vol. 67 of his works. Other Polish composers of obereks include Henryk Wieniawski (Obertas for violin and piano, Mazurka characteristique no. 1), Roman Statkowski, Karol Szymanowski, Aleksander Tansman, and Grażyna Bacewicz (who composed obereks as self-standing works for violin and piano, as well as movements in more extended compositions, e.g. the finale of her Piano Sonata no. 2). Needless to say, the fastest Mazurkas by Fryderyk Chopin are also examples of obereks; for instance, his Mazurka op. 56 no. 2. In contrast to the mazurka, polonaise and krakowiak (cracovienne) the title oberek is very rare in the music of Western composers, and it does not occur among the titles of Polish dances composed in 19th-century America (see Janta, 1982).
Dziewanowska (Polish Folk Dances and Songs 1999, p. 591) described the oberek in its national form and regional variants as "a joyful, exuberant and noisy dance with stamps and shouts." In the national form, the basic "bouncy" step of the oberek which articulates its triple meter may be danced with a partner held in a dance position, with partners apart facing each other, or in solo dancing. The issue of separation of dancers is one of the differences between the forms of the oberek in folk practice and artistic stylization on the stage.
In addition to this elaborate form of the oberek, Dziewanowska describes also three distinct
regional varieties, each of which could be performed in the appropriate costume from the region.
The Łowicz oberek is
danced in a less bouncy manner than the national version. It consists mainly of
the couples turning around the dance area. Small flat steps are used, with
little progression around the circle.
In the region of Opoczno further
south in Mazowsze, the oberek is danced faster and
with more bounce and vigor than in the other parts of Poland. In the Lublin oberek
(east of Mazowsze, central and south-central Poland), the dance was often interrupted with couplets
improvised on the spot, in which the dancers would tease each other.
In Kolberg's Mazowsze, the description of the costumes was different, the colors more subdued, the ornaments less obvious (Kolberg 1885, p. 34, 49-54). According to the ethnographer, the costumes, made of rich, thick cloth, revealed the affluence of their peasant owners. Men were covered with their long, thick coats (sukmana) which were either white or navy with dark red trimmings. Women wore longer skirts than the folk group dancers (floor length, not below the knees).
The only element of the costume that survived without major modification is the shape of the woman's vest which is tied with a ribbon in the front and adorned with the characteristic folds around her waist (the vest is cut into 8 overlapping pieces with red trim).
While the differences between the costume from the two Mazowszes - the one described by Kolberg and the one performed by the State Folk Song and Dance Ensemble - might be attributed to local variations of the regional costume, Kolberg's description of the Łowicz costume itself strikingly varies from the varieties popular today. Instead of a colorful striped cape, the women had long, navy coats covering their long navy vests (hip-length) and striped skirts (predominantly red and white). Their red kerchiefs were tied around the head with the knot in the front. The rainbow coloring and rich embroidery of the modern-day folk costumes simply was not there.
The popularity of the Lowicz costume notwithstanding, the obereks from other
areas of Poland might be danced in regional costumes, for instance the Lubelski
costume used by the Krakusy Polish Folk Dance Ensemble in 1999. Unlike the mazur, to which
the oberek is musically related, in current performance practice the oberek is never danced
in costumes of the nobility or the army (see the entries on Mazur and
Polonaise for descriptions of these costumes). Thus, its status as a truly
"folk" dance is affirmed. This association between oberek and Polish villagers, especially
from the Lowicz area, is reinforced by the popular woodcut by Zofia Stryjenska (1927), here represented
from its copy on the cover of an LP Polka Dance Melodies recorded by Ted Maksymowicz and his Orchestra, (LP, ABC Paramount, ABCS 289; n.d.).
Musicians from the Skierniewice area featured the largest number of fast-paced obereks in their repertoire (in comparison with other parts of Mazovia).
The accompaniment for the dance was inseparably connected with singing. The musicians respond to the initial couplet sung by a soloist who "calls on them" to play, at times mocking their skills and ridiculing their poverty, at other times teasing other dancers and participants in the social occasion. The obereks were often danced in wedding celebrations and a variety of texts contain sexual overtones. A notable feature of the sung oberek is the presence of meaningless syllables and phrases, which may imitate the sound of the instruments, express the vigor and enjoyment of the dancers, and have other functions. The most popular of these exclamations are: oj dana, dana, , or uch, ucha-cha, or oj dziś, dziś. The latter expression which means "oh, today, today" is - in Dziewanowska's explanation - either an imitation of a percussion instrument, or "it conveys the typical trait of the Polish character, that today we live and are merry, and who cares what tomorrow might bring" (Dziewanowska 1999, 591). Notice the presence of the old-fashioned stereotyping of the "national spirit" in this description.
The music includes the same type of mazurka rhythms as the kujawiak and mazur. Due to the very fast tempi, tempo rubato is almost non-existent. In instrumental obereks the longer notes of the melody are filled in with fast-paced sixteenth-note figuration, often following the outline of a triad arpeggio. The lead violinist shows off his skill by playing ever new variants of the same melody; the tempo is either steady, or gradually increases towards the end of the dance, making the performance (both the musicians and the dancers) more and more virtuosic.
Each phrase of the music usually consists of 4 or 8 measures and they are grouped in pairs. The main accent usually falls on the third beat in each measure. As mentioned above, the oberek is the quickest of the five national dances and in folk performances reaches dizzying speeds.
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Text and design: Maja Trochimczyk. Editorial assistance: Michał Jankowski,
Ewa Grzegrzułka, Błażej Wajszczuk. Updated in August 2000.
Polish Dance Project funded by ZRIF Award
and Southern California Studies Center at USC.