Here is some information I’d like to share about my understanding of the various Klezmer rhythms. I owe a great deal of my knowledge to the many talented musicians I work and talk with, particularly Josh Horowitz and Cookie Segelstein of Veretski Pass, Kurt Bjorling, and Jim Guttman of Klezmer Conservatory Band with whom I’ve taught a class called ‘Make ‘em Dance”, where we try to connect musicians to the dance groove in order to make the music danceable.
I hope this will be of help to both dancers who wonder what to dance to which music, and musicians as well.
Freylekhs can be considered the default Ashkenazic Jewish celebratory dance. Characterized by a bouncy walk- with a step on the strong beat, and an upward bounce on the offbeat: 1 and 2 and. It can be danced in circles, serpentine lines, couples or solo. So long as everyone in line or circle moves in the same direction and same speed, footwork need not be identical, and rarely is. Other options include: walking backwards in direction of travel; prances, either forward or backwards, 2-steps and small pas de basques; shuffling; and scuffing steps. Hands may be held high or low, and may vary through group. When arms are free in solo or couple dancing, they tend to either frame the self, show time and dynamics (like conducting), or gesture to others. Gestures tend to be in slower time than footwork (on the 1 of 2/4 measure) or lyrical. Use of space tends to be varied and kaleidoscopic- figures will change spontaneously, often with changes of musical section. Advancing and retiring as a group tends to be elastic rather sharply tied to the measure, rather like the swing of a pendulum.
Several types of music are suitable for dancing Freylekhs:
Freylekhs- Tunes in a happy walking tempo, characterized by a clear 2/4 or 4/4 feel, with light, tripping melodies and 16th note passages. Usually in several sections, with distinct changes in mood between sections (this is true of most klezmer dance tunes). Musicians should try singing the tune while doing a bouncy walk to find the important offbeat stresses.
Bulgar- Heavier bounce than the freylekhs. (To me, freylekhs sound like Mozart; bulgars, Beethoven.) Related to the Romanian sirba, bulgars have an underlying galloping, triplet, giddyup feel. Bulgars replaced the old style freylekhs as the standard party tunes, perhaps because of their more modern drive. When danced, the bouncy walk of the freylekhs becomes almost a jog. Bulgar tunes also support the 6-count bulgar step: 2 quick steps in line of direction followed by 2 half time weight changes in place, often with kicks, lifts or other gestures of the free leg. It’s similar to the Israeli hora and dozens of other dances. It is not, however, required that a bulgar be danced to bulgar tunes. Freylekhs is more typical. Musicians should try singing the tune while galloping to discover the underlying drive and “swing”.
Khossidl: A type of freylekhs with a slower, weightier feeling. Supports one weight change per measure, on the 1. Also can be more expressive, grand, dreamy or “spirititual” in feeling and when danced. Not necessarily Chassidic in origin, but perhaps with references to nigunim (Chassidic spiritual tunes). Musicians can try singing the tune while swaying side to side on the 1 of the measure, with a strong weight change.
Skotshne: Yet another freylekhs variant. I wonder if it has a relation to the German Schottish and Scottish dancing, thereby implying a hopping, springing, skipping style of dancing. Often the melodic structure lines up with the classic schottish dance structure of [123 hop] [ 123 hop], [1 hop, 2 hop] [3 hop, 4 hop], where each bracketed unit corresponds to one measure. That’s my two groschen, at least.
Sirba: A popular Romanian dance rhythm, characterized by an underlying, insistent 6/8 or triplet rhythm. Usually played Fast or Faster. There are several typical Romanian dance steps that correspond to sirba, they all involve a mix of stepping and skipping. (N.B. a step hop is in a square, quarter or eighth note rhythm, a skip is in a syncopated 6/8 or triplet rhythm; Mary had a little lamb, vs. Humpty Dumpty.) A few of the typical sirba steps are very close in pattern to the bulgar step. Musicians can try singing a sirba tune while skipping briskly or sliding (chasse) for some interesting insights.
Honga: Can refer simply to dancing in a file with each dancer placing one or both hands on the shoulders of the dancer in front of them. Musically, refers to 2/4 Romanian sounding tunes with a sharper upbeat than the freylekhs, and which supports a scuff on the upbeat, rather than just a bounce. Zev Feldman, whose family came from Moldova, has demonstrated a number of unique footwork and arm patters appropriate to this music.
Sher: The sher is a Jewish square dance that often has distinct music associated with it. The music is similar to freylekhs, and the dance is danced like a freylekhs with the typical bounce, but has a number of square dance figures – generally a chorus for the group, and a leading out figure for each individual. Therefore, the dance sequence goes through 8 times (chorus, lead out 1, chorus, lead out 2, etc) and requires a considerable amount of music- about 15 or more minutes worth. A suite of tunes is typically played. Designated sher tunes often have 1 or 2 sections that are broad and support the long figure phrases of circling, promenading, and crossing over, and then sections that are more divided, with a distinct break in the tune, that support the shorter movement phrases associated with leading out. Tunes can be freylekhs-like or frequently bulgar-like, but played more squarely, almost like a march. Here is an example of a SHER.
Other typical Klezmer rhythms:
Slow Hora or Zhok: This is a very popular dance, processional, or listening rhythm, originating in Romania. It is characterized by a syncopated feeling that is often described as in 3, with the pulse falling on the downbeat and an auxiliary pulse on the preceding upbeat. If played in a strict 3, however, it is very difficult to dance to, and to my mind is better thought of as in 1, with a precipitous upbeat: 1! aaaaaaaaaaand 1! aaaaaaaaand 1! aaaaaaaaaand 1! Etc. The dance requires dancers to mostly take one step per measure, on the 1, and I encourage people learning the dance to imagine stepping across a stream on stones, where you need to reach then balance with each step. This feels very awkward if the music adheres to a straight 3 (even if it’s notated that way).
Terkish: Actually Greek sounding- a sort of squared-off syrto rhythm, but played with this accent pattern: 1…45. 7. This is sometimes played almost like a rhumba. Can be danced as a sort of syncopated freylekhs, allowing a great deal of expression, but I’ve discovered that Boieresca patterns also fit nicely on this rhythm.
Kolomeyke: A Ukrainian rhythm meaning "from Kolomey", that seem to be related to Hutsulkas (Romanian Hutsul dance tunes). Kolomeykes mostly have a strong accent on the 1 of every 4 beats, and frequently have a distinctive, strong 2 beat cadence at the end phrases. Can support Russian style dancing with 2 steps and pas de basques, but is also well suited to exhibitionist, athletic and acrobatic moves. Ukrainian youths frequently use it as such at parties, and Jewish bands will often switch to a kolomeyke or Russian "kozatzky" tune when someone starts doing a spectacular stunt, like squatting kicks, or flashy jump rope jumping.