Bulgarian Orthodoxism · History · Music · Tourism · Traditions

Nestinar- A Bulgarian Dance on the Fire

All over the world through all times people have been fascinated by the power of fire, in all civilizations dancing has played a vital role, and many countries has combined these and made fire dancing. Bulgaria has a long tradition of fire dancing that goes back to the ancient time and are still being performed today and it has also made it to UNESCO:s World Heritage List. Nestinar is the heritage of dancing barefoot on charcoals around the Strandzha mountains in southeast Bulgaria, but also in the northern parts of Greece.

Originally the ritual has its roots in the ancient Bulgaria and were performed by the Thracian people. Some people claim that it was a ritual for the sun and welcoming of the summer, and that the god of fertility and wine- Dionysus played a part in this ritual, but o one knows for sure. The ritual got incorporated in the Orthodox Christianity and the dance changed the focus to Saint Constantine and Saint Elenea. That´s why the ritual many times are being performed at the 21 of May, the day of these saints according to the old calendar, but nowadays its also being celebrated on the 3 of June according to the new calendar, or even sometimes on the date of the village patron.

The Ritual of the Dancing on Fire

The ritual itself is a barefoot dance on smoldering embers and it usually takes place on a square of the village where it is performed. To be able to perform this dance you must traditionally inherit it from your mother or father and when he or she feels old enough or sick, the daughter or son are becoming the next dancer-nestinar. There are several dancers that practice this, but the oldest one is the main nestinar (dancer). The nestinar´s house is sacred because it houses the stolina which means a small chapel where the artifacts that are being used during the ritual dancing. The artifacts that are being used are icons of several saints, as well as the sacred drum which is believed to cure the nestinar if he or she is ill.

The day the ritual are being performed it starts with the villagers are going to the stolina led by the nestinar and the priest where the priest purify the icons. The nestinar are symbolically transforming spiritual power to the icons. After that the villagers goes to a holy spring carrying the name of the saints and eat together. As the sun sets down the villagers makes a big fire and dancing horo –a traditional Bulgarian dance, until the fire is gone and only embers remain. Then its the time for the nestinari to perform the barefoot dance on the embers to the rhythm of the sacred drum (and sometimes the music of the bagpipe as well). Mostly the nestinari´s are women, dressed in traditional folk clothes, and this can variate depending on where its taken place, dance with the holy icons on top of their heads.

Photo: http://hotelanchor.com/en/content/fire-dancing

Dancing into trance 

It is believed that the nestinari doesn’t feel the pain cause of the connection with God. The nestinari is reaching a religious state of trance meanwhile the dance goes on. Ronesa Aveela met Grandma Zlata describes her nestinari experience with these words (from her book: Light Love Rituals: Ancient Bulgarian Myths, Legends, Folklore):

When I sense the sorrow coming, my arms and feet start to feel as if they they were wooden. I don´t know about the heart, but the feeling in my head is a peculiar one. I see people around, but not very clearly. When the power of fire comes, it all turns into a mist. I circle around the fire and when I see it strong- I do not enter. When I feel enough power, if Saint Constantine gives it, I simply jump inside, feeling absolutely nothing- no pain, no burning! The fire the looks as if it was covered with water, as if it was gold.” 

However, for the dancer its a personal and spiritual experience and many people believe that the ritual has healing powers and will prevent them from getting sick
Nestinari in Today´s Bulgaria
In 2009 the ritual of nestinari became a part of the UNESCO:s World Heritage list for the intangible heritage. The tradition has come to be commercialized and around the coast of the Black Sea where the dance are being performed for tourists. But there are still villages around Strandzha where the ritual dance have kept its authentic character. As the ritual continues, it carries the past into the present and hopefully the future as well.
Photo: http://bulgarianproperties.info/nestinarstvo/
Sources for this article:
Aveela, Ronesa: Light Love Rituals: Ancient Bulgarian Myths, Legends, Folklore

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