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“A Story of Hegemony”: The Folk Dance Movement in Hungary (II)

Between Fidesz integration and heritagization

Note from LeftEast editors: This is the second of a two-part interview with LeftEast’s Mary Taylor. You can read the first part here. The result of a collaboration with Mérce within ELMO – The Eastern European Left Media Outlet, the interview was also translated into Hungarian by Kristóf Nagy and Ferenc Kőszeghy.

Táncház meeting at the  Sportcsarnok, 1982. Photo: Zoltán Szalay. Courtesy of Fortepan.

Moving on to the post-socialist era, your main argument is that Fidesz successfully incorporated the táncház movement into right-wing hegemony building. As Márton Szarvas put it in his review of your book in the 30th issue of the journal Fordulat, “the táncház movement has been transformed from a movement-based renewal of folk culture into a space for political mobilization of the conservative middle class.” What made this incorporation possible, and how was it done? 

If we think about the question of hegemony, it is important that people in the táncház movement can be incorporated into the broader block that upholds the Fidesz regime without necessarily being fully built into or incorporated into the “Fidesz project.” Here it is useful to look back to the interwar népi movement for a minute. They considered themselves to be oppositional to the Horthy regime, but in fact they ended up joined together with Horthyites in the production of an ethnonationalist hegemonic block. Although people in the interwar népi movement always considered themselves as oppositional to Horthy’s neofeudal class politics, the ethonationalist rhetoric (and ideologies) of many of the movement’s writers ended up contributing to an ethnonationalist consensus. If you think about people like Lászlo Németh, he actually says things that are very similar to the ideas that supported the numerus clausus law. He’s saying we should reduce the number of Jews in the coffee houses to allow for more “Magyar” representation. So as much as the népi activists understood themselves as oppositional to the Horthy regime, their rhetoric could be seen as justifying the Holocaust (the Shoah and the Porajmos) together with this regime and its other perpetrators.

What we can learn from this is that the cultivation of political personhood is a complicated and nuanced process that involves how people come to participate in social spaces where particular ideas and practices come together in certain arrangements. The emergence of a hegemonic block is not reducible to active or full incorporation by the regime, although it can be. While the Horthy regime may have tried to actively incorporate the interwar populists, they resisted in many ways while at the same time contributing to this ethnonationalist common sense.

With regard to political mobilization in táncház it’s useful to return to political personhood. From the 1970s through 1990 there seem to have been many kinds of people represented in táncház. Of course, there weren’t political parties for people to belong to or fight over, but there was a sense of opposition among many táncház goers – a kind of broad oppositional feeling vis-à-vis the Communist party-state – until the regime change in 1990. At that point the question of which political party you will support arose for Hungarian citizens.

In the book I capture a moment in which the political polarization underway more generally in Hungarian society was being mirrored and even cultivated within táncház. During my field work in 2000-2006, I saw that people identifying with liberalism and leftism, as well as people of Jewish heritage expressed an increasing discomfort attending those táncház events that I refer to as “Magyar” táncház – those in which the main dance/music repertoire is based on so called Magyar dances (in contrast with the Roma táncház and Southern Slav táncház, or even Csángo táncház). Many of these people stopped attending. What I observed is that through a certain set of implicit rules of conduct common to these táncház settings – these etiquettes I’ve talked about – critique of nationalist commentary was seen as inappropriate. That meant that if someone said something nationalist, and someone else would say “hey, that’s not cool” or argued against it, people would tell them not to “politizál” (to make politics/politicize). In the book I concluded that people who attend táncház de facto end up tolerating such expressions. I argue that with little space for dissent, a certain set of connections get reinforced in this environment that people also come to act on in their everyday lives outside of the táncház environment. 

Recently, since the book came out, a person who had stopped attending so-called Magyar táncház during that period suggested to me that it’s possible that Fidesz cadres were specifically targeting táncház. Certainly there were people involved in the citizen circles (Fidesz’s polgári körök) who also attended táncház. What we definitely know is that Fidesz has made efforts to use folk culture and táncház symbolically, and that some táncház figures have supported this symbolic use of táncház, folk dance, folk music by Fidesz, and have even shown up to support Fidesz at public events.

In 2004 and 2005 every táncház goer I asked said they believed most táncház goers were Fidesz voters. We know of course that Fidesz sponsored the referendum on dual citizenship for over the border Hungarians (estimated at 3 and half to 5 million people), which so many táncház goers also voted to support. And we know that in 2010 its government legislated dual citizenship. Given táncház goers’ opinions and actions about the referendum, we can see how they could have found themselves “with Fidesz” for a while. Finally we seem to be able to observe a lot of funding go toward táncház institutions since 2010. The building that was once the Institute for Culture and was then shared with Heritage House since its founding in 2001 has gone through a massive renovation and is now entirely in the hands of Heritage House, a táncház institution through and through. Orbán delivered a speech at its reopening in 2014. 

But it’s also true that many years have passed since the research that informed my book, and all social movements change over time. Táncház is also a very decentralized movement with the capacity to host many subtendencies within it. Not only are there tendencies like the Roma táncház that operate quite differently, but each táncház milieu tends to have a differently composed public. It is possible that today we may be witnessing attempts by táncház institutions to distance themselves from the government,  and autonomy is not really possible when in a subordinate relationship to Fidesz. Fidesz’ techniques of state capture (see Mihály Koltai’s use of the term) mean that many organizations and individuals become dependent on its support and they risk the loss of vital resources if they were to give up on Fidesz’s patronage.  

In addition, while national values and Hungarianness are important in the táncház scene, they may not map neatly onto those presented by the Fidesz regime. I can’t say, for example, whether táncház goers can be characterized as anti-migrant. I would not be surprised if some had even extended solidarity to migrants, and not just to over the border Hungarians. I met many kind, hospitable, people in táncház. The tendencies I saw in táncház to regard groups as absolute and discrete despite the mixing that is so prevalent in the region, reinforce essentializing ideas about the nation but do not necessarily translate into anti-migrant sentiment or behavior. In addition, táncház goers are generally not the wealthiest of people, and many, at least among those I met when in the field, have a sense of being left behind since the 1989 regime change.  If the táncház movement has been a component of the hegemonic block that brought Fidesz to power and keeps it there, it may not stay that way.  

A táncház event in 2015. Photo: Hungarorum. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

​​Indeed I have young friends who are organizing and participating in táncház, but they are autonomous, and these are usually oppositional people too. While táncház will always change, I would argue that a lot of things in your book can’t be outdated as long as capitalism is still around. In your book you argue that under capitalist conditions, and with the help of international organizations such as UNESCO, elements of folk culture became reified /fetishized. In this context the táncház movement also works like a sort of reification/fetishization-machine. Rather than building real connection to the culture of the people, it is objectifying folk culture, forging cultural heritage into saleable fetish objects. How does this process take place, and could you give examples of the reification?

In parts of the book when I write about the rise of Fidesz, I’m also talking about the rise of the (neo)liberal governance of culture. I’ve found that the logics of political ethnonationalism associated with the right in Hungary and of (neo)liberal heritage protection have more in common than one might think. Both of these kinds of nationalism (that of Fidesz, and that of heritage protection as seen in the UNESCO model) display the tendency to essentialize culture-bearing groups and treat them as discreet from one another despite the clear history of mixing and migration.      

During my research I noted how the language of heritage and tradition was coming to replace the language of cultivation in the way that people talked about the movement.  The term heritage began to replace folklore at UNESCO and other organizations in the 1970s to indicate cultural objects, places and practices. I argue that this formation that arose in the neoliberal era and that I call heritagization is a kind of governance that functions to both create something like cultural property and to attach it to certain owners or beneficiaries. So the heritagization process itself also has reifying effects both in the way it defines discreet culture-bearing populations and the way it makes objects or property out of their “culture.” This essentializing notion that there are certain people that can be assigned as essential owners of this practice at the same time it also opens practices up to commodification. This fetishization can make it harder to access or recognize the changing nature of culture as a historically unfolding set of practices that emerge from struggle and produce change. 

The rise of heritagization more or less maps onto the period in which neoliberalism was taking shape in the global economy. In the place of the development of and support for productive industry, tourism—a growth industry—is offered as a path to development for those left behind. Approaches to heritage protection constitute a contradictory mix of ideas of saving traditions and commodifying them. This naturally means transforming them in the name of preserving them.

For me it’s easiest to think of this with regard to the production of boundaries. Táncház knowledge production around the constantly growing material of collected folk dance and music classifies it according to different groups. For example, they’ll say this one is the Romanian version of the dance, this one is the Hungarian version, and this one is the Roma version for the same village. So while recognizing a history of mixture, exchange, and cohabitation (if not also conviviality) the tendency is to draw boundaries that reify absolute difference.  We see this in formal processes vis a vis UNESCO heritage projects as well, for example, the debate over the legényes (“lads’ dance”). When Romania sought recognition from UNESCO for lad’s dances as a Romanian heritage practice, one of the video examples they gave was clearly of a “Hungarian” form. Ethnic Hungarians and representatives of Hungary to UNESCO protested saying that the Romanians were claiming the Hungarian form was Romanian. It is indeed a form found in current-day Romania, but practiced by ethnic Hungarians there. And, of course, the lads’ dances of the region more broadly are a shared form, while specificities do often distinguish different groups of practitioners in space and time.  

Other people had already been noticing this problem with UNESCO heritage policies and the ideologies that guide them. As Thomas Hylland Eriksen would say, UNESCO’s heritage policies treat the world as an archipelago of discrete cultures. This means also that it has a hard time recognizing practices that span two or more nation states. This production of discrete objects is quite like the process that Marx called fetishization. Marx took pains to show that a commodity is not a discrete thing but is rather a vessel of relationships that we see as an object—a fetish via which the labor that made it is made invisible to us, and the source of its value is obscured. So in the same way these processes that inform such living practices are obscured when they’re made into objects that are useful for various purposes, whether for nationalism, for seeking an income, or to take advantage of the flow of monopoly rent. 

Thus, for all of Fidesz’s specific characteristics, its nationalism is clearly tied to both to the stage of capitalism we are in and in many ways its ethnonationalist logic is not really so far away from the (neo)liberal nationalism and its manners of asserting, identifying, or codifying pluralism. In ethnotourism the ethnos is the commodity, after all.           

Towards the end of your book, you heavily criticize the dance camp tourism connected to the contemporary táncház movement. These camps aim to reproduce cultural uniqueness. Visitors feel that they are at the edge of globalization, but this “edge” is pre-made for the tourist. In addition, the reshaping of Transylvanian rural places by the forces of tourism disrupts real local life. It is particularly striking that the villagers, who are presented in the dance camps as symbols of perseverance and cultural values, are often migrant laborers in Hungary, where they face heavy exploitation. Can we interpret this relationship between Hungary and Transylvania as a kind of postmodern colonialism through tourism, where Hungary not just exploits the labor of Transylvanian people, but their traditions too?

I try to show towards the end of the book how the processes that I just discussed come together and take shape in the context of Transylvania—the main site of táncház tourism. My point is not to heavily critique, but to analyze. I should emphasize that I love to visit Transylvanian villages to learn these dance practices, to learn about folk art, and to meet villagers. A revival based on so-called authentic folk culture needs a source of authenticity and for táncház this has been mainly villages in Transylvania. The majority of the music and dance repertoire of the revival is from this region where they were still practiced in everyday life in the 1970s. In the 1970s and 1980s táncház goers made their way to these villages. They became guests of these villagers, learning from them and even bringing them goods that were scarce in both socialist and postsocialist times. Szék, the place from which the word táncház was adopted, is probably the most famous of these villages.

In the 1990s dance camps sprang up in Transylvania to accommodate this village visiting, and contributing to a more robust táncház tourism. Authenticity, which is always a thing that is struggled over, is the thing that draws people to the camps. But the camps are not a “traditional” way of learning folk dance in the village and further, the practices of the villagers are changing due to many reasons. The revival must also invest in making sure younger generations of villagers learn these traditions. While elders in the village are also interested in this, at this point the youth are mainly learning through revivalist institutions and methods. 

But as for “real local life” being disrupted, that would be happening with or without táncház. The economic conditions of rural villagers in Romania are quite difficult and their lives are disrupted by processes related to neoliberalization in different ways than they were by those related to Romanian state socialism. While they may have been pleased that they could own land, it is very hard to engage in small-scale farming successfully with no infrastructures of support. Ethnic Hungarian villagers face further difficulties. These are reasons why many Transylvanian villagers migrate to Hungary and other places to work. Others, even in the families of these migrant workers, try to develop capacities to succeed in the tourism game. While some may get running water, or plant flowers where their kitchen gardens used to be, others may have the resources to decorate with “folk art” and other markings of authenticity or provide the kinds of food expected by visitors. Sándor Varga has described elegantly some ways in which revivalist preferences affect village life in really complex ways.

Your last question about colonialism is an important one. There are many processes at work here and I think we’d have to think carefully about whether we want to use the language of colonialism. People were already arguing at the time of the 2001 status law that gave over the border Hungarians semi-citizenship that Hungary has been pursuing a petit imperialism / colonialism particularly with regard to cheap labor. Since then, dual citizenship was enacted by the Fidesz government in 2010 and a lot has happened since then also regarding investments in Transylvania that I’m not really able to speak to with any expertise. My understanding is that all kinds of actors are beholden to the Fidesz government there as well. More generally we have the uneven development that is a central dynamic of how capitalism develops over time. Some people have understood this in terms of internal colonialism but since Transylvania is not part of Hungary proper and also experiences certain dynamics as related to the nation-state it is in, Romania, it might not be useful to use this term.

In the broader region encompassing both Hungary and Romania we see really stark differences between rural and urban levels of accumulation which have gotten worse since the end of state socialism.  But it is true that the practices central to táncház are of a less developed region and it is characteristics of this “lack of development” that become the things to be preserved. Certainly, Transylvania is the object of power by both the Romanian and Hungarian states with their assimilationist and nationalist approaches, which also explains the movements for autonomy in places like Szeklerland. Táncház is woven into these different processes in complicated ways.

Dancing in Szék, Transylvania, Romania, 1989. Photo: Tamás Urbán. Courtesy of Fortepan.

What is a good future for the táncház movement from a left-wing perspective? Can it find its way back to its roots in the népi movement? The community building power of dance is undeniable. Can a common dance of Szék build community not to further strengthen the right-wing hegemony, but to build real solidarity with the rural working class of Hungary? Can we find new modes /modalities that could be used to build a counterhegemony based on solidarity rather than exploitation?

The first thing I should say is that counter-hegemony can take all kinds of forms, we can get a further right-wing form, like in the interwar period, or a leftist or liberal counter-hegemony. They’re all contradictory but there is more than one possibility. I do agree that dancing together has the potential to build community, but the question is: what kind of communities are made and imagined, and with what values and practices?

Táncház goers take part in this movement for so many reasons, most of them primarily for the love of this beautiful dance and music and for the fun and companionship that they experience at táncház events. Because of this I’m not sure how such a left turn would come about. In the interwar period many people engaged in village visiting through many organizations and only some of them became left populists through recruitment via interpersonal relations or organizations such as the movement to build Nepi Kollegiumok (Folk Colleges), the underground Communist Party, antifascist cells, the March Front, or the Peasant Party. If we assume that there are people like us among táncház goers today, the question is how those people who already take part in táncház might shape these practices and visions collectively. 

Even if táncház goers were to connect with the revival’s interwar népi predecessors, they would have to wrestle with the contradictions that haunted that movement–especially the national pull on the “nép” idea. This means rethinking how nation-states are imagined and sought after, and addressing the question of who is envisioned as the “nép” and who is excluded. Historical circumstances have also changed, and the trinity of land reform, franchise, and cultural validation would have to be rethought. So, another challenge is what solidarity with or within “the nép” would look like in such a movement.

Taking deeper interest in the plight of poor peasants and agricultural workers begs the question of who these people are today. So-called “post peasants” in Hungary face dire economic pressures that push them to rent out or sell their land in a process that leads to land concentration and to the exploitation of cheap labor. A good proportion of that exploited labor takes the form of people of Roma descent, while members of these landowning families are also engaged in self exploitation. There are few people there who are really going to teach you a beautiful song or dance, at least not to táncház’s standards. Nor are they wearing folk costumes. In order to dance together, then, do we “reintroduce” these practices and if so, what significance would that have? Are there other collective practices that can bring us together? 

Photo: Pál Berkó, 1947. Courtesy of Fortepan.

The interwar movement supported village visitors to work in the fields with peasants, although they may not have been much help on their occasional visits.  The labor question is interesting if we think about the ethnonational pull. Interwar populists fought for agricultural workers and not just those with land who are more often romanticized as peasants (and can be easily conflated with other “peasants” owning lots of land, many of whom were of the gentry), but they generally didn’t include Roma or other so-called minorities in their picture of the nép.  Is there a way to talk about the people or the peoples in Hungary or even in the region-to approach a plural popular? There are traditions of thinking about harmony and justice for the peoples of the Danube or Carpathian basin, and a number of historical projects of federation that attempt to address the diversity of this region which has seen rounds and rounds of new nation states being made with all of the attending processes of cleansing or assimilation of diversity.  

The language of the people /nép also summons up another imaginary – the non-elite classes. What if “the people” were conceived as a diversity? Ethnic minorities in Hungary, ethnic Hungarians in neighboring countries, peasants and workers?  Could it include Roma, migrant workers, and the poor farmers they work for? Could it include urban workers and peasants in neighboring countries too? What if it included unemployed and underemployed people and migrants from abroad? All of these people are victims of capitalist dispossession as well as other forms of oppression connected with ideas of the nation, of race or the ethnonation, and also of their current governments. Such diverse popular bodies have been constructed in times of struggle. An example is in Bolivia in the case of the privatization of water in 1998 under the direction of the IMF. Robert Albro has shown that the subject of the actions that successfully stopped the privatization of both the national (i.e., state owned) water system as well the homemade systems built by indigenous communities and peasants was a plural popular subject constituted through mutual recognition. 

Táncház surely has the potential to take part in a renewed, more left leaning népi movement of this kind. There is a real very sensory-based love of folk traditions in táncház which makes participants open to many peoples and their practices. I have seen táncház musicians seek out Bolivian musicians, looking for a shared musical vocabulary. I have seen gadjo táncház goers learn to dance the Roma csingerálás. In Roma táncházes we have seen an opening for these gadjos not just to practice that form but to learn to be guests at an event hosted by Roma to begin a process of opening and exchange under different power relations.  International folk dancing was a strong trend on the left in the USA and in the UK for a while, and was tied at least conceptually to internationalist politics. Can folk dance in Hungary /among Hungarians become part of the toolkit of mutual aid, recognition and solidarity? Of constructing the plural popular? I’d personally love to go to a táncház where I get to know migrants from Transylvania, North Africa, Afghanistan, the former Yugoslavia, or Ukraine in an environment in which we learn one another’s dances, continue to learn shared repertoires, and invent new dances. But do tánchaz goers want to? 

Ferenc Kőszeghy is a Ph. D. student in Literature, member of the Mérce staff and the Spark Movement.

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Mary Taylor is Assistant Director at the Center for Place, Culture and Politics, Graduate Center, City University of New York. Situated at the intersection of anthropology, urbanism and dialogical art, her militant research focuses on sites, technologies, and politics of civic cultivation, social movement, and cultural management; the relationship of ethics and aesthetics to nationalism, cultural differentiation, and people’s movements in socialist and post-socialist East-Central Europe and the United States. She studies and organizes radical alternative pedagogical activities with others. 

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