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The Fire Dancers

One of the most authentic rituals in Bulgaria having origins which can be traced back to the time of the Thracians (before Christ). The ritual has defied many persecutions to survive today - dancing barefoot over fire ! According to legend St Constantine and Helene were chosen by God through a test of dancing on fire and succeded. From that time on the fire dance was performed in honour of these two courageous people. It is celebrated on the 21st May which is the day of both of these Saints.

 

 

Those who dance on fire are called ‘nestinari’. People say you cannot be taught to dance over the burning embers but you have to be born to it and that the ability to do so comes from energies within oneself.



In the village of Bulgari in the Strandja mountains the ritual is still performed. A fire is built and starts about 5 to 6 pm in the evening. A procession of nestinari (both men and women) gathers, the street lights go out and the crowd approaches in silence. When they get to the fire, which has by now become glowing red hot, the embers are spread out by the Chief Nestinar wearing a white shirt and a red sash tied around his waist. First the ashes are spread in the form of Christ, then a star, then to create a whole circle over which the ritual will be performed.

At the  same time the thundering monotonous music of bagpipes and drums echoes around the village. The nestinari dance around the circle of hot embers carrying icons of St Constantine and St Helene which are meant to give them strength and faith to execute the dance on the fire. Suddenly they walk over the fire; sometimes they walk lightly but at other moments they press their feet down hard crushing the embers. They appear to be in a trance-like state as if bewitched. Numb to the physical pain they cross the coals again and again until they put out the fire.

The fire is said to burn out the evil in the nestinari who are dancing and also rids them of illness, bringing fertility and health. The more nestinari who are dancing the more fertile the year will be, the better the harvest and the more healthy the people.

Fire dancing was banned by the communists in 1960’s as they believed it would bring Bulgaria into disrepute, with the world thinking the Bulgarians were savages. The church didn’t help much either as they were convinced the devil was involved.

However, in the 80’s the communists recognised that the ritual could potentially have touristic value and allowed some of the restaurants on the Black Sea to perform the rite.

Nowadays if you visit the village of Bulgari you can see the ritual for yourselves - it will leave you charmed with its magnificence and its power - the nestinari are indeed people full of grace and strength.