UNESCO proclaims Czech "Verbunk" Masterpiece of Intangible Heritage of Humanity

'Verbunk' (left), photo: CTK

When we hear about the UNESCO list of world heritage sites we think of places like Notre Dame in Paris or here in the Czech Republic old towns like Cesky Krumlov or even Prague itself. But did you know that less tangible parts of our heritage like theatre performances, music, and dances are also supported and protected by UNESCO?

'Verbunk'  (left),  photo: CTK
They come under the rather wordy heading of "Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity" and a traditional Czech dance, going back to the days when young men were conscripted to fight in the Austrian army, has just been added to the list.

The polka, waltz, and cardas, are not the only folk dances you find here in the Czech Republic. The "Verbunk" - a solo dance for men often accompanied by song - has a tradition going back to the 18th century in the Moravian Slovacko region. It was danced by young recruits just before they had to join the army:

"It is an improvised dance that young men used to dance as a form of protest and to some extent to express their helplessness. Today, it also has a number of other functions - it's a demonstration of vitality and happiness at feasts and dance festivities. The boys, of course, use it to show off their excellent dance skills and I should add that it also has a bit of an erotic subtext."

...says ethnologist Karel Pavlistik, who, I should add, is a master of the "Verbunk" himself and co-founded the Verbunk competition, which was started twenty years ago. It is part of the country's famous Straznice International Folklore Festival. One of the hundreds of men who have taken part in the competition is Ladislav Simecek. He's from the town of Kyjov:

"In our little town, it's luckily been upheld as a traditional part of our culture. The Verbunk is not just danced by the members of folklore organisations; it's a normal part of our men's life here. They all dance it - both young and old."

"The dance is an important part of all festivities in the region and has several variations. There are the Hornacko, Straznice, and the Kyjov verbunks, to name just a few," says Karel Pavlistik.

It took two years for the Czech Republic to get the Verbunk on the UNESCO list. It is now one of eleven other traditional European rituals declared by the United Nations to be world masterpieces. Among other Czech rarities that the Culture Ministry hopes to add are the carnival at Hlinecko (Vysocina region) and the traditional horseback procession at Vlcnov (southern Moravia). Further traditions around the world added to the list include Malawi's Vimbuza Healing Dance, Japan's Kabuki theatre, Zambia's Makishi Masquerade, but also Slovakia's Fujara music and the musical instrument that goes with it.