The Bulgarian Dancers Who Walk On Fire: Everything You Need To Know About The Nestinari

The most enigmatic dance you probably haven’t heard of…

You may have heard about dancers who walk on fire before. Firewalking is a common attraction in countless seaside resorts in various parts of the world, but the authentic fire dancing, called Nestinarstvo, is derived from old Orthodox and pagan rituals of Bulgarian villagers. Back in 2009 UNESCO even recognized it as an official intangible cultural heritage.

The male and female dancers are called Nestinari and they perform a spiritual dance over smoldering embers or coals completely BAREFOOT. No shoes or protective ointments of any sorts are allowed. Even though the embers are hot enough to burn the bare skin, there are no illusions or tricks in the Nestinari’s dance – which is exactly what makes it so fascinating to Slavs and non-Slavs from all over the globe. But there’s actually so much more to the ritual than just being able to magically touch the fiery surface without getting burned.

What’s the Nestinarstvo ritual?

The ritual on its own is a way of praising Saints Constantine and Helena, welcoming the summer season, honoring the village’s local patron saint and performing spiritual purification. The fire dance is only a small part of the entire ritual, which usually takes up an entire day. At the break of dawn the villagers kick things off by “dressing” up their sacred icons with flowers and pieces of red cloth edged with silver coins. The icons are then carried over to the holy springs of Saint Constantine by three of the villagers’ honorary lads where the icons’ frames are “cleansed” in the holy waters.

After the cleansing of the frames, the Nestinari dancers and the local priest head over to the head Nestinari’s home or to the village’s chapel (the head dancer’s home is considered just as sacred as the chapel), where the people pray and burn incense. A drummer and a bagpiper then lead the entire village towards the fiery embers.

Once the entire village gathers around the fire pit, the eldest Nestinari dancers start treading upon the embers. The sounds of the bagpipes and the beating drum are accompanied by the dancers’ chanting. The ritual calls for a specific pattern when crossing the fire pit. While chanting and performing the choreography the dancers also carry the holy icons in their hands. By nightfall the fires have toned down and the “stage” is left to the younger Nestinari. That’s when the real dancing kicks off. According to some legends, the dancers even go into a deep trance-like state of spirituality. Traditional folk dances (“horo”) are performed over the embers.

Where does the ritual come from?

The Nestinarstvo ritual originated in the Bulgarian part of the Strandzha Mountains. Not everyone can become a Nestinari dancer – this honor must be passed down hereditary from parents to children. However, the Nestinari dancers spotted across the Black Sea coastline have little to do with the authentic ritual or with the hereditary tradition. Back in the days some Bulgarian Nestinari moved over to Greece after the conflicts that led to the Balkan Wars and carried the traditions of the ritual with them. In present day the Nestinarstvo ritual is called Anastenaria in Greek.

Why have the Nestinari dancers started carrying out this tradition? History remains dubious as there’s a notable lack of sufficient source material. According to some historians, it’s just a pagan ritual. On the other hand, others believe that during the Middle Ages the Kosti-based church of Saint Constantine caught fire and the religious villagers allegedly entered the façade after hearing holy voices. As a gift from the saints for their outstanding bravery, the people were protected from the flames.

How are Nestinari able to dance barefoot on fire?

It actually has nothing to do with the mystical belief that the trance-like state or the holy spirits are preventing the Nestinari dancers from burning their bare skin. They don’t walk over the flames – there are layers of smoldering embers or coals between their feet and the fire. The dancing consists of quick steps, which don’t allow the feet to dig too deep into the lower layers. As a matter of fact young Nestinari do burn their skin while they’re still learning, but they eventually get used to the experience of walking barefoot over the embers.

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