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Navigating Mixed Emotions: Exploring the Dance of the Bears

By: Anna K. Bergendy

Twitter: @thelatestbyte

Post Date: 2024-01-15

The end of the year is a very special time in all cultures and any individual’s life. Many people view the New Year as an opportunity for renewal. It is a time to leave behind any negativity or setbacks from the past and embrace a fresh start. While the new year is a time of celebration, our feelings about it can be very mixed. It can bring us joy and excitement, but it can also trigger feelings of anxiety and fear. In many cultures, some traditions and rituals help us cope with these difficult feelings. These ritualistic events often evolve into a festival season every winter.


In Romania, typically in Moldavia, a traditional festival is brought to life every year between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. The festival is called “Jocul Ursului,” which translates to “Bear Game” or “Dance of the Bears.” Participants dress up as bears, either in real bear skin or sheepskin costumes, which often include a bear mask, fur, and other vivid accessories to mimic the appearance of a bear. The bears symbolize death and rebirth, and the loud music is believed to drive evil spirits away. The dancing represents the struggle against hardships and the ultimate victory of harmony, beautifully symbolizing our desire to protect and purify the year ahead of us. 


Festivals, such as the Romanian Dance of the Bears, involve various frightening elements: making noise, dressing up in costume, or wearing grotesque masks to grant attendees a truly thrilling experience. Horror elements in festivals serve as a way to challenge and explore personal boundaries. Engaging with fear in a fun and festive setting gives us a rush of adrenaline and a sense of exhilaration at the same time. Across cultures, evoking fear serves as a means of protection or purification. In many cases, it is believed that loud noises can frighten or drive away malevolent spirits, or negative energies that may be lingering from the past year.


Historically, dancing bears were part of traveling shows in parts of Europe, Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. Handlers would use numerous cruel methods, such as muzzle rings and physical force, to train bears to mimic dancing. Bears have certain human-like features that made them popular targets of poaching. Bears were taken from the wild as cubs, separated from their mothers, and subjected to a life of captivity. The bewitching street performances gained cultural significance and influenced many customs. While back in the day “Jocul Ursului” did take inspiration from real dancing bears, such performances are strictly prohibited today. Many organizations actively work to save and rehabilitate bears and to help handlers find a new source of income.



Romania has the largest population of bears in Europe, and bear incidents are relatively common. Bears are Europe’s top predators and always had a special place in people’s imagination. Each community in the region has its own folklore regarding bears, but one thing is for sure: they both fear and respect the bear. The bear often appears as a moral figure, a symbol of a father or husband. In folktales, bears can shapeshift into human form, assist the protagonist in overcoming challenges, and punish animals and humans for disrespectful behavior. This symbolism extends to the idea of the bear as a protector. Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, used symbols and archetypes to explore the deep, universal aspects of the human psyche. Many symbolic associations can be linked to the bear archetype based on Jungian principles and broader cultural contexts. Encountering a bear in dreams, myths, or rituals symbolizes the need to explore our inner strength. Hibernation can be seen as a symbol of withdrawal, introspection, and renewal. The multifaceted symbolism, both in folklore and psychological perspectives, makes bears a powerful and transformative symbol.



Hundreds of people of all ages and genders dance to the near-deafening tunes of flutes, drums, whistles, and rhythmic singing. The dancing bears are scary, yet captivating. Participants say that when they dance in the skin of a bear, they feel like they become one with it and feel its strength running through their veins.


"We are hellish young boys,  

strong and with broad shoulders, 

we compete with the bears in dancing " 


“Damned bears dance very well 

For they drank wine, not water 

 and they ate frozen apples"


(verses from related folk song)


The people participating in this festival find it very important that the centuries-old tradition be passed on from generation to generation. This living tradition is exceptionally well-preserved in the town of Comănești. It is not a distant memory of old; one can still experience it to the fullest. Children inherit bear costumes from their elders. Bears are not being hunted for their skin each year; instead, they are carefully preserved to last several generations. Throughout the year, the costumes are kept in caves where the humidity is very low to protect the fur’s vivid colors and to keep them safe from moths and other pests.


In conclusion, “Jocul Ursului” offers not only a spectacle of tradition, but a profound reflection on the human spirit through several layers of symbolic meaning. At the beginning of the year, it is an important reminder that growth emerges from confronting our fears. May the New Year bring us bear-like strength to face the challenges of the unknown.

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