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a special sign system to record a special Hungarian dance with

master degree project on the University of Fine Arts, Budapest

Mundruc (left) and dr. György Martin (right) / taken by and courtesy of the wonderful Péter Korniss


Folk dance is an important and significant part of the Hungarian culture and tradition. As the history of Hungary has evolved, this segment could remain untouched and genuine in villages until the end of the 20th century and so modern time ethnographers had a chance to thoroughly research and record it. Today a lot of professional dance groups are keeping the tradition alive.

My project is about a man called István Mátyás (1911–1977). Everyone knew him by his nickname, Mundruc. He lived in Magyarvista, a small village in Transylvania, in the Kalotaszeg region. As everyone in that region that time, he also danced the so called legényes, a men's dance, kind of a way for men to show how skilled they are, because it is a difficult and tiring dance. Mundruc stood out among the others with his special talent and love for dance in general and especially for this one. His story became a cultural speciality as he got to know and became very good friends with the ethnographer dr. György Martin. They met in 1956 and from that point until Mundruc’s death Martin video-recorded Mundruc dancing 45 times. In addition to that he taped and noted lots of their conversations mostly on dance, took lots of pictures of him and collected, dated any analysed these with astonishing accuracy. He summed up his research in a 700 page—and still unfinished—study.

One of the videos he made of Mundruc is specially well-known.* It was filmed on one of the terraces of the Castle of Budapest. This terrace was rebuilt in its original form and after 30 years opened to the public in 2014. So came the idea, that the terrace could be named after Mundruc and a memorial tablet could be installed there, dedicated to his memory. With its help everyone could learn about his life and the legényes dance. In my master degree project I’ve set out to design the visual concept for the terrace and the memorial tablet.

*You can watch the video here: from the archives of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Institute of Musicology

Portrait of Mundruc and as he dances legényes / 1956. Magyarvista / taken by Dr. György Martin and Ferenc Pesovár
Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Institute of Musicology

I’ve created a system turning the dance moves into individually designed signs. The result is a sign system—a kind of alphabet—that enables one to write down legényes dance.

The system is based on the structure of the dance. After studying it closely I’ve learned that it’s built up by small, two-music-beat-long, fixed elements—each of them is a short combinations of movements. The dancer varies these as he wishes, combines them, puts them after another. Every region, every village has elements that are specific there, some dancers has also had their “signature” elements or even made up new ones. Some of them were more common in one particular area, some lasted centuries long, some were forgotten long ago. Mundruc was known for that he had a whole library of these elements in mind. He learned very quickly and had an extraordinary memory. Every time he travelled somewhere or met someone new, he learned new dance elements and integrated them.

I have turned these elements into visual signs.​​​​​​​

Visually they are based on the traditional folk visual culture of Magyarvista and the Kalotaszeg region. This part of Transylvania is well known for its rich visual culture, the many forms and colours used. They decorated literally everything they had in a loveable and truly honest manner. After systematically researching and studying closely all the fields of the visual and decorative folk art—such as architecture, wood carving, carpentering, furniture painting and costume—I have been able to distill characteristic forms and motifs. Based on these I have designed a set of 78 signs.

Dr. György Martin researched, analysed and categorised these dance elements. He sorted them into five categories according to the type of movement they are based on. As an example the elements containing a jump are one category; the ones in which the dancer stands on one leg and moves the other leg are another one.

I've created five categories for the signs as well, to mark the significant difference of the moves they stand for: I have chosen five different shapes as the base of the elements.

The elements can be further categorised: the ones that are basically the same and only differ from each other in minor details (for example the height of a jump or a slight alteration of the direction of a movement) are in one family. I've designed the elements of one family to be also visually connected.

At this part of the project dr. György Martin's book on Mundruc was a necessary help. As above already mentioned, dr. György Martin put a huge effort in researching these elements. Every 45 times he recorded Mundruc dancing, he watched the tape over and over again until he listed all of the elements Mundruc danced that time. He recorded, noted, listed and categorised all of them that has been taped as Mundruc ever have danced. With his help I could write down the dances exactly as Mundruc danced them and match them with photos made at the same time as the dancing was recorded.

With dr. György Martin's records, I could pair a photo and the dance—being danced in that photo—written down.


The dance is built up by the above mentioned elements the dancer varies as he likes. I've followed this logic as I was designing the logo. Each of the five categories are represented and the elements vary.

Special thanks to Péter Ertl, Balázs Ertl, Péter Korniss, Manó Kukár and the whole Folk Dance Department of the Institute of Musicology, Afrodite Alajbeg, Zsóka Laborcz and of course the professors at the university: Andrea Szabó, Attila Auth and Tamás Felsmann for their support.

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