In the Middle Ages, the original primeval forests of the present Opoczno region were gradually cleared and converted into meadows and fertile lands. Settlers from the Sieradz region first colonized these areas, with the assistance of the Kuyavian bishops and the Cistercian monks, and these areas became to be part of the castellanies established by the clergy. Later, large landowning families as well as princes and kings of the Piast dynasty established their own castellanies. When in the 14th century, the castellanies lost their power, new administrative units, the powiats (counties) were formed. In the 19th century, new colonies were established by settlers from neighboring regions as well as by German and Jewish immigrants.
At the end of the 18th and in the beginning of the 19th centuries, the Opoczno region shared troubled times with the rest of Poland: first under the rule of the partitioning powers, later incorporated in the Duchy of Warszawa and then into the Congress Kingdom of Poland. After World War I, Poland regained independence until it fell under the Communist regime after World War II, only to be freed again in 1989.
The Opoczno region inhabitants first make their living from forest industries and later mainly from cultivating crops and raising livestock. Since the region has also other natural resources, such as pottery clay, sand for making glass, limestone, sandstone, rocks and iron ore, already in the Middle Ages work in mining and industry was another source of livelihood.
The spacious meadows over the Pilica River still provide excellent grazing ground for sheep. Their wool supplies plenty of material for producing the famous Opoczno multicolored striped woven fabrics (the pasiaki), used also for making the traditional attire. The woman’s outfit is composed of a jumper, apron, and cape, each made of different color combinations of . The man’s outfit is composed of pants and vest each made of different combinations of colors, with stripes running horizontally. Over this, he wears a long white coat. The woman wears a colorful kerchief on her head, while the man has a royal blue cap adorned with a cluster of flowers. A white linen blouse for the woman and cotton shirt for the man, both with colorful cross-stitched embroidery completes each outfit. The Syrena Dancers wear these costumes for their presentation of the Opoczno Suite.
The Suite is composed of dances common only to Opoczno: Polka Tramblanka, Kowol and Walczyk (little waltz) and climaxes with the spirited Oberek, which was once the highlight of every peasant party. All the dances are in triple time (3/4 or 3/8 meter) which is the most common and favorite rhythm in central Poland.
A typical Opoczno kapela was composed of a fiddler as the prime instrument (and later on, an accordion), a drum, and a bass. In the beginning, a small drum was used, which was 8-12 inches in diameter and had metallic disks attached to its brim. This tambourine-like instrument was called a bebenek. Another drum, called the chorobnik is used to the present day.
The dance called Tramblanka is not strictly of peasant origin. It was created in the 1950’s for the Polish State Folk Ballet Mazowsze. However, the local Opoczno people have adopted the Mazowsze-style Tramblanka for the stage, but not during their family or seasonal events.
The name of the dance Kowol means a blacksmith. The word is spelled in the old gwara (peasant talk) Contrary to other dances with names of a trade, Kowol does not imitate the movements of a blacksmith. Perhaps the origin of the name comes from the Opoczno people’s frequent work in the metal industry. The music of Kowol, written in 3/4 meter, has an interesting changeable tempo which is reflected in the dance itself.
In the region of Opoczno, the Oberek is danced faster and with more bounce and vigor than in other parts of Poland. Because of the usual crowded conditions on the dance floor, Opoczno couples usually dance with arms closely grasping each other. A typical, basic and simple way of dancing the Oberek by the local Opoczno people, consists mainly of turning or moving to another spot. Syrena’s Oberek isn’t quite so simple. As with most performing groups, the Oberek is lavishly choreographed for the stage.
History of Opoczynski Costume
In the thirteenth century the earliest settlers to this area cleared forests near the present-day town of Opoczno. Over the next one hundred years people from Sieradz settled western parts of this region. In the nineteenth century German and Jewish immigrants came here as well. It is reported that one village, Skrzynsko, was composed entirely of Jewish musicians! Industry, although present from medieval times, had a particular impact on folk culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the pace of development accelerated.
The Opoczynski costume, like those of neighboring Lowicz, Sieradz and Kolbiel, is distinguished by the colorful, striped “pasiak” material from which the women’s dresses are made. The men wear white linen shirts and linen or woolen pants which can be solid black, white or blue in color or else of a purple checkered pattern. Their woolen or linen waistcoats were originally black or white. In the nineteenth century it became popular to make them from horizontally striped, many hued material. Their belts are from the striped pasiak material. Their long coats, or sukmany, are of two kinds. Short white ones are popular in the summer and long gray ones are worn in the winter. They wear either black felt hats or four-cornered rogatywkas of the Krakow type.
Women wear white linen blouses, embroidered on the sleeves. Their dresses and aprons are from multicolored pasiak material. In the eighteenth century the stripes were of only two colors but over the years it became popular to use several colors, and by the twentieth century asymmetrical patterns were introduced. The outer apron, or zapaska, is commonly worn, even today. Their embroidered black vests are often held together with strands of beads. On their heads young women wear colored scarves.
The region of Opoczno is part of the Mazowsze and borders with Malopolska, two of Poland’s five main ethnographic areas. As a result, it was under the cultural influence of both areas. The region’s landscape, typical for Central Poland, is composed of fertile land, forests, meadows and pastures. The main river is Pilica, a tributary of the Vistula River. The region derives its name from the town of Opoczno, an old settlement of the Piast kings.