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Dancing Bears: True Stories of People Nostalgic for Life Under Tyranny
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Dancing Bears: True Stories of People Nostalgic for Life Under Tyranny

3.92  ·  Rating details ·  1,246 ratings  ·  180 reviews
*As heard on NPR's All Things Considered*

"Utterly original." -- The New York Times Book Review

"Mixing bold journalism with bolder allegories, Mr. Szablowski teaches us with witty persistence that we must desire freedom rather than simply expect it." --Timothy Snyder, New York Times bestselling author of On Tyranny and The Road to Unfreedom

An incisive, humorous, and hea
Paperback, 256 pages
Published March 6th 2018 by Penguin Books (first published May 8th 2014)
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Average rating 3.92  · 
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In Dancing Bears, Szabłowski investigates the Romani dancing bears - kept and trained for centuries to perform and serve as the livelihood for the traveling peoples. When Bulgaria joined the European Union this practice of bear-keeping became illegal, and the bears were gathered up and placed in a reserve where they were allowed to live their days "as bears", even though they didn't know how. They were taught to hunt, to eat by themselves, to hibernate, and to live in this new way. Some made it, ...more
Kristy K
Apr 09, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2018, netgalley, arc, history
3.5 Stars

This was such an interesting story about a slice of recent history I feel few know about. Szablowski tells stories related to the dancing bears in the first part and former citizen’s opinions of the fall of the USSR in the second.

Dancing bears were a part of Bulgarian gypsy customs for a while, when the Soviet Union collapsed this cultural performance was no longer acceptable.

Their handlers would de-teeth these bears, get them addicted to alcohol, and many times abuse them. Sadly, thi
Jul 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
"You lay down on your stomach and you let the bear walk on top of you for luck and good health. Just for a few coins." was what a relative told me when I first saw the enormous animal walking peacefully among crowds of people. Next to her would usually be a man playing a musical instrument called gadulka and the bear would stand up on its hind legs and move around as if dancing.

At that time, I don't think many were aware of what it took to break a bear. We were all fascinated and took it for no
Kamila Kunda
Feb 23, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: europe, non-fiction, own
I first read about the English translation of this book and quickly got the Polish original. In “Tańczące niedźwiedzie” (“Dancing Bears”) Witold Szabłowski gives a glimpse into how various places (not necessarily whole countries) deal with the post-communism transition on a social, economic and political level; in case of Havana it’s more about gauging how ordinary people feel about the future and it is enlightening to read such a wide spectrum of opinions from Cubans.

The first half of the book
Text Publishing

‘A compelling and nuanced portrait of the push between the freedoms of modernity and nostalgia for the old communist system…[Szablowski ] displays the qualities of a top-notch reporter: an eye for telling detail and ­inherent sympathy for his subject.’

Otago Daily Times

‘Utterly original…Provokes a far-reaching and unresolved conversation about what freedom might really mean.’
New York Times Book Review

‘Szablowski has a keen eye for the absurd.’
Robert Wechsler
Apr 19, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
This is really two books. The first is about dancing bears, more specifically Bulgarian Romani dancing bears, which were outlawed ten years ago, when Bulgaria joined the European Union. It is an amazingly well-chosen series of monologues from Romani, those trying to save the bears, and others. I was lucky enough to see one of these bears 35 years ago in a visit to the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria. It was such a part of the resort town that it took me a while to realize the bear was standing in th ...more
Stephanie Jane
Mar 02, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: politics, history
See more of my book reviews on my blog, Literary Flits

This book is in two halves, the first of which tells of the last few Bulgarian Roma families to own dancing bears. Szablowski spent time talking with these families about how they kept and trained their bears, how they were fed and cared for. He also spoke with the Austrain Four Paws charity which was committed to rescuing the bears and now provides them with a safe home and the illusion of freedom. Having been captives for practically all th
Emm C²
Dancing Bears is a massively interesting book on the rehabilitating of former "dancing" bears of Eastern Europe and its strange parallels to life in various countries after the collapse of Communism.

Dancing Bears is a perfect combination in nonfiction of accessible, entertaining and unflinchingly honest. I'm not well-versed on politics, truthfully, but I find the history and culture of these countries fascinating, especially since they are all firsthand interviews from the people who were there.
Aug 09, 2018 rated it did not like it
Not a book but a series of articles or, more often, mere interviews from a variety of countries: Bulgaria, Cuba, Ukraine, Albania, Estonia, Serbia, Georgia, Greece etc. Most of these reportages were already out-of-date when the book came out in Polish in 2014. Translating them into English in 2018 makes no sense at all. Although the short introduction makes some sort of claim about these texts highlighting how difficult it is for humans as well as for bears to acclimatize themselves to freedom a ...more
Jessica T.
Feb 08, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: netgalley, nonfiction
Holy dancing bears... This book was excellent. The first part of the book gives the reader a concise history of the dancing bears of Europe and it ends with the conservation effort of these bears. The second part discusses how citizens of post communist countries are finding difficulties adjusting to freedom/capitalism. It shows the parallels between the bears and the people and helps explain why freedom is so difficult. This was an eye opener for me and written in a language anyone can understa ...more
Cindy Leighton
"There's poverty everywhere. But equality only exists here, in our country (Cuba)."

LOVED this very original comparison of the outlawed practice of dancing bears in Bulgaria, "freed" one by one onto a reserve, with people across Eastern Europe and Cuba who are "freed" from life under communism and/or dictatorships. Things I learned: Many women thought (and continue to think) Stalin was sexy. Albania is covered with up to 750,000 giant concrete mushroom like Communist era bunkers. We have evidence
Mar 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is a really good book. To start with, you accept the metaphor that an Eastern European removed from the shackles of Communism is like a dancing bear, reduced to wondering what they did wrong and where their next meal is coming from. But then we see the truth – this is about dancing bears, not metaphorically. And by Chapter 3 you clearly see the fact that huge international fund-raising efforts were undertaken, for the sake of a couple of dozen animals at most, and that it was clearly an ant ...more
Mar 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
I didn't learn anything knew about how people feel about democracy in post-communist countries. However, my knowledge of bears in captivity has increased drastically. The first half the book is about bears, the second is a collection of anecdotes from eastern europe in the 2000s. Whether you agree or not that people adapting to democracy are like traumatized bears who can no longer survive in the wild, its still a fun read. ...more
Rokay Mukhtar
The book has two parts, the first part is about the dancing bears, their interactions with people, how their lives change after captivity, how they are made and taught to dance and the most interesting part “FREEDOM”. The second part is about the nostalgia of Eastern Europe countries which is not very interesting.
First rate reportage of Bulgarian former dancing bears and Slavic former collective workers, both nauseated by the freedom of the ways of the West, longing for a return to tyranny. Hilarious and tragic.
Jan 19, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a breezy, quirky, funny travelogue that might even be better as an audible book. Having said that, I think the author may have been going for a deep allegorical examination of the psychological effects of regime change on the populations that are suddenly freed from tyranny. Either way the book is entertaining and I recommend it to most readers. Read the kindle highlights and judge for yourself; the writing is consistent throughout.

There's an introduction that discusses the overall theme
Apr 22, 2020 rated it liked it
I have deeply mixed feelings about this book. It's hard to believe the same person wrote the first and second halves. The first half, focused on the dancing bears, is brilliant as a piece of writing, though it's politically quite bad. He has some amount of sympathy for those suffering in the wake of the fall of Communism, but he also is incredibly paternalistic towards them throughout his telling. The upshot throughout those early chapters is that these Eastern Europeans are just too dumb to han ...more
Sep 12, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2020-books
I don’t know if it was the translation or the writing, but i found the book a little confusing at parts. Especially the second half, I struggled to see what the message was. The title was a little misleading, because there wasn’t complete nostalgia (Greece or Estonia chapters) or there wasn’t a complete loss of “tyranny” (Cuba chapter). The first half, that was just about dancing bears, that was really interesting, and a cohesive story, but the second was a bit flat. I appreciate what he was try ...more
Feb 11, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
The premise of the book was fascinating for me. I learned a lot, but it fell short for me in a lot of ways. It's a serious of interviews and rather than use them to explicitly tell a story, the reader is left to make a lot of conclusions on their own. I didn't feel like the story device comparing the dancing bears to post communism life were always very obvious. On the whole, I learned a lot of facts, both about dancing bears, and eastern European countries, but as a book and story telling devic ...more
Aug 31, 2018 rated it liked it
Interesting premise but unconvincing to me. I do not see capitalism as "newly free societies." In actuality, the descriptions of people scrambling to make money is not freedom. I also have been reading Second Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich which gives me a better picture of the readjustments made by people living under Communism. ...more
Dec 14, 2019 rated it really liked it
This is a really cool and interesting way to tell a story about post-Communist Europe (and also Cuba). It’s divided into two sections: The first is a seemingly innocuous long narrative about the dancing bears of Bulgaria who were released when Bulgaria joined the EU. The second half is where it gets interesting: it’s maybe 10 smaller stories focused on reporting in different stories in different post-communist countries. The main thread between them is Szablowski’s argument that people in post-c ...more
Nov 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
Excellent overview of people coping with Eastern Europe with the fall of communism. The dancing bears of the title refers to an an outlawed carnival act, popular in rural Bulgaria. The dancing bears serve as a metaphor for other victims in Estonia, Poland, Serbia, Georgia, and even Greece (they are suffering the aftermath of EU membership and don’t really belong here). The first chapter is a great meditation on how very similar things are in Eastern Europe to other areas of the world victimized ...more
Olga Nakhodkina
Dec 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book must be read in high schools of post communist countries. It opened my eyes on many things that are going on with my native country.
When you are trying to change this world for better, you surrounded by mostly likeminded people, and you forget that there is people described in this book. It is very eyes opening, when you are not only seeing them on the street, but you also read their stories.
I got from Moon to Earth after this book, and I bought a couple to present for my friends a
Aug 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
For both work and family I occasionally travel to Eastern Europe. In many conversations I have been surprised and confused how people pine for the “communist time”. I was just especially perplexed at the crowds of Germans in DDR museums talking about how great the old days were. This book helped me to understand those emotions and current Hungarian politics.
Aug 20, 2018 rated it liked it
This book was a lot more about bear rescue than it was about life after communism. It’s a great mission, but I have a hard time hearing about animals being treated inhumanely, and a lot of it was upsetting to read — especially when it comes to the bears’ lingering psychological damage.
Jade Quarrell
Jul 28, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Fascinating comparison about the rewilding of bears and the experiences of those living through changes in political regime. Well written, sympathetic and very readable.
Nov 07, 2020 rated it really liked it
Wide in scope but approachable snapshots of life in Central Europe after the fall of communism.
Jan 21, 2019 rated it liked it
Interesting, curious.
Feb 03, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The first half of the book is excellently researched and well-written. It focuses on the Bulgarian Romani tradition of "Dancing Bears" and the efforts to liberate them. The writer offers first-hand stories from different perspectives, from that of the bear-keepers, their family, and the rescuers, and the stories are just heartbreaking. The practice of "bear-keeping" is absolute horror. Bear-keepers inflict so much pain to the bears — putting a ring through its nose, one of the most sensitive bod ...more
Feb 12, 2019 rated it really liked it
In the words of Michael Bluth, I don't know what I expected. ...more
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Witold Szabłowski is an award-winning Polish journalist. At age twenty-five he became the youngest reporter at the Polish daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza’s weekly supplement, Duży Format, where he covered international stories in countries including Cuba, South Africa, and Iceland. His features on the problem of illegal immigrants flocking to the EU won the European Parliament Journalism Prize; hi ...more

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7 likes · 1 comments
“Няколко години след първата ми среща с Крумов заминах за лабораторията на свободата в Белица. Исках да разбера как изглежда тази лаборатория. И между другото научих:
• че свободата се дава на мечките постепенно, на малки проции. Не можеш да я дадеш цялата наведнъж, защото ще се задавят;
• че тя има своите граници. За мечките такава граница е оградата, по която тече ток;
• че свободата за тези, които не са я познавали, е нещо много сложно. На мечките им е много трудно да се научат на живот, в който трябва сами да се грижат за себе си. Понякога това е невъзможно.
И научих, че за всяка пенсионирана танцуваща мечка идва момент, в който свободата започва да боли. Какво прави тя тогава? Изправя се на задни лапи и започва... да танцува. Пресъздава това, от което работещите в парка искат на всяка цена да я отучат. Пресъздава поведението на роба. Предпочита дресьора, иска той да се върне и отново да поеме отговорността за нейния живот. “Нека ме бие, нека ме тормози, само да махне тази кошмарна необходимост сама да се справям със собствения си живот” – така сякаш казват мечките.
И отново си помислих, че това е разказ за мечките. Но и за нас.”
“Niedźwiedziom bardzo trudno nauczyć się życia, w którym muszą się troszczyć same o siebie. Czasem jest to niewykonalne. I dowiedziałem się, że każdy emerytowany tańczący niedźwiedź ma taki moment, kiedy wolność zaczyna go boleć. Co wtedy robi? Staje na tylnych łapach i zaczyna... tańczyć. Odtwarza to, czego pracownicy parku za wszelką ceną chcą go oduczyć. Odtwarza zachowania niewolnika. Woła tresera, żeby wrócił i znów wziął odpowiedzialność za jego życie. „Niech bije, niech źle traktuje, ale niech zabierze tę cholerną konieczność radzenia sobie z własnym życiem” – zdają się mówić niedźwiedzie. I znów pomyślałem, że to niby opowieść o niedźwiedziach. Ale też o nas.” 0 likes
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