Bears have been tamed for entertainment purposes for thousands of year especially in the Asian world but it is only in the Middle Ages where European sources mention them. It is believed that dancing bears were a common attraction in these times and more often than not we see them depicted in coins, chests, doors, manuscripts and even city seals.
Francisco Alvarez, in his article “Juggling – its history and greatest performers” makes reference to a rather obscure book which he calls “Collected Stories from London, 1907″ (sic.) and from which he provides an interesting passage about the working juggler in the Middle Ages:
The trained bear was led away and the jugglers entered. A man and a boy. They carefully unfolded their bags and began performing. The man, running around in small circles, rapidly juggled with three knives. The boy, whip in hand, would at times, in jest, castigate the man whenever he fumbled. The effect was dexterous, comical, and most entertaining. After the older minstrel had walked on his hands and juggled with balls, the pair collected some coins, folded their bags, and calmly walked away to disappear into the mob. The singers now entered with their music scrolls in hand.
In Thiðrekssaga, a Norwegian saga from the 13th century concerned with the adventures of the German hero Dietrich of Bern, we find a peculiar passage about a (fake) dancing bear. The original text of this passage can be read here. For those who do not feel comfortable with reading in Old Norse, here´s a retelling of the passage as it appears in Guerber´s Legends of the Middle Ages:
Wishing to penetrate unrecognized into the enemy’s camp, Wildeber slew and flayed a bear, donned its skin over his armor, and, imitating the uncouth antics of the animal he personated, bade the minstrel Isung lead him thus disguised to Hertnit’s court.
This plan was carried out, and the minstrel and dancing bear were hailed with joy. But Isung was greatly dismayed when Hertnit insisted upon baiting his hunting hounds against the bear; who, however, strangled them all, one after another, without seeming to feel their sharp teeth. Hertnit was furious at the loss of all his pack, and sprang down into the pit with drawn sword; but all his blows glanced aside on the armor concealed beneath the rough pelt. Suddenly the pretended bear stood up, caught the weapon which the king had dropped, and struck off his head. Then, joining Isung, he rushed through the palace and delivered the captive Wittich; whereupon, seizing swords and steeds on their way, they all three rode out of the city before they could be stopped.
Talking about Bern, you surely noticed that the heraldic beast of the Swiss city of Bern is the bear… even though the bear on the original coat of arms (which dates from 1240) is not dancing, it could well be based on a legend similar to that included in the saga. Konrad Justinger in his chronicle from 1430 sees it rather as a hunted bear:
Nu wart des ersten ein ber gevangen, darumb wart die stat bern genempt; und gab do den burgeren in der stat ein wappen und schilt, nemlich einen swarzen bern in einem wissen schilt in gender wise.
(Then they caught a bear first, which is why the city was called Bern; and so the citizens had their coat and shield, namely, a black bear in a white shield, going upright)
But maybe the period when dancing bears were most popular was in the 19th century, when entire families of bear trainers coming from poor mountain zones like Arige and Abruzzo in Italy, Hungary and the Balkans spread throughout Europe with their itinerant shows. If you feel comfortable with French, you can read more about it here
Surely a dancing bear must have been quite a show at the time. But it must have also been cruel for the poor animal and it wouldn´t be something I would endorse today. Actually, there´s a good number of bear rescue and rehabilitation organizations around luckily because, believe it or not, bears are still made to dance nowadays, especially in Asia. For instance, bear exploitation was abolished in India in 1972 but still hundreds of bears were tortured until 2009 (!), when International Animal Rescue and Wildlife SOS officially put an end to the practice. And there are many other places where they are still being exploited. You can red more about it here.
Now, to a happier subject. Well, if dancing bears were so popular, there surely must have been popular music written for their dances? Of course! All across Europe we find different tunes entitled “the bear´s dance” or something similar and funnily enough they all sound different but at the same time they seem to belong to the same “family”.
My friend Jérôme taught me a French version of the tune (with 3 parts) called, of course, “la danse de l’ours”. After some time we started playing it with our band Fiesta Noz! and turned it into a success… everybody who hears it cannot avoid start dancing. Which, as you might agree, can only mean two things: either it is a really good tune or we are all furry Care Bears inside
Check out Fiesta Noz! playing La Danse de l’Ours live:embedded by Embedded Video