Semele (LKT)

This entry is part of the Lexicon of Klezmer Terminology (LKT). The LKT compiles a wide array of source materials that shed light on the historical and contemporary state of knowledge about klezmer music. Each entry includes a number of citations from primary and secondary sources that include or refers to the term in question. It also indicates whether musical notation or sound recordings are included in the source. By clicking on the bibliographic hyperlink at the end of each citation, you get the full reference.


“Sometimes dances are mentioned in the literature for which we have not been able to gather data, although they were danced in the late nineteenth century. For example, a folk song (Ginzburg-Marek 1901: no. 254) mentions a dance called semene (Moliver, Vilna, Kovno gubernias): Gave a tree/ took it back, Play a semene for an aunt.

In another folk song the dance is called semele instead of semene (Cahan 1914: no. 106)... Play me a semene, not a kozacke, I’m poor, but I’m some guy, here’s a payem (?), play me a semele, Xanele xosele, is what they called Avremele. Cahan 1931 has little information on this dance. There he cites all the folk songs that mention the semene/semele dance. Cahan introduces some German folk songs as well as Jewish ones in which we find a similar dance. However, the material is too limited to allow the possibility of saying anything definitive about the dance in question. At the moment I can think of another song in which we meet the same dance: Zunser’s ‘fun der xejdr zog men nit ojs’ (Zunser 1895:30)... Women, clap! You’ve gotten satisfaction: Both mothers-in-law dancing a šemele. This song has great value for us. First, we can be sure that the semene/semele/semele [shemele] dance was a solo dance (both mothers-in-law) and that, second, it was well known in the 1870s and 1880s (at least in the Vilna area). The name might well have remained in folk songs after the dance itself was forgotten, but Zunser, who sang his songs for wedding guests, would certainly not have needed to mention a long-forgotten dance. From this it is clear that through some effort one could still find living people who remember how it was danced. Old klezmorim from the appropriate regions could tell about this dance and give its melody.” Beregovski 1937 [= Beregovski/Slobin 1982, pp. 539-40].

“Sung to a semele-tants.” Cahan 1938, p. 305 (#69)

“‘Play a semele for the bride’s aunt!... she is poor, but lively... play a kazattske!’...Sung to a semele-tants.” [Podbroz, near Vilna, Lithuania, c. 1920s-30s]. Cahan 1938, pp. 40 (#69), 305 (#69)

“No. 254 [of the Marek-Ginsburg 1901 collection]. A folksong. ‘Semele-tants’ must have been a lewd dance. This should be investigated." Cahan 1952a, p. 155

“The collector explains that semene is an ancient dance. And this is also definitely confirmed in a children’s song which I found in Berman’s collection (Niger’s Der pinkas, Vilna 1913, p. 387, #46), which is sung this way: ‘Semene dance -- fish in water swim here and there...’

Since children already sing this song, it is probably very old. But what is relevant is that the name of the dance is also found in our variants in the form ‘semele,’ which the dancer, the poor, scrawny aunt, stresses so much, perhaps because she thinks that the klezmer don’t know which type of dance this is, therefore they play her a whole kazatske. It is apparent from the whole song, that this or the ‘semele’ must once have been famous folk-dance among the great masses, and perhaps a sexual and exotic one --  moreover, it may be, that people did not want to let it into a proper wedding.

We find a small hint about the ‘semele’ in an old-Swiss children’s dance, a baletartikn, which was brought in Rokhholtz’s collection of children’s songs and children’s plays. In old-argot the dance was called Tschamlen, and therefore people used to sing the following song: ‘Bischof, Bischof, Schamele,/bis i drumol ume bi!’

Possibly, that the ‘shemele’ has some kind of connection to our semele-tants. It is difficult to ascertain. Though the replacement of ‘sh’ with ‘s’ allows for an simple explanation owing to the fact that all variants of our dance-tune stem from the Vilna and Kovno regions...” Cahan 1952b, pp. 90-92

“‘Play me a semene, not a kazatske; I am poor, but a dazzler. Here’s a peyem [?], play me a semele; Khanele’s khatele, people call Avramele’... [Cahan’s note:] semele = semene.” Cahan 1957, pp. 241-42 (#258), 491 (#258) [= Cahan 1914 (#106); Cahan 1952b, pp. 90-92]

“The bride had her space, where the women quibbled with the girls, [and] there a konter-tants was danced for [the women’s] approval, one which only the Modnitzers knew, this [dance] was already part of the high hand-dances, next [came]: a semele...” [Vilna, Lithuania, 1890s]. Matskevits 1893

“Hershl Danilevitsh (Poland) (Heri Daniels) in his collection of new paintings brings a portrait (#3) [of the]... ‘semeli dance with challah.’” [Warsaw, Poland]. Rivkind 1960, p. 31

“[At the end of the beroyges-tants,] suddenly the klezmorim change the melody and shift to the ‘sholem dance’ melody, that was also called the ‘semene’ dance or the ‘semele’ (mus. ex. 16, 17).” [Ritova, Lithuania, c. 1910s-20s]. Stutschewsky 1959, p. 173. (Musical notation included). 

See Shemele and Shemene.