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Fire dance

Nestinarstvo is a ritual originally performed in several Bulgarian- and Greek-speaking villages in the Strandzha Mountains close to the Black Sea coast in the very southeast of Bulgaria. It involves a barefooted dance on smouldering embers performed by nestinari. It is usually performed on the square of the village in front of the whole population on the day of Sts. Constantine and Helen or the day of the village's patron saint. The ritual is a unique mixture of Eastern Orthodox beliefs and older pagan traditions from the Strandzha Mountains.

Traditionally, the right to perform the ritual would be hereditary and the head nestinar may be succeeded only by his or her son or daughter, and only when he or she is too old or ill to continue performing it. The head nestinar's house is sacred, because it houses the stolnina – a small chapel where icons of several saints are arranged, as well as a sacred drum used specifically for the ritual and believed to cure the drummer if he is ill.

On the day of the ritual the villagers would go to the stolnina led by the head nestinar and the priest, where they would watch him thurify the icons and the other nestinari, symbolically transferring them the spiritual power and inspiration. The people would then head to a holy spring carrying the name of the saint, where they would eat an offering of mutton.

After sunset, the crowd would build up a large fire and would dance a horo (a traditional round dance) until the fire dies and only embers remain. The Nestinari's barefoot dance on embers that follows as the climax of the night is accompanied by the beat of the sacred drum and the sound of a bagpipe. It is popularly thought that some of the dancers reach a religious state of trance while dancing, explaining why their feet don't burn and they allegedly don't feel pain.

In the 20th and 21st century the ritual became largely commercialized and is now performed for the foreign tourists all over the seaside resorts of the Bulgarian Black Sea Coast by people who have little to do with the original tradition. A few Bulgarians still perform the ritual in its more authentic form in the villages of Strandzha.

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