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Latvian folklore dance

Dance is one of the components of national culture, which itself reflects the history, traditions and national / regional mentality. At the same time it gives people a wide range of self-expression – receive and pass on skills, gain emotional satisfaction, meaningful leisure and relax time, become aware of ones national / regional identity, as well as present it in an attractive form. Recently the public interest in traditional music and dance has increased. In addition there is a growing desire and need to build and maintain self-identity in the increasingly homogenous global mass culture.

The first professional Latvian choreographer Jekabs Stumbris in the 20th century 30s writes “In the current times there is great interest in Latvian dances, yet there is a lack of truly good dancers and musicians.” It must be admitted that not much has changed since. Despite the rather large number of dancers there is a lack of people with professional knowledge in this field.

Research on Latvian dances

As in many European countries, research and documentation of dances started late. The oldest Latvian dance examples are fragmentary and difficult to interpret. They are the 17th-18th century travel stories and church visitation protocols, where dancing is described as “shameless agility”.

Folk dance research and gathering started in the beginning of the 20th century. The first Latvian folk music composer and teacher Andrew Jurjans issued 2 singing and dancing books. These books are still a very important source. However, many dance descriptions are shown only schematically and thus are practically impossible to recreate.

In 1924 the Archive of Latvian Folklore is created. There is a significant amount of dance material, but mainly songs and texts. A specialist dance archive has never been created.

In 1920s, few years after the formation of Latvian Republic the first folk ensembles are formed and there is a growing public interest in folk dancing. Educated dance teachers get involved in the research of dance; in the 1930s books for practical use are issued. Important figures are Johanna Rinka and Janis Ošs, Jekabs Stuburs and Elza Silina. E.Silina is also the first theoretical dance essay author. However, the collection of dance material at the time is still selective and only those dances are published which the researchers find to be suitable. In addition, part of the material is published with the improvements from the researchers and without source references.

In the 70s the dance teacher Harry Suna seriously addressed the Latvian traditional dances. From the archive materials he collected and published a major Latvian couple-dance and song books, as well as wrote several theoretical works. He created interest in traditional dance and a number of his students continued his work.

In 2000 there has been issued several books for the practical work of folk ensembles – A.Slišāne “Latgaliesu Dancing”, E.Spīča “Martinu Dance Book”, as well as the “Riga Dance Club” video instructions. Nowadays, folk dance teachers use mainly video recordings on YouTube and other internet resources.

Since the 1990s various folk collective members collected a lot of dance material. These materials are usually filmed thus facilitating the interpretation of the dance. However, these materials are not collected systematically and are in private collections – therefore difficult to obtain for research and practical application.

There is still a lack of research or publications into Latvian folk dances. Thousands of dance records that have not been studied are still stored in the Archive of Latvian Folklore.


Dance in practical use

In Latvia in the 1930s there are groups of people who study the books published and perform them in dance shows and a variety of festive performances, folk dancing occurs frequently in school activities. After the Soviet occupation in 1945, folk art is included in propaganda work and is under strict control. There are strict artistic criteria and a common repertoire. It is supervised by professional ballet choreographers, who recommended a replacement of traditional dance with stylized choreography that is more suitable for the stage. This dance culture gained a lot of popularity and continues today. Currently, it accounts for a large part of the Latvian dance groups- more than 500 different age collectives. Typically, stage dance ensembles use phonograms in their performance and their choreography is often very different form traditional dance movements. Recently they have begun to use folk music to accompany their performances.

Since 1970’s authentic folklore and ethnographic dance become an active movement in the Baltic States. The motion is characteristic by denial of the official state-backed folk art and working instead with the original folklore records. For this reason there is a significant distinction between stage dancing, which often uses the term “folk dance” and the folk, or traditional dance, which work by interpreting the original folklore recordings.

The first traditional Latvian folk dance ensemble “Dandari” was created in 1980. Currently, there are about 10 Latvian folklore collectives that regularly create dance programs.

Strong impetus to the development of Latvian folk dancing gave the Festival Baltica traditional dance balls events in 1988 in Vilnius, Lithuania. Latvians rapidly took on this form of dance events, as well as many Lithuanian dances. Between 1990 and 2000 similarly in all of the Baltic countries folk club movement developed. Folk dance turned out to be interesting even to people unrelated to the traditional culture. The first club where folk dancing was taking place regularly and where people were able to learn to dance in Riga where the open dance classes organized by the folklore ensemble “Savieši” once a month. On the basis of this formed the “Riga Dance Club”. Later on several such clubs formed in other cities.

Originally traditional dance event were non-commercial, but with the growing popularity of these events folk ensembles and the club members are often invited to participate in return for payment, and also folk-balls with entry fees are organized. Currently, regular events are held at folk-pub “ALA” in Riga.

Folkdance repertoire in clubs includes only couples dancing, with rare aditional game elements – such as changing partners. Dancing in clubs can be characterized by free style dancing without special training and learning dance steps. On the one hand, it promotes the integration of a large number of participants, but it causes a rapid worsening of dance steps. It creates a uniform, casual style of dance. The usual dance repertoire in clubs is quite limited – 20-30 dances. New and different repertoire is adopted with difficulty. Since the beginning of the movement Latvian and Lithuanina dances have been danced at these folk pubs, and now other countries folk dances as well – Russian, Hungarian, Estonian, Hungarian, Irish, French dances.

Types of Latvian folk dance

In practice, the “folklore dance” has different names – traditional, ethnographic, folkloric dance, folk dance, ethno or simply “dances”. Each of them has its own nuances, but here we will stay at the “folklore of dance” in the sense of all documented choreographic (movement) folklore heritage without adaptation. We will not look into “folk dance” as adapted theatrical stage dance performance.
Researcher of Latvian dances Harry Suna (Harijas Sūna) divided folklore of dance into four genres – “Rounders” (circle game), “Rounder dance” (circle dance), “Folk game”, “Folk dance”. This division is well reflecting the typical performance and development of Latvian folk dance.

Rounder is a group action with three mandatory elements – choreographic course, song lyrics and melody. Rounders are mostly peaceful, moderate pace, with simple dance movements, and participants singing along.
Rounders are characterized by ornamental choreographic process, which structure is associated with the melody, but not the text. “Round” (circle) type and unlimited number of participants with one or more members in the middle, or unlimited number of couples is characteristic to Rounder. Usually it is a two-march combination, where in the first part participants walk in a circle, and in second part participants turn in elbows or execute „wreath”. Rounders usually have a strong structure, which seldom allows improvisation.

Rounder dance unlike the Rounders are expressive choreographic activities and have more detailed volume. Rounder dance popularity flourished in the 19th century, when different compositional solutions were borrowed from, polka, waltz, gallop dance steps, and quadrilles and assimilated with earlier Rounders and Rounder dances. The complex and rapid movements made it more difficult for participants to be singing, so often instrumental music is used. Rounder dance is characterized by an unlimited number of pairs in a circle.

Folk game. Activities of participants (especially the main character) are strongly related to the content of the songs in the game. The movements, which depict a scene, can be not synchronized with the music. Common are games to escape and capture. Folk games activity can be organized both – in circle or other shapes, or columns of pairs, spiral, snake, etc. Scenario allows a broad range of opportunities for improvisation and different solutions. The participants devote more attention for game and pantomimes, and choreographic conduct has rather marginal role.
Folk dance is the most complicated genre of the folklore of dance with a large variety of music, movements and shapes. Usually instrumental music or much less singer escort is accompanying dancers.

Folk dances can be sub-divided according to the number of dancers and dance composition.

Group dances for unspecified number of participants. These are considered to be the oldest layer of dance. Several types of compositions are characteristic – a circle or equally all over the field; or in a row, where dancers follow a dance leader; or standing in pairs, in two opposite rows.

Group dances for certain number of participants. It is younger layer of dances – danced from 18th century to the beginning of the 20th century. Usually is danced by a certain number of couples (rarely by 3 groups of dancers) usually 2 up to 8 couples. A typical arrangement of dancers is one couple opposite the other couple in row, square or circle. The most common arrangement is four couples in a square.
Dance composition and names display borrowings from European group dances and quadrilles with 4-6, up to 12 parts and matching musical accompaniment – quadrille, franksēze, anglēze, ekosēze etc. This dance form is nevertheless considered to be national. Special kind of group dances is dances with “spare” dancer or a couple of dancers, who are trying to get a partner or integrate into the regular drawing of the dance. In these dances musicians often determine the course of the dance by interrupting the music in suitable moment.

Couple dancing is the most recent layer of folk dance, characteristic to the 19th cent and first half of the 20th century. European and Russian dance fashion influenced development of this way of dancing and it often retains their essential movements as well as music. The most famous are – mazurka, reinlenders, hollander, polka, march, waltz, vengerka, padespaņj, krakovjak.
Couples dances have assimilated also other nation’s folk dances – German, Swedish, Polish, Russian, Estonian, etc. There is large variety in partners grip and diversity of dance steps. For example, for a polka step up to 20 different variations can be distinguished.

Both the music and the dance structure are dominated by repeating the two-path form with a strict choreography that prevents free improvisation. Usually dancing in pairs in a circle, less frequently in lines or freely throughout the space. According to the characteristics of the dancing situation, also the three or four people dances are considered to be couple dances.
Latvian folk dances have preserved also a few solo dance features, but in general they are not common.

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