TALLINN - This year's Song and Dance Festival, "To Breathe as One," has taken the ancient tradition to new heights.
The Estonian nation gathers in Tallinn once every five years to celebrate its national heritage of song and dance. This year, a choir of as many as 27,000 raised goose bumps on the skins of spectators in the Song Celebration Grounds over two days. Across the city, at Kalev Stadium, a spectacular dance festival took place over three days.
The event was held in parallel with the Lithuanian Song and Dance Festival, which this year was held in honor of the country's millennial celebrations (see story Page 16).
This year's Estonian celebration saw the largest participation since the country regained independence in 1991. What was a celebration of liberation at that time has evolved into a much lighter event, a true national festival of culture.
"The importance of song festivals in the core of our existence cannot be measured," President Toomas Hendrick Ilves said in his opening speech. "It can only be understood if you try to imagine being Estonian without it. We cannot do it, it is unimaginable."
"The meaning of song festivals and dancing has changed over timeâ€¦ We have turned ourselves into a nation through singing, an Estonian speaking nation. We have freed ourselves through singing," the president said.
There were over 37,000 singers, dancers and musicians at the celbration. Unofficially, 154,000 tickets were sold in total for dance and song concerts during the three day long festival.
All three dance concerts were sold out, each for 11,300 seats. The first concert of the song celebration attracted 52,000 spectators and the second 68,000.
Singing in a choir is one of the most popular arts hobbies in Estonia. Statistics Estonia reported that in 2008 there were 73,000 people in Estonia who in their free time were involved in a folk culture activity.
At this year's Song and Dance Celebration, 864 choirs and brass orchestras with 26,000 singers and musicians performed along with 534 dance and gymnastic groups with 7,460 dancers and gymnasts.
In addition to Estonian singers and dancers, 41 foreign countries with 1,340 singers participated at the celebration. There were singers and dancers from U.S.A., Canada, Belgium, Spain, Germany, Great Britain, Finland, Denmark, Ukraine, Russia and Hungary.
"One reason is definitely that the youth celebration held two years ago gave a strong impulse, as it happened to take place after the April riots. At these times, people are always interested in events that unite them," said Ants Soots, Artistic Director of the Song Celebration.
"Secondly, society has changed compared to the past. Many 30 to 40-year-olds have already accomplished their goals, no longer working day and night, they have returned to choirs."
"Many new choirs have emerged from groups of friends who once sang in a youth or students choir," he said.