Latvian bush dancing sweeps across Australia

  • 2002-04-18
  • Vineta Lagzdina

Polkas, early waltzes, clap dancing and hip banging - just about every element of Latvian dances was on show all the way down the east coast of Australia during the burning hot midsummer of January this year.

At the helm of this whirlwind tour of Latvian bush dancing - what Australians call ethnic dance - was music specialist Arturs Uskans, a lecturer at Daugavpils University and leader of the Laimas Muzikanti folk music group, who was invited by Latvian Australians to hold a series of dance evenings and workshops.

Interest among Australia's 20,000-strong Latvian community in folk dancing from their homeland has been strong since many of them arrived from displaced-person camps in Germany between 1948 and 1952.

But there has been redoubled interest since Uskans' first visit to Australia last year, when he appeared at the week-long "Tris Reiz Tris" (Latvian for Three Times Three) camp, which is designed for the three generations of Latvians now living in Australia. Crafts and music mix with heated political and historical debates, with singing and dancing in the evenings.

The idea of camps like this is to keep the Latvian culture going.

After the U.S.A., Australia has the largest Latvian community outside Latvia. Most of those who arrived after the war considered themselves refugees rather than volunteer migrants and were prepared to return to Latvia if the political situation changed. Australia needed workers after the war. Latvians had to fulfill a two-year labor contract on arrival.

The newcomers felt a cultural and political responsibility toward Latvia, and a thriving community life was established that continues to this day. Besides the folk groups, there are credit unions, community schools, theater companies and elderly people's homes.

Major annual Latvian events in Australia include a theater festival, a writers' week, a Latvian cultural festival and a youth congress plus an intensive three-week residential "vasaras vidusskola" (summer high school).

This summer school for 13-18 year olds is held every year at the same seaside location - the Dzintari resort near Adelaide. It provides classes on history, geography, language, jewelry, leather work, pottery, music and sports progressively over four years.

By the fourth year a young person can become an "audzinaatajs" (teacher's assistant).

After arriving in Sydney, Uskans immediately got into gear and set up an ensemble with four violins, a guitar, a flute, percussion and himself as leader on accordion for the New Year's dance "Lai Ta Buda Ruc" ("Let the Shack Roar"). No one in the 200-strong crowd was left sitting, no matter what age, and song lists were handed around so everybody could join in.

This dance night was in marked contrast to the formal Latvian balls Australian-Latvians are used to. All that leaping about was a bit wearing on the older folks, but there were big smiles all around. It turned out to be a great celebration.

From Sydney, Uskans was rushed off to Brisbane, 1,700 kilometers to the north, for another 3x3 camp, and from there 2,500 kilometers to Adelaide and Dzintari.

"It was a pleasure to meet Arturs Uskans," said Edgars Greste, a young teacher's assistant. "I learned a lot about Latvian dances and songs. Uskans was inspiring. We learned over a dozen different dances."

Dance nuances

Uskans says that about 50 ethnic dances are known by many young Latvians, and altogether approximately 200 different dances are regularly performed across Latvia.

Dances like the "garais dancis" (the long dance) and "kekavnieki" (the inhabitants of Kekava) show up Latvia's regional nuances. Original dances are still being discovered in remote villages.

An integral part of rural life, many of these dances originated as early as the 16th century. Although the rich history of the "dainas" (folk songs) and folk tales has been well preserved, dances were often forgotten because life changed to urbanization so rapidly in the 20th century.

This was especially the case during the Soviet era, except for some of the more stylized folk dancing in costume as tourist displays. According to Uskans, the modern folklore movement began among enthusiasts in Lithuania in the mid-70s and then infiltrated Latvia in the late 70s. Inspired by a search for identity, this rediscovery mainly took place undercover, away from the glare of the Soviet authorities.

For Uskans the most important thing about the dancing is "to feel it." He says he doesn't teach but uses improvisation and adapts instruments so the dancing can happen. "It's all a process," he says. But he wants to teach for a reason.

"We have to think for how long young Latvians in Australia can hold onto these traditions. Many will intermarry and have children, and then you have to think about what language they will speak. I think the only possible hope is that they will want to go to Latvia and live there. Then there is some sense to learning about all this culture and dance. Otherwise it seems false, this maintenance of Latvianism."

Summer school closed with a dance night called "Lai Skan" ("Let It Sound"), with parents, relatives and friends invited. The dance orchestra included about 20 young musicians, and during the evening Estonian guests Aaron Tamme, artistic director of the Estonian Folk Ensemble, and musician Kustas Tiivas played tunes on their Estonian bagpipes.

Time was also given to Irish music. Uskans had joined a band of musicians at an Irish pub earlier in the week, and they were happy to reciprocate. It was a great night.

From Adelaide, Uskans drove 1,100 kilometers to Melbourne to give a seminar on Latvian ethnic dance and its awakening in modern Latvia and brought together an ensemble over the four-day Melbourne Dance Night event.


Final port of call was Sydney, where Uskans hosted a big dance night on the eve of his departure for Daugavpils.

"The process should be followed up soon, otherwise Australia will have the same problem as Canada, where there are no musicians left to play "tautas muzika" (ethnic music). There are lots of people who play classical and jazz, but for this you need to be able to play along, improvise, be guided by the public and respond to what they want or what's in the air."

So the plan is that Uskans will return together with his group, Laimas Muzikanti, for the Latvian cultural festival "Kulturas Dienas" ("Culture Days") in Sydney in December 2002.

Edgars Greste, meanwhile, wants to get a "dancu krogs" (dance pub) up and running in Sydney. "Uskans told us about the dance pubs he runs in Latvia, and this idea really inspired me. I want it to happen in Sydney, not just for the Latvians but for anyone interested."

The dance nights have been going on in Sydney since Uskans returned to Latvia. So watch out - whirling Latvians could bowl you over anywhere on the planet, and before you know it you'll be dancing, too.