Latvian Song and Dance Festivals

The XV General Song and Dance Festival is happening in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA this weekend and I’m not there. I feel sad and deprived. I’m lucky to have happy memories of many previous festivals. Only war was able to prevent the celebrations from happening in Latvia.

Song and dance unite us as a people.

The first song festival took place in Rīga over a period of four days during the month of June 1873. Forty-six choirs, with a total of more than 1000 singers from all over Latvia participated. These celebrations of song and our culture have taken place every five years since then no matter where in the world Latvians found themselves after the diaspora following the Soviet invasion of Latvia in 1944.

However, it’s not necessary to wait five years for the next festival. When they’re held depends on when Latvians in different countries first started putting on these fests. Sometimes two happen in one year. The next one will be in Rīga in 2023,

Despite being stateless refugees in German displaced person camps Latvians did not stop singing. Many artists, including musicians and dancers, were among the refugees. Choirs and dance ensembles were formed. Days of Song were held in various German towns as early as 1946. The biggest Song Festival in exile was held in Esslingen in 1947. This past June to mark the 75th anniversary of that occasion a festival was held in Esslingen.

The festivals aren’t just about singing and dancing. They have become celebrations of our culture which include theater productions, author mornings, and art and craft exhibits as well as the expected song and dance performances. During “author mornings” writers present readings of their latest prose and poetry.

Formal balls and informal parties are also a big part of the festivities. Latvians work hard and party hearty. There is the “Get Acquainted Ball” on the first night. The next night is the young people’s ball. The Grand Festival Ball happens on the last night of the big party.

Song Festivals are held in Australia, Canada, and the United States as well as in Europe. Until recently, the United States had two song festivals, the general festivals held in various east coast cities and the West Coast Song Festival. Sadly, the most recent West Coast festival which was held in San Jose, California is likely to be the last one. It takes lots of money and many volunteers to put on a festival. More Latvians live in the east than on the West Coast. I believe that the last festival in Seattle wound up in the red.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to attend song festivals all up and down the Pacific Coast from Vancouver, British Columbia to Southern California, as well as festivals in Toronto, Canada, and Rīga.

My memories of the various festivals I’ve attended over the years are pretty random.

Toronto has the largest population of Latvians outside Latvia. It was both surprising and gratifying to hear my language spoken almost everywhere I went. In a subway station on the way to the Latvian Cultural Center, I approached a group of Latvians to ask if I was on the right platform. I was. One couple turned out to be people who’d known my mother as a young woman back in Latvia.

During the festivals, there are always too many events going on to allow time for exploring the host city so I always stay a couple of extra days. One warm pleasant evening I was sitting in an outdoor cafe in the Yorkville neighborhood in Toronto listening to a street violinist play and reading a book when a woman at another table asked, “Are you Latvian?” She had seen my Namēja ring, a piece of jewelry that most Latvians, men, and women, wear. (I’ll have to write a separate post about them.) I invited her to join me at my table and we had a long amiable chat.

The Namē ring affirms Latvian identity.

One time when the festival was held in Seattle, I reserved a hotel room in town so I would have to drive the thirty+ miles back home. Venues in Seattle are widespread. Some were downtown, and others were in Seattle Center, not within walking distance. One night after the main dance performance a friend and I took the monorail from Seattle Center to downtown. We were not alone. Other Latvians in their folk dress were on the train with us. To the bemusement of non-Latvian riders, the Letts sang all the way back to town.

I remember the monorail well. I wish every town had them.

During one festival in Vancouver, B.C. a group that included my cousin went to a dive in Gas Town. Other Latvians were already there and had pretty much taken over the place, singing, drinking, and carrying on. Later I heard that a group of dancers performed on the plaza in front of the RCMP building in the middle of the night. As far as I know, the Mounties didn’t chase them away. Maybe they looked out the windows and enjoyed the dancing.

The partying can get so raucous that I sometimes wonder why the host cities allow us to come back. They not only allow us back, but they also fly our flag to welcome us. Latvians from all over the world flock to these events. The organizer booked several venues for the numerous events. Three, four, or more hotels fill up for five nights. Business booms in restaurants in the festival neighborhoods.

The song and dance festivals in Rīga are massive. Wars may have stopped the festivals but the Soviet occupation did not. It just distorted it.

Once our country was free again the festivals grew bigger, bolder, and better. Thousands of singers and dancers perform for an audience of tens of thousands.

The Grand Concert choir is comprised of choruses from all over the world.

The Grand Festival Concert wraps up the celebration but that doesn’t mean that the singing and dancing stop.

This song, Es nenācu šai vietā could be the unofficial anthem of the festivals. “I didn’t come here to sleep. I came to eat, I came to drink, I came to have a good time.”

Choristers letting down their hair after the closing concert of the 2010Song and Dance Festival in Rīga in 2010

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6 thoughts on “Latvian Song and Dance Festivals”

  1. Sveiki…. Good article and many memories. I’ve danced in all West Coast fests since ‘67. Just finished the XV DzSvetki in Minnesota. Great event…. getting ready for 2023 in Riga and 2024 in Toronto. Sveiks lai dzīvo.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jauki! You’re very dedicated. I might even have seen you dance. I’ve also been to a couple of festivals in Portland. I’d love to go to both events. Gotta sell a lot more books. Maybe my soul, too. Thanks for your comments. Dzīvo sveiks!


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