Dancing in the moonlight: Latvia's charming open-air dance tradition

In cooperation with the Satori.lv culture portal, LSM presents an article that appeared on the third edition of the Latvian Centenary Magazine. It first appeared under the title "The Tradition of Open-Air Dance is Still Alive in Latvia" and discusses the still-strong tradition of open-air dances. Author: Ieva Vītola.

Zaļumballe[1] is a beautiful and sonorous Latvian word, still used to refer to an outdoor event in the summer, accompanied by music and dancing. Truth be told, each generation has different associations with the word. To my daughter, who attended her first open-air dance this May, it’s a party with a DJ on an open-air stage. To me, open-air dance conjures the music of Labvēlīgais Tips, colourful lights in the dark of the ruins of the Sigulda Castle, and traversing the entire town at sunrise. My dad thinks of the “Ievziedu” open-air dance with a stage ensemble and songs sung by Raimonds Eizenšmits, while my 95-year-old aunt recalls open-air dances with brass bands, slow foxtrot, tango, and the Lambeth Walk, the arduous squats of which made your legs hurt so much it was difficult to milk the cows the day after.

On 11 August, 2018 – 100 days before the birthday of Latvia – people will come together in more than 150 locations in Latvia for the Centenary Open-Air Dance Party. In anticipation for the event, the multi-industry art group Serde have researched the tradition of open-air dances in Latvia. In interviews with open-air dancers, musicians and organisers, they’ve identified the most characteristic qualities of open-air dances then and now, also recording amusing reminiscences of people’s experiences at these parties. These have been collected and published in a booklet about the tradition, Zaļumballe.

So what is the situation with open-air dances in Latvia nowadays? What has changed within the customarily popular tradition, which acquired stable footing among the ways of summer entertainment in the latter half of the 19th century, as different societies and public organisations started throwing an increasing number of outdoor events? At that time, open-air dances were also called “greenery pleasures” or “greenery celebrations” and always took place concurrently with a theatre play, or a choral concert, followed by a recreational event with dancing. Then, open-air dances were held at “ever-so-nice places”, such as parks, birch groves, river banks, meadows, valleys, castle mounds and castle ruins.

Party days and locations

The tradition of open-air dance has not disappeared throughout the years, but it has changed. At one time, open-air dances took place almost every weekend, but now they’re mostly held on Midsummer’s Eve, during municipal celebrations or, in some places in Latvia, following the commemorative cemetery rituals known as kapu svētki.

Earlier, open-air dances took place from late spring to the end of summer, usually after work on Saturdays, often on Sundays, and during different celebrations. In the inter-war period, these celebrations were the Pentecost, Midsummer, local song festivals, while during the Soviet times open-air dances were held in events important for collective life, like the conclusion of the sowing and threshing season, coming-of-age celebrations, etc.

“Back then, it went like this: you tidy up the house on Saturday and go into the sauna. Sundays were for church, and dancing. Then, when the kolkhozes arrived, Sunday became a holiday: then the open-air dances were organised already on Saturdays. Before that, they were only on Sundays until 3 a.m., no longer. At 3 a.m. you had to leave peacefully, as the next day you had to go to work. But when the dances were held on Saturday evenings, all hell broke loose, I tell you!” (Taken from an interview with V. Treijs in Eikaži, Krumulda Municipality.)

“In the earlier days, they didn’t stop dancing at 3 or 4 a.m. They stopped at 6 to 7 a.m. This was mandatory. The dances never concluded earlier than that. There were people who danced the entire night, who danced each dance. We repeated each song twice.” (From an interview with A. Pugačs in Jēkabpils.)

Nowadays, open-air dances usually take place on open-air stages and on town squares. But before, many places in Latvia had purpose-built locations for open-air dances. These were the so-called “dance squares”, “greenery squares”, “dance fields”, and “dance spots”. The location of the open-air dance was often fitted with benches, situated around the dance space, as well as a small platform for the musicians. In some instances, a dance floor was built as well. The entrance and the ticket office were marked with the gates of honour or decorative birch boughs. To supplement the moonlight, the party squares were lit by bonfires, string lights put in trees, and spotlights. Even now the Latvian landscape features such locations, once fitted for dancing with tree saplings and platforms for musicians, such as the Kuiķule natural harbour on the bank of Svētupe; the open-air dance location by the Meiri home at Dundaga Municipality; the Siliņi woods in Staicele, etc.

Up to the Second World War, such large-scale open-air events – with participants in the hundreds – were most often managed by different organisations, including volunteer fire-fighters, the Aizsargi paramilitary organisation, as well as teachers’, farmers’, etc. associations, and party offices, labour unions, and schools. Open-air dances also took place in people’s backyards, as well as in barns and threshing houses, where the local youth came together, usually in early summer or when it rained, after having arranged the time and place once they got together following church service or as the previous party was drawing to a halt. These were named “barn dances”, “threshing-house dances”, “corner parties” or, as they used to call open-air dances in Latgale, the vecherinkas (from the Russian for “party”).

“Then, in the summer, parties were held in threshing houses. These were so great! There were decorative birch boughs all around. Musicians were playing and dancers were dancing.” (From an interview with A. Jukevičs in Ragana, Krimulda Municipality.)                                                                                              

The age of disco, and demography

Musicians are an integral part of any open-air dance. Being a party musician was once a prestigious thing. The tradition of open-air dances is closely related to folk musicians. It was often where, on the one hand, people were inspired to learn to play a musical instrument, and, on the other, they could practice their music skills and lose themselves to the joy of performing.

Earlier the musical repertoire of open-air dances was dominated by schlager music, the most beloved hits of which were “By the Amber Sea”, “The Blue Kerchief”, “Brown-eyed Girl”, and “I Know I’ll Have a Little Garden Someday”, etc. Speaking of the most popular melodies in open-air dances, musicians often divide the timeline before and after the advent of Raimonds Pauls’ songs.

Nowadays, it’s mostly DJs who provide the music part in open-air dances. The disco era, which started in the 70s and 80s of the 20th century, heavily influenced the tradition of open-air dances in Latvia. Brass bands with horn music were outcompeted by electric guitars, synthesizers, and tape recorders. Many stage ensembles and small countryside orchestras disbanded. The younger generation no longer knew the words referring to stage musicians, like misiņgrauzēji[2], taurnieki[3], and prāģeri[4]. The rhythms of slow foxtrot, tango, and waltz were heard less and less often, with many dancers starting to “kick around” and “shake themselves” on their own accord.

“In the end, it came to that everyone danced by themselves and no longer needed a partner. Everyone danced, tossed about, and swayed—alone.” (From an interview with R. Jukevičs in Ragana, Krimulda Municipality.)

“Now there are much fewer brass bands. Parties featuring brass bands are rare nowadays.” (From an interview with A. Muižnieks in Sigulda.)

The demographic situation in the Latvian countryside hasn’t served open-air dances well, either. Many remember the image of dance squares bursting with people, to the point where “the plank floor creaked and swayed”. Now dancing has become freer and more expansive, and party organisers have to think hard about finding suitable musicians and, because of this, of setting appropriate ticket prices.

“Everyone came to the parties. It was all jolly good fun. This was in the 70s. As time went on, there were fewer people. And then it died out – there was no one left.” (From an interview with P. Ščuckis in Varakļāni.)

Refreshments and fighting

Some phenomena linked to open-air dances can still be found, such as the buffet of snacks and spirits and the ensuing fights among boys and men. It’s the buffet—serving as it does to “lift one’s spirits” and “enhance courage”—which gave the male dancers the courage not just to conduct themselves in a stately manner, but also to initiate or get involved into fights. As such, the buffet is considered to be the negative side of the tradition. That’s why newspapers sometimes referred to open-air dances in condemnatory terms like “dancing to bad music”, “drunken roaring”, “shallow greenery celebrations”, “bush culture”, etc.

Nowadays, too, open-air dances can serve as the places where – just like long ago – villages, parishes, and neighbourhoods “resolve their relationships”. Ethnic disputes are being settled between Latvians and Russians, and the age-old reason for fighting – who gets the girl – hasn’t disappeared. Nevertheless, if fists were the only means to secure victory previously, with the passage of time this unwritten rule has given way, with various accessories such as whips and sticks among others, and kicking becoming commonplace.

“What’s an open-air dance? It absolutely must have a buffet!” (From an interview with A. Zdanovskis in Jēkabpils.)

“You could buy many things in the buffet, but drink is of most importance in evenings like these. Back then, it wasn’t like now when you can’t buy drink after ten p.m. You could sell all night, and you could drive too. There were no speed limits on the roads.” (From an interview with M. Nummurs in Kuiķule, Salacgrīva Municipality.)

Unwritten rules

There were some other unwritten rules. You had to wear decent clothes to the party. Ladies invariably wore dresses or skirts to the open-air dance. Boys eschewed ripped jeans or sagging sports trousers. Furthermore, open-air dances were always a place to show off what was fashionable in the day. In the 1950s, stylish boys wore shoes with very thick soles coupled with very tight pants. Then wide-leg trousers and flowery shirts came along; then jeans, turtlenecks, and so on.

If they wanted musicians to repeat a song, the audience clapped incessantly on the dance floor. It was considered well-mannered, after it’s the ladies’ turn to ask for a dance, to ask them back and dance at least once or twice. Refusals weren’t well tolerated. In Bērzciems, near Engure, if a boy refused to dance at a party, the women pooled their money and sent him home. Another unwritten rule: inviting your wife or girlfriend for the first waltz, and only then waltzing with another lady or the neighbour. The male dance partner was to accompany his partner for the last dance home.

“There were ladies’ dances and applause. They wanted an encore. Everyone was standing, applauding and the musicians started anew.” (From an interview with U. Gulbis in Āraiši, Amata Municipality.)

“If a girl asked me to dance, I had to ask her back for the next dance. It was an obligation. It was a law: after the ladies’ dance, I must ask the same girl who asked me. It was not written anywhere, but these rules were communicated from one person to another. It was good manners.” (From an interview with A. Jukevičs in Ragana, Krimulda Municipality.)

Reproductive and social role

Early on, people spent “cosy and useful” time at open-air dances. Young and old people were in attendance. Children went along, making mischief around the bushes. Some of them – the sharpest –collected the lost coins and empty bottles as the sun rose.

But, over time, the social role of the open-air dance has shifted, too. Earlier, you learned the village news at the dance. There were often older women sitting on the benches, observing what took place on the dance floor and interpreting it as they saw fit. Of course, they retold it to others in the following days. Now, in the era of mass media and social networks, it’s no longer relevant, as there are enough news and topics to think about and discuss either way.  

“Young people came to the threshing-house parties, but the kolkhoz parties were also attended by all the old ladies, who sat there until the lights went out. They watched who danced with whom. They observed everything and talked about it!” (Laughs) (From an interview with A. Jukevičs in Ragana, Krimulda Municipality.)

The role that open-air dances played in encouraging reproductive processes has also diminished. Earlier, open-air dances were a place to meet, take a liking to one another, and dance together. This was often followed by weddings and establishing new families. Nowadays, sympathies can still be felt in the air, and some romantic walks where girls are accompanied on their way home after the dance are still happening here and there.

“The dances were the main location where young people met. There weren’t many who sat in the bars. The dances were the main thing, after which, in 90% of the cases, marriage ensued!” (From an interview with A. Mihalovskis in Jēkabpils.)

***

Thinking of the future of open-air dances in Latvia, it seems that the current situation will continue, and open-air events on stages with DJ music and beer and cider tents will be considered to be real open-air dances. But there’s a chance that the tradition of open-air dances will undergo a revival and that they will once again happen at the age-old locations with the horn music, waltzes, and ladies’ dances leaving the party-goers with memories of what makes a true party:                                                                                              

“It’s called Dubrīte. It’s in the midst of the woods, a very nice place – a forest glade. There were benches lining the clearing. And there were decorative birch boughs by the benches. Elegant—that’s what I would call it! And for the musicians there was a special space to sit and play. For lighting there was either the moon or the usual kerosene lamps.” (From an interview with V. Putroms in Vabole, Daugavpils Municipality.)


[1] Henceforth referred to as “open-air dance”. The Latvian word is a compound from zaļumi (greenery) and balle (ball, party).

[2] Horn players. Literally, “brass eaters”.                                                                                                                   

[3] Trumpet players and horn players.

[4] Travelling musicians.

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