You’ll see the volunteers scanning tickets, manning information points and giving directions, but much more goes on behind the scenes. Volunteers, for example, help set up venues and run the media center, assist the event producers, prepare transport passes and pack participants’ goodie bags.
LSM spoke to three people with experience in volunteering at the Song and Dance Festival to find out why they do it and what they gain from giving their time to the cause.
Krišjānis Bite is a multimedia communication and choreography student, and dance instructor. He was a volunteer at the 2018 Song and Dance Festival where he worked at the media center assisting journalists. At the time he lived in London, and the festival became a turning point in his life.
“As I watched the dancers enter the stadium with the Latvian flag, I thought to myself 'What am I doing in London? I’ve got to come home.' So I went back to London and packed my suitcase,” he says. This year, Krišjānis will not e a volunteer – he will be dancing at the festival.
“It feels like no one else knows anything like it. Others don’t really understand how people come together from all over the place to dance. It’s this huge self-confidence-raising moment of togetherness and understanding. A relentless force,” says Krišjānis.
Krišjānis sees it as “our intangible cultural heritage, the Latvian way of life – an amazing thing to be able to share. It’s really great to be able to say that almost everyone has sung or danced at some point in their lives, which isn’t that common in other countries.”
Māra Zukure works in the IT sector. The 2023 festival will be her third time volunteering at the Song and Dance Festival. Last time, she even combined volunteering with participating as part of a folk group. This year, Māra’s volunteering again, skillfully finding a way to juggle her duties with her new role as a mother. Since she lives in Bratislava, the festival was one of the reasons for coming to Latvia this year.
“It’s an event that brings people home,” Māra explains.
“Suddenly, the border between you and me disappears, and it’s just us. The feeling stays with you even when you’re running low on enthusiasm. You recall it, find a photo of the time and then, gradually, the joy returns,” says Māra.
“It’s like a week-long party but, of course, it’s also work – work for the soul. You don’t do it for money. Everyone’s running on enthusiasm. It’s like an energy bomb filling Riga with bursts of positivity,” Māra paints a vivid picture.
“The greatest moment was last time, when I was at Mežaparks at seven or eight in the morning on the day of the grand finale concert. No one else was there apart from the techies. We were assembling the info point. That day, we were one of the first to arrive and one of the last to leave because we finished when the party was over. We were still there writing up the paperwork for the police about all the lost and found items. It felt like I’d set the table and cleaned up after a major celebration,” she continues.
“When else would you be able to say that you were in Mežaparks before everyone else, that you watched the flag being raised from beside the choir as everyone sang the anthem. I still get tears of joy. It felt like all of Latvia was beside me,” Māra sums up.
Normunds Dumpis is a seasoned volunteer and background actor in movies, including the upcoming Zeme, kas dzied (The Land that Sings) dedicated to the first ever Song Festival. He has volunteered at the festival several times, taking on tasks like scanning tickets and coordinating bus departures.
For Normunds, it’s about expanding his horizons: “Volunteering develops your sense of responsibility. You get to do a lot of different things and get better at them every time. It’s interesting and adds variety to your life.”
“The festival’s been happening for 150 years! It’s a major national event that gathers people. No matter how small Latvia may be, the sense of unity shows how big it actually is. There’s strength in unity,” Normunds believes.
“To be part of it, it’s impossible to put into words,” Normunds states.
All three volunteers agreed that though their work is unpaid, it can have indirect benefits for their working lives.
Krišjānis says: “I don’t even think about being paid at the time. As a newcomer to the events and culture sector, to get to work with such experienced people and be able to add this to my CV is already a lot. Now I know people who I can turn to if I have a dance project, for example. It’s networking.”
“For anyone working in a nine-to-five job, this is a chance to get a change of scenery, expand your network and gain new skills you can later use in your work, like time management and planning. It’s a chance to escape your comfort zone. Because it’s a huge event, things happen fast and you have to adapt. It makes you tougher.”
“You have to love the work. You can’t say 'I can do this but won’t do that'. It’s about adapting – being able to do one thing for ten minutes and then move on to the next. You need to understand that every job is important for everything to come together, and be able to prioritise and plan your time,” says Krišjānis.
“Many of those who go on to work in the cultural sector have started their careers as volunteers. The event production scene in Latvia is small. It’s a chance to see who has the energy and drive. The ones who show what they're capable of get more opportunities,” Māra expands.
“This is an opportunity for those who don’t sing or dance, who feel like a bear has stepped on their left foot and there’s a rabbit sitting on their right foot, and who’ve sacrificed their voice to the birds. Anyone can play a part in the celebrations. More introverted people can help the techies set up the stage. That’s a whole community. To those who enjoy communicating more actively – the info points await. And anyone interested in PR and communications could accompany the foreign delegations. You just need a heart of gold, a sunny smile, to be sincere and open minded,” she says.
“I feel like everyone needs a sense of belonging. Well, it’s hard to think of a greater sense of community and better teamwork,” she finishes.
Normunds speaks of the energy it takes but also the rewards you can reap: “Volunteering is about energy, willpower and enthusiasm. Some people like it and some don’t. I’m drawn to it. You can learn a lot from volunteering.”
The XXVII Nationwide Latvian Song and XVII Dance Festival, which marks the 150th year of the Song Festival tradition, will take place in Riga from the 30th June to the 9th July, 2023. For more information see: https://www.dziesmusvetki.lv/en/about-the-celebration/the-song-and-dance-celebration/