LSM spoke to three couples who met through folk dancing. As long-term members of folk dance groups, they spoke about how dancing and the festival enrich their lives.
Zane and Valters Skrastiņš
Zane and Valters Skrastiņš are members of Vektors, Riga Technical University's dance group, which prides itself on the number of couples it has nurtured. When Zane and Valters wed in 2015, they were couple number 42 to get married and received a special Vektors certificate to mark the milestone. Their witnesses were from the group, too.
The couple speaks fondly of the deep bond between the group's members and the impact that this community has on their lives.
“Outside work, life is about dancing. I go fishing and play hockey with the guys from Vektors too,” says Valters.
Zane believes that Uldis Šteins, the legendary former head of Vektors, is to thank for the encouraging environment that has forged so many relationships. “He always taught us to take things lightly, be real and go with the flow. No matter what you're like, when you end up in an environment like that, you absorb the attitude and fill up on positivity. Friendships emerge and some of those grow into something more.”
Valters describes it as “a space where you know you can do and say whatever you want and don't have to prove anything to anyone. You feel accepted. Friendships develop, relationships flourish.”
“I've had guys complain to me that they struggle to meet girls. I tell them not to come to me for advice because the only way I've made friends and had relationships is through dance. I have no idea how else people meet these days. Ok, so Tinder works, but what else?” he jokes.
When it comes to finding the time for dancing alongside their commitment to each other, their children, wider family and jobs, Zane says: “You find the time. It may not be as easy as it was in your twenties but it has a whole new meaning – it's about friendship.”
Friendship, shared experiences and emotions. Valters quotes Uldis Šteins who used to tell them: "To go on stage, you need to have something to say," and "There needs to be more sex!"
“Well, we listened! A lot of us have kids,” Valters laughs.
In the run-up to and during the festival everything becomes even more emotional, Zane reveals. “When you're standing there at the rehearsal and it's 30 degrees outside, you think about how hot you are and how hard it is but then, once it's over – all the concerts, parties and going home together before waking up early to iron your outfit – you forget how difficult it was and you just keep talking about it,” she says.
“Everyone's working towards the same goal. Amid the exhaustion, the aftertaste is really good. You don't even think about the fact that your foot's been hurting for three days. I think it's the positivity that everyone needs to be able to function. Otherwise, if you just go to work and then home again, everything's gray,” she continues.
“I had a dark moment when I'd left Vektors for a year or two. The festival was approaching and I felt awful thinking about having to watch it from the sidelines,” Valters adds.
For Zane, people who do something from the heart, like dancing, singing or playing an instrument, are different. “You're less “robotic” – you don't just go to work, go home and do something. You have a community,” she explains.
Lauma and Pēteris Studens
Lauma too is part of Vektors. Not only did she meet her husband Pēteris there but her parents got to know each other as members of Vektors more than 30 years earlier.
“Couples are one of the cornerstones of our group. Where there are families, there are values you can rely on. I believe this ensures that the dance tradition gets passed on. It's in the Vektors DNA,” she says.
For Lauma, dancing is a great help in getting to know people. “Dancing reveals what a person's really like, their personal values and how motivated they are. You can tell someone's character by looking at them dancing,” she says.
For couples, dancing is something to do together. “With work and home life, you don't get to spend so much time together but the rehearsals, concerts, journeys and parties – that's a lot of quality time you get to spend with your person. It gives you something to talk about, and you go through the same highs and lows,” Lauma shares of what she's learned from years of sharing the hobby with her partner. “As soon as you enter the rehearsal room, any other concerns stay outside,” she expands on the benefits.
Speaking of how to combine dancing with being a parent, Lauma says: “Many kids have grown up in the rehearsal room. They entertain themselves while the parents dance. With time, they get used to it, understand and start respecting the importance of this time to their parents. Families are a huge help, of course.”
She says that whether you can find time for dancing depends on personal motivation: “If you really want something, you make it happen.”
However, the occasional sacrifice is to be expected. “You find time for other hobbies and friends if you want to, but I do believe that every Vektors dancer has friends who haven't seen them in a long time. That's why you forge the strongest friendships there, because the time you spend together and the experience is so intense. Through all the ups and downs you get to know each other to the core,” she says.
This sense of unity and belonging also comes through when Lauma speaks of the Song and Dance Festival. She says that the experience makes you “feel Latvian to the bone and have this clear awareness of the nation's strength, resilience, capability and diligence.”
Astra and Reinis Pudāns
Astra and Reinis Pudāns are members of the Rotaļa dance group, as well as mum and dad to two pre-schoolers. Dancing is a shared hobby and a big part of their lives, particularly because it brought them together.
They're open about the logistical challenges of juggling parenting, work, their relationship and commitment to folk dancing. “You can't get by without support. It's not like it was when you were younger and had a lot of free time,” says Astra who is grateful to her family members for their support.
Apparently, a big question among dancing couples is: “Is it better to dance alone or together? If it's just the one of you, there'll always be someone at home, so you can just go and do your thing. If it's the both of you, it can be frustrating to have to manage looking after the kids but, at the same time, you get to experience something like that together,” says Astra.
To Astra and Reinis the benefits outweigh the challenges by far as the dancing keeps them positive and energized. “You go to rehearsal after work, meet your friends and clear your head,” Reinis says.
Unlike other activities, folk dancing allows you to fully switch off from all the other things going on in your life, Astra adds. “If you go to the gym, for a run or a swim, you can still think at the same time. Your brain isn't focused on the pool but whatever else you have going on that day. It's different with dance because you have to focus on each step. It's a major restart,” she says.
Additionally, Astra speaks of how shows help keep your spirits up because you get so much from the audience. “It's this exchange of emotions and energy that keeps you going,” she says.
At the Song and Dance Festival, this exchange reaches a whole new level. “People say Latvians are reserved introverts but look at the Song and Dance Festival! Half of the nation is there dancing, singing, crying. That's the moment – the gift – when you can release all of the emotions you've been holding onto or at least stop thinking about them,” Astra shares.
“You get that sense of unity, like during the recent hockey win. All sorts of people get together, from homemakers to doctors. At that moment everyone is the same,” she continues. From her perspective, dancers get even more out of the experience because they know how much work has gone into making the festival happen.
The couple is happy that their son has recently started dancing too. “We didn't force it. He saw friends' children dancing,” Reinis remarks.
Power of song, power of love
LSM also learned of several couples who met at the Song and Dance Festival. Due to the deeply personal nature of such moments, one couple agreed to share their story anonymously.
"As we were listening to Saule, Pērkons, Daugava (Sun, Thunder, Daugava), tears streaming, thanking God for the feeling of unity and our nation's strength, a man reached out to hold my hand. We just stood there silently, together in the moment. He didn't even look at me, his eyes were closed. It didn't seem unnatural. It was just this moment when two souls meet and the mind goes silent. It was special.
"We stood like that for the duration of the song and the encore. Once it was over, we started talking. This year we'll be spending our first Song and Dance Festival together as husband and wife, dancing again at the Mežaparks stage where we met without realizing the significance and impact of that moment on our future lives.
"We had no idea where it would lead. It just felt so natural to stand there together. We've looked back and both agree it can't be put in words. Miracles happen when you meet your true life companion, and your soul makes the decision. We can't believe it ourselves, how we found each other so naturally among the crowds."