Dance festivals

In 1934 the first Estonian Games or National Games of Gymnastics and Sports were organised in Tallinn, one part of which was performance of folk dance. Folk dance groups of that time were more of a sub-category of gymnastics associations, as folk dance was not very popular among the people nor did it receive much respect from higher authorities.

In 1947 this event was given a new name — 'an evening of national art'. (Under the mandatory politics of Soviet power, the word ‘national’ was used fairly frequently, for it was supposed to create the illusion that the people were the actual decision-makers when it came to state power). The organisers noticed that during the song festivals people happily gathered in the evenings to listen to folk instruments and dance to their tunes. This kind of popular gathering gave the organisers the idea of creating an event within the song festival, where folk dance numbers specifically arranged for larger groups were performed. The heads of the Soviet state were so much impressed by that event — the dance festival — that Estonians were invited to Moscow to talk about the possibilities of arranging a similar event in other republics of the Soviet Union. It seemed almost a miracle that 20 000 singers were able to sing as one and almost 3000 dancers dance on the lawn to the same rhythm.

A big wave of innovation in the sphere of Estonian dance occurred in the 1950s, which were revolutionary in almost every field. Soviet authorities favoured the development of folk dance. In almost every company and recreation centre there was a folk dance group. The technical level of the dance groups rose systematically. At that time the old dances were not valued. Rather, a new creative approach was favoured. It was thought that the old ethnographic dances would not satisfy the aesthetic interests of the Soviet people, who needed a richer, compositionally more compact dance. As a result, many dances based on the themes of work and collective farms, fishers and miners, were created that reflected the life of society.

The core of the new dances was adopted from the old, but unlike the dances of national origin every new part (figure) brought along an entirely new movement. Previously people had been used to the circular movement of folk dances, to which now were added new patterns: columns, rows, diagonals etc.

By 1963 folk dance had become so popular that alongside the traditional song festival a dance festival also appeared under the supervision of Ullo Toom. The reason for the success of folk dance was most likely the fact that it gave Estonians another opportunity to maintain their national identity and national memory despite foreign domination and attempts at Russification. Even though it was required that the repertoire contain a certain number of dances with a political subtext, these were still danced in national costumes and among our own nation. To this day the song and dance festivals have existed side by side as equals.

The dance festivals also determined the developmental orientation of folk dance as a hobby. Dance festivals are parties for the masses, so more complicated and expressive dances with acrobatic elements would not have stood out as impressively in the complex movement patterns of mass performances and picture-patterns that covered the field. Our modest national dance steps were building blocks for major productions, and the folk dances of major festivals were the creation of choreographers.

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