Folk dance

Throughout history dance has given various nations an opportunity to record their experiences, feelings and personalities. Not all nations have been able to create strong dancing traditions, but the most famous dances become known abroad. Thus, in the 14th and 15th centuries in the courts of Europe, people danced the Italian tarantella and French minuets and quadrilles. In the 16th and 17th centuries, English square and sword dances were popular. The following century gave us the waltz and lendler of German-Austrian origin. The list is endless. But what about Estonians? How do they fit into this cultural picture?

The experience of the previous century shows that an average Estonian is not too fond of dancing. In the future the situation might change in the face of the co-occurrence of favourable conditions (the warming of the climate, assimilation of nations, changing of patterns of thought), but so far the consumer of Estonian culture has preferred musical events to dance shows. We can speculate that this kind of attitude has grown out of the previous centuries. Hard work in the field or on the sea and very little sunshine, which was necessary for work, did not leave much time for dancing. Singing was another matter as it could be done even while working. Parties were held. Young people always loved to get together on Saturday evenings to enjoy singing and music. Usually they gathered at someone’s house, where there was homemade beer. There they sat and drank, did round dances and jigged to the music.

A more defined period in the history of folk dance began in the middle of the 19th century, when the establishment of native language high culture was considered very important as a guarantee of national awakening and ethnic survival. Estonian associations, which were founded all over the country, played an important role; choirs and orchestras were established in parishes. In the euphoria of choirs and song festivals, folk dance was left in the shadows. It seems unbelievable, but only a century ago it was thought that Estonians had no national dance. People only knew and remembered Kaera-Jaan, which was danced as a folk dance. The origin of Kaera-Jaan is very interesting in itself, even though it has also caused heated arguments.

According to Friedebert Tuglas’s notes it is a mocking song from 1889. At that time in Ahja manor there lived a cottager, Piitre Matson, who was called the Oat Emperor. He got his sobriquet from the fact that he only sowed oats around his cottage. The affix ‘Kaera' (Oat) was also added to the names of his many children. Piitre’s son Jaan Matson was a blacksmith’s apprentice at Ahja manor and a great ladies’ man. This mocking song was created about him:

"Ai Kaara-Jaan, ai Kaara-Jaan, / ai karga vällä kaema, / kas on kesvä keerulise, / kaara kateharulise." Kaera-Jaan was considered to be an Estonian national dance by foreign students from as far away as the Caucasus, who encountered the dance in Tartu. For fun it was even given a fancier name: Jean de Kaër. It is thought that this dance became so popular due to the fact that from the beginning it was tied to a specific tune and movements.

At some point the collectors of folklore also started to collect and describe folk dances. The main instigator was the Estonian Students’ Association, under the management of Oskar Kallas (1868–1946). The search for pure Estonian folk dance, which had begun in 1930, ended with the realisation that such a thing did not exist. It became apparent that our folk dances are at times very similar to the dances of other nations. For example it was found that our very popular labajalavalss (an Estonian folk waltz) is just an ordinary folkloric waltz; kaerajaan was linked with the quadrille, and tuljak, a dance-tale of the courting of two young people, to Slavonic dances.

Carried by the attitudes of the time people started discussing the possibilities for developing folk art. It was suggested that folk dance should be approached creatively, adjusting it according to the spirit of the time. Change has actually always been one of the characteristics of folk dance — like human creation in general, folk dance changes according to the times and people, reflecting important events. This is the reason why we today cannot distinguish between original and later dances. Film and other authentic recording means are too new, and thus it is not possible to refer to documented sources and say which part or figure in a dance is older and which newer.

So what are the characteristics of Estonian folk dance? Estonian folk dance is considered to be collective, peaceful and dignified. There are no big leaps or fast and varied movements, and acrobatic elements are uncommon. Estonian folk dance is best characterised as a series of repeated motifs and simple patterns of movement. Repetitive motifs are actually characteristic of all Estonian folk art — they can be found in folk poems, ornamentation on belts, woodwork and other things.

It is thought that our oldest dances were those for men, with a simple pattern and accompanying music. Mainly they consist of mimicking dances, mostly line or group dances, in which a set number of dancers take part. In the old days, dance meant walking in a circle in one of the biggest cottages and singing, for example, Vares vaga linnukene and other round dance songs. Estonian applause is generally internal and feelings are seldom expressed through extra movements.

A teacher of Estonian folk dance, Ullo Toomi (1902–1983) writes: '... When in the music or movement there is a rise, turn or stressed movement of feet, then for a second the dancer’s reserve disappears and we can see what is hidden deep within. The turns and movements of feet are quick and forceful, the posture and expression change, and then it seems as if their patience has run out and only now will the real dance begin...But no, the mind again reins in the feelings and surmised temperament. Only a small stretch follows, and the head is tossed back with an air of superiority. And then the former self-conscious mute peace returns once more.'

However, there could also be another reason for the slow nature of Estonian folk dances. The ethnographical folk dances were mostly written down according to the directions and demonstrations of old people, who, due to their advanced age, danced with difficulty and were more heavy-footed. Naturally they were not able to accomplish light leaps or take fast steps. Some eyewitnesses’ accounts and the names of older dances such as 'Tuuletants' ('The wind dance'), 'Kuradipolka' ('Devil’s polka'), and 'Marukibe' ('Very bitter') tell of very different tempos and characteristics of dances.

Our folk dance is indeed characterised by its peaceful nature, but in comparison with other nations there is a large variety of basic steps against a background of unity of style. Considering country waltzes, in different places so many steps or tricks have been added or eliminated to a particular dance that even within one parish people could not dance it in the same way. In every region a dance was adjusted to match the people, environment and experienced events.

In the repertoire of today’s folk dance groups not much remains of the original authentic ethnographic creation. Dances are characterised by mixed styles. In 1926 Anna Raudkats (1886–1965) published a book, Estonian folk dance, the aim of which was to introduce Estonian dance and to revive old folk dances in parties and gatherings. The popularity of folk dance grew, but people did not start dancing these dances for their own enjoyment (with the exception of the jooksupolka — running polka), but only as performance dances. However, we have Raudkats to thank for the fact that we have dances in a national style and of performance quality that are created on the basis of old sources and yet appear contemporary.

In 1976 Mait Agu (1951–1998) established in Tallinn Pedagogical Institute a faculty for teaching professional dance instructors/pedagogues who could teach folk dance, teach new dancers and generally contribute to the development of Estonian dance. Agu was a talented dance teacher who managed dance festivals and arranged stage choreographies in various genres. He was one of our most famous modernisers of folk dance, and his work is characterised by choreographies containing elements of folk dance, character dance and ballet, which were arranged on the basis of pop songs and performed in national costumes. Those dances do not have much of the original folk movements or depth, but the public liked the temperamental performances and tunes familiar from the radio.

Folk dance as such has nowadays become almost a sport, in which all the participants must move very elaborately and in the same way. As a result, the natural swaying and irregularity, which at social gatherings create that cosy feeling of unity, disappears. This was the reason why, at the end of the 20th century, dance clubs were formed — these were an alternative to folk dance groups where people mostly prepared for dance festivals. The aim of these dance clubs is to learn old dance patterns, to change and vary them, each club in its own way, in order to promote the tradition of social dance throughout the nation. In these dance clubs old traditional dances are learned without the necessity of 'pointing one’s toes', peacefully and following one’s instincts. Actually it is the realisation of the idea Anna Raudkats offered almost a hundred years ago — to bring the dance back to the people.

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