A Guide to Traditional Latvian Dances
On the occasion of the National Song and Dance Festival this week, Riga is alive with the celebration of its culture and history. Anyone walking on the streets in Riga can easily immerse themselves in the festive atmosphere, with the widespread sight of participants dressed in traditional attire, as well as the markets and performances in multiple town squares and parks. As the traditions and cultural performance arts of the Latvian nation take the spotlight this week, let’s delve deeper into Latvian folk dances, one of the main components of Latvian culture showcased in the festival.
Many Latvian dances are, in fact, stories told through the expression of movement. These dances often portray traditional life, depicting scenes of countryside life and important life events. They are commonly performed in a social setting, with dancers showcasing varied interactions that reflect different aspects of traditional life, such as farming, courtship, harvest celebrations, and mythical stories.
Latvian dances frequently explore romantic or courtship themes, reflecting the customs and traditions associated with relationships and marriage. They highlight traditional gender roles and courtship rituals, featuring distinct movements and choreographies for men and women. Traditional partner dances, for example, may showcase gendered movements and interactions, symbolizing courtship and romantic relationships. Some dances even begin with a group of male dancers watching another group of female dancers and trying to draw their attention, serving as comedic relief at the same time.
Partner dances play an important role in Latvian folk dances, with pairs of male and female dancers performing various styles, ranging from gentle and graceful movements to more lively and dynamic choreographies. Changing partners is also common in the dances. Dances are graded by difficulty, ranging from grades A to F. The most difficult dances incorporate elements of ballet, adding to the overall gracefulness of the performance. Every aspect of the dance, including the entry and exit of dancers, is carefully planned in a dance concert, providing insights into the dance itself.
In Latvian dances, dancers often stiffen their hips and upper bodies, as the main movements involve intricate footwork and arm movements. The mood of the dance is not only influenced by the music but also by the dance movements. Fast, animated movements including jumps and hops often accompany cheerful and lively music. Dances set to slow music are less common and usually depict historical aspects. Latvian dances are inclusive of all ages, with children and even toddlers performing youthful songs while the elderly dance to slower music.
Dancers typically position their arms slightly outwards from their bodies or on their hips, especially when intricate footwork is involved. It is also common for dancers to extend their arms to waltz with their partners or link themselves to other dancers to form circles or lines. Stomps and claps are frequently used to create a sense of rhythm or draw attention to the dance partner. Turns and swirls are also integral to Latvian dances, particularly for female dancers. When dressed in traditional costumes, the dancers’ skirts swing out as they twirl around, creating a vibrant whirlwind of movement. Dancers also change their attire or parts of it between dances to reflect the traditions associated with the region of each dance’s origin.
The most common formations in traditional dances are lines and circles. For dances with a large number of participants, smaller groups are formed, where groups of dance pairs perform together in a circle or other formations. An interesting formation includes zigzag lines with sharp angles at the start of a dance such as the one shown above, which symbolize the waves of the Baltic Sea along the Latvian coast. Sometimes, traditional Latvian symbols such as the ones here can also be discerned in the collective pattern created by the dancers’ movements.
As you may guess, circle dances involve participants forming a circle, holding hands or linking arms, and moving in a circular pattern while performing coordinated steps and movements. Circle dances are particularly popular during community gatherings, festivals, and cultural events. If multiple circles are formed within each other, the outer and inner circles move in different directions alternately, creating a balanced sense of movement.
While watching traditional Latvian dances, it is important to observe from a distance to appreciate the formations from above. At the same time, a balance needs to be struck between the need to maintain a balance of watching the overall patterns and formations from above while also watching the specific movements of the dance.
Preservation of Traditional Latvian Dances
Traditional dances are such an integral part of Latvian culture and society that numerous efforts are underway to preserve them. In addition to the Nationwide Song and Dance Festival, the Golden Fund of Dance is a notable initiative aimed at preserving traditional Latvian dances. It documents the most important dances in Latvia from the past 90 years and is expected to continue expanding as more dances are added to its repertoire.
Latvian dances are incredibly beautiful, often leaving the audience in tears by the end of a dance concert. The heritage of Latvian performance art and its significance in Latvia’s history have been recognized as a UNESCO Intangible Heritage. Watch highlights from the 2023 Nationwide Song and Dance Festival here, and find out more about Latvia and its culture on our blog!
Yeap, currently studying Russian at Liden & Denz Riga
(Photo credits to the author, taken at the 2023 Nationwide Song and Dance Festival)