Latvijas Dziesmu Svetki Wrap-Up

Originally posted in July 2013.  (Note:  This website no longer exists, hence links to it no longer function.)

Two weeks ago, Namejs wrapped up its greatest adventure yet when it performed in Rīga, Latvia, as part of Dziesmu Svētki, the largest Latvian event in existence. It has taken us two weeks since our return to compose ourselves enough to get this write-up out to you, our beloved readers. Why? Because, as you can imagine, this entire experience has been pretty overwhelming, and it is difficult to figure out where to start.

Overwhelming how? After hours of rehearsals, after tireless fundraising, after flying across an ocean, the moment of truth was upon us, and we finally saw firsthand just what we were getting into, and we saw just how small of a puzzle piece we were in this titanic endeavor. If we’ve got our figures straight, then we were one of a whopping six hundred dance troupes, and we were just seventeen of over fourteen thousand dancers. And that is just our show. The final choir concert had over twelve thousand singers on stage at once, and over the week many other singers, dancers, musicians, and craftsmen filled the city with a Latvian spirit that was too great and potent to ever fully express in words.

The sheer size of the show and the festival is impossible to convey to those who are unfamiliar with the concept of Dziesmu Svētki, but here are a couple photos that might help you get the idea:

Could you spot us? In that first shot, we are all the way in the back corner performing Lai Sakūra Uguntiņu. In the second one, we are front(ish) and center during the grand finale. Still can’t find us? Maybe this zoomed-in shot of us during the same dance will help:

Still no? If it helps, we were surrounded by the senior dance troupes, so look for the girls wearing crowns instead of handkerchiefs on their heads. We were also one of the only dance troupes where the men did not wear vests, so look for guys with long sleeves.

Looking at these throngs of people, it might be easy to feel somewhat insignificant and lost in the crowd. Maybe, except with thousands of people moving in unison, it is pretty easy to tell when somebody messes up. For example, can you spot us in this pic?

Probably not. And you know why not? Because we were in our correct spot, dancing the correct moves, one small yet integral part of a massive combined effort. (For the record, we are towards the back, just right of center, facing forwards.)

So how did it work? How did Namejs ever figure out what to do, where to go, and how to fit in? Would everything be so foreign to us that we’d wander cluelessly amongst the mob? Would we get called out over a loudspeaker for doing the wrong thing? Would this be anything like the many Dziesmu Svētki we had attended back home? Would we stick out for being different, or for being less polished, or for having weird accents?

Thankfully, there was nothing to worry about. For starters, we were pretty well organized, and everyone was mentally prepared to roll with any potential punches. We arranged a pre-chaos Namejs official team dinner on Monday night to make sure everyone had arrived and all questions were answered. It gave us a chance to just chill together as one big happy family before the madness set in. As a special bonus, we found out that Iļģi, one of the best-known Latvian bands in history and the geniuses behind many of our favorite folk dancing songs, were performing that night at our chosen restaurant. Here we are enjoying the calm before the storm:

The real work began the next morning (Tuesday) when we met up at 7:30am at Daugavas Stadions (sidenote: it turns out this is the last year that the festival will be held in this stadium) for our first of three straight days of rehearsal. The rehearsal schedule was, thankfully, very well structured, with specific time slots assigned to each dance, and a dress rehearsal on the third night performed before a sold-out stadium crowd. These three days of rehearsals were followed by two days of performing, with shows in the afternoon and then again at 10pm (yes, 10 o’clock at night!) each day. This set-up was a bit different than what we were used to at festivals back in North America, where we realistically just run through the entire program from start to finish once or twice, and then perform only once.

Another major difference was the presence of “Groups.” In North America, most cities just have one dance troupe, anyone who wants to dance on it will dance on it, and troupes can pick and choose which of the proposed dances they want to join for the big show. As a result, the number of dancers on the floor changes drastically between more and less popular dances, and troupes with various skill levels are all dancing the same dance.

Not so in Latvia, where all of the decisions about who can dance which dance are very regulated. All troupes are rated and judged ahead of time, and placed into one of several Groups based on skill level and age. Each group is assigned a set of dances tailored to that group’s level, meaning that every troupe in that group performs the exact same set of dances. Namejs joined the “C Group”, or “youth groups,” which consisted mostly of high school troupes of varying levels, and we were nervous about whether we would fit in there. To our relief, it took no time at all for us to feel comfortable with our strange new surroundings! Group C was a great fit for us, not just in terms of level, but also in terms of vibe. After all, where else would have have an opportunity to lift one of our dancers upside down during the performance? Much like our infamous Opera Capes from last year’s festival, this Inverted Mikus became our unofficial signature move for this year.

Dancing in Group C surrounded by hundreds of teenagers was a little odd, but it also made us realize that, to our pleasant surprise, we were actually far more experienced with these sorts of mass rehearsals than many of the dancers and leaders around us. For this we can thank Our Dear Leader, Alberts Ozols, who, with his experience leading us through three previous Dziesmu Svētki stateside, did a fantastic job interpreting the floor plans, working with surrounding troupe leaders, making sure that we were correctly positioned, and obtaining answers to any questions we still had. Here he is looking important:

Namejs was lucky in that we got to dance the majority of our dances pretty much the same way we had learned them. Other troupes had some major differences thrown in (mostly alterations to create the gigantic stadium-sized formation), and so a lot of time went into working with just those troupes and getting them adjusted. During these times, the rest of us sat down, which at points provided a welcome rest from full days of dancing in the sun.

We were fitting in so well that we made plenty of new friends along the way. The most obvious source for meeting and greeting was the much-discussed Diasporas Deju Kolektīvi Telts, a changing tent reserved for just dance troupes from outside of Latvia. It was located out in the public food court type area in front of the stadium and had a big open front and a giant sign so that spectators wandering by would stop and look at us curiously, snapping photos of us. We laughed with the other troupes that we felt like a zoo display.

Hanging in the diaspora tent, we got to know several groups from around the world, and it was fascinating comparing notes. We were already somewhat familiar with the four other North American groups, most of which had a pretty similar story and background as Namejs. Australia was the next most similar in the sense that they also consisted largely of WWII emigrant descendants and had mixed ages and language skills, but were unique in that their group was actually a compilation of dancers from three separate cities. The rest of the groups we met in the tent consisted mostly of recent emigrants who had learned to dance in Latvia and were returning home for the festival. We learned all about the Latvian populations in Norway and England, discovering, for example, that apparently you can’t throw a stone in Kent without hitting a Latvian. Here we are hanging out with Salinieki, one of two troupes from London.

The segregated tent made it a little difficult to bond with the actual Latvian troupes, but it could still be done! Most of this bonding came when showtime rolled around, and we were all forced to squeeze together and get real friendly with the person next to us in order to make the entrances work.

The backstage area had a lovely festival-like attitude to it. After all, there were thousands of dancers milling about, and by that point we had rehearsed everything so many times that most people seemed very comfortable with what they had to do, and everyone just relaxed and soaked up the moment. Jumbotrons of the show were set up on soccer fields on either side of the stadium. At points impromptu dance parties would break out as we waited to come onstange, and the free show right behind the backdrop was probably just as entertaining as the ticketed show in front of the backdrop.

During one of these breaks we made a delightful discovery: there was another troupe named Namejs! Namejs consisted largely of slightly older dancers, and thus performed in Group E. They came from Slampes, a small town near Tukums, and has existed for only three years. They were delightful, friendly people, and hopefully we manage to stay in touch with our new VārduBrāļi!

Making new friends was great, but it was also very exciting running into several old friends along the way! It was amazing to realize just how many of Namejs’ former dancers live in Latvia, and how many of our friends and supporters from DC had made the cross-Atlantic trip to see the shows! Before every single show several friends would stop by to say hello and wish us luck. Thanks, guys, for making our day!

We also reunited with former Namejs leader Sandra Daubure and her former-Namejs-dancer husband Rojs Dauburs. Sandra taught many of our veteran members pretty much everything we know, and it is doubtful whether Namejs would exist today, let alone have made it all the way to Latvia, without her tireless work over a decade ago. Paldies, Sandra, and we hope we have made you proud!

We also befriended the media along the way, which was quite exciting. Day two brought with it a Latvian television news crew, who arrived specifically to interview our troupe for a piece on festival performers from outside of Latvia. It turns out that the concept was quite a pull for many media outlets. In addition to the TV news segment, our leader had to turn down an invitation for a live interview due to the fact that we were, not surprisingly, busy rehearsing. One of our dancers was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal, and our leader was interviewed by the newspaper “Laiks.”

We haven’t said much about the shows themselves because, frankly, nothing can capture the spirit of the shows better than just watching them for yourselves. To do so, check out our video section. The one downside to this plan, though, is that you will not see us. At all. As we already mentioned, we were positioned all the way in the back corners for most of the dances, far away from the cameras. Our one dance in the very front row, Ko Man Dosi Liela Diena, was apparently TOO close to the front, and our position in the corner means even that wound up cut off by the wide shot. Still, at least spectators in the arena got a clear view of us on this one:

The best shot anyone has of spotting us on TV is the finale, where every single dancer wandered out onto the arena floor. The dance itself was quite simple (you can’t expect much when each dancer only has one square meter of space in which to operate). Yet it was still one of the most powerful moments for everyone involved, because that was when we all felt the most unified. Here we are onstage with our closest 14,000 friends, in a moment of anticipation that stirred the entire stadium:

After our final performance, Namejs stayed on the dance floor and erupted into our usual post-Dziesmu-Svētku celebration of prancing around the dance floor like crazy people until nobody could stand on their aching feet anymore. Our usual screams of “NAMEJS! NAMEJS!” erupted, and were apparently audible enough that the other Namejs troupe showed up and joined us for a while! People got thrown in the air. Repeatedly. It got pretty nuts. Finally we had sweated all the way through our costumes, and we wearily headed back to our Diaspora Tent to change for the afterparty.

But our work was not yet done, for we still had Gājiens (the festival parade) the next day. We’ll be honest: this writer was not looking forward to marching in some parade. We had been busting our butts for five straight days. Our feet hurt. Our costumes were stinky. Our shoes were destroyed. Why would we want to just walk around? Won’t it be painful and boring?

Oh no. No no no. I couldn’t have gotten it more wrong. The Gājiens was one of the most amazing events anyone could ever dream of experiencing! This time we weren’t joining just a mere fourteen thousand dancers; we were joining every single participant in the entire festival! Just getting to our starting spot was an adventure, with all of Vecriga covered with thousands upon thousands of festive folks from all over the world, singing and dancing and waving flowers at cameras. But the parade itself was just breathtaking. We were amazed by the sincere energy and enthusiasm of the spectators along the route, who presumably had been standing there for hours watching troupe after troupe wander by, but who still shouted and cheered as we passed as though greeting us was the highlight of their lives. Complete strangers welcomed us back to the homeland as we marched past our beloved freedom monument, and it probably goes without saying that the ear-to-ear grins on our faces in these pics are 100% genuine.

Afterwards, however, the foot fatigue and well-worn costume reality sunk in, and the long trips back to our apartments for showers and a return to normal clothing could not come fast enough.

This is where Namejs’ official Dziesmu Svētku adventure ends, though each individual dancer’s story continued. Most people made it out that evening to the main event of the entire festival: the 6.5 hour long KopKora koncerts at Mežaparks. Some stayed well past dawn for the world’s biggest sing-a-long. Some hit the airport the very next morning to return to life in the real world, others stayed for another day to tour Rīga, or another week to tour Latvia, or another two weeks to tour Europe. Slowly but surely we are returning to the daily grind, perhaps uploading some photos or drycleaning some costumes as we go.

We have already posted a healthy collection of photos and videos in our photo and video sections, but definitely keep checking back in, as we know there will be plenty more coming. If you have any contributions, please do not hesitate to get in touch!

And to all of our friends, family, and fans, we have saved our most important message for last: Thank you.

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

This once in a lifetime experience would not have been possible without all of your love and support. There may have only been seventeen of us out on that massive dance floor, but we knew that every single one of you was out there with us.

Seeya in Hamilton, Canada in 2014!

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