Originally posted here on June 29, 2017
In April of 2016, I began writing this series of articles entitled “The Making of a Dziesmu svētki” that ran every two months here on Latvians Online. The idea was to give a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into organizing a Latvian song and dance festival, told from the eyes of a first-time organizer. Ironically, despite putting out seven of these articles over the past year, I never actually discussed any of my own work. In my roles as secretary, webmaster and marketing team member, I was responsible for reaching out to various audiences through newspapers, blog posts, advertisements and, yes, this very series.
At the core of everything I worked on, and everything we all do as Dziesmu svētki organizers, is one issue: identity.
It’s a common theme in Latvian-American society, familiar to anyone who has ever attended a Latvian Independence Day celebration or Latvian-school graduation speech…. What is “latvietība”? What does Latvia mean to me? And so forth. Spoiler alert: the answer is… there is no single answer. Instead, each person has his or her own definition of what their identity means to them, and why various aspects of this identity are or are not as important as others. Which, yes, is a cliché, but it also happens to be true.
Well, that’s just dandy, but what does it mean in practice? Let’s say, hypothetically, that you are in charge of running a festival that is generally regarded as the most central event of an entire community. If each of our personal feelings about latvietība are different, how do we create an event that speaks to each of these (at times contradictory) views?
For example, let’s start with language. Language is, understandably, a central tenet of our Latvian identity. We are but a handful of keepers of a rapidly dimming light, and any threat to that light’s extinction is taken seriously — so seriously that, when one day the song festival changed its Facebook page title from Latvian to English (for the purely practical reason that we needed an English-language title to make Facebook’s donation feature work), we immediately received several disappointed, heartfelt pleas from Latvians demanding that we show more respect for our language and change the name back. Unfortunately, the title had to stay in English. English was also unavoidable in setting up our online ticket store and volunteer sign-up page.
Even in Latvian, navigating language can be tricky. If you ever want to start a serious throwdown in the Latvian-American dance community, just ask for the correct spelling of the Latvian word for choreographer. The ensuing debate will pit choreogrāfs, the spelling brought to the States after WWII, against horeogrāfs, the spelling currently used in Latvia. It isn’t just a debate about spelling; it’s a debate that pits two different cultural and linguistic evolutions against one another, as both sides strive to determine what degree of change threatens Latvian identity. All based on a single letter in a single word.
A similar decision had to be made about which word to use to describe the participating folk dance troupes. In Latvia, the dance designations kolektīvs (collective), ansamblis (ensemble) and kopa (troupe) are very specific, indicating various degrees of skill and reputation. Using those terms interchangeably can arouse a lot of passion and recrimination. (We chose to use the word grupa (group), hoping to avoid those minefields entirely.) Even capitalization can get tricky; it’s no mistake that I used all caps for the festival logo and website header.
In my work with the festival I had to think about not just how to use language, but when to use it. If we care about maintaining the Latvian community in America, we need to acknowledge the fact that each generation becomes less and less fluent in Latvian. For Latvian schools and camps, where immersion is crucial to maintaining what hold we can on the language, the attempt to balance immersion with inclusion is a seemingly impossible and ever-present struggle. Is Dziesmu svētki in the same boat? In my personal opinion, no. The spirit of Dziesmu svētki lives in aspects of our culture that transcend language. No matter how much you care about whether choregrāfs is spelled with a ch- or an h-, you can understand the joy of a polka or the pride emanating from the song Gaismas pils, and feel truly connected to your Latvian roots, fellow performers, friends and family.
We should work hard to safeguard our language, to be sure, but we should work just as hard to ensure that non-Latvian speakers feel included. Some marketing materials were by design prepared in only one language, based on the target audience (for example, Laiks articles in Latvian, this series in English). But mostly, the goal was to include everyone. Which meant twice the work. There are two separate, complete versions of the festival website — one in Latvian, one in English. Every time I wrote a blog post or created a new page, I had to create two versions, submit them to two different proofreaders and post them on two different sites.
Overall, though, accepting both languages has simplified matters for festival organizers, who vary widely in their language abilities. Any given discussion among the organizers oscillates between Latvian and English, based on the speaker’s comfort level.
Beyond language, the organizers also come from a wide range of backgrounds and have different interests, ages, hometowns and skill sets. All of these biographical details have been crucial to festival decision-making. The key has not been to make sure every organizer agrees 100% on every decision made, but to make sure every organizer sees a piece of him- or herself in the festival. Each of our connections to Dziesmu svētki is deeply personal, but also dramatically different from the person sitting next to us.
I noticed this diversity while working on what became my favorite little piece of Dziesmu svētki marketing: the website’s Featured Participant series. The idea of the series was to showcase the festival’s variety. I strove to find participants from various geographic regions, participating in every corner of the festival. Whenever I had a “tough day at the office” arguing about other festival matters, I came back to these features and remembered why we’re working on this event in the first place. Karīna Hāznere-Foltzer summed it up perfectly in her interview about dance troupe Pastalnieki: “Dziesmu svētki breathes life back into our community. It reenergizes, motivates and brings the community back together.”
Every single dance troupe I interviewed credited its recent success and growth to the inclusivity of the group and paid particular heed to its non Latvian-speaking members. One troupe is led by a non Latvian speaker. One is sending its largest dancer count in history. Another reassembled recently after a multi-decade hiatus. The end result is that the folk dancing show will feature a whopping 780 dancers — impressive, considering the rapidly shrinking numbers for festivals overall. In my opinion, this is the exact kind of love for culture we should be promoting.
Of course, there is more to diversity and identity than language. In addition to spotlighting dance troupes, choirs and high-profile musicians, the Featured Participant series covered other members of the community who play just as vital a role in rounding out the festival: craftsmen selling jewelry, textiles and other wares at the festival market; a celebrity chef bringing a literal taste of Latvia to attendees; and writers keeping the Latvian language alive at the Authors’ Circle. I noticed a trend running through virtually all of these interviews, regardless of the interviewee’s experience or background; they were excited to participate and be part of the community, and particularly excited to participate in a way that spoke to them personally. Graphic artist Irena Aizstrauts of festival vendor Wenchstock said, “Now my dancing days are over, I can’t sing two notes to save my life, but this is also a nice way to participate in Dziesmu svētki.”
Native Latvian, current Floridian and distinguished pianist Kristīne Griffin said, “I am eternally happy about and proud of Latvians who, despite all sorts of problems and by utilizing their talent, joy, perseverance, love and work ethic, have succeeded in enhancing Latvia’s beauty and carrying the name Latvia far out into the world.”
I heard it over and over, both in these interviews and elsewhere: I can’t speak Latvian, but I can dance. I can’t dance, but I can compose. I can’t sing or dance, but I can weave. My dance troupe only has eight members and the best dances all require twice that, but I can rearrange the choreography to scale it down. I don’t have a choir because I live in Alaska, but I will practice the songs on my own. Just as Griffin said — regardless of obstacles, the Latvians are coming, and coming strong, each bringing his or her own brand of Latvian strength along.
Let’s circle back to choreogrāfs versus horeogrāfs. I would guess that the majority of festival attendees don’t care. But what of those who do? Will they feel unwelcome or insulted if I use the “wrong” spelling on the website? I am not alone in feeling this pressure. In the sixth installment of this series, I learned that our music director, Krisīte Skare, conducted a thoroughly detailed analysis of every single song performed at every American Dziesmu svētki to make sure that she didn’t inadvertently stomp on tradition with her song selection. One of the expressions I dread most is “kā tas vienmēr ir bijis” (“as it has always been”), because my immediate reaction is Uh oh, has it really always been this way? Is that how we are doing it? I learned this year that Dziesmu svētki is just too big of an event for any one person to know everything that is happening, and there is a constant fear that some important detail will slip through the cracks despite our organizing committee’s combined, diverse knowledge.
I understand the frustration the public may feel if something at Dziesmu svētki doesn’t line up with what they expected. Trust me — I have felt the same frustration. Yet for each of these disappointments, I have met a different attendee who felt the polar opposite from me. No matter what, every single preference for every single attendee simply cannot be accommodated. Instead, perhaps we could consider any disagreement about how the festival should run or what it should look like as an amazing example of just how many different people care about it, and how those people can come together and feel connected, despite their differences.
Dziesmu svētki is magical. My friends and family from across the country — plus countless spouses marrying into Latvian families, and my former Latvian school teachers, and a Triju Zvaigžņu ordenis–winning composer, and professional musicians from across the globe, and an entire troupe of rookie dancers, and a celebrity chef, and an army of Latvian jewelers, artists, and authors — get to enjoy singing together in one place with one voice (whether we are actually singing or not).
I hope I have done a decent job of reaching out to these people over the past year, and I welcome you all to Baltimore.
Latvians Online’s “The Making of a Dziesmu Svētki” has been an ongoing series documenting the behind-the-scenes process of organizing a Latvian song and dance festival. This 8th installment also appears in print in the festival guidebook “Vadonis.