Submitted by Carol McGinn
I began dancing through Serbian and Croatian halls right here in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1951. At the Festival of Nations that year we did Drmeš and Seljančica and a couple others and the Serbs up there did Veliko, Malo, Žikino, and a couple of other dances. That was it; there weren’t all that many dances (this was in the early 1950s). Then, when I moved out East to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the Serbians out there did more dances than I’d ever seen anybody do out here in Minnesota.
Then as I bopped around the East for a while, and visited with Serbian and Croatian groups in Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago, it turned out that in those days there was a total of thirty dances that were known among the Croatians and Serbians. These were dances such as Žikino, Milica, Mangupsko, Drmeš, and Jeftanovićevo. And when you stop to think that those thirty dances were very similar, like Kokonješče in which there are six or seven dances that are really just variations of the dance, such as Šušu Mile and Cuješ Mala. They were all kind of in one family. Then you have Haj Haj Bože Daj, Radikalka, Sarajevka – they all had that same step. So that further reduces it. In other words, the number of dances that were observed in this country by the immigrants to the United States was not really very many. But it was all we knew – I mean that was it! And a lot of us who had gotten into folk dancing in those years thought this is it – the Yugoslav, Serbian, Croatian culture.
I joined the Duquesne University Tamburitzans in 1951 and went all over Europe the following year. In the program that the Tamburitzans from America showed in Yugoslavia we did Sarajevka Kolo – with Russian squats – and Zaplet – with claps and spins – and we thought we were really hot stuff! This is a little-known story even among the Tamburitzans but it was really fascinating. We performed at a stadium called Partisan, a really large stadium in Belgrade that seated 20,000 people. Now, those of you who have seen the Tamburitzans, do not see the back of the performance so you have no idea of what we do. In the second half, I came up and did an Abbot and Costello act with a regional accent. The next number was a xylophone player who came out and played Chieu, chieu, chieu, and we all had sarapes over our shoulders – some of you may remember the Tamburitzans from those days. We had a show that was a real stopper! We took that over to Yugoslavia! We were the first troupe that had ever visited Yugoslavia and, of course, we had the Yugoslav dance numbers – we had our Serbian and Croatian dances. Steve Kovačev, who is one of my dearest friends, and I came to Hey Choo Choo Choo Choo, because he had seen a bunch of the Serbs up in Libertyville outside of Milwaukee doing this dance, which I now realize was U Šest Koraka, but nobody knew U Šest back in those days. He said, “Let’s do it!” So, we went to Yugoslavia and that’s what we did to this vulgar verse we were singing! We thought we were going to knock ’em dead, see.
This was not a show which was a closed show – Lado was there; a big thing of friendship and solidarity. They were in the audience watching our show. That was the year that the song “Too Young” came out and we guys were wearing white tuxedos (which the people in Yugoslavia hadn’t seen in years) and the girls were wearing prom dresses. We just knocked ’em dead! We went back stage and changed and then, fifteen minutes later, Lado, the state ensemble of Croatia, was to come out with their program of Yugoslav dances. The curtain was closed and out came a very stiff and serious guy in a double-breasted suit who gave a speech. Then the curtain opened and a seven-piece orchestra began playing and singing and we said, “Oh, well, that’s not one that we do.” (Laughs)
They began singing and I got goose pimples all up and down my spine and my whole body was just lying there, bobbing up and down – it was INCREDIBLE! And there was marvelous costuming and the thing was beautiful and the tamburica orchestra knew what they were doing and the people were doing steps that we had never seen before, and then another one, and then Bunjevačko Momačko Kolo and Čačak and, well, we were limp and trying to disguise ourselves (laughs).
So, they had a big reception afterwards. And the next day the newspaper review said, “Although the Tamburitzans had some slight deviations from our traditions, it was understandable . . .” (Laughs) They went over backwards to make it sound okay. “That given the fact that years have transpired since our ancestors had left Yugoslavia, it was understandable that changes would take place . . . and even if one were to criticize, you could not criticize the tuxedos . . .” Well, that was the beginning, in 1952, of a really big change in the whole folk dance picture in the United States. And it was actually due to that particular tour of the Tamburitzans because it gave those of us who were there that year a whole new idea of what Yugoslav dance was like. I was much younger then and very active and I was chasing down dances and got in trouble with the director because I was writing down dances and staying up all night and jeopardizing my health. This was a whole new treasury of things we had no idea existed and there it was just hanging out of a tree! And they held on to belts! (Laughs) Can you imagine pre-belt-hold? (Laughs)
At that time in Pittsburgh they started these things called “kolo klubs” (KK – kolo klubs). These were usually run by women who had been active in folk dancing within their own communities. These were women who knew the thirty dances that we all knew and they had these classes. The mothers were wondering when they were going to have the spring recital and you are planning it and you have to have all the kids in it and the Croatian League of Such-and-Such is on your back to not have the same dances of last year. Some of these women were really desparate as they had no new material. So they were doing funny things with Žikino –, they had arched figures in it, for example. And one woman, having learned the Israeli dance Im Hoopalnu at a folk dance class, went back and taught it to her Croatian dance group and they called it Židsko Kolo (Jewish dance).
If you had gone to the nationality groups in Pittsburgh and Harold Underfoot had come along and stumbled upon Židsko Kolo, he would just assume that this was a sacred treasured dance that the Serbs had brought over in 1890 (laughs). He would notice that early on the immigrants did the dances of the Eastern Jewish peoples and you can imagine . . . (laughs). No nationality was safe in those years from the prying eyes of the Croatian and Serbian kolo dances as they were so desparate for material.
In 1953, when we Tamburitzans came back, we had a lot of dance material which we started to teach around Pittsburgh such as Čačak and other dances you know already. They were amazed to see such things; no one had ever heard of these dances: Šestorka, Bela Rada, Makazice, Bunjevačko Momačko Kolo, Čačak, Vranjanka. Unheard of in this country. These were not treasured dances brought by the immigrants in 1900, they were dances brought by the Tamburitzans from Yugoslavia in 1952 and later learned in the 50s by the various nationalities. Some I had been very careful to write down, such as Opšaj Diri. Opšaj Diri was one of the first dances we taught when we came back because we loved the music so much and we wanted everyone to do it. Kolo Žita was another one as was Kolo Kalendara.
Well, immediately, changes started to happen. I remember about four years later, when I was up in northwest Pennsylvania, and nobody knew who I was, and they were doing Kolo Žita and they were doing it not the way we introduced it. If I jump into a circle and I see that they are doing it differently, I adapt to them, or if it’s so bad, I’ll just back out of the circle. I hadn’t had the chance to make that decision when this remarkable woman beside me said, “If you don’t know the dance, get out of the line.” Of course, Harald Underfoot would have said, “Madame, may I tell you that I am the one who introduced this dance in the United States.”
Since 1952, at least the Serbians and Croatians have relied heavily on new things that have come from the old country to develop their repertoires. And in the process, to a great extent, those original old thirty dances which they really did know have become less and less popular. There are dances you don’t see any more: Logovac is one of them, Srpkinja is another. You just don’t see those dances now; they died out in the early 50s.
I’ve noticed that a couple of things have not changed. Someone asked me about a month ago, they were writing a master’s thesis on the Psycho-sociological Implications of Ethno-choreological Research and It’s Impact on Leisure Time Activities . . . (laughs), and there was a chapter on folk dancing. This guy, who was not a folk dancer, was writing this and had the impression that for folk dancing that is done in this country (and mind you, he had only seen folk dancing a couple of times) came from the immigrants to the United States. He thought they brought all of this stuff. First of all, the immigrants had brought treasured things from their past with them to this country and had zealously and jealously preserved them here. Anybody who has knocked around the folk dance world in this country knows that one of the last places you go (laughs) if you want to find out what real dances are, you go to the ethnic groups of this country because, God knows, they have their own culture that is an Americanized version. So, that was the first thing I had to kind of clear him up on.
Some of the ideas he had were: We here are preserving dances that are forbidden to be done by their country’s nations. God love the International Institute – I don’t know any of the people there anymore – but when I was there, there were people there who would make your eyes water. They would say things such as, “The Festival of Nations preserves this country’s things which the political systems in other parts of the world make it hard for the people to enjoy.” This just isn’t true.
I’m a linguist and that’s my profession but I never learned Hungarian. I studied Hungarian just enough to understand a few words to folk songs. In 1957, in Pittsburg, we were running our Festival of Nations. I was out visiting a Hungarian group one night and there was a young man there who was a fantastic dancer. He was doing these slap dances. I said to the rather large woman who was in charge (laughs), “Who’s that fellow. He’s a very good dancer.” She said, “Oh, he just came over from Hungary. He doesn’t speak any English.” I was seeing him in the Tamburitzans dancers and was interested in seeing who he was. She said that she would interpret for me. So we sat at a little table, and I asked her to ask him where he learned to dance. He said in his reply the word “csoport” which I happen to know means “folk dance group” (such as they had in Hungary which I knew from reading record labels) and the word “Budapest.” You would know that he said he was in a group in Budapest. She told me he said, “He learned in secret because the government forbids them to dance (much laughter from the group).” I started talking and this woman started giving shorter and shorter things to him and finally he was simply pushed out of the conversation. A lot of the immigrant groups in this country are full of that kind of political emphasis that has nothing to do with folk dancing, but in their minds, you can’t separate them.
Right here at the St. Paul Festival of Nations, there was this little old Russian lady, who must have been ninety years old, who did a lot of red and black embroidery on white. The Russians were on this side and the Ukrainians were over on the other side, and she had this beautiful table cloth (or something) hanging up that she’d hand embroidered. All of a sudden there was a rustle, there was excitement, and they were calling in the police because a whole parade of Ukrainians were marching on this Russian lady’s booth. This little old lady, who looked like everybodys grandmother who would offer you cookies and milk rather than cause any trouble, and the Ukrainians were saying, “That is a Ukrainian table cloth.” And she said, “I’m not Ukrainian, but I made it – I don’t know what to tell you.” So the next day the Russians counter attacked.
One time I was in Duluth, Minnesota, in a Tamburitzans program. We were doing a pillow dance, where you take a pillow and put it down and two dancers kneel on the pillow and kiss. We were doing it as part of the Slovenian Suite. Now, this pillow dance is as much Slovenian as it is Hindustani (laughs). It’s the same dance! In England they have it, which goes back as far as Elizabethan times. Every country in Europe has a dance where you carry around a pillow and put it down if front of somebody and you kneel and kiss. Then the person you chose takes it and gets up and goes around and finds somebody else, taking turns like that. It doesn’t belong to any one nationality – it’s just everywhere. Well, I was sitting in the audience that year. We had taken the Slovenian version of this thing and there were three Serbian girls sitting in front of me. They got very mad saying, “That’s a Serbian dance!” Now stop and think. Those girls had never seen a pillow dance except in their own location. So, how would they know what we know, that it belongs to everybody in Europe. You can’t blame them for not knowing that Serbians have a pillow dance, Croatians have a pillow dance, the Mazuls have a pillow dance. They thought that dance was Serbian and they were really enraged saying, “They stole that!”
Then there are the Slovaks, who don’t get along with the Hungarians very well because of two things: cabbage rolls and Čardáš [Hungarian] or Csárdáš (laughs). At the Festival of Nations, we had to put the food together and we had to be careful how we did this because there were about five nationalities all serving cabbage rolls. We had to be sure that we separated them because they were always fighting. The Carpathian Russians would say, “The Hungarians stole the cabbage rolls from the Ruthenians!” This kind of thinking shows the kind of a job of education that needs to be done if we folk dancers run around and take a lot of interest in these peripheral fields.
You may always be interested in costumes, whether they be Russian costumes or Ukrainian costumes. You may like a certain nationality’s foods. There was a woman who collected cookies from each nationality and was very proud of the fact that she could distinguish a Brazilian chocolate foam puff from a Taiwanese chocolate foam puff (laughs). Things like this have all spread out from our interest in folk dancing. And if you don’t take a healthy attitude toward it, you don’t do anything to further the cause of peace and understanding. You may accept a lot of these things at face value. So, if you run up, having been told by one of your Croatian friends, that the Tamburitzans are doing a Croatian dance and calling it Slovenian, you need to check it out for yourself.
I was in Detroit one time I went to the Croatian hall on a Saturday night. Big party. The bar was swinging and they had a tamburica orchestra. It was one of the biggest nights that the Detroit Croatian Club had ever had. It was a fundraiser. A bunch of folk dancers appeared at the door in Croatian costumes. I can not tell you how strange that was. The Croatians wear neckties, their best suits, the women fit to kill, new dresses. They order highballs and plenty of them because the bar has to make that money. There’s a whole concept there, and folk dancers, very often, are naive. They think that if you meet a Croatian, it’s some sacred Drmeš machine (laughs).
There was an employee who started working at a company where I was working who must have been Croatian or Serbian. It was an important changing point in my life. I thought to myself are you going to go down to the cost accounting department and chase down this person simply because you see that his name is Serbian? Why don’t you spend the same amount of time going over to the purchasing department and looking for this guy whose last name is Johnson? What I was doing was what I’m advising you not to do: find the person first rather than the great Drmeš machine. When I discovered that, that’s when I became a person who felt better about myself. Remember, Harald Underfoot treated all those people over there like dance machines. He would go over there and promise them anything but “get that Drmeš!” It’s an artifical dream world, if you will.
Nick Jordanoff of the Tamburitzans is one of my dearest friends – he would probably be the best man at my wedding. I’ve known him since we were very, very young. He never could stand folk dancers. Yet he was the top Bulgarian folk dancer in Pittsburgh. One time, when I was living in Pittsburgh and doing a lot of traveling teaching folk dancing, which I’m not doing now, I was taking a trip to Boston, Montréal, Toronto, and Pittsburgh doing workshops. And I said, “Nick, why don’t you come along. You’ve never really seen what folk dancing is. You sit here and you make jokes about it.” Like he said, “Hi! You’re putting on your folk dance smock tonight to go join the happy hearts?” Really awful negative feelings about folk dancing. And I was thinking that Boston was a great location, and Montreal with Yves Moreau and Michel Cartier and those guys, and I knew this was a sure thing. Toronto was also fantastic – just marvelous people. I thought, this is it. I’ll take him along. This Bulgarian anti-folk dancer person who is actually a fine Bulgarian dancer. I talked him into it. We get up to Boston and there it is, this marvelous Boston group. Marianne and Connie Taylor, wonderful, wonderful dancers. Nick is kind of aside; he really doesn’t feel at home with these hundreds of folk dancers running around. Even when they’re doing Bulgarian dances, he isn’t pleasantly surprised that they all know them. He’s saying what are they doing, doing my dances? What are they doing this for? It’s not the reaction we think, “Ah, indeed, we happy peasants will be so pleased to see we deigned to their cultural dances (laughs).” What is this? Well, he began to warm up. Connie Taylor, one of the leaders in Boston, is kind of a good guy and getting along on a personal level. So I was happy that Jordie was going to be happy with Boston folk dancing even though he might not dance, so we’ll do better in Montreal. When up to him came a little, strange person who said, “I understand you’re Bulgarian.” Jordie said, “Yeah.” The guy who did it was a famous folk dance leader and he said, “Well, I’ve gotta touch you. I have never touched a real Bulgarian before.” Connie Taylor grabbed onto one arm and I grabbed onto the other arm and, because it was too late to turn back, we got a straight jacket on him and put him on a train to Montréal.
We got up to Montréal and it was okay. He didn’t dance, but in Montréal it was alright because it was French Canadian, no one was speaking English, and it was like being in a foreign country. But then we went to Toronto. Toronto had a marvelous, wonderful group, and they were meeting up on the second floor, and Nick had still not folk danced once. I even put on Pajduško once, his favorite Bulgarian dance, but he wouldn’t dance it. He couldn’t be Nick Jordanoff who was Nick Jordanoff. To the folk dancers up there, he was odd because he was Bulgarian. But that had nothing to do with what really did it for him. Now you and I wouldn’t think of this but Nick was born and raised in West Midland, Pennsylvania, and went to a rough grade school and high school and, although American through and through, he was Bulgarian and was a member of the Bulgarian community. He was sitting while the folk dancing was going on and a girl came up to him and asked him to dance. Now, we don’t think anything of that, do we? That was the worst thing you could possibly do to that guy. It’s altering his graceful high school experience where nobody would even think of having a girl come up to you and ask you do dance. And here he was with these wierd folk dancers who were bad enough with the funny things they wear. And I looked around and he wasn’t there. He had gone downstairs and outside the building and was smoking a cigarette and refusing to come back up. All because a very well meaning girl had come up and asked him to dance. See how unknowingly you can really put your foot in it with people like that. And it is very possible that if she had gone up to a different Bulgarian, one of the ones who had come over more recently, she would have been the one who might have left (laughs). You all saw Saturday Night Live with The Wild and Crazy Guys, and you might know that there are those kind of guys in the Croatian and Serbian night clubs. And that’s exactly how they are in Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. They’re really out to score. “You care to do this next dance?” – oh, you’re really putting it on the line!
Folk dancing is a great vehicle and every one of us is here for a different reason.