Dance festival - invented tradition?
mairika plakso

"The history of the Estonian nation-wide dance festivals starts in the year 1934, when the Dance and Gymnastic Festival of the First Estonian Games was held. One thousand five hundred folk dancers performed at this event. The Second Dance Festival (Second Estonian Games) was held in 1939 with 1800 performers. World War II interrupted the young tradition of dance festivals and the Third Dance Festival was not held until 1947, and there were 840 participants. The next festival was organised in 1950; this time the event was held at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds and in this, the second post-war dance festival, as many as 1500 performers took part. All the following dance festivals have been held at the Kalev Central Stadium in Tallinn. There were more than 3000 participants at the Fifth Dance Festival, and this number increased with the following festivals." (1)


In 1939, as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Estonian Republic was incorporated into the 'friendly family of Soviet peoples'. The dance festivals held during the Soviet era were organised under the ideological control and pressure of the Soviet regime. Thus we could ask whether the so-called 'tradition' of dance festivals - with only two festivals before the Second World War - was not actually a tradition at all, but was artificially created by the alien powers and slyly 'planted' into the nation? Maybe we should not say that "the dance festival became a tradition", but rather: "the dance festival was made a tradition"? Can we possibly look for parallels in the way that great events were/are celebrated by totalitarian systems; in the celebration programmes, much was/is made of the fact that the performances were/are the result of a popular initiative. The purpose, of course, is to give the people the feeling of being a small part of the celebration, and to retain a feeling of togetherness too...

If we examine the number of dancers at these events through the years (see table below), we can see that starting from 1950, the number has grown with almost every festival. Does this mean that, since Estonia was a part of the USSR at that time, the interest in the dance festival as a phenomenon fitting the Soviet ideology was consciously promoted, or, contrary to that, the festivals were the manifestations of the urgent national need of survival as Estonians?

But to talk about the tradition - I remember the time when I joined a folk dance group. If not at the first meeting of the group, then at least at the second one there was talk about our wish and intention of participating in the dance festival. And nobody asked whose wish it was - whether we wanted it or whether we had to follow the tradition that all folk dance groups wanted to participate or even were obliged to participate in the event. Maybe my reproaches to the tradition of dance festivals, and with that, to the development of Estonian patriotism in the twists and turns of history are groundless. Maybe it was simply useful for the trainers of the dance groups to develop the motivation of the dancers by establishing a high goal - to reach the festival - and that was all...

Among its many objectives, the dance festival aims at offering as grand a spectacle as possible to the audience, mainly with the rapid, precise and interesting alteration of dance figures on the lawn of the stadium. What name should we give to a spectacle, where at one moment, the stadium is full of circles, lines, squares or images made by the dancers, and in the blink of an eyelid, the grass is suddenly covered with all kinds of new geometric designs? And this rapid change is executed at a speedy run or in a well-chosen quick dance pace. Is this (folk) dance? Isn't it rather a game or a parade exercise, where the aim and the solution is to form as many different figures as possible, and designs consisting of thousands of components in a relatively short time? Maybe it would be more correct to rename the dance festival, and call it the Dance and Gymnastic Festival, as it was at the first two occasions?

A joint Estonian-Finnish dance festival was held in 2000, an event the intention of which was to reflect the spirit of shared activities by two related nations. Touching only briefly upon this event, we should still mention that it seemed more like a kind of a revival of a compulsory celebration of 'brother nations' of the Soviet era. Estonia and Finland certainly have a great deal in common, regardless, and this hardly needs to be celebrated with a mass meeting bearing such a name, and with such associations.

The Ninth Youth Song and Dance Festival in 2002 was a very different experience. We can recall joyful dancers under a hot sun, their happy sunburnt faces everywhere in spite of long rehearsal days under the scorching sun, which became a kind of a test of endurance. But in this case we could ask, whether the dance festivals should also be the tests of the theory of evolution - who is the stronger; who will survive?

Welcome to Estonia
herkki-erich merila & arbo tammiksaar. "welcome to estonia" 2003

Coming back to my years of folk dancing - I was able to go to the dance festival. And it felt just as it ought to - being a part of a huge number of people, doing just the same things that all of my thousands of fellow dancers were doing...

A dance festival is a mass event, a spectacular performance for the audience. During the largest acts, there are about 8000 dancers side-by-side on the stadium lawn, taking the same steps and raising their right hands at exactly the same moment as if they were one, just as they have been taught and learned to do. It is surprising how all of them, from children to seniors, know exactly where and how to be and what to do, considering that the majority of them are nothing like 'professional folk dancers', and in fact some lack of uniformity in their movements could even have been noticed if they had not worn folk costumes that caused all the dancers to merge into a unified colourful mass.

The wearing of folk costumes in this way is suspiciously similar to the sort of act where people don historical costumes, dance a slow waltz and declare that, believe it or not, this is exactly the same ball that took place during Mozart's lifetime. But it is not! Apart from anything else, the ritual accompanying the dances is not the same any more - the Tallinn Kalev Stadium is not a village square, where the villagers meet at the harvest thanksgiving party and improvise songs and dances on the theme during the evening. A dance festival, invented by National Romanticism, is now a simplified and distant version of the original event, not the living old tradition any more. That is why I believe that 'modern folk dance' should be danced wearing more suitable costumes. Maybe it would be wise to divide the programme into two parts - old folk dances and modern folk dances/choreographed dances - and to wear suitable costumes for these parts. I am sure that the dances created for women's groups would lose nothing of their character were they performed wearing long colourful dresses, which would harmonise with the shirts and trousers of the men/boys.

A declared goal of the dance festivals is to help to continue the tradition of folk dance and to modernise it, and thus, to promote folk costumes. I still believe that the way in which these two aims are pursued together is not the best solution. Since the time when the natural development of the folk costume came to an end, or was discontinued, and the folk costume principally acquired the form that can be seen today, it is not really correct to talk about it as 'folk costume' any more; it is more a question of dressing up in 'folklore-style dress'. It is a cherished memory, which, to my mind, people are attempting to push into an unclear context, accompanied by modern choreographed dances and music. Naturally, we cannot clothe the dancers in dinner jackets and evening gowns, but we could give them dresses and trousers made of a material such as linen, which would be better suited to a warm summer. And if we still want to emphasise the importance of history, could the solution be that the dancers wearing the Muhu folk costume danced only those dances that once really were danced in this costume, i.e. dances originating from the island of Muhu?

Maybe the time has come to change the event, to modernise it so that it shall not lose its real essence, so that it shall not give the impression of the compulsory enacting of 'old times'. We have to realise to what extent the repertoire or the content of the event has been modernised, while the form has remained the same, just as if it has been believed that the new content was not so valuable and has had to be hidden at any cost. Maybe the time has come to discuss why and how we organise these festivals. I believe that the present-day dance festival is still something of a 'pig in a poke', successfully sold under the label of tradition. But where is the pure joy of dancing?

Table. Statistics of the dance festivals (2)
No. Date of the festival No of perfomances No of performers
I 15.-17.06. 1934 1 1500
II 16.-18. 1939 1 1800
III 27.06. 1947 1 840
IV 21.07. 1950 1 1500
V 20.-21. 1955 2 3040
VI 19.-20.06. 1960 2 3830
VII 20.-21.07. 1963 3 3824
VIII 18.-20.07.1965 3 5049
IX 18.-19.07. 1970 3 9997
X 30.06.-01.07. 1973 3 5893
XI 18.-20.07. 1975 5 6033
XII 03.-05.07. 1981 5 7006
XIII 19.-21.07. 1985 4 8273
XIV 28.06.-01.07. 1990 5 8874
XV 01.-03.07. 1994 3 7599
XVI 02.-04.07. 1999 3 8059

(1) The homepage of The Estonian Song and Dance Celebration Foundation:
(2) The data has been taken from the homepage of The Estonian Song and Dance Celebration Foundation:

Mairika Plakso (1980) graduated from the choreography faculty of the Tallinn Pedagogical University; currently in charge of the Kanuti Guild Hall; she is also a freelance choreographer and belongs to the dance group flies.doc that consists of three young choreographers.

ESTONIAN CULTURE 1/2004 (3) · ISSN 1406-8478