Dancing On Broken Glass

By Margaret Drummond

The seed for this article was sown one summer when a cousin handed me a yellowed newspaper clipping from 1951. We were supposed to be celebrating my mum’s 100th birthday but sadly she had died just five days before. However, as relatives were coming from far and wide to our London home, my sister and I decided to go ahead with the party anyway.

The article had been written in Dutch by my mother for a small provincial newspaper in her hometown in the Netherlands and had been carefully preserved, probably by my grandfather. In it, my mum describes a rail journey to Wales from her nurses’ home on the Isle of Wight – she had arrived in the UK the year before and was working in a TB sanatorium there – and her attendance at a very unusual event. Historically interesting certainly, but for us this article is also precious for its significance as a milestone in our family’s story.

 “This festival,” wrote my mother, “is a means of promoting understanding and reconciliation amongst all the European countries who suffered so much during the War years.”

The festival concerned was the International Eisteddfod in Borth in 1951, and, although my mother does not mention this in the article, we know that she travelled to Wales to watch her future husband – my dad – perform with a Lithuanian dance group from Nottingham. This, together with an old black-and-white photo of my dad in his DP camp in Germany prompted me to delve deeper into my parents’ story and the role folk dancing played in their courtship. 

My dad had arrived in England in 1948 aged 23 as part of the Westward Ho scheme, designed to allocate Displaced Persons from the British occupied zone in Germany into jobs in agriculture, forestry, coal mining and cotton textiles in the UK. He was allocated a job in the British Gypsum mines near Nottingham. From 1945 to 1948 he had been in the DP camp in Kempten in Bavaria and it was here that he had joined a folk-dancing group. Folk dancing remained a passion for him. He regularly told us about the 22 dances in the Kempten troupe’s repertoire. Like many other refugees, he saw this as a vital link to his homeland. Having arrived in Nottingham, which still today remains an important cultural centre for Lithuanians in the UK, he naturally joined the dance group and with them he attended the Eisteddfod in 1950.

Some time that year he met mum in London, and the following summer he invited her to meet him in Wales so that she could see him dance. The importance of folk dancing as an expression of Lithuanian identity can be traced back to the end of the nineteenth century and the period of the Lithuanian National Awakening (Lietuvių tautinis atgimimas) when the country was struggling to forge its own identity in the midst of the repressive Tsarist regime, which forbade even the Lithuanian language. Like other minorities in Europe, Baltic musicians, scholars and artists were keen to explore their heritage. The first Lithuanian dance, Suktinis, was performed on stage in St Petersburg in 1903 and during the Tsarist period  choirs performing folk songs were formed – often clandestinely, as with the Daina group organised by Juozas Nauialis, which was legalised only in 1905.

During the period of independence between the wars folk dancing flourished – it even formed a compulsory part of the Higher Physical Training Course (Aukštieji kūno kultūros kursai), a course designed for sports teachers launched in Kaunas in 1934 by the President of Lithuania Antanas Smetona. The first Lithuanian folk dance festival was held in Kaunas in 1937, and featured 448 dancers. Even during the later Soviet period this event was held regularly and was generously supported by the government. 

Lithuanians abroad and in exile also continued the tradition. In 1946 refugees from DP camps held a festival in Würzburg. Was my dad there, I wonder; I never thought to ask him. In 1952, Lithuanian deportees in the Siberian town of Igarka in the Arctic Circle formed a dance group. In the USA and Canada, local groups had organised smaller local events since their arrival there early on in the century. The first major event following the second wave of Baltic immigration was held in Chicago in 1957, featuring dancers from Canada and the USA. 

Since then the festival has taken place every five years, with the next event scheduled for 2021 in Philadelphia. Indeed, such is the importance of folk dancing in Lithuanian culture that, in 2003, the Baltic Song and Dance Celebrations – a common heritage of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – were listed by UNESCO among the masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

As for the small community in the UK which my dad had joined, there is a record of a performance by a Lithuanian group, presumably from the country itself, consisting of 16 dancers and four musicians in London in 1935 at the International Folkdance Festival. But it was during the war years that the idea for an International Eisteddfod with dancers from all over the world was proposed, when Harold Tudor, an officer of the British Council, arranged a visit for members of governments-in-exile to the Welsh National Eisteddfod in Bangor. In the first years after the war, the organisers saw the event as a means of building bridges and establishing international understanding, and the festival was generously supported by the British Council and the Esperanto Society, amongst others. 

As early as 1949, amidst some controversy, a German choir from Lübeck participated, and in the programme from 1951, when my parents attended, there were “spotlight talks” on the Baltic States, Italy, France and Germany along with lectures on “nationality” by Sidney Herbert and the “conflict of ideologies” by leuan John, both of whom at the time lectured in Politics at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. Ieuan John was a noted expert on the politics of the Cold War and on the Baltics in particular and in later years was a respected advisor to Western governments in formulating policy in this field. 

There is a Pathé News report from the Eisteddfod that year showing the fields around Borth converted into a huge tented city, where dancers from India, Indonesia, Wales and Ukraine performed to curious British crowds. It was possible, given the austerity and insularity of the war years, that many of those watching had never met a foreigner.   

Certainly a new degree of cultural understanding was needed in those early years for the recent migrants and even my parents had to contend with racism and suspicion. At the time there was considerable hostility to the new arrivals. The Daily Mirror published an article headed ‘Let Them Be Displaced,’ saying of the European Volunteer Workers: ‘Other countries had taken the cream and left us most of the scum. Some no doubt are in the Black Market. They add to our discomfort and swell the crime wave. This cannot be tolerated. They must now be rounded up and sent back.”

My own parents dealt with their fair share of animosity from some quarters. They married in 1953 and used to tell the story of how an estate agent refused to show them any properties because they were foreign, and about the priest who insisted that my dad recite penance prayers in English in the confessional before he gave him absolution! Other neighbours were more welcoming, however and my parents were both grateful that they were granted British nationality in the ’50s.

Later on in the 60s and 70s on summer trips to Sodyba (a country retreat run by the Lithuanian community at Headley Park in Hampshire in southern England) my parents always made sure we stayed to watch the traditional dance groups from all over the UK. They were run by volunteers who worked hard to keep the community alive. Costumes were sourced from the USA, and sometimes even from Lithuania, sent by relatives who had somehow managed to bypass the strict Soviet customs system. Later on, when restrictions were relaxed in the early ’80s, those lucky enough to be granted visitor visas returned with folklore items, linen, amber and records.   

And, of course, with independence came change. Now, not far from my home, new groups of dancers and musicians have sprung up, organised by Lithuanians who have emigrated recently and who have established a large community in the Barking and Newham areas. Sometimes on summer evenings, walking in a nearby park or even sitting in my back garden, I catch the wisp of a tune played on a kankles or an accordion. It reminds me of my dad and the crackly old vinyl LPs from home he used to play on Sunday afternoons.    

Photograph courtesy of Margaret Drummond.

Margaret Drummond grew up in a Dutch/Lithuanian family and now lives in London. She studied modern languages at university, taught for many years and now translates.

Shake a Leg


By Ed Staskus 

   “Rhythm is something you either have or don’t have, but when you have it, you have it all over.”  Elvis Presley

   On a Saturday morning in mid-fall, Olga Capas, Rita Zvirblis, and Vanessa Staskus ordered late breakfast early lunch at the Diner on Clifton, finding a table on the outdoor patio and easing into their seats twenty minutes after their ever first Zumba class. Over cups of steaming coffee, three-cheese omelets, patty melts, and shared sweet potato fries, they caught up with their breath and with tuning in to the sunny-side up movement exercise scene.

   “We got to class early and found our space in the back,” said Vanessa, “but then every minute somebody went behind us, so in no time we went from being in the back row to being in the front row.”

   If you’re in the front row you’re leading the parade. It wasn’t what they planned, but once the class started, they had to look alive. If you stop, you’re going to melt back into the tuba section, where you might get laid low.

   “I thought they were going to kick me out,” said Rita, “I have no rhythm, but it’s so fast, you can’t think about anything else besides keeping your feet moving.”

   She was being modest. She danced with the Grandinele folk dancers as a teenager and young adult. She traveled with the troupe to Chicago and Toronto, Europe, and South America. Folk dancing reflects the life of people from a place or country. It can be the upbeat southern Italian Tarantella, the rhythmic Turkish Haly, the Polish carnival party dance Polonaise, Kentucky clogging, and Korean sword dancing. Zumba is along the lines of a street dance.

   Grandinele was formed in Cleveland in the early 1950s by Liudas Sagys, who began his career as a professional dancer with the National Folk Dance Ensemble in Lithuania. He taught the steps and choreographed Grandinele’s country hoedowns while his wife Alexandra made the costumes and kept the books. He was the longtime director of the Cleveland Folk Dance Festival which in 1976 was recognized as “the best ever.”

   “I loved the Zumba, the music and moving,” said Olga. She always had tennis shoes at the ready in her hallway when she was ready to move.

   The three women are all of Lithuanian descent, one of them from the homeland, two of them immigrant stock, living west of the Cuyahoga River, on the west side of Cleveland, Ohio, active and fit enough. Plump pale and healthy as an ox without batting an eyelash was the touchstone once upon a time, but the signs of the times have long since changed. Never fit and trim enough is where walking jogging running working out and Zumba come in.

   Zumba is a dance and fitness program created by exercise instructor and choreographer Alberto “Beto” Perez in Colombia during the 1990s when he improvised salsa music into an aerobics class. Since the turn of the century, it has expanded to 125 countries, taught by more than 20,000 certified instructors. Practiced weekly by approximately 14 million people worldwide it is today’s most popular dance fitness phenomenon.

   In 2012 Zumba was named the”‘Company of the Year” by Inc. Magazine and is today one of the largest fitness brands in the world, practiced everywhere from big-box gyms to church halls to community centers.

   At the Harrison Elementary School, sponsored by the Lakewood Recreation Department, classes are taught by Amy Annico, a hale hearty black-haired young woman sporting a quick smile, bright blue sneakers, and hauling a yellow Dewalt boom box about the size of an air compressor from her car to the class.

   “One minute she was monkeying with that big yellow thing,” said Rita, “and then at nine o’clock in the morning exactly it was blasting.”

   It was the blast off.

   “I’m not really for nightclubbing first thing in the morning,” Rita said, “but she makes it a lot of fun. It’s like partying yourself into shape.”

   Zumba is different than many other fitness programs because people don’t always take it for the fitness benefits, more often than not for the boogie and socializing, even though the results can be transforming.  It is a cardiovascular calorie-burning hour of twisting and turning in varying states of synchronization to loud bouncy infectious music.

   “They are taking it for the happiness and joy that they feel while they are doing it, and the fitness is just the result of this,” said Alberto Perlman, who with Alberto Perez was a co-founder of the Zumba enterprise.

   Zumba is essentially an aerobic fitness program, including basic core fitness, married to dance routines. Set to full of life Latin American beats, it burns up to 600 calories an hour, according to Harvard Health Publications. Sweating is not optional, since everybody starts sweating within a couple of minutes and doesn’t stop until the end of class.

   “Zumba is hard,” said Olga, “but it’s not hard like going to the gym. Sometimes I have to force myself to do that, but with Zumba the music is going, and you just want to move.”

   “It’s fast-paced and you’re watching Amy’s feet up on the stage,” said Rita between bites on a Reuben sandwich. “It’s those blue shoes she wears the whole time, trying to follow what she’s doing, and then you immediately start sweating.”

   “Immediately!” echoed Vanessa. “Sweat was dripping down the small of my back before the warm-up was even over.”

   Amy Annico, a music teacher as well as part-time actress, has taught Zumba since 2008 at area YMCA’s, Live Well Lakewood, health fairs, and retirement homes. She attends the annual Zumba Instructor Convention in Orlando, Florida, every year, upgrading her skills

   “I’m trained in Zumba, which is for everyone,” she said, “and Zumba Gold, which is for older, active adults, and Zumbatomic for kids.” There is even Aqua Zumba, a water-based workout integrating Zumba with aqua fitness themes. A great deal of jumping and splashing is involved. Strapless bathing suits are strongly discouraged, for good reason.

   “The Harrison school class is a great community class,” Amy said. “Everyone’s dancing, it’s like a party, people are hooting and hollering and shaking, and the hour flies by and you don’t even know it.”

   By all accounts shimmying, shaking and sliding, hooting and hollering, as well as chest pumping and bootie shaking, are encouraged subscribed to and applauded. You may not get a gold star, but you’ll be a shooting star.

   “I always say, don’t be shy, give it a try,” said Amy Annico. “It’s all about spreading the joy of music from around the world with fantastic fitness and dance moves.”

   The word zumba is Colombian slang and means “move fast and have fun.” It has been described as exercise in disguise. Set to four basic rhythms based on salsa, merengue, cumbia, and reggaeton, it is a non-stop workout that works all your endorphins out endorphins as well as working out your muscles.

   Some people lose inches off their waistlines, others see their cholesterol drop and their energy levels rise, while still others simply reduce their stress levels. Some men even learn to dance and not make fools of themselves at weddings anymore.

   Just as sweating is mandatory, so is staying hydrated.

   “I told Vanessa to bring water, even though she doesn’t like water, because I heard you get really thirsty at Zumba,” said Rita.

   “My whole bottle of water was gone before half the class was over, and I never drink water,” said Vanessa. “Everybody was going back and forth to the water fountain getting more of it all class long. You don’t get totally winded, even though it’s non-stop dancing, but you do get totally thirsty.”

   Their dishes cleared off the table at the diner, coffee cups re-filled, and lingering over their lunchtime, the three women agreed that Zumba was the best way they could think of to exercise without actually exercising.

   “The salsa moves are really good for you, your whole body is going, your hips are going,” said Rita. “Amy is so animated, she makes all these noises, those sounds of hers, like she is definitely having fun doing it, and she makes it the same for everybody.”

   “It’s like dancing from beginning to end, but it’s exercise, too. You do it with joy, and afterwards you feel so good,” added Olga. “It’s guaranteed to put a smile on your face.”

   They all agreed Zumba was the best of both worlds. There are shortcuts to happiness and dancing is one of them. “Your whole body is moving, and you don’t have time to think about working out,” said Rita while walking back to their car. “It’s like having your cake and eating it, too.”

   Some words are triggers. Cake is one of them. If staying healthy and fit is a priority, since vegetables are a good way of getting there, there is always pumpkin pie and carrot cake.

   “Why don’t we drive down to Tremont, have some dessert, and go for a walk along the river?” Vanessa suggested. “It’s going to start getting cold soon.” The winter in Cleveland was only six weeks away, when the sky would go dark gray and storms started blowing in over Lake Erie.

   That’s what the three Baltic hoofers doing Columbian slimnastics for the day did, before the sun set, and the night’s new frost crept in unnoticed.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”