Quick Search
Advanced Search




 Aija Jansone /Dr. hist./ LATVIA  

5th International Symposium of GREEK DANCE ARCHIVES , May 2006


Dance is one of the oldest human ways of expressing feelings and experiences, involving a variety of rhythmic movements to the accompaniment of song or musical instruments. During centuries of cultural development, in accordance with the characteristics of popular life, the means of expression used in dance have been selected and developed, and the principles guiding the development of dance sequences have become established. During this period, several genres of folk dance have developed, with their own special patterns of form and style, traditional kinds of artistic representation and means of expression.

As with other peoples, so too for the Latvians, folk dance is evidence of ancient traditions and ideas. The historical course of development of dance shows it to have been an important social factor in folk life.

Latvian folk dance, like any folk art, has its origins, its beginnings and its history, which may be divided into several phases of development. Perhaps some of the earliest phases have nowadays lost their practical significance, but knowledge of past development is essential for understanding the evolution of folk dance and for its further development.[i]

At the present day, researchers distinguish three kinds of “folk” dance[ii]:

1)                                                         Authentic folk dances (or ethnic dances): dances for the stage and mass dances, as seen at the Song Festival performances with thousands of participants;

2)                                                         Folk dance adaptations by choreographers (authentic dances combined with ideas from the choreographers);

3)                                                         Original (new) dances, which are divided into dances for the stage and dances for mass performances at Song and Dance Festivals.



Through the course of time, over many generations, much has been lost from folk memory. Knowledge of Latvian dance too is not particularly rich, and is based on two kinds of sources: 1) folk tradition and 2) written evidence. Of course, the tradition itself is most important, but written sources play the main role in research on dance.

“Chronicles and ancient texts, which provide items of information on Latvian customs, sorcery and offering places already from the 13th century, contain little evidence regarding movement and dance, either in relation to cult or to everyday life.”[iii]

We do find somewhat more definite information about Latvian dance, although sparse and brief, in written sources from the 16th century onwards. These sources include accounts of Latvian folk life by foreign travellers and clergymen. This material needs to be regarded critically, since it does not provide any clear or well-founded descriptions of folk dance.

Very important for the collection and preservation of evidence on traditional folk art was the wave of national feeling in the final third of the 19th century, which affected many other European peoples at the same time. As a result, collection of ethnographic material began, and this gives us our main stock of knowledge about Latvian folk customs and the way of life in the 19th century.

At the end of the 19th century, with growing interest among Latvians in the country’s cultural heritage, the first volumes of Latvian games and dances began to be published:

1) The first volume of games published in Latvian, with choreographic descriptions, together with the melodies and words of the accompanying songs, was published in 1890;[iv]

2) a second publication of Latvian folk choreographic material, “Material on Latvian Folk Music”, actually devoted more to song, was compiled by Latvian musicologist Jurjānu Andrejs and published in 1912. In this publication, descriptions of dance sequences are also given for games and dances accompanied by song.[v]

3) In the 1920s, quite a large number of collections of games were published for schools and youth.

However, “the main sources on which objective research on Latvian dance is based are folk songs, customs and magical beliefs.”[vi] Folk songs mention the most characteristic features of Latvian dance: dignity, bearing and lightness, equality between partners and mutual respectfulness. The most commonly mentioned and thus evidently most favoured choreographic movements are turning, leaping and hopping. Latvian dance could be measured and flowing, or it could be fast and carefree. The oldest kind of dance was the circle dance. Folk songs also indicate that the place for dancing, as well as the dress and jewellery, and the musical accompaniment, all played an important role in the development of dance.

Invaluable for the study of folk dance is the material kept in the Repository of Latvian Folklore (RLF), which has records of accounts by eyewitness, starting from the beginning of the 20th century. Jēkabs Stumbris has written concerning this period: “When in recent years the work began of collecting our folklore, the collected material included virtually no dance. Where the songs and music accompanying a dance had been recorded, description of the dance itself was absent or inadequate. Nevertheless, when, in recent decades, or more accurately, in recent years, greater interest developed in these dances and games, it turned out that it was still possible to find a good number of beautiful and interesting dances rich in figures, in which we may take pride and for which we may admire our ancestors.”[vii]

The Repository of Latvian Folklore[viii] was established in 1924 and is Latvia’s largest centre for the collection, keeping, study and publication of folklore. The RLF manages one of Europe’s largest folklore archives, with around three million units of folklore. The archive includes manuscripts, sound and video recordings, and photographic material.

            During its whole existence, the RLF has been active in three main directions: 1) collecting, processing and keeping of material, 2) publication of material, and 3) research. The main way of gathering folklore material has always been fieldwork. Between 1947 and 2003, 49 fieldwork projects of folklore collection have been undertaken, which have included the gathering of material on the different kinds of traditional dance – games, true dances and play-games.

            To make the archive material available to the public, rather than shelving it away, already in 1929 the RLF began the publication of folklore material. In addition to publications of folk songs, legends and tales, works appeared on the subject of folk dance: “Latvian dances” (1939), “Latvian games and game dances” (1966), “The origins and development of Latvian folk dance” (1982), etc.


Types of dances

            In accordance with the material of the Repository of Latvian Folklore, we may divide Latvian dances into four groups or main types, according to their significance and meaning:[ix]

1)                                 Dances connected with cult or mythical ideas;

2)                                 Dances connected with family celebrations and festivals, which, in terms of their character, were not originally intended simply for enjoyment;

3)                                 Dances connected with the seasons and farm labour;

4)                                 Dances simply for enjoyment and entertainment.

Two types of dances predominate: dances with magical significance and dances purely for enjoyment. Dancing took place outdoors or indoors.

            It is not clear how far back into the past we may trace these types of Latvian dance, but research has confirmed that many ancient Latvian beliefs associated with dance date back to the time before the 13th century. Likewise, it should be noted that the boundaries between these four groups of dances cannot always be strictly drawn. Mixed and branching types also occur. The first three types of dance in particular reflect the Latvian worldview and beliefs.

            The preserved folklore material permits identification of the characteristic features of choreographic style in different ethnographic areas, these being more clearly distinct in certain areas and less pronounced in others. This is explicable in terms of historical and ethnic factors.


Genres of dance

Latvian traditional choreographed movement includes the following genres: the game (rotaļa), the game dance (rotaļspēle), the true dance (deja) and the play-game (rotaļspēle). Common to these is the creation of patterns recalling the characteristic Latvian geometric design (such as the circle). One of the most characteristic features of Latvian dance is the capacity for variation. In this connection, it should be noted that some of the most widely represented games, game dances and dances have a hundred or more known variants. These variants include vary primitive and early sequences, as well as very complicated sequences, from more recent times.

Games with an unlimited number of participants arranged in a circle represent the most primitive, and presumably the oldest type of game. The most widespread type in this genre is the circle consisting of an unlimited number of dancers, with one or more dancers in the centre. Also widespread is the circle type of dance with an unlimited number of couples. All of these types of games are characterised by two figures: first, the dancers move in a circle in both directions, and then the couples turn, interweave or dance some other faster figure that is not connected with any particular type of game.

Most common among the game dances is the circle with an unlimited number of couples. In this genre, the most characteristic choreographic sequence again consists of two figures, although more complicated sequences are also found.

Among the true dances, in addition to the most widespread type, with an unlimited number of couples in a circle, we also find unlimited numbers of groups of four in a square. The number of figures in the dance varies from two to five, or up to seven. One of the most characteristic features of the Latvian genres of the dance, game and game dance is mirror-reflection in the movements of the couples.

In the play-game, movement is connected more with the words of the song. Usually, the main attention is given to the game elements, so that the choreographic sequence is of secondary importance.


The course of development of Latvian dance and changes in the character of dance

In its original form, Latvian dance was merry and exultant, even loud, carefree and playful, and was accompanied by merry song. The pagan rituals and ancient Latvian celebrations were full of merriment and audacity. But Latvian peasants were oppressed by centuries under the feudal yoke and enslaved by serfdom, a plight that was exacerbated by war, famine and epidemics, so that dance, quite logically, changed its character. Over the course of time, it became slow and placid, exhibiting a shy and ponderous peasant style, with a sad lyricism, lacking real ardour and impetuosity.

Changes in Latvian dance also came about through the influence of socio-economic and ideological conditions. For centuries, the German landowners and clergy forbade peasants from gathering at the ancient cult sites and strove to eradicate popular traditions, replacing them with Christian celebrations. Nevertheless, although suppressed in this way, the wish to dance did not disappear, persisting in spite of the hard conditions of life.

In the age of feudalism, certain games and dances were closely connected with particular seasonal festivals and family celebrations, but in the period of capitalism, from the second half of the 19th century, the situation changed. Observed at this time are widespread indications of assimilation between Latvian dances and those of other peoples, mainly involving the quadrille, polka, waltz, etc. As in other countries, in the first half of the 19th century, quadrille-type compositional arrangements became very widespread in Latvia. Along with these, the polka, borrowed from the Czechs, and the waltz, from Austria, spread rapidly.[x] These borrowings were introduced on the basis of the cross, the run, the hop and three-step, which were already familiar from the game dances.

The introduction of choreographic details from international couple dances into the old games, game dances and dances was promoted in particular by dances open to the public. Apart from this, it should be mentioned that the Latvians already had similar choreographic approaches (the circle types in the game, game dance and dance genres, with an unlimited number of couples) and steps. It is concluded that all this borrowed material has been subject to such a profound and extensive process of assimilation, and thus also of further development, that the national characteristics of Latvian choreography are quite unimaginable without these borrowed means of expression and the special compositional arrangements associated with them. “However, all these elements of foreign influence have been transformed and thoroughly moulded to suit the specific Latvian feeling and style.”[xi]

During the time they were known in the different cultural regions that make up present-day Latvia (Vidzeme, Latgale, Kurzeme, Zemgale and Augšzeme), the quadrille, the polka and the waltz were not only danced in different ways, but also with different kinds of compositional arrangement. Thus, in Vidzeme, quadrilles were danced at inns in particular (by several couples at once), while in Latgale they were mostly danced in the small rooms of peasant homes, where there was space for only two couples to dance at the same time.

Likewise, the dancing of traditional games in Latgale differed from the dancing of games in other regions of Latvia. In Vidzeme and Kurzeme, the dancers all moved, or sometimes stood, in a circle, while in Latgale, the other participants in the games often sat in the room and sang during the game. Since only some of the participants actually danced, and since musicians sometimes accompanied the singers, three separate groups of participants emerged: dancers, singers and musicians. This form of dancing not only promoted a transition from the genre of the game to the game dance and dance but was also the direct antecedent of the present-day song and dance ensembles.

In Kurzeme and Zemgale, alongside social dances, also appearing very widely at this time was the sentimental ziņģe type of game song, sometimes sung to accompany typical Latvian folk games. It should be noted that these social songs could not alter the traditional sequence of the Latvian games, and only had the effect of promoting the establishment of the waltz as part of Latvian folk choreography.

These examples show that some of the traditions of development of choreographic art were common to the whole of Latvia, while others were specific to particular ethnographic regions. 

Under the conditions of capitalism (second half of the 19th century), a single course of folk dance development could no longer continue. Class distinctions became increasingly pronounced, since there was a growing gap between the homes, dress and educational level of the farm-owners and the condition of the farm labourers. Inevitably, the conditions for dancing and the dances themselves became increasingly differentiated. In social terms as well, the farm-owners increasingly came to differ from the labourers. The farm-owners defended the interests of the large estates and were more active in adopting traditions from the estates. “Lordly” urban dances were introduced via the estates. In addition, the clergy from the pulpit, preaching ideas alien to the people’s way of life and maintaining that dancing was sinful, condemned folk dances. As a result, various kinds of dance existed during the period of capitalism: traditional Latvian games and dances, modern social dances and performance dances. As shown by material from choreographic folklore, during the period of capitalism, all genres of choreographic movement – the dance, the game dance, the game and the play-game – were very much alive.[xii]

An active ideological struggle against the German landowners and pastors was begun in the 1850s to 70s by the “Young Latvians”[xiii], led by Krišjānis Valdemārs (1825–1891) and Juris Alunāns (1832–1864). The Young Latvians appreciated and supported the people’s wish to dance and opposed the erroneous ideas about folk dance spread by the German landowners and clergy. In this connection, dance became a subject of press debate. An article “On dancing”, published in 1860 in the political and literary newspaper Mājas Viesis, discusses the issue of whether “dancing is a sin”. The debate on dancing continued in other publications, with articles expressing the opposite view, even in the local German press, pointing out that folk dance is part of folk culture.

On the peasant farmsteads, dance was connected with seasonal festivals and family celebrations. When the inn became the characteristic venue where peasants gathered for dance evenings, the ancient kinds of dance gradually became more remote from their relationship to calendar festivals or family celebrations. The transformation and development of the ancient kinds of dance was promoted by the participation of people from the estates, and they were also the ones promoting the introduction of elements of urban social dances into Latvian peasant choreographic folklore. In other spheres of life too, urban culture arrived in rural Latvia through the estates.

The ruling class, which opposed the workers’ revolutionary movement in the towns, was also against popular gatherings in rural areas, even if the only purpose was dancing. At this time, inns were still the centres of rural social life, and here young people came together on Saturdays and Sundays to dance. The ruling class did not support this and advised people to dance only at festive occasions at home.

Along with the growth of amateur theatre in various parts of Latvia (in the late 19th century), theatre performances became increasingly common. These were usually followed by social evenings with dancing out of doors. However, games were less and less common at such dance evenings (usually restricted to the intervals when the musicians rested). What kinds of dances were favoured here? These were no longer Latvian folk dances. Folk dances were dubbed “old time dances” and classed along with other customs from the past, which should be avoided and forgotten. As a result, the already small number of Latvian folk dances was further reduced and dances forgotten. By the late 19th century, couple dances from urban culture dominated among the fashionable social dances, gradually losing the characteristic features of folk dance.        

During the first period of Latvia’s independence, Latvian games and social dances were retained at celebrations in the home, particularly in rural areas, and at school events.[xiv]

The development of Latvian social dancing in the period of capitalism was significantly influenced by the publications on games and dances.

In later years, folk dances played an important role in the development of dances for the stage. As in many other arts, so too performance dancing and national ballet sought inspiration from folklore. The beginnings of Latvian ballet, too, involved elements borrowed from folk dance.

                        *                                  *                                  *

From its development as an ancient form of folk art, Latvian folk dance, which in ancient times was mainly tied to social and work traditions, has, from the late 19th and early 20th century up to the present day, gone beyond this traditional frame and has been transformed into a theatrical stage performance.

The beginnings of this tradition appeared in 1873, when the first All-Latvian Song Festival was held. As a result, during the past 130 years, the Song Festivals have made a major contribution in the field of Latvian folklore, maintaining folk song, dance and traditional folk dress. Initially, this was exclusively a festival of song, but later, from 1937,[xv] major dance performances were also held in the form of concerts during the Song Festival. Authentic folk dances and games were performed, as well as dances created by choreographers. At the present day, these grandiose concerts, where authentic and choreographed dance (in national style) is adapted to the needs of a mass performance, have become part of mass culture. At the same time, this is a way of maintaining our people’s ancient dance tradition, albeit in an entirely different form and with a different significance. 

The Latvian National Song and Dance Festivals display the extensive utilisation of traditional dance in grandiose dance performances, with several thousand dancers on stage at the same time (13 400 dancers took part in the 23rd Song and 13th Dance Festival in 2003).

At the present day, the dance steps and figures in the choreographed folk dances have become more complicated and expressive. A rapid tempo is a logical innovation in the newly created Latvian dances, whose most characteristic features are dynamism and joie de vivre. This is a novel and somewhat questionable feature in the historical development of Latvian folk dance. Sometimes, the dances created by the choreographers tend to be overly ostentatious, with unjustified innovations in Latvian folk dance. At the present day, Latvian folk dance is by no means static and unchanging. Rather, it has developed throughout its existence, with the loss of old elements and the introduction of new ones.

Dr. Aija Jansone


[i] Siliņa E. Latviešu tautas dejas izcelsme un attīstība.- R, 1982.- 8. lpp.

[ii] Barkauskaite G. Lithuanian National Dances in Song Festivals: The Interaction of Ethnicity and Authors’ Creation.- Kaunas, 2004.- p.6.

[iii] Siliņa E. Latviešu deja.- R., 1939.- 7. lpp.

[iv] Sams V. Un Tarziers K. Rotaļas mājai un skolai. Valmierā, 1890.

[v] Jurjānu Andrejs. Latvju tautas mūzikas materiāli.- RLB Mūzikas komisijas rakstu krājums, 4., Rīgā, 1912.

[vi] Siliņa E. Latviešu deja.- 13. lpp.

[vii] Stumbris J. Dejosim latviski. I – R., 1938.- 4. lpp.

[viii] Latviešu folkloras krātuve.- R., 2004.- 14 lpp.

[ix] Siliņa E. Latviešu deja.- 13. lpp.

[x] Sūna H. Tautas horeogrāfija.// Latviešu etnogrāfija.- R., 1969.- 242. lpp.

[xi] Siliņa E. Latviešu tautas deja un tās elementi mūsu baletā.// Latvju mēnešraksts.- R., 1944.- Nr. 2.- 128. lpp.

[xii] Sūna H. Tautas horeogrāfija.// Latviešu etnogrāfija.- R., 1969.- 405. lpp.

[xiii] The period of emergence of the Latvian nation witnessed the Latvian National Awakening. Latvian intellectuals, called the “Young Latvians” (jaunlatvieši) took up the struggle for economic, legal, political and national cultural rights, involving ever-wider sections of the people. The core of the Young Latvian movement was in conscious opposition to the Baltic German landowners, the bureaucracy and its privileges, the remnants of serfdom and national oppression. In the process of consolidation of the Latvian nation, the Young Latvians expressed the general and most essential needs, strivings, hopes and desires of the people, and awakened national pride.

[xiv] Sūna H. Tautas horeogrāfija.// Latviešu etnogrāfija.- R., 1969.- 410. lpp.

[xv] Dziesmu svētku mažā enciklopēdija.- R., 2004.- 66. lpp.