The dancers enter the space in couples, men and women paired together. They nod at one another in greeting before beginning to dance. They are clad in white blouses with respective pants or skirts. Aprons, vests, and hats in the brightest of primary colors accent their garments. A band comprised of accordionists, a violinist, a clarinetist and a bassist starts up a lively polka. The song is short but quickly followed by another song, a slight shift in mood and rhythm. The dancers change their demeanor appropriately. As the tune shifts again and again, from majestic to solemn to homey to celebratory to ceremonial to romantic, the dancers in turn sing, gesture, sway and jump. The end result is a feeling of community and camaraderie, of people dancing the ups and downs of life together. This is the Polish Biale Podlasie Suite.
The Biale Podlasie Suite is just one of many dances that the San Francisco based Lowiczanie Polish Folk Dance Ensemble keep in their repertoire. The Lowiczanie Polish Folk Dance Ensemble (pronounced Who-vee-chah-nya) was established in 1975 and currently is Resident Dance Company of the Polish Club, an organization dedicated to serving the Bay Area Polish community since 1926. The Lowiczanie Polish Folk Dance Ensemble’s current repertoire consists of approximately thirty-five regional dances, each with its own variation in style, costume, and music.
The Lowiczanie Polish Folk Dance Ensemble will be presenting the Biale Podlasie Suite (a suite is a series of dances from the same region) and other traditional Polish dances at city hall this May 4th at noon as part of Dancers’ Group’s Rotunda Dance Series. The Rotunda Dance Series regularly presents various dance artists from around the Bay Area in San Francisco City Hall’s open rotunda area. The lunchtime performances are always free and attract a variety of students, city councilors, local businessmen, tourists, and random passersby.
The Lowiczanie Polish Folk Dance Ensemble strives to be as authentic as possible in their reproduction of traditional Polish dance. For the Ensemble, there is an educational aspect that goes beyond simply entertaining audiences and preserving the culture. Mary Kay Stuvland, artistic director and choreographer for the Ensemble, expressed how the preservation of traditional Polish dance and other traditional dance forms is “vitally important to understanding our immigrant culture and expressing our cultural roots.”
Stuvland, who has been associated with the Ensemble since 1979, spoke of how she often encounters prejudice in the greater arts community against traditional forms as if they were lesser forms, as though dance that is historic and recreational isn’t relevant or real. “Relevant is what moves people and makes them happy or sad. And when I stand in my Krakowiak costume that I’ve performed in for the last thirty years I most definitely feel real.”
“In East-Central Europe (of which Poland is a part), Eastern Europe, and the Balkans, folklore traditions are still very much a part of people’s lives. In Poland, for example, the Highlanders of the Tartry Mountains wear their traditional dress for all important occasions such as weddings, baptisms, church holidays and festivals. These are literally living traditions-one can mark the changes in fashion and in styles of singing and dancing. This is also the case in the Eastern border regions. In other areas of Poland, the traditional forms of dress, music, song, and dance are universally recognized at the regional level, and many elderly still wear traditional dress on Sundays and engage in the long-held holiday customs each year. As recently as 20 years ago, women and girls of all ages in the heart of Poland (the Lowicz district, from which my group takes its name) walked to Sunday Mass naturally dressed in full national costume, or elements of that costume such as a cape and scarf.”
Stuvland and her associates in the Ensemble aim to bridge the gap between Polish citizens who still have a very tangible relationship to their traditional dances and the contemporary San Franciscan with Polish heritage. One of the ways the Ensemble facilitates this is through rehearsals that are regularly open to the general public. Every Tuesday evening from 7:30-10:30 the Ensemble rehearses at the Polish Club (3040 22nd Street, San Francisco, CA) and anyone is invited to watch and partake.
The Polish Club rehearsals and the Rotunda Dance Series are just two examples of the many ways in which the Ensemble shares traditional Polish dance with the greater Bay Area. They have also been found performing at a variety of venues including libraries, churches, conferences, festivals, and operas. “There is a value in understanding people through culture beyond political discourse. We’re in a unique position here in the Bay Area; we’re a part of a cultural fabric that’s among the richest in the United States,” says Stuvland. The Lowiczanie Polish Folk Dance Ensemble is just one of the many gems of the traditional dance community that keeps the connection to immigrant roots as well as preserves and shares the timeless tradition of dancing.
For more info visit polishfolk.org
This article appeared in the May 2012 issue of In Dance.