Put on your pastalas and get in the game

I first read about this compact disc, released in December 2001, on one of my many virtual journeys on the Web. I was quite excited as I know there is not much out there in the way of recordings of Latvian “dancing games” (or rotaļas as they’re called in Latvian) and made a mental note that I must get a copy of Latviešu rotaļas as soon as I can.

The album is the second by Maskačkas spēlmaņi, a Rīga-based folklore group formed in 1995 and led by Ansis Ataols Bērziņš. It includes 27 songs chosen from the book, Latviešu rotaļas un rotaļdejas by Harijs Sūna.

Ever since I’ve had children (they’re six and three years old now) and started teaching Latvian folklore at the local Saturday school, I’ve been scouring the Web (and music stores when I was in Latvia) for music to play to my kids and resources that will help me with lesson preparation. In recent years there have only been a few CDs released that tackle this subject: Latviešu danči and Danco Dievis, both produced by UPE Recording Co. as part of the Latvian Folk Music Collection, and Rotaļas un danči, recorded by Skandinieki.

I feel this part of Latvian traditional folklore is extremely important as it is the introduction to Latvian folk dancing for the very young. In my classes the kids love it when I say, “Iesim rotaļās!” (Let’s play a game!). They, I’m sure, presume that while we’re doing rotaļas, they’re not really learning anything. I know better: The more rotaļas I can get into their memories, the better.

These supposedly simple games are most certainly not only for the young. Rotaļas were danced for centuries at family celebrations not only by children but by everyone who had the strength to get up and move to the music. The dance steps are easy to learn and the beat of many of the dances is merely a gentle shuffle, a far cry from the polka-jumping and intricate maneuvers required for the folk dances that you see on stage at Dziesmu svētki or other more formal occasions.

In Latvia, you’ll even find venues both in Rīga and Daugavpils devoted to just that: simple dances that may be only a tad more difficult than the basic rotaļas you learnt as a child. Rīgas Danču klubs and Laimas Muzykantu danču krodziņš both open their doors to anyone who is interested in dancing these basic steps, which at the same time are ancient and therefore culturally and historically meaningful. Ilga Reizniece of post-folk group Iļģi fame is also very devoted to the passing down of these traditional dances. At the two 3×3 cultural camps I have attended (one in Melbourne, Australia, and the other in Rucava, Latvia), she had everyone who was interested learning these simple dances in a few minutes.

Latviešu rotaļas will certainly further this very worthy cause. First, I am very pleased that the text is both in English and Latvian (therefore available to a wider audience) and the quality of the English doesn’t make you cringe. Second, and more important to me for lesson preparation, are the clear and concise explanations of the steps of each rotaļa. I had already consulted quite a few folklore books, which had explanations of the steps to many dancing games with accompanying musical notes, but for a musically challenged person such as me (I never learnt an instrument) they were of little use.

Maskačkas spēlmaņi definitely show musical talent and, more importantly, they seem to possess the “oomph” required to make people want to join in and dance along with the others. I highly recommend this CD to anyone who is interested in traditional Latvian culture be it at home, in a classroom situation or some other group setting.

So slip on your pastalas, put the CD on and learn some new rotaļas. And don’t forget to include the younger generation. Your children or grandchildren will be so pleased with your interpretation of spending quality time with them!


Latviešu rotaļas

Maskačkas spēlmaņi

Rīgas skaņu ierakstu studija,  2001

RS 036

Daina Gross is editor of Latvians Online. An Australian-Latvian she is also a migration researcher at the University of Latvia, PhD from the University of Sussex, formerly a member of the board of the World Federation of Free Latvians, author and translator/ editor/ proofreader from Latvian into English of an eclectic mix of publications of different genres.

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