Slovaks Learn To Ballroom Dance Young


December 14, 2010

Allan Stevo

On a whited-out December night in Bratislava, in an off-the-beaten-path part of town is a gathering of hundreds of parents and students celebrating what amounts to a dance-school graduation.

I walk through the doors of an old Dom Kultúry (click the link to learn more about a Dom Kultury) stopping first at an old coat check woman who’s worked two of these dances a year for time immemorial. This event is called a “Venček” and she knows them well. Leaving my coat and boots with her, I proceed deeper into the “Dom Kultúry,” beyond its heavy stone exterior, it’s heavy stone cloak room, its heavy stone foyer, past its heavy stone bathrooms. This building was built by the communists to be functional, not pretty.

Through a padded door, I begin to hear a tune that was likely most popular in this region 200 years ago, as ball room dancing grew in popularity, with nearby Vienna as the center of Europe, and the center of this popular trend of dancing not as a group, but face-to-face and intimately close. Along with much other criticism, this style of dancing was denounced as anti-social.

Beyond that door is a room of dressed-up 15-year-olds doing the Viennese waltz, and a rich scarlet is the color of what is happening around me, immediately the old communist Dom Kultúry behind me no longer exists, the ugly grey blocks that it was built with are now gone, it’s pure functionality is something I’ve already forgotten. Behind every “good” thing the communists did, when I scratch the surface, I find the very sinister reasons that those good things were done. Surely some communist somewhere once figured “If we give the Slovaks houses of culture, we will have greater power to control certain segments of Slovak society.” I’ve yet to figure out that detail of life in former Czechoslovakia, but I can say plenty about the manipulative efforts of the communist government to support the Church, education, after school programs, athletic programs, the media, artists, writers, and civil defense. Something tells me an interest in culture goes right along with that. But, that’s not on my mind as I walk through the doors. What’s on my mind is that there is very little functionality to what is happening in this room and it’s so beautiful.

On the dance floor “na parkety,” as it’s called in Slovak, these nicely dressed, slightly awkward teenagers are showing off what they’ve learned in these last three months of ballroom dancing classes. Their nicely dressed parents clap after every song. It has a coming of age feel to it. On this night, the guys and girls on the dance floor will have received the stamp of approval – they know how to go out to a formal event and behave themselves. You could say this evening is the dress rehearsal for the Stužková (article explaining Stužková) that will follow 2 or 3 years from now.

The Viennese waltz that was on as I entered turns into a foxtrot as the emcee of the evening announces the beat over a microphone “Foxtrot – raz, dva, tri, raz, dva, tri” (one, two, three, one, two three) before quitting his counting and letting his students get their own feel for the rhythm of the music. The voice sounds familiar to me, and I immediately remember why – it was from adance class I took two years back. It must be Mr. Mrva on stage, my own instructor, but I can’t see him yet over the bobbing heads of the dancers. There will be time enough for stopping over to tell him hello, and I simply stand and take in the beauty of the situation I’ve been invited into.

In the sometimes cold public life of Slovakia, being brought into a situation like this where children and parents have their guards down feels good. Step onto a packed Bratislava bus and unless you see a friend who recognizes you, you are not likely to be smiled at by anybody. Heck, not only will you not be smiled at, but you also are unlikely to even see a smile. No smiles is the norm. Be happy if you are not snarled at. This can be hard for an American to get used to. America is the land of ever-present smiles.

Step into a Venček on a snowy night like this one and you won’t see an unhappy person in the house (well, with the possible exception of the kid who has two left feet, but tonight even he looks merry). Everyone is happy, everyone is celebrating. Every mother and father looks proud. Every child seems to be somewhat comfortable in this environment that they’ve trained weekly for three months to prepare for. Being invited into a situation like this reminds the visitor how very kind and generous Slovaks are in private, which of course contrasts with the harsh exterior.

“We learned that showing your real emotions in public can always be dangerous,” said a 40-year-old pastor to me a few years back. Those who have never scratched the surface will find Slovaks mean people. Those who have only visited with family and have never ventured out into public on their own and outside of a protective village enclave will never know this harshness. Those who have seen both will find themselves often scratching their heads trying to determine where the border exists. What is it that makes a Slovak so incredibly kind in one situation and the same person so incredibly cruel in another? Where does one kind of situation begin and the other end? Here at the Venček we are far away from that border. Every parent smiles no matter who is dancing. There is a feeling of community in that and being inside the room tonight is enough to make you a member of that community.

Cheering comes from the hundred or more proud parents, siblings, godparents, stepparents, aunts, and uncles all around me as the foxtrot comes to an end and Mr. Mrva announces the next dance. Polkas, Viennese waltzes, English waltzes, sambas, jives, and cha-chas follow. Soon, sons are asked to take their mothers hand for a waltz. After that fathers are asked to take their daughters onto the dance floor and it seems clear that these 40-somethings still remember the steps from their Venčeks like it was yesterday.

Soon after, the students get into a big circle and the music comes on and they start “the Twist,” and the dance instructor calls an expert twister out into the center, clearly his favorite student, as we learn over the course of the night, and he leads the group in a twist, as every camera in the house flashes multiple times.

There’s something wholesome to a circle of 60 people doing the twist to music that is nothing but the sounds of a wordless synthesizer. Everyone in the room seems to be having a good time. The room glows in a way that it can be expected when parents, classmates, teachers, and a few other family members and friends are at a festive coming of age ceremony like this one.

Partners now come out, several couples at a time and get their dancing evaluated. The best dancers are asked to dance again, and then the best ofthose make it to the final round when Mr. Mrva’s assistants declare their choices of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place and give the winners gifts. But it will take an hour of dancing before the evening reaches that point.

“Pravo za pravo” soon becomes the motto of the night. “Right hand to right hand” is what it means and this is what the instructor repeats over and over tonight. After the dance, the man should escort the women on his right arm, take her right hand into his, kiss it, and pull the chair out for his dance partner, as he guides her into her chair by her hand.

Each couple does exactly that then they breathe a sigh of relief until Mr. Mrva speaks up on the microphone. “Ah, ah, ah!” says Mr. Mrva over the microphone “Pravo za pravo.” The boy looks down to see that he has just kissed the girl’s left hand. “Pravo za pravo” repeats Mr. Mrva. The girl sees what’s happened first and withdraws her left hand from his hand. The boy corrects as he takes the girl’s right hand, kisses it, and guides her into her seat.

The next couple enters, dances, does the same thing as the couple before, perhaps having not paid attention to what was being said to their classmates while their instructor commanded “Pravo za pravo” and all eyes of the auditorium turned to watch the offending couple. A steep learning curve exists and “Pravo za pravo” becomes the phrase of the night, oft repeated by Mr. Mrva.

Overwhelmingly, the Slovak women I’ve met seem to have rejected a Western notion of feminism and are quick to point out how very fulfilling the role of homemaker is, how very fulfilling the task of raising a family is, how very fulfilling gender roles can be. Slovakia has taught me, no matter what viewpoint you hold, there is always someone else who holds the exact opposite viewpoint and it’s not because they are ignorant, uneducated, poorly read, or haven’t spent time thinking about the alternatives. You can easily find a person who holds that contrary idea after much careful consideration and he or she holds that idea just as strongly and can argue it just as well as you can argue your point of view.

Slovakia, on the border between West and East is a place where many people seem to identify and recognize the orthodoxies of Western culture and are not ashamed to point out the strengths and weaknesses of those orthodoxies. At Venček, part of what is learned is the responsibility that a man has to be a gentleman and treat his partner with care and kindness. It is his responsibility to treat her properly. It is his responsibility to see to it that etiquette is followed. “Pravo za pravo,” is not being spoken to the couple as much at is being spoken to the man.

The man is the one who is supposed to take charge in this situation at the Venček. This idea of gender roles, of course, has its advantages and disadvantages, but how very often American and Canadian girls have gratefully pointed out to me that when shopping with a Slovak man that a woman is never allowed to carry the groceries through the grocery store or even back to her home. Her male escort, unless he is a poorly raised fellow, will always do that for her. Etiquette and being a gentleman has a different definition in Bratislava than it does in Chicago.

Soon enough, we arrive at the centerpiece of the event, the reason why this evening is called “Venček,” which translates awkwardly into English as “little wreath.” Each girl has made her own venček for her male partner. They dance together and she pins it on her partner’s lapel. Soon another girl cuts in and pins another venček on the same man’s lapel. Then another partner cuts in. Each girl has come to the dance tonight with many venčeks for the many boys that she thinks are great dancers, or for the boys she likes, or for the boys who she just wants to give one to, or for the boy who at any given moment happens to be on the dance floor without a partner. The onlooker can constantly hear the shuffling of shoes over the music being played, as 5 or 10 young ladies at a time are hurrying back to their tables to get the next venček to pin on the next guy. Three or four songs later, everyone is dancing and the supply of unused venčeks has dwindled.

And the tables turn, as the same type of thing happens, and guys pull “koralky” out of their pockets – beaded necklaces that they will present to their female partners, placing them around their necks.

And once all koralky have been given out, all dancing comes to an end. Everyone scatters and then the girls are called back out onto the dance floor.

“Who has three or more koralky?” asks Mr. Mrva.

All do.

“Who has four or more?”

At each number a few girls peel off and return to their seats. This evening, once he reaches 12, only one girl remains. The girl with the most koralky is the girl considered the best dancer by her peers.

Next come the guys. They go through the same process of elimination. At the end there’s a tie between the two guys having 23 venčeks a piece. The two 15-year-olds are instructed over the microphone to stand back-to-back and then Mr. Mrva instructs them to take 10 paces away from each other. The music begins – that same synthesized music that the circle dance was done to, absent of Chubbie Checker’s voice. And Mr. Mrva announces “Dance off!”

There is a dance off of “the Twist,” in which the two may not face each other and the audience votes with their voices. One looks like his is far better, until the other starts doing the most unusual moves. It’s hard to tell who is moreoriginal and who has more skill. But the crowd speaks and the winner is brought back to the center of the dance floor where he is given the honor of dancing with the girl who received the most koralky.

The two with the most venček and the most koralky dance. At this point, anyone else who wants to dance can join the dance floor as well and soon the night comes to an end – two classes of students from Evanjelické Lýceum and another class from Metodova having completed this rite of passage. Ending it, as all events in the year 2010 – with a group photo. Because, if a photo hasn’t been taken, then did the event really occur?

Allan Stevo is an author from Chicago. He is writes about Slovak culture once a week and posts his columns to “52 Weeks in Slovakia” as well as sending them to a few small newspapers and magazines in the U.S.  If you’ve enjoyed this column, sign up here to receive it in your inbox weekly (for the next 43 weeks), or share it with a few friends through email, facebook, twitter, or a host of other social networks using the buttons below.

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  • Susan Groh

    Dec 14th, 2010

    I love this story! In my U.S. high school there were at least a couple of dances in the school season, but nothing as memorable as Venček must be.

  • Susan,
    Thank you for your compliment. I like American dances too, but just for different reasons. It’s neat seeing how another culture has similar cultural events, yet by stressing different details, the event take on an entirely different cultural significance.
    Wishing you well.

  • Elaine Badnarik

    Dec 15th, 2010

    Dear Stefan:
    My father taught me to dance the Czardas when I was 4 yrs. old. My husband won trouphies for dancing and we have danced together for years. They also say, “Where there is a Slovak there is song!” Love your articles. I have given lectures and exhibits of our Slovak culture for years.
    My parents and grandparents taught me to speak Slovak and to keep our Slovak traditions; especially for Easter and Christmas! I was raised in Chicago.
    Keep up the good work!

    Elaine Badnarik

  • Elaine,
    I like that quote “Where there is a Slovak there is a song!” and how cool that you’ve been dancing the Czardas from childhood. Hopefully, I will get to hear your lecture some time and will gain some added insight of Slovak culture. Thank you for the kind words.

  • A nice article, and a nice tradition !! I’d like to see a picture of a gal wearing ‘koralky.’

  • Cynthia,
    Thank you. I tried to find a photo of a girl wearing koralky and was unsuccessful. I then tried to take a photo of a girl wearing koralky and felt a little weird about it. The best thing I came up with was this photo at the end of the post of a girl wearing koralky and her partner with his venceks. You should be able to see five or six of them around her neck. They are necklaces on a string or an elastic band that usually have glass or plastic beads. This couple was voted by the judges as the best dancing couple at this vencek. However, they did not receive the most koralky and venceks. That means that the judges and the class disagreed on who the best dancers were. Thanks again, Cynthia.

  • […] every Slovak knows how to do simply from living in Slovakia.  You can take a look at articles on Vencek and Stuzkova to learn more about why everyone knows how to dance the waltz. There is often evening […]

  • […] every Slovak knows how to do simply from living in Slovakia.  You can take a look at articles on Vencek and Stuzkova to learn more about why everyone knows how to dance the waltz. There is often evening […]

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