Festival Lent in the city of Maribor, Slovenia was an amazing experience we will never forget. I have decided that the Slovenians are the “Pacific Islanders” of Europe. They are so warm, friendly, outgoing, chatty, curious and so so so funny, every time we had a conversation there was always laughter. Festival Lent has grown to be one of the most recognised and prestigious Folk Dance festivals in the world. They select only 6 countries every year to participate in this festival, and this year the lucky countries were, Argentina, Finland, Costa Rica, Kazakhstan, Serbia, the hosts Slovenia and us all the way from Fiji. The world-class calibre of the performances and intricate costumes were outstanding, the groups were huge, most of them with about 30 musicians and dancers. The Fiji delegation was very small with only 7 dancers we hoped that what we lacked in numbers we made up with our Energy! Spirit! And Mana!
Folk dance is a thriving art form in this part of Europe with many different dance groups practising the traditional dance forms and many different festivals and competitions are held around the region. This is also because the traditional music and dance forms are valued and supported by the government and city councils though their funding programs. It was fantastic to see so many energetic young people take so much passion and pride in their traditional dance. On the other hand I noticed that the audiences were very much representative of an older generation so I wondered how long folk dance in Europe would have a platform if there are no younger public to engage with and watch it.
There is a world-wide network of folk dance festivals that carry the CIOFF brand (supported by UNESCO), that are festivals that are prestigious and have a certain standard and calibre. This Festival Lent was a CIOFF endorsed festival and one could really see the high level of organisation.
Traditionally folk dance has been about community, with European folk dance there is a lot of partner dancing and interesting floor patterns made with the dancers. However, the standard of dancing at these festivals is so high, so complicated and so intricate it has taken folk dance out of the community context and placed it in a more “professional” context. For example, as I was chatting with the choreographer of the group from Finland she was happy that 4 of her dancers had made it into the University Folk Dance program in Finland. That’s right, they have a 4-year University program in Finland that focuses solely on folk dancing. This program only accepts 8 students every year and 4 this year were from this amazing group from Finland. That is like having a 4-year University program to study Meke! Its amazing, this was just for folk dance and there are different programs that focus on Ballet and contemporary etc. I was in awe of how much support and attention the different fields of arts get in this region. And I just crossed my fingers, looked to the sky and thought “one day mafatu we will have some kind of tertiary arts program in the Pacific.”
After a week of performances, parades and parties it was time to say ni sa moce to our new found friends. Overall, the organisation of this festival was just outstanding, with fantastic accommodation, we got to travel all around to smaller cities to perform, the food was amazing and lots of fun activities! With music and dance there are no language barriers, we shared our cultures through our craft and made friends from around the world. Upon our departure, as we sang Isa lei to our Slovenian friends there were torrents of tears streaming down everyone’s face, you would have thought we had been living there for years. We bonded with dancers from all the different countries and have made lifelong friends that we will carry in our hearts forever.
With our wonderful guides Anya and Sasa
Sachiko Soro, VOU Director