Estonian Folk Dance History in Washington DC(Photo 1988)
Estonian Folk Dance History in Washington, DC
Estonian Folk Dance Group Washington, DC, USA Prior to 1970
By Camilla Kuus, on March 1, 2004
In Germany, after the second World War, UNRRA (United Nations' Refugee Relief Administration) and later the refugee camps created by the IRO (International Refugee Organization), folk dance was cultivated alongside choral songs and sports halls. When the United States gates for refugees who arrived in our country finally expired in 1949, it soon became apparent that many of them had found a new home in Washington and Baltimore.
The idea of creating folk dance was genuinely created by Mihkel and Ann Valge in a welcoming home, in 1951 or 1952. The three sons of this family - Jüri, Madis, and Ado, and their contemporary, other Estonian young people, such as Arne Pessa, Ingrid Bütner, and even a little later, the daughters of the choir and music teacher August Nieländer, Carmen and Silvi, had participated in folk dance in Germany and were interested the establishment of a folk dance group.
Camilla Kuus was interested in teaching folk dance. Her first memories of folk dance teaching are reminiscent of childhood, as she had been at one of the children's summer camps. Later, during the summer holidays, folk dance groups could perform at organized events organized by the National Defense League. In addition to teaching folk dance groups, Camilla had graduated from Tiina Kapper's Ballet School in Tartu.
In this context, we should be reminded of the then teacher of the Washington Church, Rev. William F. Bruening, with whom we found the EELC Washington congregation founded by our clergyman Rudolph Trojot, who was interested in the fate of our homeland and so well-known to us that he promised the established folk dance group to use church facilities at all times to practice.
The young people came together for great excitement and enthusiasm for the exercises and folk dance performances. Their parents, on the other hand, felt good-humored that their children had found a pleasing activity. In addition, knowing that crowd-dancing was especially important in events in the capital of the United States constituted a good tool for introducing our homeland, to overcome all the difficulties.
The first performances were held at our fellow church in Washington, DC and Baltimore (1950s), often with the Baltimore Estonian Folk Dance Group, but also in organizations in Washington, such as YMCA, Pan American Club, The Baltic Scandinavian Society, Congressional Country Club, The George Washington University, and USO Club. The appeals came so much that the folk dance group was unable to receive all the education of young people or because of the appointment of adults.
The music accompaniment was performed by Mihkel Valge, Silvi Nielander White, Jüri Star, and Madis Valge. The sound recordings that were performed on the piano or the accordion were recorded by the aforementioned musicians.
One of the biggest events was the annual "National Folk Dance Festival" organized by the Washington, DC city, which was supposed to testify to the nations of the capital of the United States and to express their cultural heritage. There were more than 20 ethnic groups in these three-day performances.
The most important of all appearances, however, was our participation in the three week long event at the Ellipse Park at the White House at Christmastime, "Pageant of Peace", when the American President, personally pressed the button on the Christmas tree which lit up the tree, the candles, and set the time to "Christmas Break". The first such event took place in 1954. Already in the following year, Christmas trees built by countries that had diplomatic relations with these countries were added, which paved the way for Ellipse. Among them was also a Christmas tree, commissioned by the Estonian group and sponsored by Camilla Kuus, as their diplomat representing Johannes Kaiva, the Ambassador at the Consul General, in New York. Not only in newspapers and TV shows, but also in the "American Voice" programs, great attention was paid to this event. After the Pageant of Peace, its president, who was also the presidential secretary of the Washington Chamber of Commerce, sent over three letters of congratulations, one to Camilla Kuus who was appointed Consul General to Kaiv as Estonia's sponsor of the performance, the second to Camilla Kuus as the leader of the folk dance group, and the third letter to the Estonian Folk Dance Group.
Soon our folk dance group also had the opportunity to appear on television. The first such event took place in May of 1955 in the framework of the "World Trade Folk Festival" organized in the Baltimore, where the performance of the Washington Estonian Dance Group, among 15 other national groups, was broadcast by one of the Baltimore Television Stations. The next performance took place on the first Christmas holiday of 1955, when CBS spent one hour broadcasting the performance of folk dance at the Pageant of Peace event entitled "Let's Take a Trip."
In the following years, the Christmas trees of other countries were replaced with the Christmas trees of the states of the United States.
Each organization must inevitably think about future growth. Thus, in 1956, a group of young people from the Washington Estonian Dance Group was created and children began to dance Estonian folk dance.
After more than five years of work at the folk dance group, the director of folk dance, Camilla Kuus, relocated to Spain in spring 1956. Subsequently, the folk dance group continued its activities with Silvi Nieländer, Madis and Ado Valge, and Elgi Kääres. The group worked well until 1958 when several members of the folk dance group graduated from local schools (high schools, universities), outside the University of Washington or were called to the military, which in turn contributed to the disappearance of the group's activities by 1959.
In the autumn of 1970, under the direction of Anu Oinas, the Washington Estonian National Folk Dance Group initiated the beginning of the next generation of young Estonian Americans.
For the contribution made in introducing our homeland, especially when our problems were completely unknown to most Americans, the Estonian folk dance groups deserve mentioning. All of the dancers have become serious Estonian Americans and many of them have come to eminent places in their field. Who would have thought that the members of the folk dance group at the Pageant of Peace that, 40 years afterwards, would also be honored for their homeland. Who also would have thought that one of the members of this group, namely architect Madis Valge, would have been able to negotiate the purchase of a medieval building in the middle of NW Washington, DC, looking exactly like a building bought in Estonia by the Estonian Republic in 1994, for the Estonian Embassy on October 19, 1995 by the President of the Republic of Estonia.