History of Pillerkaar

History of Pillerkaar

Pillerkaar came together under the auspices of the Estonian Society of Washington, DC for the first time in the fall of 1971 with Anu Oinas as the founder and instructor and Maria Pedak Kari as the public relations person and events coordinator. The goal of this folk dancing endeavor was to keep alive the forgotten art of Estonian Folk Dance (as Estonia was under communist control) and to enlist Estonians young and old to come together to renew a part of their culture and tradition with dance. As Anu had already taught folk dance in New York, she was the perfect candidate to pull through such an endeavor.

There was another short term goal in mind – to perform as a group at ESTO 1972 in Toronto, Canada – which they did, 24 couples strong! They were ages 10 to 50+ and many moms or dads danced with their teen aged kids! In the years that followed, the group grew so large that Anu had to split then into three: kids, adults, and seasoned dancers. They each practiced once every other week but on different days – Anu had to drive 60 miles round trip six times a month to teach. That’s dedication!

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Originally, they danced at the Lutheran Church on Gallatin Road in NW Washington. Later, Rima Vesilind, who worked at one of the Fairfax County schools, offered the school for dancing practices but it was sporadic and they needed a permanent place. In the middle 70’s, Silvi Valge, who worked at Calvary Lutheran Church, in Silver Spring, MD, offered the church basement hall to Pillerkaar for their practices. It is there that they practiced for 20 years under the kind gratitude of the church! Since the group was so big, Anu enlisted help from others who helped with dance instruction, Sven Roosild, Raivo Vest, Reet Kaseoru, Karin Shuey, and Arvo Vercamer. For the first 25 years, dances were taught from written instructions (in Estonian) in Ulo Toomi’s folk dance book. It was a difficult job translating each toe and finger movement from Estonian to English!

The 70’s and 80’s were spent learning new dances for each ESTO, every four years, and for performances for various folk festivals, Estonian Independence Day, and Jaanipaev (Celebration of Light). From 1984-88, Pillerkaar’s dancers selected its current name (from many choices) and established its formal identity as Pillerkaar, Washington Folk Dancers. Pillerkaar has been performing 3-10 times each year since then.

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ESTO 88 brought a big change in the group since a large percentage were young people who went to college or got married and had children in the next few years. The group took a hiatus for a year and then started up again – this time in Virginia (and closer to Anu). It branched out to include friends of the dancers as well and since then have had quite a few Americans join in our practices and performances. We practiced at the local high school for close to ten years until they required a $500 insurance policy to use the facilities. In the next few years, practices were held weekly at various dancers homes and at Anu’s home in Virginia.

Due to a hiatus in the Estonian folk dancing genre (2004-2010) Anu looked for a way to encourage more young Estonians to dance. In 2006, she brilliantly proposed that Pillerkaar throw an old-style Estonian farm party with haystacks and fiddle music and invite all the East Coast Estonian dance groups (after all, Pillerkaar means merry-making or revelry). Pillerkaar named the event IREKS (Ida Ranniku Eesti Küla Simman) (East Coast Estonian Village Soiree) and spent the next year learning dances, looking for a venue and lodging, making flyers, contacting dance groups, identifying a string band, getting catering, making T-shirts, and hand making party decorations.

The first IREKS was held in Reston, Virginia, attracting more than 500 people and featured Estonian crafters and food. Unfortunately, the Estonian folk dance groups in Toronto, Chicago, Baltimore, Boston, Connecticut, and Lakewood had all disbanded by 2004. So Anu reached out to the Latvians and Lithuanians from Baltimore, Philadelphia, and DC metro area, and as a special treat, Anu also invited Kandali, a prominent dance group from Tallinn to be the "guest" performers for the first IREKS. At Anu's request, David Pivorunas, a Lithuanian who had danced with Pillerkaar in the past, pulled together a lively Baltic String Band of Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians. The day after the first 2007 IREKS Festival of dancing, Priit Vesilind hosted performers and friends at his spectacular home on the edge of the Occoquon River with Estonian potluck, kayaking, canoeing, dancing, and a roaring and romantic Jaanituli (bonfire to celebrate the longest day of the year). The Lithuanians filled the woods with song as they made beautiful wreaths out of oak tree leaves to wear while dancing around the fire, and then kept until thrown in the next year's Jaanituli for good luck.

Since it was so successful, Pillerkaar held another IREKS in 2008 and a final IREKS in 2010, both at the Lithuanian Hall in Baltimore. The Lithuanians, having danced at all three IREKS festivals, were also interested in keeping Baltic traditions alive, decided to rejuvenate Baltic dancing at the Lithuanian Hall in April 2016 with the first Windmills festival. Pillerkaar has performed there every year since then and Chicago, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Toronto Estonian folk dance groups have all been rejuvenated!

In the late 90s and up till 2015, Pillerkaar practiced more centrally, at the World Bank, where Anu held a full time position. In 2015, Anu retired and offered the Pillerkaar directing position to Jeff Zelek and Estonian born wife, Kardi Kallas Zelek who have been following in her footsteps with weekly practices at the State Department.

The group currently consists of about 10 Estonians and their spouses and friends. In the years following Estonia's freedom (1991), new dances were coming from Estonia and Y-tube videos were available to make teaching a lot simpler. Pillerkaar itself has seasoned and new dances could be learned during one practice! The dancers love to dance, keep up the tradition of their forefathers, and have made a weekly commitment to attend practices. Pillerkaar averages about 8 - 10 performances per year.

Pillerkaar has participated in the Estonian World Festivals in Estonia, Australia, Germany, New York, Toronto, Sweden, Portland, and Los Angeles; The Smithsonian Institute; Wolf Trap; Montgomery County, Gaithersburg, Fairfax, Arlington, Bowie, and Essex County Heritage Festivals; June Celebration of Light Festivals; NATO and Scandinavian festivals; the Ronald Reagan Center; the Baltimore Historical Society; the Estonian, Australian, Pakistani and other embassies; the Smithsonian Institute; Maryland University College Park campus; the World Bank; and various clubs, schools, and parties throughout the US. We also dance for weddings, parties, church group functions, senior citizens groups, and many more!