My whirling exploration in Central Europe

My earliest memories in Brooklyn are of large family gatherings. At Christmas, Babcia Helena (grandma), Dziadek Czesław (grandpa) and a trail of aunts, uncles and cousins would file into our Greenpoint apartment to sit around our dining table to eat the twelve Christmas dishes: borscht, carp,  and nine other culinary delights. At the end of the meal, after everyone was sated and happy, Dziadek Czesław would usually settle in the armchair near the stereo and, a digestif in one hand, play a disk of his favorite mazurkas from his favorite composer: Chopin. Sipping his digestif in the dim room illuminated only by the low glow of Christmas lights, he would tell me, his little American granddaughter, that this was the music of her homeland. “Never forget that,” he’d say.

Though Dziadek Czesław only lived another five years, his proclamation stuck with me. While I never became a pianist with the fingers nimble enough to do justice to the emotion and nuance of Chopin, my connection to my roots came out in dance. As my childhood ended and my adolescence began, I dove into dance with intensity. Because I was in Brooklyn, much of the dance had nothing to do with the Slavic tradition—I did ballet, jazz, ballroom, and classical. But somewhere, deep in my heart, I kept what Dziadek Czesław said close. I knew that one day, I would make a trip to Central Europe to reconnect with this culture that my grandfather was so dedicated to, a culture that was my own, even though I was raised so far from it.

To my delight, that day came in my late twenties. From a Czech friend, I had heard of the International Festival of Dance and Songs, also known as “Autumn Tale” which is held each year in both Prague and Budapest. Using this event as my base, I started to plot a trip through the region that would reunite me with this culture I at once grew up with and without.

Autumn Tale is a fall event; it usually takes place during the first half of November, so I packed my thickest sweaters, softest scarves, and boarded a plane at JFK bound for the Czech capital. It took little time for me to understand the allure of this city. From its colorful facades, ancient palaces, and intricate bridges to its history of art, there’s so much to enliven a person in Prague. After a quick tour of the city, I focused myself on Autumn Tale. On the first day, I entered the hall. Before long, eight dancers twirled on stage—four women and four men. The women wore long red skirts with beautiful embroidery trim. The men wore tall boots and vests with traditional Czech patterns on them. When the music started, the women let out a loud cry in unison then spun so their skirts took flight. The music combined with the dance immediately took me back to my early days, those cherished times when my family gathered. Even though my roots are Polish, so many of the Czech traditions felt familiar, intimate, and I couldn’t help but think that I was reforging ties to my ancestors in Europe. Over the next two days, I watched with awe as the nimble dancers whirled and dashed around stage, often to truly intriguing folk music, some of it played on a special Czech bagpipe.

Young women in traditional costumes perform folklore dances in Cesky Krumlov.
Young women in traditional costumes perform folklore dances in Cesky Krumlov.

Though Autumn Tale is a two-city event—the second part takes place in Budapest—I was ready to journey across the border into the country where my family originated: Poland. After a train ride which took me through several gorgeous landscapes. Most of my family comes from the area surrounding Wrocław, which lies on the southwest corner of Poland, so that’s where my train ride ended—a gorgeous city that most visitors forget about. Just like Prague, I gave myself a little time to explore and breathe in the air that my ancestors did. I trod upon the ancient cobblestones, drank rich coffee, and ate potato pancakes smothered with gulasz until I was about to burst. Each sight, each morsel of food brought to mind Babcia Helena and Dziadek Czesław. And those memories set me firmly back on my mission: to discover the folk dancing traditions of the region. The whole southern section of Poland has a tradition of dance. I have always loved watching videos of people performing the Highlanders’ music, which often involves dance. Yet I wanted to discover something specific, something truly Polish: the mazurka. This fast-paced dance in triple meter has always fascinated me. That fascination, no doubt, comes from the influence of Dziadek Czesław who used to listen to Chopin’s many notable mazurkas late at night. Sometimes, he grew so moved by the music that tears would well up in his eyes. I wanted to understand the power of this form.

Long before I arrived in Wrocław, I searched for the perfect experiences. First, I wanted to try my hand—or more accurate, foot—at the dances. As a woman with a long history of dance, I knew that this tangible connection to my roots would prove meaningful. Thus, the morning after my one allotted day of tourism, I woke early and walked to a dance studio. For the next four hours, I learned some of the most essential Polish dances: the mazurka.

Polish folklore clothing during a festival.
Polish folklore clothing during a festival.

The last item on my list was to see traditional Polish dances performed by masters. The next night, a performance of mainly mazurkas was planned, and I had a ticket. When I found my seat, I admired the stage. It was set to imitate a Polish village, with a church in the distance and thatched buildings flanking each side of a road. Then forty dancers dashed on stage, half men, half women. Their costumes were incredible. The women wore long dresses, some white, some red, but all with what looked like hand-stitched decorations. The men wore tight blue trousers, coats with tassels and gold piping, and hats with a large feather sticking out. When the music began and these men and women began to dance, I felt a series of almost overwhelming emotions. I had come full circle, from those early years of my life, hearing these melodies with my grandfather, to this moment when I finally felt reconnected with a country and culture that I had always craved but never truly experienced.

Karolina Nowak. Brooklyn, New York

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