Moacir P. de Sá Pereira on July 17th, 2008

In the comments on this webpage as well as in personal discussions during the course of Šokių šventė, a certain red herring has arisen time and time again. At first I ascribed the reemergence to its professors’ lack of attention paid to an issue I thought I had already covered. I’ll just assume I was unclear and restate the case here.

The argument, seen as a compromise to Darius Udrys’s suggestion of having a Litvak (or other Ashkenazi) dance group perform a dance at Šokių šventė, is that if said dance group were to download “our” music and learn “our” dances, they would be more than welcome to dance at “our” šventė.

Making this claim ignores the fact that Litvak dances are already “our” dances, if we imagine ourselves as Lithuanians. In fact, I hold it out as a source of shame that—inviting a Litvak group notwithstanding—the organizers of Šokių šventė have never seen it fit to include dances emerging from the immense (and culturally fecund) Jewish community of Lithuania.

And if the response then turns to a lack of cultural specificity in the other dances, I present the following two pieces of evidence:

1. Even if we assume that Litvak dances—regardless of who is dancing them—have “no place” in a Lithuanian Folk Dance Festival (an offensive assumption, but whatever), what on earth place does the “Virginia Reel” have at such a Festival?

At the 1976 Šokių šventė, as I have pointed out before, the dancers danced the “Virginia Reel.” This is a simple historical fact. Trying to make a claim for it as a “Lithuanian folk dance,” seems a bit far fetched, even as Lithuanian boosters are wont to make claims for the presence of Lithuanians in John Smith’s Jamestown colony.

Of course, the dancers danced the “Virginia Reel” to celebrate the bicentennial of the US. I was a babe then, so I have no idea how the dance went down or if there were even sarcastic, farcical attempts to fold the dance into any kind of Lithuanian tradition. But it stands there, as a big, stinking, sweaty counterexample to the propriety of having “non-Lithuanian” dances at Šventė. When the dance comes from a group we like (atavistic Scotch-Irish), we do their dances. When it’s a group we don’t…

2. Yet even the dances that are classified as “Lithuanian folk dances” have cultural specificity to them affixed to minority groups within Lithuania already. Here I point to the always popular “Pempel, pempel.” Any glance at any version of the lyrics will confound a speaker of Lithuanian. It looks like Lithuanian, some words are intelligible, but others are not at all.

The lyrics are, of course, in Samogitian, not standard Lithuanian, and the song is a Samogitian song. And for anyone who begins to argue that “žemaičiai — lietuviai,” I encourage you to read up on Antanas Kontrimas, the figurehead of the movement to get Samogitian listed as an official minority nationality in Lithuania.

So it’s ok to dance “Pempel, pempel,” a dance of questionable and dubious “Lithuanianness,” but not ok to dance a “Litvak” dance. It is ok to dance a dance with lyrics that are in the vicinity of incomprehensible, because somehow the minority community of Samogitians has been welcomed under the Lithuanian umbrella. But because a noxious history of anti-Semitism has not granted the same to the community of Jews living within the same area, their dances do not count as “Lithuanian.”

It’s actually funny—as a child, I relished “Pempel, pempel” precisely because of its stark cultural otherness. It was the one song we sang at stovykla that I could not understand, so I got extra interested in it and fascinated by it. Ironically, I always looked at it as the “token” Samogitian song in our dainorėliai in exactly the same way that I always looked at “Shalom Chaverim” as the token Hebrew song that we would sing at our school Christmas pageants.

To repeat, then: saying that any dance group that would learn “our” dances was welcome to dance is a canard, because it never stops to consider what sort of political damage we are doing by deciding what is “ours” and what is not “ours.” It is precisely over this incuriousness that the current mess erupted. Udrys aggressively suggested we abandon that laziness and spend some time to reconsider what is “ours,” but the atavistic cultural wing of JAVLB freaked out. “Ours” is what JAVLB (and its ŠŠRK) say it is, even if that arbitrarily includes the “Virginia Reel” and “Pempel, pempel.”

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9 Responses to “They can dance “our” dances”

  1. Arvydas Barzdukas
    July 17th, 2008 at 5:13 pm

    If the reference was to my comment, I never said “our dances.” I had in mind the dances the committee had selected. Other dances just as easily could have been selected. I did not say Litvak dances were not “our dances.” I did not say Litvak dances “have no place in Lithuanian Folk Dance Festival.” I don’t know who said all that, so it seems the argument here is against some “straw men,” set up for the sake of argument. I have no problem whatsoever considering Litvak heritage as “our,” because that heritage originated in and comes from Lithuania. At least that’s what Leo Rosten says. It may be hard to sell to many, but they will come around.

    I don’t think there was much argument about selecting the Virginia Reel on the anniversary of the American independence. It was danced by all thousand or so participants, just like the other dances, so that just reinforces my idea of how the Litvak group — at least in some manner — could have been “integrated” into the show. Espacially at the last minute.

    As to anti-Semitism, look around. My son-in-law cannot belong to the country club that’s closest to where he lives because, unbelievable as it is, the club doesn’t allow Jews. In fact, they are “token members” at the club to which they belong. That’s in the Good Old US of A, in the twenty-first century.

    As to Pempel, Pempel, ever since I was a kid, I have heard that sung by numerous Lithuanian folk ansambles, including Ciurlionis in Cleveland, directed by one of the most well-known authorities on Lithuanian folk music, Alfonsas Mikulskis. I always assumed he knew what he was doing, even though I did not understand the lyrics all that well. Were I running things, I’d probably scratch Pempel, Pempel, but the public seems to like it. Go figure.

  2. It’s not a strawman. The idea first arose when I wrote my first piece on the issue where I attacked Maciūnas for making the claim. Your bringing up the “if they had learned the dances” line recalled it, which prompted my reiteration. If you weren’t making ownership claims, then that’s fine. But my point remains that considering having a group learn the dances as a compromise is actually no such thing. And this is where, I think, Udrys’s suggestion has its particular brilliance–I won’t guess at original intent, but his proposal has forced (in some sense) a deeper reckoning with the persistent, completely incurious approach to a Lithuanian history formed by blinded nationalists.

    Arguing that anti-Semitism is pervasive doesn’t really fit here, either. I’m not a member of any club that is anti-Semitic, and if I were, I would leave. Except, I guess, for the club of the deaf Lithuanians, which has challenged me to leave many, many times. But, like I said, this argument is not about anti-Semitism. It’s about widening an approach to “lietuvybė” that is somehow not politically repellent.

  3. Arvydai,
    To say that proposing a 5-10 minute addition to the program in Fall 2007 when the festival takes place in Summer 2008 is “last minute” is ridiculous. Are you implying that the Committee is utterly incompetent? Eight months are not enough? If the Committee had received word in Fall 2007 that the Mayor of Los Angeles or the Governor of California wanted to come to the festival and one of them had asked the Committee to make 5-10 minutes for an addition to the program, you’re going to suggest that the Committee would have said no? Unfortunately, this had absolutely nothing to do with feasibility. That is yet another one of your non-arguments.

  4. Arvydas Barzdukas
    July 18th, 2008 at 5:14 pm

    True enough, Dariau. As it turned out, “time was not of the essence” at the festival. One person proceeded to read virtually an entire telephone book of signers to a greeting. Poeple seated around me started laughing when I said that out loud. I think, the biggest problem was that there appeared to be no discussion or reasoned negotiation about this, only “my way or the highway.” And then that stuff with the newspaper. Everybody got mad at everybody and that hardly helped.

    I was only trying to say that anti-Semitism is probably one of the most difficult prejudices to eradicate, even in this country, not to say among the Lithuanians. My son-in-law wants to play golf, and daughter play tennis someplace, without driving for miles. So, they go along to get along.

    But, jeez, guys. This was such an insignificant and unimportant matter, not even a blip on the big radar screen that discussing it further, really, is a waste of time. There must be a reason why only three people bothered to write something. On with another show.

  5. Arvydai,
    There is a reason why discussion was short-circuited that I am not going to get into here. It was not my doing nor my intention to preempt a discussion or reasoned negotiation. You are correct–that is exactly what did not take place and I, too, regret that it did not. Be assured that there were several attempts on my part to initiate such a discussion, all falling on deaf ears and making the Lithuanian American Community look increasingly foolish and unfriendly. Once certain things had been said, I had no intention of remaining connected to persons holding such views and serving as officials and representatives of the Lithuanian American Community, Inc.

    I do not share your view that this matter is insignificant and unimportant. For a shocking reality check, please see the comments with translations from Lithuanian web portals in reaction to the idea (start with comment #62):

  6. Arvydas Barzdukas
    July 20th, 2008 at 5:15 pm

    I tried that site you pointed out and could not get much out of it. Unless I missed something, it seems most comments were written by three or four people mostly repeating the same old accusations about “Lithuanians having been worse than the Nazis.” There was a lot of name-calling there, but no one mentioned that plenty of Lithuanians, including my aunt, risked their lives to hide and save the Jews. If you visit the Holocaust Museum here (where we always take most people who visit from Lithuania now), you will read a list a yard long of such names. We have nothing to be ashamed of on that score among many other nations listed there.

    Nothing I saw on that website mentioned any actual Litvak group of dancers which had been interested in and eager to travel to L.A. and dance in the festival, or much of anything connected with the issue at hand. I’d be the first one to work towards improving relations between Lithuanians and Jews. All of us should. I think, it is just a matter of time. For example, I already do not see any animosity between Lithuanians and Jews, and vice versa, among the young people, those of my children’s age. Most of the time, my kids don’t even know who is Jewish and who is not, and don’t care. While good relations between Lithuanians and Jews are very important and significant in the larger context, as far as the festival was concerned, what happened was truly a trivial and totally forgettable– albeit unfortunate in more ways than one–incident. But I have no intention or ability to convince you of that.

  7. Arvydas Barzdukas
    July 21st, 2008 at 5:15 pm

    To add: people, who keep repeating that “Lithuanians were worse than the Nazis,” I put in the same category as those miserable creatures who hold Jews responsible for killing Christ. Let them fester in their own prejudice and hatered. I don’t want to have anything to do with such individuals. I don’t believe in “collective guilt” of any people. Those who were Nazi collaborators and those who participated rounding up Lithuanians and shipping them to Siberia should individually and by proper legal process be held accountable for their crimes and attrocities. Provided that, after more than three generations, it can still be done. Otherwise, there is not much point in bellyaching about it.

  8. Komentaras re: Virginia Reel. I was old enough to dance it in ’76, and recall it being super fun. Forming the numbers “200” finally made sense when viewed from above, because at eye level we didn’t have a clue why we had to stand in certain spots in our squares. I haven’t gone to the past several Sventes, as one I did go just didn’t have the “umph” that existed “back in the day”… Or maybe it just had been more fun to partake than watch….

    The reason Sventes started in 1957 still existed in 1976. At the end of stovyklas, there would be a “sokiu kursai” where the dance teachers would learn the dances for the next Svente and spent the next four years teaching their groups those dances back home. And like I said, it seemed almost sacrilegious to add a non-lietuviskas tautinis sokis into the repertoire back then. But after seeing the “200” – for me it took a whole year to fully comprehend where our cog fit into the wheel – it was spectacular. And that year, the final dance of Malunas was scrapped day of Svente, because even having learned it all year long, (longer for other groups), it was a complete disaster during Didzioji Repeticija. So some times, even a year is not enough….

  9. I have tried to teach a class of absolutely novice line dancers and failed i was looking for a 1 wall easy beginer dance for it is when i turn my back the class falls apart

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