An Englishman in Latvia

On Song and Dance

July 14, 2023 Alan Anstead Season 1 Episode 17
On Song and Dance
An Englishman in Latvia
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An Englishman in Latvia
On Song and Dance
Jul 14, 2023 Season 1 Episode 17
Alan Anstead

The Latvian Song and Dance Festival is probably the most important Latvian cultural event. Held every five years and started 150 years ago, 40,560  singers and dancers and a 500,000 audience joined events in Riga in July 2023. We look at this phenomenon and explore interesting aspects of the festival like the food served to participants, how environmentally friendly it is, what the police were up to, and love and dance.

Thanks for listening!

Show Notes Transcript

The Latvian Song and Dance Festival is probably the most important Latvian cultural event. Held every five years and started 150 years ago, 40,560  singers and dancers and a 500,000 audience joined events in Riga in July 2023. We look at this phenomenon and explore interesting aspects of the festival like the food served to participants, how environmentally friendly it is, what the police were up to, and love and dance.

Thanks for listening!

On Song and Dance

A certain madness descended on Riga from 30 June until 9 July 2023. Residents were advised to work at home if possible. Many roads were closed. People’s normal social activities were put on hold. A new pandemic? No, the Latvian Song and Dance Festival. Regarded as possibly the most important Latvian cultural event, held every five years and recognised by UNESCO as of international importance. 40,560 participants descended on Riga - singers and dancers, not including the audiences - for the 150th year since the tradition started. Let’s explore what this festival is all about.
From its beginnings at the first festival in 1873 with 1,000 singers, the 2023 Song and Dance Festival has grown to become a massive event: the 27th Latvian Song and 17th Dance Festival. More than 1,600 dance or singing groups in Latvia and more than 100 from 22 other countries participated - 40,560 participants in total.

Since the last festival five years ago, choir singers and dancers, musicians, folklore groups and amateur theatre participants from all over Latvia have been getting ready with preparation of their group’s repertoire and participating in competitions to win that coveted place to perform during the more than week-long festival. The festival experiences a flow of people from Latvia’s regions to Riga, becoming Latvia’s most prominent folk movement. In 2023, 40,560 participants from 43 Latvian administrative regions, and other countries where Latvians maintain the Song and Dance Festival tradition, came to Riga. Over ten days, they participated in more than 60 events: choir, dance, brass bands, kokle (a traditional stringed instrument), folk music, vocal ensemble, folklore and other concerts; a Latvian folk costume exhibition; a folk craft exhibition; and amateur theatre productions. Half a million visitors saw the events — in context, Latvia only has a population of 1.96 million.

Over the last 150 years, the Song and Dance Festival has played a significant role in creating Latvia’s national identity and maintaining the idea of an independent nation through some difficult periods of history. We will look at the history of the festival in a few minutes. This was recognised internationally in 2003 when the Song and Dance Festival was included on a UNESCO list. Strangely the American broadcaster CNN refuses to cover the festival in reporting, as they claim it is nationalistic. They do cover American Independence Day, of course, which is undoubtedly nationalistic—double standards.

Although the Song and Dance Festival took place throughout Riga, on stages and shown on big screens, the main choir and dance events were held at their historic festival locations: the Silver Grove stage at Mežaparks and the Daugava Stadium. Both locations had been renovated for the audiences and participants of the 2023 festival.

The Song and Dance Festival began with the traditional raising of the Song and Dance Festival flag on 30 June, honouring the Chief Conductors and Chief Dance Leaders, and a sacred music concert at Riga Dome was held.

The festival participants’ paraded through the streets of Riga on 2 July. This massive parade of participants in their regional folk costumes concluded with a special opening event for all the participants.

A brass band concert, Time Flows Over, took place in Andrejosta and delighted listeners with passionate playing and a big open-air party. Meanwhile, a Kokle Concert, ‘The River of Time’, was held at the Ķīpsala International Exhibition Centre.

One of the most eagerly awaited events in the festival - all the events were sold out - was the Grand Dance Performance, with the theme ‘Perpetual Motion’ highlighting the folk costumes and traditions of the regions of Latvia with 33 dances performed. The day after, there was a massed choir ‘a Cappella’  concert at the Silver Grove stage in Mežaparks. The concept of this concert, ‘The field, The road of a song’, was folk songs arranged from original pieces. A dress rehearsal for the grand finale.

The culmination of the festival week was the grand finale concert, ‘Upward Together’. It was dedicated to the 150 years of Song Festival tradition and for a brighter future for everyone. Mixed, women’s, men’s, senior’s, children’s and youth choirs, wind instrument orchestras and kokle ensembles resounded at the Silver Grove stage in Mežaparks, under the leadership of experienced Chief Conductors while dance groups performed in their regional costumes. Over three hours, the 15 favourite choir songs selected by the participants themselves were performed, together with pieces of Latvian choral music from many periods of history — classics to the modern day. 65,000 people joined this as participants or in the audience. The final notes at the grand finale were not the festival's end. Singing and dancing continued until 5 am. No wonder the Latvian government made the day after the festival ended a public holiday!

Some 174,000 concert tickets were sold, although, with free events, it was estimated by the organisers that over half a million people attended different events. For those unable to get concert tickets, it was extensively shown on Latvian television, and I’m sure many people were singing along in front of their TVs!


The origins of a song festival like the Latvian one can be found in Germany, Switzerland and Austria from the first half of the 19th century. One of the largest festivals of its kind took place in Leipzig in 1848, with a men’s choir of 5000 singers. The Baltic Germans living in Riga organised events to come together and sing. A significant milestone in the cultural life of Riga was the Daugava River Music Festival in 1836. This was the first festival of its kind in what is now the Baltic States. Choral concerts took place in concert halls and parks throughout Riga. Other festivals followed, in Tallinn and again in Riga. The idea of the song festival was taken up by Baltic German clergyman and author Juris Neikens, and in 1864 he organised the first gathering of Latvian men’s choirs in Dikļi. Six choirs of 120 singers and schoolchildren participated. Similar festivals took place in other cities. In 1870, Jānis Bētiņš organised the Kurzeme Song Festival in Dobele with 400 singers and a 40-musician orchestra. A dress rehearsal for what was to follow.

The first Latvian national song festival was held n 1873, 150 years ago, with 1,000 singers. It has grown since then to the present song and dance megalomania, with around 40,000 participants taking part in the 27th Latvian Song and 17th Dance Festival. 

More than 1,600 groups in Latvia and more than 100 based in other countries have been preparing for the event for the last five years with the preparation of their repertoire, rehearsals, competitions, exhibitions and concerts. It is highly competitive. My son’s school, Rigas Imantas Vidusskola, has been participating in knockout competitions for the honour of participating in the festival. And not just in Riga. Latvia’s regions, towns and villages all prepare and compete to perform in Riga. The phenomenon is probably Latvia’s most important folk movement, helping to create Latvia’s national identity and maintaining the idea of an independent nation through difficult periods of history. Please listen to my podcast ‘On Castles and Invaders’ for more background. In 2003, the Song and Dance Festival was included on the UNESCO List of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. A mouthful of a name, but an important recognition nevertheless.


With so many participants, there was a whole operation to sustain the festival's 40,000 singers, dancers and musicians. They received three courtesy meals daily. That's up to 27 meals per participant over the festival's ten days, a considerable catering operation. 

For the second time in the festival's history, a working group devised a menu to feed the musical masses. This year's menu was based on four principles – nutritional standards, food safety, caterers' capacity, and sustainability. It had to factor in different dietary needs across age groups and genders, catering facilities, and intense performance schedules. Diana Markova, Executive Director of the festival, said, 

"As one of the festival's main themes is sustainability and a more climate-friendly event, one of the most challenging tasks in the catering process is to reduce the amount of unused food during the festival”. 

Set menus were one of the working group's solutions, allowing participants to cancel any meal in advance. The working group also had to deal with inflation and the high cost of food in Latvia at the moment, and product shortages due to the war in Ukraine and a cold Spring affecting crops. This year for the first time, participants could choose a vegetarian menu as an alternative to the regular menu, which is generous in meat. Listen to my podcast ‘On Food and Drink” for background on Latvian food traditions! 

On day one of the festival, for example, participants ate:

  • cornmeal porridge for breakfast, 
  • chicken gyros or beans with potatoes, mushroom sauce and a salad for lunch,
  • and for dinner, plov (a rice dish) with chicken or chickpeas, a gherkin, and a pastry for dessert. 

Other dishes included muesli, curried chicken, vegetable soups and stews. 

It isn't surprising if that sounds like a typical school meal, as many participants stayed at 70 schools across Riga.  That's where they had breakfast and some dinners, depending on their rehearsal and event schedule. Lunch and some dinners were served at the festival's larger venues. That is planned so there isn’t a rush to get back to accommodation and places less pressure on local traffic. It takes almost 700 buses to transport the participants from outside Riga. The biggest obstacle in feeding the participants by the three companies contracted to provide catering was the logistics of getting the food through the traffic jams.

The total cost of feeding one participant daily adds up to 10.80 euros. Breakfast accounts for 30% of the calorie intake and 2.80 euros, lunch – 35% and 4.20 euros, and dinner – 35% and 3.80 euros. This is financed from the state budget under the Law on the Song and Dance Festival. Nice!

But the working group did not address specific dietary requirements, like veganism and food intolerances. Next time maybe!

Postage stamps

Marking the 150th anniversary of the Latvian Song Celebration, the Latvian postal service (Latvijas Pasts) issued two postage stamps symbolising the festival's history.  The stamps were designed by the artist Arta Ozola-Jaunarāja. Both are Euro 1.65 - the postage cost of a letter within Latvia of up to 20 grams in weight. One is a monochrome design of singers, the other of dancers in traditional costumes and is in colour. 

The environment

With 40,000 participants and 500,000 audience members, how environmentally sound is the Song and Dance Festival?

Drinking water filling sites, bicycles and electric scooters, dishes made out of recyclable material, and a vegetarian menu option were some of the more environmentally sound measures for the Song and Dance Festival. A greater awareness of the environment was noticed among participants and visitors, with less waste collected in 2023 than in previous years and greater use of public transport. However, there was some criticism from one of Riga’s waste companies, 

"Unfortunately, the quality of sorting could be better. Often the participants in the event do not fully understand biological waste - plates and forks are being tossed in biological waste.” 

As someone who for many years thought coffee cups from Starbucks and other shops were recyclable, I will not cast any blame on misunderstanding what waste goes where. The movement is in the right direction, and the World Fund for Nature expects that it will be mandatory for all festivals to be greener in a few years. Riga City Council is already preparing guidelines for the organisation of climate and environmentally-friendly events, which will have to be followed by the local government and non-governmental organisations in the future.


What were the police doing at the Song and Dance Festival? They were testing out rented electric scooters to catch illegal drone pilots. The scooters allow police officers to travel at 25 kph, buzzing around participants and visitors. The police also claimed they climbed onto rooftops to catch these drone pilots. The airspace above Mezaparks and the Daugava stadium was closed for the festival's duration. The scooters were a trial. If successful, the police intend to buy 100 kph ones. I hope with flashing blue lights and sirens at that speed!

Love and Dancing

As followers of my podcast will know, I always like to include an interesting article from the Latvian media to illustrate the episode's topic. This one particularly caught my attention because it is such a happy piece.

For Song and Dance Festival performers, the 10-day spectacle is the culmination of years of preparation. It means finding time for several rehearsals a week – a significant commitment. How do people juggle such an intense schedule with their other duties in life, like being a parent and partner? 

LSM spoke to three couples who met through folk dancing. As long-term members of folk dance groups, they spoke about how dancing and the festival enrich their lives. We will take one story.

Zane and Valters Skrastiņš are members of Vektors, Riga Technical University's dance group, which prides itself on the number of couples it has nurtured. When Zane and Valters wed in 2015, they were couple number 42 from the group to get married and received a special Vektors certificate to mark the milestone. Their witnesses were from the group, too.

The couple speaks fondly of the deep bond between the group's members and this community's impact on their lives.

“Outside work, life is about dancing. I go fishing and play hockey with the guys from Vektors, too,” says Valters.   

Zane believes that Uldis Šteins, the legendary former head of Vektors, is to thank for the encouraging environment that has forged many relationships. “He always taught us to take things lightly, be real and go with the flow. No matter what you're like when you end up in that environment, you absorb and fill the attitude with positivity. Friendships emerge, and some of those grow into something more.” 

Valters describes it as “a space where you know you can do and say whatever you want and don't have to prove anything to anyone. You feel accepted. Friendships develop, relationships flourish.” 

“I've had guys complain that they struggle to meet girls. I tell them not to come to me for advice because I've only made friends and had relationships through dance. I have no idea how else people meet these days. Ok, so Tinder works, but what else?” he jokes. When it comes to finding the time for dancing alongside their commitment to each other, their children, wider family and jobs, Zane says: “You find the time. It may not be as easy as it was in your twenties, but it has a whole new meaning – it's about friendship.” 

Friendship, shared experiences and emotions. Valters quotes Uldis Šteins, who used to tell them: "To go on stage, you need to have something to say. There needs to be more sex!" 

“Well, we listened! A lot of us have kids,” Valters laughs.

In the run-up to and during the festival, Zane reveals that everything becomes even more emotional. “When you're standing there at the rehearsal, and it's 30 degrees outside, you think about how hot you are and how hard it is, but then, once it's over – all the concerts, parties and going home together before waking up early to iron your outfit – you forget how difficult it was and you just keep talking about it,” she says. 

“Everyone's working towards the same goal. Amid the exhaustion, the aftertaste is really good. You don't even think your foot's been hurting for three days. I think it's the positivity that everyone needs to be able to function. Otherwise, if you just go to work and then home again, everything's grey,” she continues.  “I had a dark moment when I'd left Vektors for a year or two. The festival was approaching, and I felt awful thinking about having to watch it from the sidelines,” Valters adds.  For Zane, people who do something from the heart, like dancing, singing or playing an instrument, are different. “You're less “robotic” – you don't just go to work, go home and do something. You have a community,” she explains. 

In conclusion, the Latvian Song and Dance Festival is a phenomenon, a spectacle, something to put on the bucket list of things to experience. It is only held every five years, so start making preparations to observe the next one in 2028. I also know of a few Latvians who were so enthused by the spectacle in 2023 that they decided to join song or dance clubs. Getting ready for 2028.

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