14 January 2015

Dancing “Hungarian” in the US – On the Kárpátok Folk Ensemble


Like thousands of others, my family left the homeland in 1956 after the Hungárián Revolution when I was only three years old. Although Hungarian was the spoken language in our new home, years of immersion into the American lifestyle must have concerned my parents enough to decide that I needed more Hungarian culture — having grown into a young man in a foreign land provided me with a very thin connection to my parents’ lived experiences and their history. After my stint with the Hungarian scouts, it was decided that dancing was the perfect venue for my cultural development, and so I was enrolled in the Kárpátok Hungarian Dance Group in 1967.
 
An offshoot of the Hungarian Students Association, Kárpátok was formed in 1965 by a group of young Hungarian immigrants wanting to preserve their identity and pay homage to their heritage. The name Kárpátok (Carpathians) was chosen as a symbol of greater Hungary; it also allowed for the eventual inclusion of dances from all three-dance dialects (Transdanubia, the Great Hungarian Plain and Transylvania) in the ensemble’s repertoire.
 
The less noted and far more important force behind the group’s formation was the founders’ very human need to be with the “familiar and known”. Being strangers in a strange land is terrifying, especially if one’s history is one of trauma and suppression. The post-WWII and 1956 Hungarian immigrants longed for the ideals of what they understood “America” to be, but the reality of adjusting to it, surviving and living in it was difficult. There had been a common misconception held behind the Iron Curtain that even the fences in America were made of sausage. It was a difficult realisation that one could only get ahead through hard years of work and perseverance. Holding on to their common heritage through words, dance and music must have been tremendously relieving and satisfying...

The founders did not intend Kárpátok to be a performing ensemble but rather as a wholesome alternative to doing “American” things — word quickly spread in the Hungarian community. The gatherings became a great place for anxious parents to drop off their teenagers and feel relatively safe that they were not corrupted and becoming too Americanised... The fact that it was also a good place for Hungarian boys and girls (and men and women) to meet didn’t hurt either! The dance rehearsals were informal and held weekly in the auditorium of the International Institute in downtown Los Angeles. The dance material taught in those early years were the then popular stylised (and bastardised) versions of authentic folk dances — there was no attention paid to the emerging folk movement at home. Its first director, George Kékessy, was chosen not for his talents, but for having some familiarity with “gentrified” folk dancing. I believe the proverb “in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king” is appropriate here, but it must be acknowledged that the founders, George included, left Hungary before the pioneering work of modern folk researchers like George Martin, Gusztáv Lányi, and the like, became available. Their endeavours were very important for two reasons. First of all, without their research much of the history of Hungarian music and dance would have been lost. The second reason which is even more important than the first is that much of what we know today is based on the material they collected. The equipment they used to document their research was antique and outdated, and although much of their lives went into this work, it is still only a small portion of what was available. This shows just how much culture a small country such as Hungary had. I must add that the intentions of the founders were noble.
 
The membership grew and the group relocated to a large classroom at St Stephen’s Hungarian Church. It was there that preparations were finalised for Kárpátok’s first independent performance at a real theatre, the glamorous Wilshire Ebell. The show was a major stepping-stone for the fledgling ensemble and through the enormous effort of many people, it turned out to be a great success. It was also my first ever performance as a dancer.
 
Many small performances followed including yearly appearances at the folk dance festival on Catalina Island, Oktoberfest, and exhibitions at various St Stephen’s Church-sponsored functions. I recall that the group did not have to pay rent for the classroom, but in exchange for its use we performed a few times a year and were in attendance, dressed in our finest stylised “folk” costumes (miniskirts and all!) at many church-organised events.
 
It became evident that Kárpátok had an appeal to both the Hungarian immigrants as well as the American communities, and it was time to move to a permanent home, which turnéd out to be the Hungarian House on Washington Blvd, near downtown Los Angeles. It must be added that the Hungarian House had always supported our work. There the group was not only able to rehearse, but found ideál storage facilities for its costumes and props in the rooms on the second floor of the facility.

In short, we had finally found a home. I became the artistic director in 1970 and together with my partner and co-director, Katalin Jámbor, led and guided the ensemble from this new environment to smaller and larger successes.
 
Perhaps this is a good time to share a few of my thoughts about why ethnic folk dancing became important to Americans. It is true that Hungarians are not as optimistic, or self-confident, and that sometimes they are stubborn and hard-headed, but they have something that Americans will never have. Other than native Americans (Indians), all Americans are from other, much older, evolved cultures. The US is a massive cauldron of peoples from all nations mixed together, lacking a common cultural thread. Marked by excesses and disappointments, the social upheavals of the 60s and early 70s left many young Americans searching for something that was more rooted in history, something that felt authentic and fluid — and fun. Folk dancing (especially from strange Eastern-European countries) must have given these searchers a sense of belonging to something far greater than anything they had experienced before. Coming from various cultures, they lost their native languages and heritage in the process of “fitting in”; at some point they wanted to find a tradition to belong to. The dance house movement (especially because it is a continuously evolving, living art form) continues to attract a great number of these people.
 
The number and calibre of performances continued to escalate — television appearances, various theatre events and a long-term contract with Knott’s Berry Farm — and with the aid of a few sponsors the ensemble was ready for its first visit to the homeland in 1973. The experience of being “at home” was quite moving along with the excitement of visiting the birthplaces of the dances we were performing. We all had a great time, learned a lot, then flew back to Los Angeles and went back to work on our dancing.
 
The focused efforts of many members paid off, as we moved closer and closer to professionalism while financially the ensemble remained an amateur group and even greater emphasis was placed on originality in music, in dance, and the costumes worn by the dancers. We paid great attention to every minor detail, and soon our repertoire included Hungarian dances that came from regions that were no longer part of Hungary proper, but still to this day had a large Hungarian population. It soon became time for the loosely organised Kárpátok dance group to become the Kárpátok Hungarian Folk Ensemble, with its own orchestra and choir, something that had always been my dream. Katalin retired from dancing and soon I was in charge of both the artistic and business sides of the organisation.

The commitment was huge — it became almost a full time job and took up the majority of my free time. I never gave up my career as a general contractor, as Kárpátok was a non-profit organisation, however my true love was the group. My father used to say “son, if you spent half as much time with your career as with Kárpátok, you would be rich by now”. Even with that said, he always supported me and my passion. We soon hired a booking agent, and attended several booking conferences, and the hard work and efforts paid off, as they produced several tours in the US and Canada.
 
Kárpátok also participated in the 1983 World Festival held in Budapest, Hungary. The closing event was a spectacular performance, held in the open-air theatre on Margaret Island, which was followed by a tour through selected places in Hungary. This is where the years of work truly paid off — we had an opportunity to put on a series of independent shows! The ensemble performed dances from such respected choreographers as Andor Czompó and Sándor Tímár, who at the time was the artistic director of the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble. It was a great honour to perform dances that were only danced by the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble and Kárpátok — and perform them well; present at one of these performances was Sándor Tímár, as well as several members of the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble. This was the greatest distinction that could have been bestowed upon anyone involved in Hungarian folk dancing. Our shows in the open-air theatre in Siófok and other locations were well received and successful, although many Hungarians did not understand why a bunch of Americans were interested in their culture; when we returned from this exhilarating trip we were filled with renewed enthusiasm and new inspiration. In total we put together four complete shows utilising the entire ensemble, as well as a chamber show for six couples, so our repertoire was quite extensive.

Convinced that the ensemble was on the right track, I felt it was time and my duty to turn my attention to other endeavours. There are three very different types of folk dancing styles that we are most familiar with. First of all there are the dances choreographed for the stage. The main purpose of this style is purely for the enjoyment and entertainment of the audience. Second, and maybe most popular in our day, is the dance house (táncház) movement. This is where certain steps or motifs from certain regions are taught, and later an orchestra plays music from that region, and the participants are free to combine the steps and motifs that they learned in any which way they choose. This is like social dancing with a folk twist. It is performed purely for the enjoyment of the dancers, and much like social dancing, no one pays any attention to what the other couple is doing. The third type is recreational folk dancing. This is where certain steps are choreographed in a certain order to the selected music, and taught as a package. I was fortunate to learn all three styles from the best teachers at the time. The first two styles were taught to me by Sándor Tímár and his wife Böske, while the third style was taught to me by Andor Czompó, a professor of dance at a prominent university in New York. He also choreographed and taught many of the numbers for the group. I started teaching at camps, workshops, symposiums and dance houses, which I initiated on the West Coast. As I previously stated, the dance house, or táncház, is a casual Hungarian folk dance event (as opposed to stage performances); its name is derived from the Transylvanian tradition of holding dances in individuals’ homes. Táncház is a revival of the root folk culture, which began in the early 1970s and remains a living part of the current national folk culture across Hungary. The events became very popular in the Los Angeles area among folk enthusiasts — and so the classes, followed by freestyle dancing, were well attended.
 
After twenty-five years I felt it was time to pass the baton to someone else and retire. There are many groups like Kárpátok in the US, Canada, and in fact, all over the world, however if you look closely, you will find that behind every one there is a fanatic person like me. I never intended to become a dancer, choreographer or artistic director. However, reflecting upon my many years as a Hungarian in the US, I must confess that I enjoyed every minute of it. My parents did not have any specific plans as to what I should do, as long as it was somewhat Hungarian, and thanks to their efforts, I learned to read, write and speak fluently in Hungarian even though I never attended a Hungarian school, as all of my schooling from 1st grade through college was in English. I know that my parents, if they were alive today, would be proud of me. I also realised that being Hungarian isn’t just a question of nationality — it is a mindset, an attitude and a lifestyle. Besides me, of the more than 500 members who participated in Kárpátok in the last 45 years, there are many who decided to return to the homeland. Some were more talented than others, however they all shared one very important thing, and that is their love for Hungarian culture. In some way each and every one contributed to the success of Kárpátok, whether through their dance skills, or by simply taking part in our discussions. A great majority of the former members continue to make their way in the New World, but their work and contribution was significant and well received, as was the contribution of those dancers from Hungary who took part in the work of the ensemble. Real success is not measured by artistic achievements, but rather in the 2nd and 3rd generation Hungarians who speak little or no Hungarian anymore, but they realise that somewhere in their veins, Hungarian blood flows. Next year the ensemble will celebrate its 50th anniversary, and as several of the previous members will not attend the event in Los Angeles, a documentary film is being made in which these people will have the opportunity to express themselves through interviews.
 
Kárpátok is still alive today in a very different way than under my direction, and who is to say that my way was the right way — but time marches on and change is constant! I always did my best. The person that came before me did his best, and those that came after me do, and will do their best. Of course it is helpful to be good, however that is not the yardstick by which success is measured. Many things will change, however the only thing that will never change is the culture and heritage the Ensemble represents.



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