Czech folk dancing amazes me. Not the costumes or the music or the precise steps, though I enjoy those. It’s the fact that teenage boys happily don traditional clothes and hop around in not-always-masculine dances. Willingly. The teenage boys I know back home would be way too cool for that. But here in the Czech Republic, it’s a mark of honor to belong to one of the folk dancing groups in town. Vsetín, with a population of 28,000 people, has no fast food chains and can hardly support its movie theater, but it has two complete folk dance ensembles.
Vsetín is in the heart of Wallachia, a region known for its folk traditions, and every two years they host an international folk dancing festival, the Vsetínský Krpec, named for the old-fashioned lace-up shoes the dancers here wear. This year, there were brightly-clad Poles and Slovaks and Hungarians, and groups from all over the Czech Republic. I spent the whole festival watching the performances: the Georgians’ militaristic shows of athleticism and artistry, the Italians’ tambourine-tapping exuberance, the Turkish men and women dancing the same steps side by side in apparent roles of equality.
One evening I spied a piece of grass where no one had dared sit, preferring instead the more dignified benches. It was hot, and the thought of cool grass between my toes was too tempting. I plopped myself down, and soon enough others joined me. One was a guy around my age, who looked over once or twice before speaking to me across the space between us. I told him I didn’t speak very good Czech. “Pomalu?” I asked. Slowly?
He moved over so he was sitting beside me and, as the next band set up for their performance, we chatted as best we could. He knew a self-proclaimed eight words of English, six of which were computer terms. My Czech is shaky at best. But we talked for half an hour. When the band started, we had to shout in each other’s ears, and I hardly understood anything, but the music was foot-thumping, drum-beating Brazilian crossover that soon had kids dancing in the dirt before the stage. Before long we followed.
I’m a cheesy dancer. I even do classics like the swimmer and the fisherman. But when I did a disco move, so did my new friend. When he did the robot, I followed. He echoed my salsa. We learned how to spin around each other. With the music blaring and people moving all around us, it wasn’t important anymore that we had so few words.
Thanks to my poor understanding of Czech, I’m not sure if we really agreed to meet the next night. But we found each other on our little strip of grass and watched the gala performance, making comments to each other that we didn’t always understand, leaning heavily on the international crutches of “wow” and “super.” But the connection, this strange little friendship, we both understood.
The Italians, for their finale, danced out into the audience and pulled volunteers up with them— Czech spectators, foreign visitors, dancers from the other invited countries. They then proceeded to snake their way on stage to perform a complicated dance with these strangers, many of whom had no common tongue.
Different cultures may change the steps, the feel, even the purpose of dance, but those Italians made it work despite all cultural and linguistic barriers. That’s the beautiful thing about dance: it needs no language.
Melinda Brasher has traveled extensively in Europe and parts of Central America. Her best experiences have come from living and teaching English as a Second Language in Poland, Mexico, and the Czech Republic. She spends her free time writing fiction.