Genre Buzz : Have You Ever Heard Of Estonian Folk Dancing?


Quite a departure from our two previous Genre Buzz entries for House Dancing and Voguing, we travel across The Baltic Sea to Estonia, whose neighboring countries include Russia, Latvia and Finland, for our next dance style highlight!   For the very first time, an Estonian folk dancing group will appear in our parade in May and we are exciting to showcase their traditional social dance style! estonia

Genre Buzz : Estonian Folk Dancing


Throughout history dance has given various nations an opportunity to record their experiences, feelings and personalities. Not all nations have been able to create strong dancing traditions, but the most famous dances become known abroad. Thus, in the 14th and 15th centuries in the courts of Europe, people danced the Italian tarantella and French minuets and quadrilles. In the 16th and 17th centuries, English square and sword dances were popular. The following century gave us the waltz and lendler of German-Austrian origin. The list is endless. But what about Estonians? How do they fit into this cultural picture?

The experience of the previous century shows that an average Estonian is not too fond of dancing. In the future the situation might change in the face of the co-occurrence of favourable conditions (the warming of the climate, assimilation of nations, changing of patterns of thought), but so far the consumer of Estonian culture has preferred musical events to dance shows. We can speculate that this kind of attitude has grown out of the previous centuries. Hard work in the field or on the sea and very little sunshine, which was necessary for work, did not leave much time for dancing. Singing was another matter as it could be done even while working. Parties were held. Young people always loved to get together on Saturday evenings to enjoy singing and music. Usually they gathered at someone’s house, where there was homemade beer. There they sat and drank, did round dances and jigged to the music.estonia-song-festival-2009-7-3-13-51-27

A more defined period in the history of folk dance began in the middle of the 19th century, when the establishment of native language high culture was considered very important as a guarantee of national awakening and ethnic survival. Estonian associations, which were founded all over the country, played an important role; choirs and orchestras were established in parishes. In the euphoria of choirs and song festivals, folk dance was left in the shadows. It seems unbelievable, but only a century ago it was thought that Estonians had no national dance. People only knew and remembered Kaera-Jaan, which was danced as a folk dance. The origin of Kaera-Jaan is very interesting in itself, even though it has also caused heated arguments.

According to Friedebert Tuglas’s notes it is a mocking song from 1889. At that time in Ahja manor there lived a cottager, Piitre Matson, who was called the Oat Emperor. He got his sobriquet from the fact that he only sowed oats around his cottage. The affix ‘Kaera’ (Oat) was also added to the names of his many children. Piitre’s son Jaan Matson was a blacksmith’s apprentice at Ahja manor and a great ladies’ man. This mocking song was created about him:


“Ai Kaara-Jaan, ai Kaara-Jaan, / ai karga vällä kaema, / kas on kesvä keerulise, / kaara kateharulise.” Kaera-Jaan was considered to be an Estonian national dance by foreign students from as far away as the Caucasus, who encountered the dance in Tartu. For fun it was even given a fancier name: Jean de Kaër. It is thought that this dance became so popular due to the fact that from the beginning it was tied to a specific tune and movements.

At some point the collectors of folklore also started to collect and describe folk dances. The main instigator was the Estonian Students’ Association, under the management of Oskar Kallas (1868–1946). The search for pure Estonian folk dance, which had begun in 1930, ended with the realisation that such a thing did not exist. It became apparent that our folk dances are at times very similar to the dances of other nations. For example it was found that our very popular labajalavalss (an Estonian folk waltz) is just an ordinary folkloric waltz; kaerajaan was linked with the quadrille, and tuljak, a dance-tale of the courting of two young people, to Slavonic dances.

Carried by the attitudes of the time people started discussing the possibilities for developing folk art. It was suggested that folk dance should be approached creatively, adjusting it according to the spirit of the time. Change has actually always been one of the characteristics of folk dance — like human creation in general, folk dance changes according to the times and people, reflecting important events. This is the reason why we today cannot distinguish between original and later dances. Film and other authentic recording means are too new, and thus it is not possible to refer to documented sources and say which part or figure in a dance is older and which newer.


So what are the characteristics of Estonian folk dance? Estonian folk dance is considered to be collective, peaceful and dignified. There are no big leaps or fast and varied movements, and acrobatic elements are uncommon. Estonian folk dance is best characterised as a series of repeated motifs and simple patterns of movement. Repetitive motifs are actually characteristic of all Estonian folk art — they can be found in folk poems, ornamentation on belts, woodwork and other things.

It is thought that our oldest dances were those for men, with a simple pattern and accompanying music. Mainly they consist of mimicking dances, mostly line or group dances, in which a set number of dancers take part. In the old days, dance meant walking in a circle in one of the biggest cottages and singing, for example, Vares vaga linnukene and other round dance songs. Estonian applause is generally internal and feelings are seldom expressed through extra movements.   Read more…