The dance groups performing at Salt Lake City's Living Traditions Festival offer festivalgoers powerful opportunities to experience cross-cultural customs and rituals without needing to know a verbal language. Movement vocabulary can be as nuanced as dialect in revealing subtle clues about a culture.
Middle America doesn't recognize itself as having ethnic dance traditions, but swing dance, square dancing and various waltzes have never lost popularity. And in the late 20th century, group dance trends swept the nation, such as the Hustle, Texas Two Step and Electric Slide. More recently, BeyoncÃ©'s "Single Ladies" and hip hop circles have captured the attention and imaginations of pop-culture watchers worldwide.
So enjoy the traditions of dance at the festival, considering what we Americans have in common while appreciating our differences.
To plan your festival experiences, here's a glimpse of four dance groups that work to convey the variety of cultural traditions on display throughout the weekend.
Maori Dance Group of the New Zealand-American Society • The Utah culture clash that made national headlines last October at a Union High School football game is probably not the first thing the Maori want us to remember about their culture, but they are honored that many other Polynesian cultures try to claim the Haka as their own.
Originally popularized by New Zealand's rugby team The All Blacks (named for the color of its uniform), the war dance was a pregame tradition used to intimidate opponents and unify the team.
"The dance really is a uniter," said Jen Atkinson, spokeswoman for the New Zealand-American Society Maori Dance group. "Recognizing the dance as ours is not a way to keep us separate, but as was the original intent of the dance, a way to keep our culture alive as we also unite with others."
The Maori are Polynesians who live on islands in the South Pacific that extend from Easter Island off the coast of South America to Hawaii in the north and all the way south and west to New Zealand. They were the first people to live on what is now the island nation of New Zealand.
What you'll see • A variety of ancient and modern dances, as well as Haka dances. The movement coordination is quite complicated and the performers sing while dancing with no recorded music. Listen carefully to hear the voices the harmonies are very distinctive.
Kolo Bosnian Dancers (Bosnian music and dance) • Recent Bosnian immigration has brought the population in Utah to nearly 7,500. This performance group has received several ethnic arts grants from the Utah Arts Council and used some of the funds to purchase handmade costumes from a master Bosnian costume maker.
Edin Curic, who directs the group, grew up learning the dances in his native land, and he's committed to preserving the choreography and elevating "it as an art form."
Curic also stressed that young people who have been forced out of their culture by violence and war need opportunities to connect with the positive parts of their history. Dance rehearsals teach discipline, commitment and the value of hard work, while touring connects the Bosnian community with other dance groups, from San Jose, Calif., to Waterloo, Iowa. The annual Bosnian festival is scheduled for the first weekend in September in Salt Lake City.
Kenshin Taiko Group (Japanese) • This group, sponsored by Salt Lake City's Japanese Church of Christ, combines drumming with choreography. Taiko drumming has crossed cultural borders, as anyone who watched "The Voice" last season knows after seeing finalist Vicci Martinez include Taiko in her performance.
The design of the drums is based on the large drums that were used in Japanese temple ceremonies, while Taiko drumming groups rely on an ensemble of many-sized drums in addition to other percussion instruments.
The style has been widely appropriated: Jazz fusion groups love it, while young Taiko groups in Los Angeles have added tossing sticks across the stage for excitement, and Bay Area dancer Sarah Bush (who studied dance at the University of Utah) includes it in her performances.
What you'll see • Drumming and choreography integrated into a dynamic synchronization of rhythms. New compositions and traditional religious celebration pieces are on the program.
Utah 'ko Triskalariak (Basque dance) • Utah 'ko Triskalariak dancers are of Basque descent and learned steps from family members. Cirbie Lee, the 27-year-old director and president of the Utah Basque Dancers, is fluent in the language and the culture. "The Basque were originally pagan, so many of the dances have specific meanings and purposes," Lee said. Over its 20-year history, the organization has become a traveling group that participates in Basque festivals in neighboring states, such as the Fourth of July festival in Elko, Nev.
The Basque country is composed of four provinces in Spain and three in France. There, on the Bay of Biscay, an ancient culture existed even before Roman times, and the Basque language is noted for its purity, as it's not considered part of any other known linguistic group.
After the turn of the century, Basques began immigrating to Utah to work as sheepherders. Though few still work in that occupation, today the Intermountain West maintains one of the world's largest concentrations of Basque people.
What you'll see • Colorful hoops represent the waking of spirits. Swords are used in the choreography to symbolize a metaphoric battle against evil in the form of plague and pestilence, while flags to signify their freedom from oppression. The group often dances to music played on a drum and flutelike instrument called a txistu (chistu).
Dance this way
Living Traditions Festival, sponsored by the Salt Lake City Arts Council, will take place Friday to Sunday, May 18-20, at Washington Square, 400 South and 200 East, Salt Lake City; 5-10 p.m. Friday; noon to 10 p.m. Saturday; and noon to 7 p.m. Sunday; free admission.
Maori Dance Group of the New Zealand-American Society • will perform from 9:15 to 10 p.m. Friday on the South Stage.
Kolo Bosnian Dancers • will perform from 12:45 to 1:30 p.m. Sunday on the North Stage.
Kenshin Taiko Group • will perform from 2:30 to 3:15 p.m. Sunday on the North Stage.
Utah 'ko Triskalariak (Basque dance) • will perform from 4:30 to 5 p.m. Sunday on the North Stage.
Also • Beyond regularly scheduled performing groups, the festival will offer an Intertribal Native American Pow-Wow demonstration from 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday on the South Stage. In contrast to other dance performances, this won't feature a rehearsed group under one director. Instead, it's a collection of individuals who have been invited to show off their skills in a re-creation of a typical intertribal powwow gathering.