“Folk dancing is a phenomenon that holds us together.”
Sanyi was born in 1980 in Szeged, Hungary. He grew up in Kiskunhalas, where he first had the chance to explore the world of Hungarian folk dancing. From then on, he has been a devoted dancer and a folklore enthusiast. He moved to Edmonton, Canada 17 years ago, where he was blown away by the amazing Hungarian dance culture that keeps thriving thousands of miles away from the mainland.
He is a stalwart member of the Csárdás Hungarian Folkdance Ensemble of Edmonton, and one of the founders of the Összetartozás Táncegyüttes (Togetherness Dance Ensemble).
How did you first discover the world of Hungarian folk dancing?
I moved from Hungary to Canada 17 years ago. I first started dancing in Hungary as a member of the Halas Táncegyüttes in 1990. The group’s leader used to gather children from schools to join his dance classes. That’s how I discovered folk dancing and started out in the children’s group. Dancing has been an important part of my life ever since.
When I came to Edmonton, Canada, I got to know the Csárdás Hungarian Folkdance Ensemble. To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect at first. Back then we didn’t really know much about the folk-dance groups of Hungarians living abroad, far from Hungary. After encountering the dance group in Edmonton, I was shocked, in a good way. It was a huge surprise for me that 8000 kilometers from home, Hungarian folk dancing is on such a high level and people take culture and traditions very seriously.
What was the defining moment that made you feel like dancing is more than simply a hobby?
Tricky question. When I started dancing in the Halas Táncegyüttes, the first thing that really grabbed me was the collective. I got into a great team, and I was feeling great. To this day I’m still in contact with a lot of my childhood friends from the dance group. It’s safe to say that the friendships that were made there will last a lifetime. The other advantage of being part of the group was that we got to travel a lot. In the 90s it was much harder to travel abroad so this was a big plus.
What was the main reason behind establishing the Összetartozás Táncegyüttes (Togetherness Dance Ensemble)?
Culturally speaking, the peak of the year for the Canadian Hungarians is the Western Canadian Hungarian Folk Festival, which is has been an annual tradition for more than 40 years. It’s being held in a different city every year from Victoria to Winnipeg. The first time I attended the event was in 2005, where I’ve met a lot of folk dancers. I was in awe. It was fantastic to see how talented the youth is, especially considering that most of them have never been to Hungary or the Carpathian Basin. Right there, I already started thinking to myself that it would be great to bring the different dance groups closer and strengthen their ties with each other. I also felt that these incredible dancers deserve this opportunity because they sacrifice so much of their free time to pursue dancing, and they strongly feel the need to preserve their national identity and traditions.
As time passed, I got to know more members and teachers from numerous dance groups like the Victoria Búzavirág Dance Group, the Vadrózsa Hungarian Folk Dancers from Calgary, and the Kapisztran Hungarian Dance Ensemble of Winnipeg. We started planning choreographies and performances together. So, the cooperation was being built up step by step. That’s how we eventually concluded that we could form a new dance group together with dancers from all the different parts of Canada. 2017 and 2018 were two very important years for us because we began organizing our events for 2020, which was an important year for us because of the 100th anniversary of the Trianon Treaty. We’ve discussed our plans with Szenthe Anna, the Canadian President of the Hungarian Diaspora Council. I’ve suggested that for the special anniversary we would establish a new group and prepare a production together. The president was in favor of the idea, so the only thing left was to get some financing for it. The financial support has been provided thanks to the Hungarian State Secretariat for National Policy and the Canadian Hungarian Cultural Society of Edmonton. After all this, we’ve managed to arrange our first common practice session in February 2020.
Is Hungarian folklore and folk dancing popular amongst the Hungarians of the diaspora and the Canadians?
Folk dancing is a phenomenon that holds us together. At home, in Hungary, folk dancing is one of the best ways to show our own traditions. I feel like 10 – 15 years ago it was easier to popularize dancing among the children. Nowadays, especially during the pandemic, it’s basically impossible. Otherwise, folk dancing is popular because it’s one of the greatest tools of building a community. Almost every city has its own cserkész team, and Hungarian folk dancing is the heart of the given community. The balls and the national holiday celebrations, or municipal events such as heritage days and Hungarian days are also excellent opportunities to show the beauty of Hungarian folklore to our audience. My experience is that the parents have a crucial role regarding this question, and how a given family views the importance of preserving their national identity.
Hungarian dancing is also very popular among the non-Hungarians. In August each year, there are so called “Heritage Days” in Edmonton, where almost 500 000 people attend every year. I’m proud to say that the Hungarian section is one of the most popular sights. The Hungarian dishes are always a hit and people also love to watch our traditional dance performances. The Polish-Hungarian friendship is also a defining factor in Canada. This is especially true for the Hungarian dance group from Winnipeg. We also have a good relationship with the Polish community here in Edmonton. We cooperate a lot and attend each other’s events.
What does the Polish-Hungarian friendship and cooperation look like in Canada?
In 2007, the Hungarian and the Polish government declared March 23 as Polish-Hungarian Friendship Day. Back then we had 4 Polish dancer pairs in our group who were also members of the Polish folk-dance group in Edmonton. Therefore, we’ve decided to set up a little celebration of our own, so we invited the two Polish dance groups of Edmonton to a Polish-Hungarian night. We’ve all presented our traditional dances and music, tasted each other’s national dishes, admired the works of Polish painter, and listened to the charming music of a Hungarian classical violinist. We’ve basically created a program to emphasize the importance of preserving our cultures.
This event has become somewhat of a tradition for the upcoming years, growing larger and larger each year. On the first year’s event, which was held in the Hungarian House in Edmonton, there were approximately 150 participants. The next year we had to move to the Polish House because the number of people attending had basically doubled. We’ve also invited the dance group from Winnipeg, which has its own Polish folk music band. This event has been a success each year so we sincerely hope that we can keep up with the tradition after the pandemic.
Let me tell you another intriguing example of our friendship. One time the Lowicz Polish Folklore Ensemble asked our dance group to teach them Hungarian dances from the Alföld, which they presented at the World Festival of Polish Folklore Bands Living Abroad in Rzeszow.
How does it feel to be a Hungarian folk artist in Canada and how difficult is it to organize different cultural events?
We can basically organize anything. We get invitations to numerous programs to perform our choreographies. For instance, we often visit the Serbian and the Portuguese cultural organizations. From this aspect, we have an easy job because as folk dancers we get a lot of opportunities. The Edmonton Folk Arts Council also has an important role regarding these events.
There was a time with the Csárdás Hungarian Folkdance Ensemble of Edmonton when only five members were ethnically Hungarians, the rest of the group consisted of Poles, French Canadians, Ukranians, and things still worked perfectly. They were singing and dancing the same way as Hungarians, so for the audience it was virtually impossible to tell the difference between the Hungarians and the non-Hungarians. A few years ago, in a méta camp, one of our French-Canadian members performed a verbunk, and no one could’ve guessed that he was not actually Hungarian. We also have a Polish and a French-Canadian member in the Összetartozás Táncegyüttes. The rest of the members there are Hungarians.
Are you able to have practice sessions and performances during the pandemic?
Unfortunately, the COVID situation is on a high point now in Canada. The basic concept with the Összetartozás Táncegyüttes was to have a special production on June 4, 2020, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Trianon treaty. We already had our reservations at the theatres but then came the lockdown in March. We’ve been unable to properly practice since then. We’ve tried having online practice sessions on Zoom but those didn’t really work out. Our choreographers, Kádár Ignác “Náci” and Nagypál Anett, have prepared videos for us so we could practice at home.
Last year in October, we were finally able to meet up for a live session in Edmonton. We had four days to plan out the one hour-long performance. In the end, we were able to plan out the whole choreography, and we’ve danced 42 hours during those four days. We’ve had sore limbs for a week afterwards, but we were happy about our accomplishment. The COVID situation got better in November so we could once again come together to practice in Calgary. We were going to have our debut on February 12 in Toronto but sadly all the event plans for January and February had to be cancelled. Right now, we can’t even meet up in person. Otherwise, everything is ready for the performance, we have recently received our beautiful traditional costumes, too.
Our next panned performance will be on March 18 in Edmonton. This will be an ideal opportunity to celebrate March 15, the national holiday of the 1848 – 49 Hungarian Revolution. It’s hard to say anything for sure because of the constantly changing situation, but we continue to practice at home and motivate each other with short dance videos. Actually, all of the dancers have 20 – 30-years experience in dancing which means a lot regarding our future performances. This is also one of the main reasons why we were able to set up our whole choreography in such a short time.
What are your plans with the Összetartozás Táncegyüttes regarding the distant future?
The original debut which was due on February 12 in Toronto has been delayed and the new date is June 4, 2022. This date would be great because it would be on the same day that was originally planned two years ago. Besides this, we would like to show our choreography in October at the Western Canadian Hungarian Folk Festival, which will be in Vancouver this year.
A great dream of ours regarding the future is to bring the whole production home to Hungary and perform at numerous places there. It would be so exciting so we really hope that this will happen as soon as possible.