'Sudmaliņas’ is said to be the most popular Latvian folk dance.

A merry and mischievous polka, whose accompanying song tells us - Make me a flail of wood, brother, so that I can go threshing, clip clap clap! And in another verse - the threshers thresh, the grinders grind, the corn is threshed and ground clip clap clap!

The images created by the dance reflect the sails of the mill and the roundness of the millstone. So simple and at the same time so harmonious. Work as pleasure rather than duty.

There have been written records of the dance ‘Sudmaliņas’ since the 19th century and in over a hundred variations, depending on the district or region in which it was danced. The dance was first published in 1934 by Johanna Rinka and Jānis Ošs, who were dedicated to the popularisation of Latvian folk dance. In the 1950's the outstanding Latvian and East European ethno-choreographer Harijs Sūna (1923 - 1999) developed his stage version of the dance, which subsequently became loved by the whole of Latvia. It was an almost perfect gentle caress given to an ethnographic dance by the hand of a choreographer - stylistically integral, traditional, alive and sincere.

In the 1980's, the outstanding Latvian choreographer Uldis Žagata (1928) created a surprisingly striking version of this relatively simple dance, the ‘Jolly mill’, at the same time integrating other Latvian ethnographic dances. This is an example of folk-ballet, which an untrained person cannot even perform. Surprisingly, this version is very popular amongst Latvian dance groups and ensembles and is even danced by small children.

What then, in the Latvian language does the word ‘sudmaliņas’ really mean? Is it just a diminutive form of the word ‘mill’?

No. Mill. Millstone. Small mill. Hand mill, as worked by the orphan Baiba in the most popular play written by the great Latvian poet Rainis, ‘Blow ye wind!’. Windmills and watermills, where the wheel is turned by air or water, which then turns the millstone and finely grinds flour from the grain. And then comes Bread.

In this modern day and age, the 21st century, windmills in Latvia have been transformed into pubs or become transfixed into ethnographic museum exhibits. Watermills have been transformed into small hydroelectric stations.

Any remnants of poetry, the bittersweet odour of the peasant's - the reaper of the harvest's sweat, the first white, dusty mist of the new harvest, and the undisguised joy of the first loaf of bread are to be found only in the old and yet at the same time modern Latvian dance – ‘Sudmaliņas’.

Only the many mill lakes and mill hills in Latvia remind us of the past.

In 1992, the newly created international folk dance festival adopted the name of ‘Sudmaliņas’.

From the history of the festival

In the 1930s, Latvian dancers performed for the first time in Western Europe in folk dance festivals in London and Stockholm. At the 1937 Paris International Festival the first Latvian dance historian Elza Siliņa (1895 -1989) received the bronze medal for the Latvian dance stall.

The Second World War and the Iron Curtain separated Latvia from the free world for half a century. However, from the point of view of dancers, one small but obstinate plus can be gleaned from this time - for the first time, in 1948, at the 75th anniversary of the Song Festival, Dance stood side by side with her sister Song, and has been there ever since.

It was no coincidence that the taste of freedom in Latvia and the Baltic States was felt and retrieved during the Singing Revolution. The Baltic people had been preserving and nurturing this dream in their songs and dances.

In 1988, when the Soviet empire started to crumble, the Latvian red-white-red flag was waved for the first time at the folklore festival ‘Baltica’.

Dancers realised that they had something to be proud of and not just in the eyes of their own people.

Ingrīda Saulīte, who has been an exceptional artistic director of many dance festivals, nurtured the idea of an international ‘Sudmaliņas’ festival and convinced the then Minister of Culture Raimonds Pauls that such a festival could be very useful for the promotion of Latvia's image. And the festival was transformed from fantasy to reality.

Dance ensembles from Europe, Asia, Africa and America have performed at the ‘Sudmaliņas’ festival. The most widely represented is, of course, good old Europe. The countries that have visited the most often are Russia, Hungary and Germany, followed by Croatia, Italy, Lithuania and Finland. The most exotic to have discovered Latvia for the first time include ensembles from China, Egypt, Chile, Mexico, India, South Korea etc.

‘Sudmaliņas’ began in Rīga, but little by little, as though driven by the mills themselves, its centrifuge has turned towards the rural areas of Latvia, as if to say ‘You in Rīga already have so much’.

Festival traditions and new aspects

The festivals differ from each other not only because of the varying participants. An event that has become customary is the Introductory evening where guests and visitors meet at the Latvian Ethnographic Open-air Museum on the banks of Lake Jugla. With contemporary Rīga on the horizon, but with 18th/19th century farmsteads, threshing barns and granaries, etc.– the places where Latvian folk songs and dances were born and have evolved - in the background. It offers getting acquainted with the museum (founded in 1924 - the oldest of its kind in Eastern Europe), traditional games, challenges to test resourcefulness, polka competition, a bonfire, Latvian food and drinks etc.

Charity concerts in old people's homes, rehabilitation, integration and social centres in Rīga and Jūrmala have also become traditional.

The novelty of this year – a dance group contest which will be judged by an international jury.

On November 7th 2003 in Paris, the tradition of the Latvian (together with Lithuanian and Estonian) Song and Dance Celebration was included in the UNESCO list of ‘Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage’. It is a unique festival not only because of its artistic significance and scope. It is a unique tradition and skill, which encouraged and allowed the Baltic people to survive through years of invasion and occupation - crusading knights, Germans, Swedes, Poles, Russian Tsars, Hitler, Stalin and countless other periods of revolution, war, epidemic and famine… As the song goes ‘Sorrow, my great sorrow, I don't care about sorrow, I put it under a stone and step over it singing’. ‘Sudmaliņas’ is a contemporary branch of this tradition, a festival in the Latvian spirit, which absorbs impulses from all over the world.

‘Sudmaliņas’ developed as an opportunity, on the threshold of the 21st century, to breathe again and establish contact with people on every continent.

It has been, is and will continue to be fascinating to compare ourselves with hundreds of nations on the globe - how do others interpret the origins of their dances and movements, their temperament and activities, their national pride? Why are we as we are? Why do our dances suddenly have a Polish or Belarus step and something even a little Greek or Irish?

Latvia is not the Easter Island, which dozes peacefully in the ocean 2000 km from the Continent. Latvia is at the crossroads of Europe. Every passer-by takes something away and leaves something behind. It is so easy to lose the self. The support of UNESCO is a guarantee that the tradition of the Song and Dance festival will not die or fade away, that it now belongs not only to us.

A sun crown over lakes, hills and people

‘Sudmaliņas’ is still at the beginning of its journey compared to its more experienced siblings - festivals in Western Europe that have received the patronage of the CIOFF, the International Council for the Organisation of Folklore Festivals, for over 40 years now. Every summer, Latvian dance ensembles, from children to senior citizens, set off for long and beautiful journeys - to show what they can do and learn from others. Medals, awards and Grand Prix titles have become an almost everyday occurrence. It is not rare for international dance festivals to be organised also in Latvian regions and districts. Alongside folk dance, other dance genres are developing - the European ‘senior’ dance movement, flamenco, Indian and ritual dances, classical dance, etc. Not so much as a path to professional heights but as a fulfilling and aesthetic pastime, with dance clubs where people with similar interests meet in order to learn about the world through the beauty of dance. But at the source of it all is folk dance.

The quote by the brilliant ballet master Maurice Béjart in 1988 in Lausanne can also be attributed to ‘Sudmaliņas’:

‘The dying swan and the Zulus, Georgians and Mexicans, Spanish and Japanese dancers, pygmies and Turkmenistan people - all of them dance with the body and soul of their nation, but their language is all together international, and above words that separate us, dance re-unites everything that is unique and unrepeatable in all human beings’.

Preparing the overview, there have been used texts by Ēriks Tivums (1945 – 2008)