The Song and Dance Celebration in Latvia has been a cultural traditional since 1873, where once every five years, Riga becomes a stage for a spectacle of celebration that unites a nation.
The weeklong event in July turns Latvia’s capital into an exciting morning to midnight festival of over 60 cultural and traditional events, where folklore is wrapped in beautiful sound and movement.
The Latvian Song and Dance Celebration ‘Dziesmu svētki’ is considered to be a form of pilgrimage and a podium of pride in the “Land That Sings”.
It’s an event that sees 43,000 Latvians from 118 municipalities, together with Latvians who reside abroad and come home, join together to participate in a showcase of national identity. While over half a million spectators support them and join in.
A show so strong that the Song and Dance Celebration in Latvia is included in the UNESCO List of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2003. It’s also considered to be one of the best festivals in the Baltic region.
Latvians may stand together and celebrate their heritage, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get involved as a non-Latvian. Everyone is welcome, because standing together is the ultimate message reverberated throughout the celebration.
As I stood within the crowds at from hours-long street parades, theatre, wood band and folk music performances on small park stages and concert halls, to folk dress catwalk shows and sold-out stadium shows, I felt the intensity of the people expressing their pride.
Pride for Latvia – a country not only rich in heritage but with a troubled past where unity and freedom of expression has been broken many times over. Choir singing has always been seen as part of the National Awakening.
The 2018 Song and Dance Celebration coincided with the Latvian Centenary – 100 years since Latvia became an independent Republic – and it made the air of celebration, and honour to stand amongst, it even greater.
Attending the Latvia Song and Dance Celebration is a chance to fully immerse yourself in the culture of Latvia and better understand the country, the history and its people better.
- 1 How the Song and Dance Celebration in Latvia Begins
- 2 Major Events of the Latvia Song and Dance Celebration
- 3 The Importance of Latvian Folk Costume
- 4 Celebrating Multiculturalism and Togetherness
- 5 Why is the Song and Dance Celebration in Latvia Only Every Five Years?
- 6 Latvia Song and Dance Celebration Snapshot:
How the Song and Dance Celebration in Latvia Begins
The Participants’ Procession
This five-hour long parade sees hundreds of folk costumed choir and folk dance groups burst into action as they make their way around the centre of Riga. They start from one of the defining symbols of the city that is the Freedom Monument, and are grouped according to the cultural regions they represent – Kurzeme, Vidzeme, Latgale, Zemgale, Sēlija and Rīga.
The participants proudly hoist their regional symbols and gave their own unique performance as sporadic pockets of the crowd burst into an even louder show of applause.
The pride and happiness, fist pumps to the air and the women waving bundles of flowers was met with appreciation from the crowd. To feel everyone coming together as one was very humbling, even if the groups were light-heartedly still vying for the loudest cheers.
For those Latvians who live away from home, the allure of song and dance doesn’t diminish. Many groups of Latvian diaspora set up choirs and folk dance groups in the new countries where they reside, retaining their emotional connection with their homeland and setting up song festivals abroad. This ritual of national identity goes back to the time when people fled the country during WWII, where even in the displaced persons camps in Germany, Latvian song days were organised.
The collective voice of song has always brought Latvian people together.
Today, many of these expatriates come back to Riga every five years to reignite the sense of union as they too join the parade.
Major Events of the Latvia Song and Dance Celebration
The stadium events at the Song and Dance Celebration are a master feat of organisation, showmanship and choreography. There’s a chance you might feel overwhelmed, but in a way that comes only from the wonder at the production you are witnessing.
The First Stadium Show – The Great Dance Performance
The event, known as ‘The Great Dance Performance’ is the first major stage event of the Song and Dance Celebration. The ‘Dance Celebration’ element has only been a part of the festival since 1948, but is now just as much an integral part of the badge of honour for Latvians.
The 2018 Māra’s zeme (Māra’s Country) event saw over 10,000 spectators flock to the Daugava Stadium in a quiet Grīziņkalns suburb of Riga to watch 17,000 folk dancers perform 28 dances that bring to live the history of Latvia from Baltic tribes to its independence and centenary celebrations.
Latvian songs create a synchrony of traditional sounds that reverberates around the stadium, guiding those who fill the floor with swirls, sways and steps of colour, to a precise choreography that forms giant geometric patterns and well-known Latvian symbols.
The Closing Concert – The Grand Choir Finale
There’s nothing quite like ending the Latvian Song and Dance Celebration than with a huge musical high. The Closing concert, which went by the 2018 name Zvaigžņu ceļā (Following the Starry Path), is the one people wait all week for.
Over 16,000 singers from 427 choirs filled the Mežaparks Grand Stage over a three-hour period with a dedicated melodic programme of 38 choir songs, supervised by 13 Principal Conductors and eight Honorary Principal Conductors. That’s alongside the 18,000 folk dancers as well as folklore and theatre groups, musicians, and an orchestra.
Think of a huge pine forest that hums with the sound of patriotic verse and a mass of Latvians celebrating within it. People sit in the enormous crowd of the amphitheatre (purposefully built for this very celebration) or revel at the many food and drink tents set up around it as the pitch of the choir singers peaks through.
This is the emotional pinnacle to end a week of events. This is not just about a showcase of the best choir singer singers in the country, but the sense of purpose bestowed on everyone. An audience so big I even felt emotional standing within it as everyone joined in for the National Anthem, despite not knowing a single word.
But this is the power of music, and the cathartic element of human voices in unison.
“A small nation of 2 million people living by the Baltic Sea in Northern Europe, becomes the largest choir in the world” is how the organisers describe it.
Which is exactly what the Closing Concert is known for – the grand sing-along at the very end. If you can wait it out that long, around midnight an on-the-spot after party forms in the crowd as both the singers and the audience continue the harmony of Latvian songs into the night. What began as a spontaneous flow of song until dawn has now became an official part of the celebration programme. It’s said even the “singing trams” continue the tune as people make their way home.
The Importance of Latvian Folk Costume
Folk costume is at the core of the Song and Dance celebration in Latvia. Not only are voices heard but the representation of the regions of Latvia are given a platform through dress. Wearing folk costume adds authenticity to the festival by bringing to life an important Latvian tradition.
There’s over one hundred designs of Latvian folk costume and while every day of the festival is a colourful and detailed insight into the beauty of this form of representation, you can also learn more about it at the Senā klēts folk costume centre in Riga Old Town.
I’m fascinated by the traditional dress and costume of the countries I visit. There’s something about connecting with the pride of the people when I wear it, with each outfit being unique and telling its own story.
There was no better time to try it in Latvia than during the Song and Dance Celebration. I wanted to experience just a small ounce of the pride the Latvians were exhibiting in the street parades and on the stages. I first put on a beautifully woven patterned blouse, before the red tunic dress. The experts at the centre proudly made sure everything was perfect, finishing off the look with a brooch and shawl and insisting I braid my hair in order to add the red ribbon.
I took to the streets of the Old Town, where ‘being Latvian’ for just a few short minutes to capture a photo allowed me a little insight into what it must feel like for people to wear the dress of their heritage and region.
A traditional folk costume showcase, composed of modern catwalk show of folk culture from today’s Latvian fashion designers, even makes the list of evening events at the Song and Dance Celebration.
It is a wonderfully modern twist on keeping old tradition alive and reigniting interest of Latvian folk costume in generations moving forward.
Celebrating Multiculturalism and Togetherness
The Song and Dance Celebration might be the ultimate show of Latvian culture and traditions but it’s also about multiculturalism and the belief that everyone can band together.
An event called ‘A Day For All’ is the epitome of this. Since many ethnic groups have resided in Latvia over the centuries and more so following the days of occupation (mainly Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians and Poles), this event was a showcase of the heritage these groups maintained while setting up life in Latvia.
It’s a day of song and dance where over 1500 people from one hundred culture groups are given a stage to shine a spotlight on their own unique heritage, having joined Latvian choirs and dance groups or formed their own.
Other events at the Latvian Song and Dance Celebration include things like the ‘Great Wind Band Concert’ where various wind orchestras from throughout Latvia perform, alongside ad hoc theatre shows in the park. There’s also a large market with traditional arts and craft stalls, and a neighbouring pop-up restaurant of 10 of Riga’s food and drink establishments to show off the contemporary take on Latvian cuisine.
And if you can’t make it to all the events, there are big screens scattered throughout the city live streaming every event and re-playing the highlights the following day.
Why is the Song and Dance Celebration in Latvia Only Every Five Years?
Pride might be instant, but preparation for a festival of this size and grandeur takes time – like the design of a new programme, the rehearsals, auditions and final selection of participants.
This is prestige on a super charged scale.
What was once a time of the year where people from the country took time off from farming to celebrate life turned into a nationwide ritual. More than a festival to Latvians – the Song and Dance Celebration is life on a stage. A showcase to the world of history, hard work, traditional and a culture they are determined never to be lost.
Best of all, you are welcome to join and be a part of the family of Latvia. They are waiting for you in 2023.
Latvia Song and Dance Celebration Snapshot:
The very first ‘Latvian Nationwide Song Celebration’ took place in 1873 and today has evolved into the huge event in Riga that takes place every five years. Details about today’s Song and Dance Celebration in Latvia can be found here, alongside details about venues, events and how to book tickets. For when then time comes around again in 2023!
For further information on the Latvian Centenary celebrations, visit the dedicated ‘Latvia 100’ page for news and events programmes.