In one word – overwhelming!  The Estonian Song and Dance Festival is an experience that is is truly difficult to explain without experiencing it first hand.  I am not sure where to begin so I’ll just start at the beginning.

On Saturday, the Dance Celebration started at 11:00 and lasted 3 hours.  At the start and end, there were at one time 7,500 dancers (3rd graders and up) all dressed in national costume, all dancing together.  There was even a NATO jet flyover! (Estonia is a member of NATO and the European Union much to the chagrin of Russia. )

Probably half of the spectators were also dressed in national costume.  Estonians are very proud of their dress and wear it whenever there is an opportunity.  In the morning and in the evening on our way home, everywhere you looked were people dressed in national costume. 

The dance concert began with the dancers pouring into the stadium from every direction – it was an amazing sight that brought tears to my eyes.   Even my boys (a pretty tough audience) were wide eyed at the sight.

The dances followed a story outline of Estonians’ relationship with the sea.  Fishermen, their spouses, and their stories.  It was simply beautiful.

After the conclusion of the Dance Celebration, all of the choir ensembles that had been invited to sing paraded from the center of Tallinn for 6 kilometers to the Song Festival grounds and ampitheater.  I think this took about 7 hours.  Unfortunately, it took 1 1/2 hours longer than expected and the evening concert was delayed by that much.  This was in part due to the unprecedented number of choirs invited to join.  We walked along with the procession to the ampitheater.  We saw groups from all over the world. 

The ampitheater grounds were filled with food, drink,and souvenir stands.  As the procession continued to empty into the grounds along with all of the people who were attending, it was wall to wall people.  The crowd, however, was very orderly and respectful.

There were 2 Song Concerts: Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.  The Saturday evening concert consisted of some traditional songs at the start and then mostly more serious orchestra and choral arrangements.  The Sunday concert was much more of a collection of familiar and  new folk and national songs.  At the start and end of the Sunday Concert there were 24,500 men, women, and children dressed in national costume singing together on one stage. In between there was anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 people singing together depending on the category.   It total, estimates for Saturday were about 75,000 people in total participating and attending.  Estimates for Sunday’s performance were over 100,000.  I can’t even imagine where 25,000 more people could have fit!   On Sunday, the concert lasted 5 1/2 hours. 

We took seats on the lawn high up on the hill across from the ampitheater with a beautiful view of everything.  As I said earlier, the concert statrted a bit late, but still with ceremony with the lighting of the torch.  This is a very similar to feeling to the Olympics.  I suppose you could call this the Estonian Olympics, except that everyone here is a winner.  There are no losers.  Unfortunately, after a beautiful day, the weather was no longer cooperating and we made the decision to leave, especially since we had reunited with the kids.  Still not wanting to miss anything, we listened on the radio on the way home.

It’s one thing to watch a large performance group who have rehearsed a lot together.  These dancers and singers and rehearsed only in their small groups until coming together only a few days before the whole festival.  I have difficulty directing 2 children never mind 7,000!!!!  Much rightful thanks and praise were bestowed upon the organizers, choreographers, directors, dance instructors, and choir leaders after each performance.

In addition to all of the people actually at the festival over the weekend, all of the performances were broadcast live on radio and television.  I have to believe that nearly all Estonians were somehow watching or listening!  The current population of Estonia is around 1.5 million, about 30% of which are ethnic Russians.  (That’s a story for another day.)

When we got home (which is a good hour and half ride) Saturday night at midnight, we made the decision to watch the Sunday concert on television.  Although, I really wanted to be there in the middle of it all, the weather was iffy and it was actually more interesting to watch, because you were able to see more from all of the televised close-ups and listen to commentaries from various dignitaries involved in the whole festival.  (Of course there was also the issue of the children – it’s a very long day!)  I understand that the last concert had big screens, but perhaps due to economic constraints they were absent this time. 

Song and dance are very important parts of Estonian life.  The National Culture Minister, which is a very important position in government, even directed part of the song concert, not as part of her official duties, but because that is what she does.   The traditions of song and dance groups have helped to keep the Estonian spirit alive both in Estonia and everywhere where they have ventured.  It is still amazing to me that the country has been independent for so little time and yet can somehow maintain a sense of nationalism.  Even during Soviet times,  Estonians  managed to maintain the now 140 year old song festival tradition, despite not being allowed to sing certain patriotic songs.  The secret is obviously in the music! 

To Breathe as One  – the title of this year’s Festival – is a perfect way to describe the thousands of participants and spectators as they danced, marched and sang their way through the weekend!

We are already making plans to attend the next festival in 2014!  Join us!


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