It’s been a while since I last wrote about Clarkson’s Czech Dancers, and in particular the Beseda dances that were performed by both adults and children. In my final (?) posting on this topic, I thought it would be interesting to say a few words about the origin of the Beseda dance form because it is much more than a complicated collection of dance steps.
The 19th Century has been called the Century of Nationalism. During the 1800s, enlightened by The Enlightenment, and encouraged by the American and French Revolutions, the peoples of Europe began to think seriously about throwing out their kings and emperors in favor of democratically elected parliaments with real power. In many parts of Europe these democratic movements were accompanied by efforts to break up and rearrange old empires into new nations whose boundaries were based on ethnic and cultural similarities, rather than on political wheeling and dealing.
For the Czechs, nationalism (or the National Revival as they called it) meant asserting their Slavic identity and culture. For hundreds of years the Czechs and Slovaks had been unwilling members of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and their art, music, and even language had been suppressed by the Imperial Government in Vienna. German was the only language taught in the schools and spoken in government offices and polite society; there was a real danger of the Czech language disappearing entirely. Many Czechs dreamed of an independent state based on their Slavic language and cultural affinities, so when the spirit of nationalism took off in Europe, the Czechs (Bohemians and Moravians) responded in a variety of ways. For example, the Sokol movement (Sokol is the Czech word for “falcon”) was founded by a Czech nationalist in 1862. On the surface the Sokols were a youth sports and gymnastics organization, but there was considerable emphasis on moral and intellectual development and Slavic pride as well. For many years the Hapsburgs in Vienna kept a close watch on the Sokols because of the very real concern that the Czechs were using it to build a strong, well-trained and motivated national army.
In the arts, the Czechs sought to promote the richness and value of their folk culture in order to demonstrate that, rather than being ignorant serfs and peasants, the Czechs had as rich a culture as anyone in Europe and deserved their own place among the Family of Nations. For example, in 1855 Božena Němcová wrote her marvelous and still widely read novel Babicka (Grandmother), which celebrated the wisdom and goodness of a simple rural peasant woman. In music, the two best-known Czech composers of the era, Bedřich Smetana and Antonín Dvořák, incorporated folk melodies into many of their classical compositions. The essayist, newspaper columnist, and poet Jan Neruda tirelessly promoted Czech patriotism and statehood. Not only was he a prolific writer and an influential intellectual – he was a pretty good dancer.
As the story goes, Jan Neruda disliked watching only German dances, while Czech folk dances seemed too rough to him. So he, his dance teacher Karel Link and a musician Ferdinand Heller created the Česká beseda; Link choreographed the steps to Heller’s music arrangements. The first performance in Prague featured 24 pairs of dancers. The precise birthday of the Česká beseda is in dispute, but November 11, 1863 is the most commonly accepted date. What is known is for certain is that the dance caught on like wildfire – within a few weeks, the Česká beseda was danced by as many as 140 couples at the Žofín Palace in Prague, and after a few months the whole of Bohemia knew it.
The Česká beseda has the form of a quadrille – 4 pairs of dancers facing each other in a rectangular formation. The quadrille was an intricate dance routine that was very popular in High Society of France and England at the time. The Česká beseda has 4 parts, each part featuring 4 dances:
I. Sousedská, Furiant, Polka, Řezanka
II. Kominík, Furiant, Obkročák, Polka
III. Rejdovák, Furiant, Hulán, Kalamajka
IV. Sousedská, Furiant, Kuželka, Strašák
The original Česká beseda was not danced to the music of a brass band, in folk costumes, as we know it today. Rather, the dancers were dressed in tuxedos and evening gowns, and whirled around the ballroom to the tunes of an orchestra. This was in keeping with the notion that Czech culture, while firmly rooted in rich folk traditions, was as high-brow as anything you might see in the fashionable salons of Paris.
After its first performance, the Česká beseda spread throughout the Old Country and was regionally modified (there is a well-known Moravian beseda, for example). Czech immigrants to the U.S. further modified it to fit their liking and circumstances, so that the dance is performed differently in Texas, Cedar Rapids, and Clarkson. The common element to all the besedas are these: they are all composed of a series of short dances, done to songs with varying meters (2/4 and 3/4 time) and tempos (moderate to very lively), all woven into one uninterrupted dance.
In summary, the Česká beseda was born in 1863 and used not only as a form of popular entertainment but also as an expression of Czech national pride. Jump forward 100 years, to 1963, and we see the Beseda reappear in Clarkson for the first Czech Days Festival, once more as an instrument of cultural revival and Czech pride.
Enough with the lecture. Here are more pictures of the Clarkson Beseda Dancers and Clarkson Czech Dancers over the years.