As anyone who’s marched along behind the raucous brass of the West Philadelphia Orchestra or reveled in the exuberant melodies of the Philadelphia Women’s Slavic Ensemble (PWSE) can attest, the music of the Balkan and Roma traditions can be infectious. On Sunday, April 7, groups from the Philadelphia area and beyond will come together at the Rotunda for the first ever Philly BalkanFest, a daylong celebration of Balkan music and culture.
The event is the brainchild of members of the West Philadelphia Orchestra and its record label, Fly Bottle Records, along with the Folk Dance Council of the Delaware Valley. As the involvement of the Council implies, organizers are hoping that the fest will not only reach eager listeners but also will get attendees up and moving.
“There are really complex dances, but there are also really simple village dances,” says Susan Anderson, a member of the Folk Dance Council who is also involved in the ensembles Ajde and Svitanya. To kick off the festival, Ajde will offer a workshop to teach a few of the more simple steps, laying the foundation for dancing through the afternoon’s entertainment. In addition, vendors will offer food and crafts, and a puppet show will introduce younger visitors to the stories behind some of the folk songs.
Both Anderson and Louie Asher, a board member of the Folk Dance Council and member of the PWSE choir, can attest to the joys of Balkan dancing; both have been participating in folk dances for decades. “I just find it irresistible,” Asher says. “The steps are intricate yet interesting, and the music is wonderful.”
“When people ask me what got me interested, I always say Sputnik,” says Anderson, who was in high school when the Russian satellite was launched in 1957. “My school brought in a Russian [language] teacher, and from there I ended up at a school that had a Russian dorm and a Russian band. I just fell in love with the music and the dancing, so I’ve been doing it all my life.”
That experience is shared with many of Anderson and Asher’s fellow folk dancers — which is part of the problem BalkanFest was conceived to address. “The folk dance community is not as active as it was years ago,” Asher admits. “Many of us are longtime folk dancers who are eager to share our skill and spread it. We’re eager to have new blood.”
Inspiration for attracting that new blood came from the Zlatne Uste Golden Festival, a popular Balkan music festival that has been attracting enthusiastic crowds to its annual event in Brooklyn for more than 30 years. The West Philadelphia Orchestra, whose spirited performances have attracted a loyal following since its founding in 2006, has performed at the festival, where its crossed paths with N.Y.-based counterparts like Raya Brass Band, Max’s New Hat, and Dolunay, all of whom will visit Philly for the festival.
“It’s great to be doing a BalkanFest in West Philly proper,” says saxophonist David Fishkin of the neighborhood’s namesake orchestra. “The idea was to bring together some of the older community who have been involved in the Folk Dance Council with the younger generation, people who might come to a WPO show and dance in their own way but might not know the traditional dances. We jumped at the opportunity.”
According to Fishkin, all it will take to get listeners to fall in love with the music — and dancing to it — is to immerse them in its ebullient sound. After all, it happens every time the WPO performs. “When we’re performing this music, I’m not only able to connect to my fellow musicians, but we’re also able to connect to the audience in a way that makes people move. In a sense, it’s like everybody dancing with us becomes part of the band; and that’s one thing that’s really special, that symbiotic relationship between performers, the boundary is essentially erased.”
For those who share the participants’ passion after Sunday’s festival, Anderson says there are plenty of opportunities to get involved. “There’s international folk dancing happening somewhere in the region just about every night or afternoon during the week,” she says. “It’s a passion.”