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From the Tatras Mountains to the San Juans
9/27/2012 By: Carole McWilliams
Polish folk dancers scheduled to perform Saturday for Heritage Days
Tomorrow’s Bayfield Heritage Day will feature the Tatry Highlander Folkloric Ensemble from Chicago presenting traditional music, songs, and dances from the Tatra Mountains in Poland.
The group includes dancers in traditional costumes, fiddlers, and singers.
Spokesman Andrew Tokarz told the Times that around 16 members will be coming. The women wear colorful peasant skirts and blouses. The men wear embroidered wool pants, sheepskin coats, wool felt hats, and in cold weather wool sweaters.
The costumes are made by people who specialize in preserving the original designs and patterns, Tokarz said. Most of them live in Poland in the high country, but there are a few people in the U.S. making the costumes as well.
The Chicago group is one of several Tatry folkloric groups around the U.S. and in other countries dedicated to preserving Polish mountain culture.
“Our culture is from the far south end of Poland,” Tokarz said. The Tatras are the second largest mountain chain in Europe, he said.
In years past, people went into the mountains to escape serfdom, wars, and invasions, he said. The terrain is better suited for livestock than for farming, and sheep are especially suited for the terrain. They provide meat, milk, wool, and hides.
Sheep herding spread into Europe east to west from central Asia, Tokarz said. “We are talking about a tradition that’s at least 10,000 years old, practiced by mankind throughout the world.”
Like the sheep ranchers here, the Polish shepherds take their sheep into the high mountains for summer grazing and bring them back to lower elevations at the end of summer.
During the summer in Poland, the herders milk the sheep and make cheese that they send into the valleys to sell. They have a system of alpine huts where the herders stay. The herds don’t move around during summer grazing the way the herds do in the American west, Tokarz said.
The Tatra Mountains also has a breed of large white dogs like the ones local sheep ranchers use to protect their herds from predators.
“I breed them,” Tokarz said. He has a flock of around 70 dairy sheep in Illinois. The dogs protect them from coyotes. He hopes to bring one of his dogs with him to Bayfield.
“The seasonal migration developed all around Europe. Because we have this commonality in our traditions marking the passage of the seasons, we wanted to join your celebration,” he said. They also have been to the sheep trailing in Ketchum, Idaho. They usually perform about once a month for business and social groups.
The dances they do are shepherds’ dances. “They evolved because sheep herding is hard work. The men wanted to be able to celebrate the end of the grazing season,” Tokarz said.
The dances are unlike other Polish dances such as the polka. They are very agile, he said, with the men dancing in front of the women, showing off their prowess and strength.
Their performances include the Brigand’s Dance, about mountain men who robbed the rich and gave to the poor in response to the oppressive serfdom that was imposed by local lords.
“There was a period (in the 18th century) where the men were being impressed into serfdom, and some rebelled,” Tokarz said. “They formed bands and looked for wagon trains of the lords going from manor to manor. They would steal the booty and distribute it in the villages.”
Colorado has quite a few people of Polish ancestry who came for the mountains, Tokarz said. As in Poland, quite a few of them operate motels or bed and breakfasts, he said.
“Hopefully we can draw out people (of Polish ancestry) in Colorado to come visit,” he said.
They will leave on Sunday for another performance in the Denver area.
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