Groups in Southern California
The Polish folk dance group Polskie Iskry (in the past billed also
Iskry, Polski Iskrie [sic], and initially, Gwiazdy) was active in the Orange County area of Southern California
from the late 1960s to 1996. The creation and disbanding of the group resulted from the activities
of one man, Eugeniusz (Eugene, or preferably, Gene) Ciejka whose enthusiasm and knowledge of folk
dancing brought the group into existence and whose disability (serious back problems) resulted in its demise.
The children's group did not have an "official" name. Their resources were also rather limited: they initially had just one costume for the krakowiak and their repertoire was small. These classes ended in 1966 when the ZPA sold the Dom Polski; at that time Ciejka moved to the Orange County area where he has remained ever since, working for the California Gas Co. and continuing his dance activities. Initially he taught a similar children's group for the Polish National Alliance (Richard Kobzi, the director of the Górale Dancers in Orange County, was one of the children in this group in the late 1960s).
These enthusiastic dancers wanted to continue learning Polish dances and decided to focus on this repertoire in a more serious fashion; therefore, in 1967 the Orange County Folk Dance Workshop was established with Gene Ciejka as its director. The rehearsals of the first four couples of this group initially took place in a garage; soon all the group members began paying a weekly fee to rent a hall for the rehearsals (5$ per week per person). Interestingly, the dancers were all amateurs and none, except Ciejka himself, were of Polish or Polish-American background. Moreover, only Ciejka had some background as a professional dancer: he had performed for the New York City Ballet in 1950s (see his biography below).
Whatever the spelling, it is important to note that the name of the group honored Mr. Ciejka's maternal grandmother whose last name was Bosinska-Iskra, and who had introduced him to the joy of dancing when he was a small child in New Jersey.
For a short period Polskie Iskry was loosely associated with the fraternal organization Polish National Alliance in Orange County. However, the PNA sponsored another group in the same area, Gorale; this may be one of the reasons why the relationship with Iskrywas discontinued.
This need for variety resulted in the relatively large repertoire of dances that Polskie Iskry was able to perform. Ciejka's list included 60 dances in 1986 and it grew to 66 dances in 1996 (the list's content is further discussed in the Repertoire section below). Many of these dances, of course, were variants of the same type set to different music, e.g. various krakowiaks, obereks, or polkas. Such variety mirrored the extensive scope of the repertoire of Polish folk dances collected in the villages of Poland in the mid-19th century by Oskar Kolberg: there were thousands of obereks or mazurs in his volumes of Polish folklore. In contrast, larger folk dance groups tended to have a more limited range of dance repertoire; these groups tended to repeatedly perform the same extended suite of dances to the same recorded music.
Because all the participants were amateurs who earned their living by working at their trades and professions, and who treated dancing as a hobby, the group did not give more than 8 performances in a year; there was one three-hour rehearsal every week. Under these circumstances, it was difficult to focus and develop new dances. In a May 1999 interview, Ciejka explained that "often we would forget half of the dance from week to week and would have to do it all over again. It was difficult, but we succeeded. We received many invitations and we were selective where we would dance; we mostly danced for free. Nobody had a salary in the group, we ourselves paid for the hall, for the fabric and costumes."
While from the audience's vantage point there is no proper substitute for the use of live music on the stage, the dancers felt much more comfortable with recordings. Ciejka recalled an anecdote about Iskry's one-time collaboration with a group of musicians (The Villagers based in the Garden Grove/Whittier area). The musicians received written music for the dance (krakowiak) scheduled for performance at the Polish Catholic Church in L.A.; they learned the music, but did not have time to attend the rehearsals and in the heat of the moment they forgot to repeat one section of the dance. Ciejka commented dryly: "Eight measures of the music was missing. The whole dance was ruined. After that I returned to recordings. It would have been impossible to rehearse with live musicians."
A choreographed dance which consists of a series of steps, positions, and gestures, needs to have the same music in every rendition; this "fixed" form differs considerably from the original practice of folk dancing in Polish villages, where both the musicians and dancers spontaneously improvised while the dance was in progress.
This was one of the reasons the group discontinued its appearances at Polish community events at the Polish Center in Yorba Linda where all the dances took place on a stage outdoors. The Polish community in Orange County had another group to perform for them (Gorale) sponsored by the Polish National Alliance. Moreover, Krakusy from Los Angeles and Polonez from San Diego also competed for the attention of the small number of Polonian organizations active in Los Angeles and Orange Counties. However, there was one more reason for the absence of Polskie Iskry from Polish-American celebrations: the group was not Polish enough to some members of Polonia. Ciejka stated: "This was not a traditional Polish group, a part of the traditional Polish culture. All their events were conducted in Polish. I was not accepted by the Polish American organizations because I did not speak Polish. I did take Polish classes for a while, but then I could not continue. I'm just an American, I don't have a Polish passport" (Ciejka, May 1999).
Moreover, the group's membership was a problem for some biased Poles, because of the mixed ethnic background of the Iskry dancers, which included Asian- and African-Americans. In the words of the group's director:
We were open to all participants. For years we had a black man in the group and he was a very enthusiastic and capable dancer. But we had problems with Poles about him. Once I was sitting opposite a Pole who berated me: "How could you have a colored man in your group?" I said jokingly that he came from Southern Poland... But we also did run into trouble with some Polish organizations who would never invite us to dance for them because they wanted all the people in the group to look Polish. I did not like that attitude. I was not raised that way; it saddened me. What do I care what color a dancer is if he is willing to dance? I had dancers who were black, Chinese and Japanese; I taught three times in Taiwan where they wanted to start a Polish dance group (in 1993-95). These people were all excited about Polish folk dancing and they were not even Polish.
Here the issue of the function of the dance arises: do the Polish folk dance groups engage in dancing because they love to dance or because they want to affirm their national/ethnic heritage? In the case of Iskry, the answer is clearly: "love to dance."
This costume was used by Iskry very frequently; variants appear in most group photos and promotional material since the group's inception to the summit of their performance activities in mid-1990s. In fact, the Kraków costume is usually described as the national costume of the American Polonia (see the entry on krakowiak for more information)
Dancers from Polskie Iskry wore different variants of this costume during full-evening spectacles held at Cypress College in the 1980s and at Pierce College in 1994. During these impressive performances the group (consisting of 12 couples), did not have much time for costume changes. In order to fill in these awkward moments and enrich the program, they invited musicians to perform short pieces throughout each evening, for instance a singer with a medley of songs, or a pianist with pieces by Chopin (a similar strategy was employed by the Krakusy, a much larger ensemble from Los Angeles during the past 30 years; these performances were thus transformed into folk dance variety shows).
Eugeniusz (also known as Eugene or Gene) Ciejka was born on 27 December 1930 in Jersey City,
New Jersey. He has been dancing with various groups since he was five years old. His interest in dance was inspired by his grandmother Anna Bosinska-Iskra (b. 25
April 1877, d. 21 November 1951) who loved to dance and had attended many Polish functions as a dancer. She persuaded the young Eugene to join
the dance group organized by the Zwiazek Polek w Ameryce (Polish Women Alliance of America).
Eugene was 14 at the time. The ZPA had an older dance group of 8-9 couples and a junior group of 300 children who practiced on Saturday mornings. The groups were directed by Franciszka (Frances) Wesołowska who choreographed dances for their repertoire (mostly krakowiak, kujawiak, oberek, polka, and Kashubian dances).
In the 1950s Ciejka studied ballet and folk dance techniques with Frances Poplaska, Jan Matuszcz Lazowski, and Jan Ciepliński who had been the director of the Polish National Ballet Company before World War II. Ciejka has danced as a part of the Polish American Folk Dance Group, and the New York City Ballet (now known as the American Ballet Company). He competed and won medals at the "Harvest Moon Ball" held at Madison Square Garden in New York. Ciejka competed in the polka category of the dance competition (which included also the tango, rumba, waltz, and jitterbug) and won in 1958 (bronze) and in 1959 (silver). On both occasions he danced to Ms. Wesołowska`s choreography.
The family moved to California in 1960; Mrs. Ciejka (Eugene's mother) was involved in the Polish Women Alliance and through this organization Mr. Ciejka began his involvement with Polish folk dance in Los Angeles. The origins of Polskie Iskry ,which preoccupied him from 1966 to 1996 ,are described in the History section above.Family background and immigration history casts a light on Ciejka's open-minded attitude and the international character of his group:
The dances are further discussed in the Repertoire section below. This continuity of tradition preserves a distinct Polish-American variety of Polish folk dancing which developed from the living tradition brought to the U.S. by the rural immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Ciejka's family background places him firmly in this immigrant tradition.
A selection of Iskry's performances choreographed and directed by Ciejka is discussed in the History section of this entry; his aesthetic views and connections to the Polish folk dance world are the subject of the Repertoire section. In all his activities, Ciejka emphasized the "altruistic" character of folk dance, its beauty and the joy that it brought.
Through out his career he acquired an expertise that he has been willing to share with dance enthusiasts in the U.S. and abroad. His personal library included the Complete Works of Oskar Kolberg and numerous studies of folk dancing and folklore in general, as well as recordings of Polish and Polish-American music. The enthusiasm for dance did not extend to politics: "I must say that I grew up dancing and I am not interested in political stuff, but in dancing."
Sometimes it was very difficult to find appropriate fabric. For instance, in order to make the costumes from the Łowicz area, they spent a long time trying to match the colors and the patterns with those seen on pictures and postcards. The Guatemalan or Mexican brightly-colored striped cloth was skillfully trimmed to fit the Polish patterns. In addition, when making their own costumes they would try to match both the look and the feel of the fabric in movement: wool is heavy, and the substitute fabric had to behave like wool. Some of the substitute fabrics were more comfortable than the authentic ones. The original costumes, made of several layers of linen and wool fabric, were not easy to wear in the hot California sun.
Ciejka's travels to Poland in 1972-3 and 1977 resulted in a significant enlargement of the authentic Polish costume collection. Finally in the late 1980s, Edmund Sentowski donated 12 male and 12 female costumes for the krakowiak. In their last decade, the group had costumes "made in Poland" - the authenticity of the design, fabric, or style was beyond reproach.
Polskie Iskry also learned dances choreographed and taught by Ada Dziewanowska, foremost Polish-American expert on Polish folk dancing and the author of a recent monograph on the subject (Polish Folk Dances and Songs, New York: Hippocrene Books, 1999). Interestingly, their attitude to her purist views of folk dancing was quite ambivalent. The group's director explained their feelings in the following words:
Simply I do not like traditional folk dances, they are not exciting enough. Ada Dziewanowska, who is a traditionalist, taught Polish dance in a "purist" fashion; she would allow only Polish steps, not elements from Russian dances, for instance. But I believe that the choreography should be lively, full of variety, not repetitive. Older people wanted to see little village dances they remembered from their youth. But it is not possible to stop time and go back to that village! If dance does not change, it will die. All life changes and the dance has to change with it. There are no traditional village dances in Poland now - young people dance the rock'nd'roll or disco dances when they go out to have fun. It is a loss, of course. But it is a result of change. If you study the history of dances, you will notice that dances in the 14th century were different than later ones. Or if you compare dancing with ice-skating - now the skaters have to do far more complicated turns, jumps, figures than ever before. So the discipline has to grow. However, there are limits to change, you have to find a middle ground: you are on a tightrope, as it were, one wrong step and you fall off. You have to keep in touch with the tradition, but you have to remember that you work on these dances to entertain.
Dziewanowska's admiration for the State Folk Song and Dance ensembles and her use of their dances in her teaching does not qualify her as a true, die-hard "purist" of either an exclusively Polish or a Polish-American orientation.
The ambivalence of Dziewanowska's position is mirrored and magnified by the location of such dancers as Stanislaw Danko, another source of choreography for Iskry: originally from Podhale, he danced as a soloist with the State Folk Ensembles Śląsk and Mazowsze before settling in the U.S. and joining the Krakusy Polish Folk Dance Ensemble in Los Angeles in 1966.
The professional State Folk Song and Dance Ensembles were founded at the height of the Stalinist era (Mazowsze in 1948 and Śląsk in 1952). They toured the U.S. with their highly stylized and polished repertoire; American Polonia greeted them enthusiastically and embraced their vision of stylized folklore as the best representation of Polish tradition and the source of ethnic pride. Many dancers from the State Ensembles remained in the West instead of returning home and were actively involved in the development and professionalization of dance groups.
Ciejka described it later as "fluid and danced in a light manner and style. All movements are drawn out as long as possible. Eye contact with one's partner is of primary importance (Ciejka, Syllabus p. 5). For this dance he used music from a Polskie Nagrania LP, Na krakowskim rynku [In a Kraków market square], MUZA SXL 0408, side A, track 5. Ciejka taught Graj kujawiaka at the 1995 Folk Dance Camp, along with Skoczek, a dance from the Rzeszów area in south-eastern Poland, also adapted by him from the Śląsk repertoire. The director of Polskie Iskry stated: "I was very inspired by Śląsk and Mazowsze - it was a fantasy what they did. In 1972 I filmed the Cieszyn Oberek from Mazowsze's repertoire and recreated it by myself. We had to get the same music, of course."
The third source of the repertoire of Polskie Iskry was Ciejka's original choreography. He explained his freely creative approach in the following manner:
I made my own choreography on the basis of Polish steps. I would listen to the music and it would tell me the something that needs to be done while dancing. I dived into the world of my fantasy and imagination. Then, of course, I knew the basic elements, the steps themselves, but I used them in a free manner. Who would want to watch a real dance in a village? It is not interesting for a dancer to do.
Judging by this description, Ciejka's attitude towards Polish dance was not rigorous. He made continuous efforts to learn the patterns at the sources, in Poland, from Polish books and scholarly studies, from Polish and Polish-American choreographers, etc. However, he felt free to interpret this tradition in his own fashion, drawing from his ballet background and from an intuitive creativity.
The group had the five national dances in their repertoire, as well as a variety of other regional dances. Since most of their activities were in the context of the Folk Dance Federation, they were always dancing for the same people, their colleagues from other dance groups; therefore they had to bring new dances to these festivals.
How did the repertoire change and evolve? When returning to a dance known from the past the dancers often did not do the same gestures; it was hard to recreate the dance without seeing it, even with the written description and notes. Therefore, the dance would be changed, according to the abilities of the dancers; the choreographer would make it easier or more difficult, depending on the skill of the performers.
A typewritten list of dances (PMC Archives) presents the list of dances in the repertoire of Polskie Iskry in February 1986. The following rearrangement of this list enumerates the dances by type with additional annotations about parallels and potential sources from the repertoire of the State Folk Dance Ensembles, Mazowsze and Slask. The 1986 list contains the following dances of Polskie Iskry:
Later additions to this repertoire included a dance that Ciejka called "Galacia" which he choreographed in December 1995. He described this dance as a type of polka from the borderlands of south-eastern Poland, north-western Ukraine, and north-eastern Slovakia, "a poor area which had a large Jewish population. The music from this area reflected Jewish influences as well as Ukrainian and Polish styles." The music used for the dance, though, was decidedly of Polish American origin, as it came from the Lil' Wally LP Krol Polki [The King of Polka], SALP 8098, A/1.
For them, Polish dance did not have a political dimension; instead, it was an engaging - even beloved - activity and a thoroughly admirable type of folk art that could be appreciated by all.