Currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand (06/12/2013) - 31200km cycled

14 May 2012

Latvian Folk Dancing with an English Twist

Posted by Will

Every now and again a traveller is lucky enough to get caught up in some wacky local event that viewed out of context would seem ridiculous but at the time feels like the most nautral thing in the world. At 3am last Saturday night in Riga I took a look around and found myself surrounded by Latvians in a small underground bar treading a centuries-old traditional dance I had just spent the last 3 hours learning. The joys of the Latvian folk dance had been revealed!

It all started at about 8pm when I decided to wander alone into Old Town for a drink. Someone at the hostel recommended the small bar as a place with a good local atmosphere and cheap beer, and after a few minutes getting lost among the narrow cobbled streets, I found the appropriate sign hanging above a long flight of stone steps. I could hear loud voices speaking in scary languages from the top of the stairs and I almost thought better of going in. I slowly made my way down the steps, paused by the door, thought once more about running away and then forced myself inside.

I need not have worried because the bartender, who was a similar age to me, immediately recognised I ‘wasn’t from around here’ and offered me a beer before I could fumble an order in Latvian. The price of a beer in Riga is between 1-2 Lats (£1.20-2.40) for 0.5L and this drinkery was definitely at the cheap end of the scale. In fact, the highly drinkable ‘Livu’ beer only cost 0.80 Lats (£1) and perhaps this is why I was soon chatting away happily to a Russian guy in French (only common language) who was beside me at the bar. I also talked to the bartender, a student at the University of Latvia, who turned out to be working his first day and had a group of friends at the other end of the room down to support him. As soon as my mission to cycle around the world came out he summoned his friends over and I wasn’t alone in the bar anymore – I was part of the gang.

Several beers and an hour’s talking later, the lights dimmed and the lively music in the bar came up. As though someone had stood up and announced what would happen next every person in the place jumped up, took a partner of the opposite sex, and started on a sequence of complex-looking steps. In a justified state of bemusement I was grabbed by one of the girls I’d been talking to and taught rather intimately how to dance Latvian style. The dancing was full of spins, jumps and most interestingly ‘flings’ where the man had to hurl the girl as far across the room as possible without taking out other dancers. Easier said than done and pretty much all my efforts ended in some kind of collision. The fantastic thing was that no one cared that I couldn’t do it; in fact I think my ill-fated moves endeared me to the crowd.

For a while we all danced strictly in pairs, everyone showing off their moves to everyone else in a kind of mock-display of dance superiority. My girl was a lot of fun and we were soon very much in tune with each other. Like most girls in this part of the world it seems, she was a very attractive: long brown hair, wide eyes, a little shorter than me and a lot better at dancing than me. Fortunately, and much to her amusement, some forgotten 1st-year university shuffles came back to me which escalated into a mini dance-off between us. I’m pretty confident she won hands-down but I didn’t feel too sorry for myself as she gave me a kiss for trying.

Over time the dancing evolved into more of a team game where groups of 4 or 8 would work together to form all kinds of elaborate shapes and patterns. This part was similar to Morris dancing and reminded me of Christmas in the Woodstock Road. The indivisibility of the pair was still well-respected though and that suited me just fine. I’m not sure where the time went but at 4am the bar closed and we all spilled out onto the cobbles. By the end of the night, after everything that had happened in this little room under Riga alive with clapping, singing and stamping, I was more exhausted than I’d ever been after a day’s cycling.

It’s only by putting yourself out there that these kinds of experiences sneak up out of nowhere and sweep you away. Even though inside seemed threatening and unfamiliar, I managed to push myself through the door into the unknown. I’m glad I did. I can’t help thinking there are too few people who would roll the dice, open up, and see what’s through the door with the frightening sounds behind it. If they did, they might realize that most of the time there’s nothing to be afraid of. In fact, there might be something wonderful inside.

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6 Comments already on “Latvian Folk Dancing with an English Twist”
  1. 4:20 pmpermalink
    14 May 2012


    Hi, Will! we are waiting for post about Lithuania, but it seems that in Latvia was really good too :) Have a nice trip,You have giant support team!!!

  2. 4:37 pmpermalink
    14 May 2012


    At this rate you’ll never make it round the world if you fall in love with local girls every place you stop. So where’s the real story in this blog entry? ;)
    WIsh I could have been there too buddy…

  3. 6:29 pmpermalink
    14 May 2012


    i think we all understand the subtext!!!!
    great stuff William – loads of support and love from Somerset!

  4. Will

    9:01 pmpermalink
    14 May 2012


    The post about Lithuania is coming shortly Gintare!
    What wild imaginations the two Andrews have …

  5. 7:31 ampermalink
    15 May 2012


    Jesus saves, but Will scores on the rebound.

  6. 5:28 ampermalink
    23 Oct 2012

    Bryan Keith

    Will, fantastic!!! Great writing, great stories. I keep getting sucked into reading more.
    I’m off to take a Turkish language test to see what course I’ll start next month. I must say I’ve been enjoying watching it rain here in Ankara as I sit inside and look out a closed window! Life on the road certainly reminds me of the luxuries of modern living.