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Two women in matching white blouses with red embroidered cuffs and red headscarves embrace each other in dance, smiling. Trees in the background are beginning to turn autumn colors.

  • The Evolution of Croatian Folk Dancing in the United States

    While dancing Kriči, Kriči Tiček, there is a moment when you feel utterly weightless. You’ve grasped hands and woven arms behind the backs of your neighbors. Rounding the circle, you hop-step-step in unison to the harmonized voices. As the song picks up speed, you lean back against the hands clasped behind you. Inertia pulls at your body, propelling you outward and around—you sense this resistance in the muscles of your calves. For a moment, you feel as if your feet have left the floor and that the small community of your circle is hovering together, transcendent and timeless.

    For many folk dancers in the United States, Kriči, Kriči Tiček (pronounced KREE-chee KREE-chee TEE-chek) epitomizes Croatian dance. The lively music, straightforward steps, and fostered community makes dancers feel that they have dropped knee-deep into European culture. But while the movements of Kriči, Kriči Tiček are traditional to Croatia, the standard version performed by many folk dancers in the United States does not correlate to a particular Croatian dance. In Croatia, the name “Kriči, Kriči Tiček” (which translates to “Chirp, Chirp, Little Bird”) references the song, and each village community performs its own signature movements to the tune. Usually, the Croatian versions feature a drmeš step (a surprisingly strenuous yet subtle movement—nothing more than standing still and shaking), walking, and hopping.

    The U.S. version brings various Croatian steps into a standard pattern: sixteen walking steps alternating with sixteen sets of hop-step-steps. In the mid-twentieth century, visiting teacher-choreographers from Croatia introduced the distinct versions that they had learned to “recreational” folk dancers in the United States, those who dance mainly for pleasure rather than professionally. Regional groups of recreational dancers would occasionally meet at weekend camps and share dances they had learned. Eventually, through contact and cultural fusion, the regional variations of Kriči, Kriči Tiček settled into a standard form, one danced by both recreational groups and professional performing troupes.

    This video captures the various steps associated with Kriči, Kriči Tiček, including the drmeš, walking steps, and hopping steps.

    The story of Kriči, Kriči Tiček embodies a tension that many folk dance teachers feel: how to faithfully represent their cultural heritage while appealing both to audiences and to recreational dancers.

    Željko Jergan, a Croatian immigrant who moved to Pittsburgh in 1986, has grappled with these challenges. Born in Varaždin, a town on the Drava River in northern Croatia, Jergan’s introduction to folk expressions came through the songs he heard there.

    “I was very, very amused by all those harmonies that ladies were putting together,” he explains. “That’s where my love for folklore starts.” At eighteen, he joined LADO, Croatia’s national folk ensemble, and for twelve years performed with them as a lead dancer. “I was never satisfied with just performing,” he says, despite his prestigious role in the troupe. Instead, he explored communities throughout his home country and beyond its borders, traveling to Croatian communities in Hungary, Austria, and Romania. There, he began to record and document Croatian songs and dances.

    A newlywed couple, still in suit and gown, holds a slice of wedding cake on a plate. The three-tiered cake is on the table in front of them.
    Željko Jergan and Cindy Cubelic’s wedding, 1986
    Photo courtesy of Željko Jergan

    Jergan’s life changed when Cindy Cubelic (in Croatian, Čubelić), a young American woman from a family with a deep passion for Croatian dance, arrived in Zagreb in the mid-1980s to study and perform with LADO. Cubelic had performed with the Duquesne University Tamburitzans, a highly acclaimed folk-dance group based in Pittsburgh made up of college students. When they met, Cubelic spoke no Croatian, and Jergan spoke no English. Within two years, they were married and living in Pittsburgh.

    While romance may have brought him to the United States, a love of Croatian culture propelled Jergan’s career. He arrived with a personal mandate: “My goal when I came to North America was to preserve and perpetuate my Croatian culture, my traditional culture.”

    He decided that the best way to strengthen Croatian identity outside of his homeland was to teach what he knew. However, Jergan’s story came to illustrate the tension between safeguarding one’s dances and adapting them to U.S. expectations. His efforts to spread authentic Croatian dance forms were met with some opposition due to the diverse groups he had to appeal to.

    “In the village, it’s a circle dance for ten minutes,” he says. “You can’t do that here.” Recreational folk dancers as well as American audiences “like more movement,” he explains. “Americans need faster changes.” As a professional choreographer, he realized he had to modify the village dances that he was familiar with. His technique in choreographing dances that appeal to Americans echoes the cultural process that standardized Kriči, Kriči Tiček: “I always use traditional steps, traditional music, and just put them in the way that an American audience will accept.” 

    About 20 men and women, dress in traditional Croatian dance costume of white shirts, pants, and skirts, black vests and hats for the men and colorful scarves for the women, dance in a circle. Everyone holds hands with those two spots away, so their hands are crossed in front of the individuals immediately next to them.
    Many Croatian folk dances are traditionally performed in a circle. When staged for an audience, dancers often wear costumes that feature bright colors reminiscent of Croatian villages, especially red, gold, and black.
    Photo courtesy of Željko Jergan

    Settling in Pittsburgh, Jergan found a well-established Croatian American community. As a significant part of the wave of Eastern European immigration at the turn of the twentieth century, many Croatians settled in western Pennsylvania and established a robust system of churches and social organizations to support Croatian families.

    “One thing that the old timers did when they first got here is they formed corporations and sold insurance,” explains David Vinski, a lifelong folk dancer who grew up in a Croatian American household. But he remembers that these associations, organized under the Croatian Fraternal Union (CFU), offered more than just life insurance; they provided a community of people who spoke your language.

    “Lodges in the United States started offering Culture Corner kind of classes for kids,” Vinski says. “And so we went there to learn how to play the tamburitza instrument, how to sing a couple of the songs, and how to do the kolo”—a simple circle dance ubiquitous across many Balkan cultures. 

    Now retired from his position as managing director of the Pittsburgh Playhouse, Vinski remembers the formative role his local CFU lodge played in his life. “A bunch of guys would form a combo and they’d play, even if it wasn’t a day for rehearsal. Or they’d go play for a wedding. We did that when I was sixteen or seventeen years old. We all belonged to a combo. We’d play at weddings. So, I learned to dance Kriči, Kriči and a bunch of these little kolos. And I learned how to play.” Rooted in his own experience as a member of a Croatian American household, Vinski translated his mastery of Croatian music and dance into a college scholarship and a coveted role with the Duquesne University Tamburitzans.

    The Tamburitzans were central to the continued life of Croatian culture in the Pittsburgh region. Because the group was made up solely of college students, it established a scholarship program at Duquesne University that, as Vinski explains, “helped stitch together all these clubs on the youth side.” Organized in ways similar to athletic extracurriculars, the Tamburitzans required members to attend an annual camp where they learned the year’s repertoire and maintained a demanding schedule of performances. The group gave Vinski the capacity to better understand his own Croatian background.

    Men and women dance on an outdoor stage, dressing in traditional Croatian costume. Two of the men are mid-jump.
    The Tamburizans perform at Ethnic Fest 2009 in Two Rivers, Wisconsin.
    Photo courtesy of Lester Public Library, Flickr Creative Commons

    “I had found my home,” Vinski says of his experience with the Tamburitzans. “It was a very nice place to be involved. Playing all this music, learning dances. We had learned a bunch of little things as kids in the lodge. But now we were learning real, full choreographies and all the dances that make them up. Learning more about the culture and where on the map you can find this place. Even how to put on the costume, how to wear it.”

    The college students who comprise the Tamburitzans, as well as choreographers like Jergan who teach the dances, are invested in safeguarding their culture. Many of the performers come from Europe to attend the university and perform in the group, while others, like Vinski, are American-born but have deep roots in their immigrant communities. These knowledgeable individuals project a certain ineffable quality that Martin Koenig, co-founder of the Center for Traditional Music and Dance and a Smithsonian Folkways producer, calls “virtuosity of movement.”

    “Not so much in terms of technique,” Koenig explains, “but in terms of synchronicity of movement with the other dancers, complete commitment to each movement, and the depth of feeling expressed.”

    Koenig suggests we think of this as we might think of a vocalist singing to us in a foreign language. “If they’re singing from the heart, you don’t have to understand what they’re singing to be moved by them. You get tearful. You get happy. They reach you.” American audiences and recreational folk dancers feel similar emotions when they encounter representations that feel particularly authentic. “There are some Americans whose whole reason for dancing is to get as close to that virtuosity of movement as possible,” Koenig says.

    Given the deep emotional connections people draw from melody, movement, and heritage, dance becomes a powerful way for individuals to connect with their ancestral cultures. “If you know the dances from a region, that’s more an expression of being proud of your heritage,” explains Jim Shustrick, a second-generation Croatian immigrant, the leader of a performing dance group, and an avid recreational folk dancer. For Shustrick, the expressive movements of folk dance put him in touch with his ethnic heritage in ways that other activities don’t: “Listening to or appreciating music or food—anyone can do that.”

    Six women in matching dress dance in a circle in a street lined with crowds. Old color photo.
    Jim and Terry Shustrick founded the Johnstown Folk Dancers in the 1980s to publicly perform Balkan dances in their local area, usually at street festivals and community events. Here the group is staging a street performance of a Croatian wedding.
    Photo courtesy of Jim Shustrick

    But for him, participating in dance is different. Growing up, he heard stories from his mom and aunt about doing the drmeš together at the local VFW. Only as an adult, when he saw Croatian dances performed at a local festival, did he begin to appreciate folk dance as a connection to his cultural heritage. “I felt like I had to learn it to feel like I was Croatian or something. It made something click inside of me.” 

    But for many, there remains a sense that these dances are authentic representations of European life. This idea of “authenticity” can often overshadow the transformation of folk dances and other expressive forms. Macedonian immigrant Filip Petkovski explains, “Once you are concerned with the authenticity, you are not talking about heritage. You are talking about something that doesn’t exist anymore and you want to revive it.” Petkovski, who earned his PhD in culture and performance from UCLA and is also an alum of the Duquesne Tamburitzans, finds that reaching for authenticity is unhealthy, like reaching for an ideal that may have never existed. Instead, he suggests that any discussion of authenticity should first recognize that communities change and adapt.

    “A lot of recreational folk dancers—they have nothing to do with Eastern Europe. They have nothing to do with the Balkans,” he argues. “They just love the way this looks, and they love the community aspect of it, that everyone in the circle is equal and holding hands, and you’re doing the exact same step. You cannot be different from the group. And that whole idea of communality and community and unisonality is what attracts people, and that is why they are interested.”

    When Petkovski was living in Los Angeles, he joined a local recreational folk-dance group. Being from Macedonia and studying folk dance, he wanted to teach them some traditional Macedonian dances. He remembers when he first visited the group, they put on records of Macedonian music and started doing dances that he had never seen before. “So, I ended up not knowing any of those dances, and people kept looking at me, like, what are you doing here? Why did you come to teach us if you don’t know these dances?” He reassured them that he did know his stuff, but that those dances weren’t “authentic” to Macedonia. He surmised that a previous folk dance teacher had run out of material to teach but still needed money. So, the teacher started creating new dances and songs that mimicked those of Macedonian heritage.

    Closeup on the backs of dancers performing in a circle wearing matching white shirts, skirts, and pants and red and black embroidered vests. Each person has their hands around their neighbors' backs, clasping hands with their neighbors on the other side.
    Most versions of Kriči, Kriči Tiček feature a “back basket hold” where dancers weave hands behind their neighbors’ backs.
    Photo courtesy of Željko Jergan

    Therein lies the paradox of Balkan folk dancing in America: what to do about those folk dances that were “created”? And what about dances like Kriči, Kriči Tiček that combine traditional music and movements in a form that is attractive to Americans but aren’t necessarily copies of existing dances?

    Teachers like Jergan, who recognizes that Croatian dance traditions “have to be saved one generation at a time,” might intend to bring an authentically Croatian tradition to the United States. Yet, given the number of folk-dance communities and teachers here, the fruits of that labor can never be pure.

    Jergan’s own ruminations illustrate this contradiction. “The saddest part,” he explains plaintively, “is that even in Europe, people start accepting something that’s not the tradition.”

    Rather than perpetuating an authentically Croatian tradition in America, Jergan’s work—and the work of others like him—emphasizes a blended culture, one that transcends borders and time. This hybrid culture weaves between “Croatian” and “American” like the arms and clasped hands of dancers whose hold on one another ensures the circle’s integrity. Despite the changes he has witnessed, when Jergan notices a folk-dance group modifying some parts of the original choreography to suit their own needs, he chooses pragmatism.

    “I’m actually pleased that they are using the correct steps and style,” he says. “I’m actually proud.”

    A family of four, including adult daughter and son, pose arm in arm wearing traditional Croatian costume.
    Jergan and Cubelic are immensely proud that their two children are following Jergan’s lead and are committed to safeguarding their Croatian heritage through dance.
    Photo courtesy of Željko Jergan

    Aaron Rovan is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, a PhD candidate in English at West Virginia University, and a staff member at Ohio Humanities. He would like to thank those experts and community members whose conversations helped guide this story, especially James Deutsch, Rob McCollum, and Sarah Sheard.

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