I love this photograph: the energy of the dance, an old worldliness of patterned skirts and polished boots, and the wide eyed wonder of a small girl. My husband, Pat, took it one day last summer at a dance festival in front of our apartment. Perhaps the dance was in celebration of the upcoming Saint Stephen’s Day or maybe it was just a random recital. We will never know. Holidays and traditions remain an enigma to us.
Similarly, the nuance of our US holidays must be difficult for a non American to grasp – those layered rituals above and beyond any Wikipedia description. Consider the reality that, in spite of calendar evidence to the contrary, summer begins with Memorial Day and ends on Labor Day – and white shoes are never to be worn outside these holiday brackets. My mother ingrained this in me from a very young age. Years after her death, I couldn’t bring myself to wear white shoes on a steaming hot, North Carolina day in early September.
On the particular day this picture was taken, we had gone for a walk after dinner to photograph a monument a few blocks from home. At the time, I thought I might write about the Jewish memorial, but I never did. Walking home, we heard voices and folk music. “Let’s check out what’s going on.” I don’t even remember which of us suggested we detour into the park.
There, perhaps 100 or more people gathered; seated in folding chairs encircling a make shift stage and watching a dance competition. The crowd appeared to be parents, grandparents and siblings, the types of people who generally frequent these kind of events – similar to those who showed up at my piano recitals years ago.
A few fiddlers and a base accompanied each troupe of dancers. The girls wore their hair in braids encircling their heavily made up faces, make up thick enough to stand out on a stage. The boys sported black hats, white shirts, and suspenders. When not performing, the dancers mingled, talked and laughed, as if they knew each other from school or other dance performances.
Pat crouched near the stage and shot 100 or more photos over the course of perhaps 30 minutes. I hung back and watched the dancers, mesmerized by the musicians. Eventually, we had enough and headed back home. “Did you get anything good?”, I asked as we walked back. “Not sure, too hard to tell. The sun was a problem.”
As the photos uploaded, we felt that familiar tingle of anticipation. Then I stood over Pat’s shoulder as he clicked through the series of pictures. Too blurred, too dark, something distracting in the background. Then this photo popped up. “Wait…” I needed time to absorb the details. The obvious motion captured in the position of the feet and the billowing, flowered skirts. Then, in the background, I spotted the young girl staring in wonder, her hands on her heart. Without this small girl, the picture is just a nice shot of a group of dancers.
Pat has never cared for this picture as much as I do. That’s just the nature of art. For me, the photo captured a serendipitous moment, a reminder of a series of unscripted events which constitute the best of our time abroad. I love the way the people of Central Europe embrace rural traditions in a way I do not associate with New York or Paris. The old world seeps into urban life here, creating a feeling of unaffected quaintness in the heart of the city.
Yet although we captured this moment, we are still left to wonder. What is St. Stephen’s Day? How do Hungarians celebrate the holiday? (Beyond, of course, the parading of Saint Stephen’s thousand year old holy relic hand from the cathedral thru the city). Who are these dancers? And do all small, Hungarian girls stare wide eyed and dream of the day they will put up their hair and dance?
Categories: Insiders Budapest