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Every five years, Latvians gather in the country’s capital to partake in a week-long folk festival centered around song and dance. This year, as Latvia celebrates its 100th birthday, the summer festivities will certainly be worth traveling for.

It’s not often that Latvia comes up on a list of must-visit summer destinations. But the Baltic country is on that list this year and for good reason: From June 30 through July 8, thousands of festive locals will gather in the country’s capital to sing, dance, and celebrate their heritage during the XXVI Latvian Song and XVI Dance Celebration. The folk festival has been an important occasion in Latvian culture since it was first celebrated in 1873. But as Latvia celebrates 100 years of independence in 2018, the cultural event will be the biggest party in the Baltics.

Seven days of lively events

Every five years since the event was inaugurated, the Latvian Song and Dance Festival has brought thousands of people from across Latvia to the nation’s capital, Riga. Over the course of one week, festival-goers witness choirs, dance ensembles, folk performances, and parades celebrating the country’s cultural heritage. About a thousand choral singers participated in the first event in 1873. This year across Riga, more than 60 live performances will take place in parks, public spaces, and historical venues, by an estimated 40,000 participants from local ensembles. Some performances will comprise approximately 12,000 singers and up to 17,000 dancers. Nearly half a million people (around one quarter of Latvia’s population) are expected to attend the festivities.

Women in national costumes at the Latvian National Song and Dance Festival 2013.
A vital part of Baltic identity

In the Baltics, choral music and folk dancing are more than just pastimes. The traditions of large-scale performances date back to the 19th century, when a cappella and choral productions were first organized in Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania as a way of preserving language and long-standing rituals, thereby resisting Russian and later Soviet influence and control. Since then, song and dance have been vital expressions of Baltic identity, in some cases even playing a role in securing independence from the Soviet Union.

Today, these choral traditions continue to be manifestations of pride and patriotism. Nearly 150 years after it was first celebrated, the Latvian Song and Dance Festival is still considered one of the most noteworthy events in Latvia’s cultural life—so much so that UNESCO has recognized the regional tradition as an intangible activity that preserves cultural heritage.
Choir members perform at the Latvian National Song and Dance Festival.
Getting in on the festivities

This year, the recently renovated Daugava Stadium and the open-air Mežaparks Stage will serve as the main venues for the XXVI Latvian Song and XVI Dance Celebration, although large screens will be set up in areas throughout the city so audiences everywhere can enjoy it. Individual events, both ticketed and free, will occur in Riga’s public parks, squares, and other historic venues from June 30 through July 8. Visit dziesmusvetki.lv for the full list.

Elsewhere in the Baltics, Lithuania will also be commemorating 100 years of independence. To check out this centenary celebration, head to Vilnius from June 30 to July 6. The song festival will be held in the capital city’s largest open-air space, Vingis Park. Its program will be organized into theme-specific days, the fundamentals being Folklore Day, Ensembles’ Evening, Dance Day, and Song Day. For more information, visit www.dainusvente.lt.

If you’re unable to make the trip this summer, fear not: Estonia’s choral festival, Laulupidu, will take place in Tallinn next July, so mark your 2019 calendar now.

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