“Every dance has some historic significance,” said John Rodi, executive director of the Komenka music and dance group.
The New Orleans-based group performs folk songs and dances, some of them centuries old, all over the world. Locals can experience Komenka this weekend when the 40-member ensemble stages its 34th annual spring concert at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, May 31, and 2 p.m., Sunday, June 1, in Louis J. Roussel Hall of Loyola University.
The performance will showcase traditional songs and dances from Macedonia, Azerbaijan, India, Hawaii, Japan, Mexico, Russia and Scotland, Rodi said.
Komenka, named for a river in Romania, was founded in 1979. In the group’s earliest days, most of the dances were Eastern European.
Civilization in that ancient part of the world dates back to at least the fourth century B.C. The Central Balkan peninsula, which today includes the Republic of Macedonia and parts of Greece and Bulgaria, was occupied over the centuries by the neighboring Roman, Slavic, Bulgar and Ottoman empires.
The resulting rich cultural history gave rise to unique folk dances and music styles, and Gypsies carried Balkan music all over the world, Rodi said.
Mark Petersen, who has danced 25 years with Komenka, said the pastime incorporates everything he loves. A University of New Orleans instructor of English as a Second Language, Petersen is fascinated by language and foreign cultures.
Performing locally and at dance festivals on a dozen European and Russian tours has been like “living geography,” Petersen said.
The dances express the culture, work and aspirations of ancient tribes.
A flirtatious Macedonia women’s dance incorporates complex but light-hearted steps; it’s followed by an energetic men’s dance demonstrating their strength and agility, Rodi said.
The Macedonian segment also includes a fast-paced dance done by the region’s coal miners. The rapid pace symbolizes the miners’ desire to live life to the fullest despite the industry’s dangers, Rodi said, and the dancers’ scooping foot movements mimic their digging.
The spring concert goes far beyond the Balkans, including a balletic Scottish dance and a traditional Hawaiian dance. Guest choreographer, Lakshmi Ramachandran created a Bollywood dance based on folk music originating in four regions of India.
The Mexican dance, “Jarabe Nayarita,” celebrates a successful sugar cane harvest. Komenka’s stylized choreography includes footwork influenced by Spain: beautiful swirling skirt movements and daring swings of machetes.
When Komenka tours, as it will in July to Germany and Poland, it takes a completely American music and dance performance from Mardi Gras to rock ’n’ roll.
Every dance from every country has a special stomp, a spin, a twist and a turn, and it’s fascinating to see what they have in common, said Kate Arthurs, a Jesuit High School music teacher who directs a dedicated choral group of singers plus several instrumentalists to accompany the dancers. Sometimes, music and dance are a region’s only common language.
“It is important to learn the diction and stories behind them,” she said.