The first time I saw them I thought: “lame”. Yes, lame. One can blame my age, or to be exact, the seventeen-year-old taken away from her friends and family to the world’s loneliest city: Perth, Western Australia.
As the moderately turbulent Polish teenager that I was in 2006, or that I became at the time, I preferred listening to whatever rock there was, reading Dostoevsky and Kundera, smoking cigarettes and partying. So imagine my reaction when my stepfather signed me up for a trip to Tasmania, with a bunch of unknown, folk-dancing loonies. The name of the band? Kukułeczka. Abbreviated “Kuku”, which is pronounced “cuckoo”. I had no choice, so I went. The good thing was that I had a chance to meet some fellow Poles, and to discover beautiful Tasmania.
I liked 'Tassie' straight away – it seemed like there were distinct seasons, and the flora reminded me of Poland. I remember the white and red disco party, vodka galore, and the day of the grand finale of the PolArt festival. I had the privilege of observing everything from backstage. Imagine a large expo room – walls and a carpet basically, some tables, and dozens of young people wearing the most colourful costumes in the world. Krakowskie, Kujawskie, Łowickie – not that I was able to distinguish them at the time. I remember how I saw them rehearsing, trying on their boots, some attaching their fake warkocze (i.e. plaits, which were an absolute must-have), having their make-up put on and snacking on potato wedges with sweet chilli and sour cream (a very popular Australian snack – simple, yet absolutely delicious). And barely anyone speaking Polish. Even then I did not understand how anyone could find this fun or cool.
But the essence of PolArt, a triennial festival which is, its organisers claim, the largest of its kind outside of Poland, is the big finale. It is when all of the participating dancing groups assemble to dance together. So you find yourself seeing a hundred people from all over Australia performing as an ensemble. That was when I started to realise the scale of this phenomenon. After all, these are not professional dancers; some of them were not even Polish! And yet they dedicate hours, days and weeks, years even, to presenting Polish culture to the world. Something sparked in my mind and my heart suddenly felt warmer.
The longer I stayed in Australia, the more I missed Poland and the more PolArt festivals I was able to attend. Well, the truth is I only attended two, the first one in 2006 (Hobart) and then in 2012 (Perth). But boy, did they ever change my perception of folk dancing!
Kukułeczka, the Perth-based ensemble which I had the chance to meet, was established in 1991 by the Polish Ethnic School in Maylands. One of my dearest Polish friends in Australia, Donata, is a dedicated member of the ensemble, a part-time law student and a part-time Electorate Officer. When I still lived in Australia and asked her to go out with me for a couple of Friday night drinks she’d say: “Can’t do, I’ve got Kuku”. We would meet afterwards or on any other day, but gee, Kuku mattered. It still does, in fact.
I dance with Kuku because I am proud of Poland’s rich culture and history and want to share it with others. There’s nothing quite like the feeling I get putting on a beautiful national costume and becoming a representative of Poland beyond its borders, showing others the very best of our culture and tradition.
(…) And believe me, Polish dancing is a hell of a workout!
Finally, there is the social aspect of belonging to a dance group: you make friends with the other dancers, hang out together and have fun. It’s also quite satisfying to be able to make a reference to something distinctly Polish and have a room full of people get what you’re on about
- Donata wrote.
The band currently comprises 47 members aged 5 to 30. The dancers come in all shapes and sizes. They’re school and university students, engineers, doctors even. Out of the whole ensemble, only 3 dancers were born in Poland. Sometimes the girls have to make up for the disproportion of boys, but they don’t mind. It’s all fun. I created a little survey for the purpose of this article to learn about their backgrounds and motivation. Caroline, who joined Kukułeczka at the age of 12, is now 23. She wrote:
A friend sold it to me. Dance group is like a family & lots of fun.
Louise was born in Australia and can’t read or speak Polish; she had some doubts when she joined Kukułeczka 5 years ago at the age of 15:
My dad told me he wanted me to give it a go – I said “no way” but he made me go at least two times – then on I have loved it! – Louise admits. – I feel both [Polish and Australian], but I am proud to be Polish.
Saxon, 21, became a part of Kukułeczka in 2015. He was born in Australia and has absolutely no Polish background (he is a quarter German though!). His reason to join?
Everybody was friendly and it’s good exercise.
As simple as that. He’s also interested in Polish music and this year he will visit Poland for the first time in his life. The majority of the dancers who participated in the survey feels either a hundred percent Polish (regardless of their place of birth) or both Polish and Australian – “Polstralian” – as one of the dancers wrote.
Kukułeczka's choreographer is Melissa Lejman, who has completed a 4-year choreographic programme in Rzeszów, Poland. Melissa has danced with Polish dance groups since she was 3 years old and helped to organise several Polish culture festivals in Sweden and Poland. The Steering Committee of PolArt and the various associated teams are of Polish heritage as well.
Each PolArt is organised in a different Australian state capital. In 2015 it’s Melbourne’s turn to be the host. The festival however isn’t exclusively about dancing;
PolArt 2015 Melbourne will include several Polish theatre groups, folkloric dance performances, culminating in a Gala concert at the prestigious Hamer Hall in the Victorian Arts Centre, a film festival, a children's day, music and literary events, genealogical workshops, art exhibitions.
Yes, we are anticipating several Polish artists, this is being planned now.
– the organisers say.
The festival will begin on 27th December and will run until 3rd January. As in recent editions, this one will certainly attract artists and audiences from all over the antipodes. This year 15 folk dance groups (12 from Australia, 3 from New Zealand) will participate in the festival.
As the Festival is being held in the central part of Melbourne, we hope there will be many new visitors, both Australian and tourists to Australia.
Neither Kukułeczka nor PolArt are sponsored by Polish cultural institutions, or any Polish institutions, for that matter. How do they manage to organise costumes, how do they know how to dance? Who pays for their travels across the country? PolArt organisers admit:
Most choreographers work on an honorary capacity, for the love of what they do.
But then, necessity is the mother of invention. Kukułeczka’s committee (comprised of parents, former dancers etc.) and its members organise fundraisers – zabawy (parties, dance performances, quiz nights) for the local Polish community, they apply for grants that local banks offer to artists, they search for (and find) numerous ways to raise the necessary funds. So do the other dance groups. Now let me continue to prove that what they do is important.
The second PolArt that I had a chance to experience in 2012 was organised in Perth. The opening ceremony took place on a square outside Perth’s Institute of Contemporary Art and it was about 40 degrees Celsius. Not much less anyway, a typical Perth summer (summer in December!). I sat in the audience with a couple of friends, one of which was born in U.S. but brought up in Poland, and the other was a true Aussie. Regardless of the Polish relatives and Australian friends of the performers, there were many random people around too. And my heart was growing with pride. I thought to myself: Yes, yes, everyone come and see how awesome we are (they are, really, but hey, they do it for Poland).
Kukułeczka commenced with a polonez. Other bands followed with their performances and although the sun was ruthless, they wore full costumes and smiles were glued to their proud faces. And it was to mine, and so it was to everyone around. Well, maybe besides the nervous choreographers. Just take a look at the video (I recommend skipping to 6:33, also do not miss the part at 9:33 – I can’t remember if I cried at the time, but I did shed a tear when I saw it recently).
It wasn’t them who sang, but that didn’t matter. It was them who yelled “hey-a” though. Polish looks, sounds and moves seized the whole suburb.
I was never ashamed to admit where I come from, but I wasn’t always proud to say where I come from either. I remember when one of my Australian co-workers asked me whether “Poland and Holland are the same country”, and then by another, if “Poland is in Russia”. I remember some of them visiting a local Polish restaurant, where they ordered bread, pickles, lard and golonka (pork knuckle). Well, they certainly weren’t fans of these specialities. It all felt weird, but then – they tried. I appreciated it.
And even though the dancers make some mistakes while dancing, even though their Polish is more Australian than Polish, and even though they perhaps don’t realise the strength of their influence, it was them who first showed me that Polish culture is cool.
If you'd like to support Kukułeczka, visit their website - every contribution counts!