Essay by Maja Trochimczyk


Krakusy is the largest and oldest Polish folk dance groups in Los Angeles, active for over 40 years. The name means “men from Krakow” i.e. the old capital of Poland and the capital of the region of Małopolska; the term itself comes from a southern dialect of Polish.

The dance ensemble was first called Polish Ensemble of Folk Dances and was founded in 1956 when four Polish couples decided to add a Polish entry to the International Festival of Folk Dances held at UCLA. Gene Harubin Zygmont in an entry on “Krakusy: An Historical Overview” published in Polish Americans in California vol. 2, attributes the genesis of the dance ensemble to its roots in the Little Theatre group established in the early 1950s by Alicja Kruszewska-Skarbek in order to perform Polish theatre repertoire in Polish.

The founders of Krakusy belonged to this amateur theatre; the main impetus came from Henryka Cybulska who at that time taught folk dancing to children enrolled in the Polish school. Ms. Cybulska described their inspiration in the following words (in an interview of May 1999, Los Angeles):

“When we came to California we saw that there were Mexicans here proud of their culture and recognized as such, and there were Chinese people here who were proud of their culture and were highly visible as such. So we thought why not the Poles? Why should the Poles be invisible here? Of course, we knew each other in our community, but this was not enough. We wanted to show others that there are Poles in California too. This was the main motivation for our volunteer work for the Polish community, but especially for the dances because the music, the costumes, the gestures and movements can be understood by anyone without the translator.”

The Early Years

Since its inception, the group was affiliated with an umbrella organization of Polish American community, called Osrodek Polski: Samopomoc [Polish Center: Self-help]. The Samopomoc grouped immigrants to California who arrived here during and after World War II. It was founded by Konrad Ton and Alicja Skarbek-Kruszewska in the early 1950s and was registered as a charitable foundation with the state in Sacramento. It was supervising the dance group, the Polish school run by Polska Macierz Szkolna, and the Polish theatre group (all of these other organizations used the I.D. number of Samopomoc for tax purposes). Another part of its activities was fund raising for the Dom Polski [Polish House], a cultural center for the community (at one point property was bought in Santa Monica, but later the community bought a lot in Riverside instead). Kazimierz Cybulski, one of the co-founders of the Krakusy described the Samopomoc as “a very nice card in the history of Polish culture in California.”

The first four couples of the newly established dance ensemble included: Henryka and Kazimierz Cybulski, Barbara and Tadeusz Sarnecki, Zofia and Wiesław Adamowicz, Krystyna Janiszewska and Zbigniew Szumański. Wanda Gwozdziowska accompanied the dancers on the piano during their rehearsals and performances. The great difficulty of obtaining folk costumes was solved by finding fabric that closely resembled the ones used in Poland and by re-creating the costumes from photographs and art. In December 1956 the group performed in Disneyland (with three more couples – Katarzyna and Maciej Bielski, Ewa and Andrzej Janczak, Kazimierz Walczak and Anna Salwarowska).

The dancers soon appeared on Bob Baker Show on TV and at the International Festival in Los Angeles, as well as at many other Polonian and American occasions.

In the late 1950s, the artistic director of the troupe was Henryk Jankowski who came from England in 1957 (he had been active in a dance group there). Jankowski’s “right-hand” was his wife, Krystyna, who had danced in the State Folk Song and Dance Ensemble Mazowsze and had defected to the West during one of the ensemble’s tours. According to Kazimierz Cybulski, Krystyna Jankowska’s defection right at the beginning of the first tour of Mazowsze in the West was widely publicized. All the Polish American press and many American newspapers wrote about her decision to stay in the U.S. The Jankowskis created a new choreography for the group in a more professional manner, based on the stylized folklore of the Mazowsze.

Poland’s Millennium and Beyond

The next important point in the history of the ensemble was its enlargement to 8 couples and the growth spur at the time of the Millennium celebrations. In 1964, in preparation for the upcoming Millennium of Poland’s statehood and Christianity, the group added a youth section. According to Cybulski, “this was the beginning of flourishing of the next generation in the group. The older couples retired as the younger ones wanted to do everything themselves.” This development resulted, in part, from the growth of the immigrant community in the 1960s: there was a large influx of Poles from Argentina. (They came to Argentina from England after being displaced during World War II; the men had served in the army, then were discharged). Strengthened by its new members, the group expanded and revised its mission of sharing “with young Poles, born abroad, the beauty and traditions of Polish folklore” (quoted from a typewritten history of the ensemble, n.d., PMRC Collection). Now, the promotion of Polish folklore for non-Polish audiences became of primary importance.

In May 1966 a group of over 100 dancers appeared in Polish costumes at the Coliseum stadium for a religious event (Mary’s Hour) which was on that occasion dedicated to Poland’s Millennium. The music was prepared by Dr. Tadeusz Rowinski and all stage settings, props and decorations were the work of Zbigniew Szumański who remained the core volunteer artist, decorator and manager for the group for many years after retiring from the stage. Henryka Cybulska described this event as “an unforgettable experience – the procession, the ceremony. But there was no dancing, of course; it was a purely religious occasion.” The national identity was “performed” here just by wearing the costumes from different regions of Poland and from selected historical periods. Even Polish children participated in “gorale” costumes (of the Podhale area in the Tatra Mountains); these costumes had been prepared for their roles in the Christmas play, Polish Betlejem by Lucjan Rydel, staged in 1966 at the San Gabriel Civic Auditorium. References to the Millennial celebrations appear in all the written histories of the Krakusy even though it did not present any dances: “acting out” the national/religious identity by being present in national costumes at the religious event was sufficient for this moment to be memorable.

Nonetheless, more dancing followed. In 1966 Polish dancer Stanisław Danko joined the Krakusy; originally from the Podhale area, Danko had danced as a soloist with the State Folk Song and Dance Ensembles Śląsk and Mazowsze. He brought with him a repertoire of various stylized folk dances, with a particular mastery of the exhibition versions of the góralski and zbójnicki (with bewildering, high jumps and impressive acrobatic displays).

The next year brought an even more momentous change, through yet another dancer schooled in the State Folk Song and Dance Ensemble. In 1967 during an international festival on Catalina Island, Maryla Klimek, a former dancer of the Śląsk Ensemble danced a solo in a Hungarian dance group – she had come to California from the East Coast. As a result of this encounter, she decided to remain in California and became the choreographer for the group which, simultaneously changed its name to Krakusy. The first administrative director of the ensemble was Zofia Adamowicz, followed in this function by Kazimierz Cybulski (2 years in 1970s), Nina Wilczynska (1 year), Andrzej Niżyński (over a decade in 1970s and 1980s), Roman Sobanski (1980s), Bogna Szupińska (1990s), and Jan Borkowski (current). From 1956 to 1968 the group participated in about 60 events in the Los Angeles area; the number increased exponentially in the 1970s and 80s.

The full name of the group, revised in 1968, was (according to its bylaws) “Krakusy – Polish Folk Dance Ensemble, Division of SAMOPOMOC, Polfrat Association of California.” The second paragraph of the new bylaws defined the group’s mission as “the cultivation of Polish folklore among the young generation and the promoting of this folklore in the area of California and the U.S.”

The group accepted as members children from age 10 up; everyone over 16 could vote in the biennal General Assemblies, the highest authority of the organization. The structure of Krakusy is interesting because of its democratic character that gave it the strength to survive for so many years.

This structure allowed the leadership to gradually pass into new hands as the need arose. Serious decisions about the group, its activities and finances were the responsibility of all the group’s members. The General Assembly selected the group’s executive director (i.e. the president of the board) and a 6-member board that served for two years, until the next election. The board with the director hired a professional choreographer to work with the group for an unlimited duration of the contract. The artistic director would join the board in the decision-making process. The choreographer received a salary and had a full vote on the board, but was not be able to impose his/her will on the dancers. The power structure was, therefore, thoroughly democratic while securing professional assistance in the most important aspect of the group’s activity, i.e. the dance itself.

The 11th paragraph of the bylaws stated that “belonging to Krakusy is considered a privilege.” The membership entailed paying membership fees (reduced for members of the Polish National Alliance), a duty to participate in the rehearsals, a duty to take care of costumes allotted to each dancer, etc. A new subdivision of Maluchy [tots] was added soon after; this group included children as young as three years old and was connected to the Polish school.

In 1970, Krakusy prepared their first whole-evening spectacle, premiered in Beverly Hills. Two years later the main spectacle of Krakusy was assembled: the program of the The Folklore of Poland travelled widely, and could be seen in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento and other Californian locations. The first performance at the San Gabriel Auditorium was such a great success that it ensured the group’s continuing participation in the International Dance Festivals held yearly at the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles (the same Music Center that houses the Los Angeles Philharmonics and L.A. Opera).

The international context of this type of events merits some comments. In 1971 Krakusy performed at the International Fair at UCLA, an event described in its promotional literature as “a multi-national expression of peace, friendship and cultural understanding.” The program included dances from 35 countries, Krakusy was sandwiched between India and Trinidad (17 April). On 3 March 1974, at the International Folk Dance Festival at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the Music Center, Krakusy appeared after the Aguilar Ballet Folklorico from Mexico and was followed by Mapus Polynesian Paradise group from Tahiti-Samoa (dancers, singers, knife jugglers), as well as by dances from Scotland and Spain. In its own performances elsewhere, the group often joined forces with other East European dance groups and musicians. The association with the Karpatok Hungarian Folk Dance Ensemble (founded in 1964) was particularly fruitful and long lasting. The link came from Maryla Klimek’s previous participation in the Hungarian ensemble. Other groups, such as a Bulgarian Dance Ensemble Kitka, or a Slavic choir, appeared less frequently.

Dancing in Poland, dancing “Poland.”

In the late 1970s, Krakusy travelled to Poland for the first time. At the beginning of the decade the group had been invited to participate in the International Festival of Polish Folklore in Rzeszow, Poland but did not go. At the festival there were over 50 ensembles from Australia, Canada, U.S., England, Soviet Union, and other countries. This event provided a wonderful opportunity of learning new dances, exchanging experiences, and so forth. However, the efforts made by Kazimierz Cybulski, president of the Board in 1972-4, to bring Krakusy there were fruitless because of staunchly anti-communist attitude of Californian Polonia. As Cybulski remembered (interview of May 1999), he planned to take the group to the festival scheduled for July 1973. However, “on July 22 there was the state holiday introduced by the communists in 1945. All the parents of the children from the group were very concerned that the children would perform at the communist government parade, or some other official function for this occasion. I reassured them that our only purpose would be to perform during the festival of folk dances. However it came to nothing.” In addition to harboring ideological misgivings, few parents could afford the costs of travel and they did not have financial aid and sponsors. The trip was finally made a couple years later under the supervision of Maryla Klimek, artistic director. Since that time, the Krakusy travelled to Poland many times; the dancers visited various parts of the country and learnt the dances, while the organizers found sources for costumes, music and choreography.

Since the ensemble’s creation Krakusy gave about 10 performances every year; they appeared at the Harvest Festivals held in the Polish parish of the Roman Catholic Church, and various benefits.

On 10 March 1973 Krakusy performed at the 19th Annual Sacramento Camellia Festival, celebrating the 500th anniversary of the birth of Polish astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543). The International Friendship Luncheon entitled “The Symphony of the Stars” included the performance of the national anthems and speeches by representatives of many countries (China, Finland, France, Greece, Israel, Mexico, Norway, Portugal, etc). Krakusy’s appearance in three dances – mazur, kujawiak, and trojak, was followed with a Chopin recital by Sondra Simoni (selection of waltzes, mazurkas and polonaises).
This context is quite characteristic of the Krakusy aspirations and its role in the community as a symbol of Polish nationhood and high culture. The “folk”-part in the ensemble’s name did not, at this time, refer to the humble peasants of rural areas, but to the German “Volk” i.e. “the People” of the whole, historical and proudly united nation.

Krakusy’s promotional literature through this time, i.e. from the creation of the group to mid-80s usually presents the group members in the “national” costumes used for the polonaise, i.e. the early-19th-century military uniforms for the men and ball gowns for women. (For a description of this costume and additional illustrations see the entry on the polonaise in the PMRC Polish Dance Site). This costume and the polonaise itself do not actually belong to folklore of the villages; rather, they are traditional symbols of the national history and culture used by the higher strata of the society, the intelligentsia and nobility (or their cultural descendants, i.e. the middle and higher-middle class). The strong emphasis on the national history and tradition, rather than the simple “peasant” customs is a characteristic fixture in the Krakusy history. A notable event is its participation in the 500th anniversary of the birth of Nicolaus Copernicus, celebrated by Polish Americans in 1973 with a multitude of events.

The Camellia Festival was mentioned above. In Los Angeles the anniversary festival at Loyola Marymount University (18 April – 5 May 1973) consisted of a lecture on “The Effects of the Copernican Theory on Western Culture” (by the Rev. N.M. Wildiers, Ph.D., D.D.; professor of theology at the University of San Francisco, lecturer at Berkeley and Louvain in Belgium, specialist on World View and Culture), a panel discussion The Impact of Copernicus on Western Culture (with professors from Loyola Marymount’s departments of physics, humanities, philosophy and history), an Art Exhibit Nicolaus Copernicus and his World, and the Performance of National Dances by the Krakusy (29 April). This “high-brow” context should not surprise if one were to consider that the founding members of the group belong to post-World-War II immigrants, who, according to sociological studies, as a group had a higher level of education, social status and more elevated aspirations in general than the previous waves of immigrants to the U.S. (Erdmans 1999).

The Krakusy also performed at various important occasions of civic, cultural or religious nature, not relating to Polish culture in their entirety (the ensemble provided these events with a token “Polish” presence). In 1984 the group participated in the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Los Angeles. In 1987 it performed at the opening festivities preceding the papal liturgy at the Dodger Stadium during the visit of Pope John Paul II to California. In 1997 the ensemble appeared at the ground-breaking ceremonies for the new cathedral in downtown Los Angeles.

Turmoil and Growth in the 1990s

Despite these external successes, the late 1980s and early 1990s were the years of internal turmoil in the group which resulted in the departure of some dancers and the foundation of a separate Polish folk dance group, Podhale. These dancers led by Roman and John Sobanski (father and son) created the Podhale Polish F folk Dance Company in 1991-1992. This loss of some of the best talent resulted in a crisis in the Krakusy, which it succeeded to overcome by returning to its roots in the Polish community and its primary function of teaching Polish children about Polish history, music and customs. Gradually, new members replaced the departed ones, and the group was able to rebuild its high artistic standing and enrich its repertoire.

In 1998, Edward Hoffman, one of the most distinguished Polish folk choreographers came to work with the Krakusy and renew its repertoire. Hoffman made it his mission in the 1990s to teach Polish-American folk dance ensembles a less “invented” and more “historically and ethnographically grounded” version of Polish folk dance (interview of May 1999). The master choreographer stated that the Krakusy repertoire contained too many influences from Russian and Ukrainian folklore brought to Polish dance via Soviet choreographers working for the Mazowsze and Śląsk. Dancers from both groups were among the Krakusy choreographers and directors (Krystyna Jankowska in 1950s, Stanisław Danko in 1960-70s, Maryla Klimek-George in 1960s-80s).

The revised and “purified” repertoire contained less display of male prowess, spectacular jumps and acrobatic evolutions, less separation of the couples, and more interpretations of Polish folk customs, as described in historical and current scholarly sources. In short, it was less “showy” than the highly acrobatic Mazowsze style. Some dancers were reluctant to accept the changes; and – since the group is democratic in its decision-making process – have disputed the new choreography. However, the reforms strengthened the group and brought in new additions to the program.

The results could be seen in two spectacles, (1) “We dance… Poland lives!” – a 40 anniversary concert held in San Gabriel Civic Auditorium on 21 March 1998 and (2) “Polskie Gody/Polish Christmas Pageant” prepared for December 1998 and presented in Santa Monica, California, as well as locations in Arizona in January 1999.

The program of the anniversary concert included a congratulatory letter from Maciej Krych, consul general of the Republic of Poland, Los Angeles who noted complete political changes in Poland since the Krakusy inception and the stability of the “cornerstones” i.e. “culture and tradition.” In addition to the concert, Krakusy organized a 40th anniversary ball, a touching reunion of present and past group members. The ball was held on 17 January 1998, at the Empire Room in Studio City; it was attended by all the surviving founding members, and representatives of several generations of dancers. They began the whole ball with a solemn polonaise, led by Henryka and Kazimierz Cybulski. Four original couples were there (with Katarzyna Bielska replaced): the Cybulskis, Adamowiczs, Sarneckis, and Bielskis. There were 12 couples in the polonaise, the remaining dancers having joined the group in 1957 (4 dancers), 1966 (3 dancers), 1967 (1 dancer), 1968 (3 dancers), 1969 (1 dancer), 1970 (1 dancer), 1977 (1 dancer), and 1990 (1 dancer). The performers included some parents and children, notably Marek Adamowicz along with his parents, Jan Bielski and his father Maciej, and Konrad Szupiński and his mother, Bogna (former president of the Krakusy board of directors). The program of the ball included also a waltz, krakowiak and Dances of Old Warsaw performed by the current members of the Krakusy.

While this anniversary ball and other social events organized by the Krakusy emphasize the ensemble’s strong links to the Polish American community, its public spectacles (ticketed) present this community and its cultural identity to the outside world. For many years these spectacles have articulated the connection of Poland and Catholicism. In the program of Reflections presented at the San Gabriel Civic Auditorium on 5 June 1983, the dance krakowiak was billed as “the most popular national dance of Poland, coming from the area of Krakow, which is the birthplace of Pope John Paul II.” The connection between the krakowiak and the Polish pope was hardly a relevant piece of information from the point of view of the dance or its history; however it was something for the American Polonia to be proud about. The election of Karol Wojtyla to lead the Roman Catholic Church gave Polish Americans a new incentive to fight the widespread negative opinions and low social standing (discrimination, Polish jokes) that this ethnic community had endured for many years.

However, the emphasis on Catholicism and expressions of living faith mixed with patriotism during the Polish Christmas Pageant (1998-1999) has the unfortunate consequence of inseparably connecting Polish ethnic (or national) identity with the Catholic religion. This connection, forged during the country’s partitions between three neighboring countries (1795-1918, Austria, Prussia, Russia) and strengthened among Polish immigrants to the U.S. at the end of the 19th century, limits and cripples the Polish sense of nationality. Recently John J. Bukowczyk referred to this phenomenon as “ethno-religion” (John J. Bukowczyk “Polish Americans, History Writing, and the Organization of Memory,” in Polish Americans and Their History: Community, Culture, and Politics John J. Bukowczyk, ed. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996, p. 8).

The extensive program of the Polish Christmas Pageant contains a narrative account of folk customs (usually rather superstitious) associated with each segment of the Christmas holiday season, from Christmas eve to the Epiphany (6 January). Some of the folk customs described here are rather obscure and create a peculiar sense of Polish folk religiosity, permeated with non-Christian elements, blending faith with superstition.

For instance, we were told how the “garbage-collectors” wondered from house to house in the village demanding ransom from girls who were not up early and who did not clean up after the Christmas Day party. Similar visitations of draby [bullies] who wore costumes and masks and sang carols, were more welcome because “the wishes given by the draby were believed to come true and bring prosperity and good luck to their hosts.”

The narrative was intertwined with traditional Polish Christmas carols, sung by an ad-hoc choir and a professional singer Beata Bałon (she specializes in sacred repertoire), and with lively, colorful dances from many region of Poland. Some of the carols which are set to dance music, e.g. Bóg się rodzi [God is being born] which is a polonaise were actually danced by the group.

The smallest members of the Krakusy performed the roles of little angels, running around in winged robes and halos. The program included dances from the Tatra Mountains, Beskid Mountains, Silesia, Łowicz Mazovia, regions of Lublin, Cieszyn, Krosno, Rzeszów, Kraków and historical periods of Old Rzeczpospolita [Republic] of the 17th century nobility (mazur and the Duchy of Warsaw in the early 19th c. (polonaise).

In Act IV, the narration turned to the feast of Epiphany – and the Polish custom to put the initials of the Three Kings in chalk on the door. Apparently the blessed chalk protected the house from misfortune and evil, as did the burning of incense which was used to purify the rooms and the entire house. In a splendid finale of the Christmas Pageant, the Krakusy performed dances from the Kraków region, recreating the visitation by the Three Kings and the blessings, followed by a 17th-century mazur. The spectacle ended as it began, with the Bóg się rodzi carol sung by all the present. Its last strophe is a prayer for the country addressed to Christ Child: “Podnieś rękę Boże dziecię, błogosław ojczyznę całą” [Lift up your hand, Divine Child, and bless the whole country]. Such an ending gives a clear expression to the blending of the national and the religious in the concept of Polish identity articulated by the Krakusy.

At the Threshold of the 21st Century

In summary, the Krakusy Polish Folk Dance Ensemble continues to entertain and educate Polish Americans and Americans about Polish dances, folk songs, costumes and customs. At present the dancers meet for a rehearsal once a week for three or four hours. There are still approximately ten performances per year, each taking a whole day to attend. All the members are students , from elementary school to university level (with some older dancers who stayed on in the ensemble).

Since the tenure of Edward Hoffman, the model for the group is not provided by the large State Folk Song and Dance Ensembles Mazowsze and Śląsk with their repertoire of heavily stylized folklore. Instead, Krakusy have more in common with Polish academic folk dance groups which try to be closer to the authentic folklore while still maintaining a stylized folklore image, i.e. appearing “polished and professional” rather than “rough and amateurish.”

The organizational structure remains the same as outlined earlier, with the General Assemblies making the basic decisions and selecting the Board of Directors and its President from among its members. The paid choreographer is an employee of the group and does not have unlimited powers over its program and decisions.

Many people, including dance teachers Stefan and Renata Perzyna, work without compensation as volunteers. For the yearly trips to Poland, the parents purchase the tickets while the group covers all the expenses of the stay in the country. The greatest expenses (partly paid with the assistance of the Polish National Alliance, Polish American Federal Credit Union, and other Polish American organizations) is the purchase of original costumes and music – i.e. dance music recordings (including arrangement, musicians, recording costs) and choreography.

According to former Director, Bogna Szupińska, most dancers consider themselves Poles, some are American of Polish descent born here (mostly in the smallest and senior groups); families of members mostly use Polish language at home. However, young dancers who all are enrolled in American schools, tend to speak English between themselves, even though choreographers and teachers place an emphasis on the use of Polish. Szupińska explains (interview of May 1999):

The children don’t know the technical dance vocabulary used by the Polish instructor and need explanations in English. In order to increase their contact with the language they learn to sing in Polish, however they tend to not understand the words and often mix them up. Actually, they do not want to sing and learn the difficult words. They prefer to dance because that is what they are here for. Active singing is a weakness.

The Krakusy belong to the Polish National Alliance and to the Polish Dance Federation of Americas. Recently they appeared at the Polish Dance Festival held in the summer of 2000 in Milwaukee, hosted by Syrena Polish Folk Dance Group (directed by Ada Dziewanowska, expert on Polish folk dance).

Membership in the PNA allows members of the ensemble to participate in workshops for folk choreographers held in Orchard Lake near Detroit. Many performers also attend instructors’ courses in Polish folk dance, for instance in Edmonton, Canada (August 1999) or in Poland, at the Maria Skłodowska-Curie University in Lublin. Joanna and Konrad Szupiński, Renata and Stefan Perzyna attended these three-year courses, receiving instructor’s diplomas in Polish folk dance and folklore.
Undated modern brochure of the group (ca. 1998) states: “dancing its way to the hearts of American and European audiences alike, Krakusy Polish Folk Dance Ensemble has built a reputation as being an ambassador of Polish culture. The energetic dances are presented with colorful costumes and authentic music, captivating diverse audiences.” The promotional literature emphasizes the authenticity of costumes and national and regional dances, as well as artistic and education merits of Polish folk dancing in general. The dancers work with the desire to cultivate and propagate cherished national customs […] Krakusy enjoy nothing more, however, than sharing their folkore and culture with you.”