The Polish Folk Dance Company Podhale is the youngest of the groups in Southern California, founded in January 1992 by Roman Sobański and his son John (“Jasiu”) Sobański who were previously associated with the Krakusy Polish Folk Dance Ensemble. Two written sources give different dates of the creation of this ensemble. The 1992 date comes from the entry on Podhale written by Stanley Stankiewicz for the Polish Americans in California (vol. 2; Los Angeles: National Center for Urban Ethnic Affairs & Polish American Historical Association, 1995, p. 138). According to the program of the group’s performance at the Paderewski Festival in Paso Robles (March 1999), Podhale was founded in 1991.
The Podhale is named after the Foothill area of the Tatra Mountains in southern Poland (another group bearing the same name is the Podhale, Polish-Canadian Folk Dance Company of Montreal, Canada). The term Podhale refers to the narrow strip of land (meadows) around the rocky peaks in the Tatras and the peaks themselves; it is shortened from the term Skalne Podhale [Rocky Foothills].
The connection to this region articulated in the group’s name stems from the Podhalean roots of the Sobański family. John Sobański explains that the goal of the group is to “promote Polish culture through song and dance to the American public and educate different cultures about Poland” (program from the Paderewski Festival 1999).
The genesis of the group was controversial for many Poles in the Los Angeles area, since they had considered the Krakusy as their main “dance representative.” The presence of this group in the community was so eminent, and the community itself (in terms of active members of the Polish parish and other Polish-American social organizations and clubs) so modest in size, that there were fears that a second group in the same area would be very disruptive to the community itself – competing for dancers, dance opportunities, and separating the children. (Opinions that this, indeed, was the case, was expressed by some parents of children attending the Polish school on Saturdays, during informal interviews conducted by Michał Jankowski in April and May 1999).
Roman Sobański’s was the president of the Krakusy board before his departure; many dancers decided to leave the group with him and continue their involvement with Polish folk dancing as members of the
Podhale. The most prominent dancers who left one group for the other were John Sobański and Katarzyna Owczarek, previously singled out in many programs of the Krakusy as soloists in the junior group of dancers. In order to avoid the disagreements and discussions that resulted from the status of Krakusy as a public charity, with open meetings of all members and elections to the board, the Podhale was founded as a private dance company, registered with the city of Los Angeles. The group does not have charitable status and is not formally affiliated with any Polish American organizations such as the Polish National Alliance, which supports both the Krakusy and Górale (both groups have the legal status of charitable foundations). The “private enterprise” status of the Podhale has prevented it from applying for and receiving grants from municipal, Californian, or federal agencies dedicated to fostering multiculturalism and supporting small cultural organizations such as Podhale.
In order to conduct its activities, the group has collected fees from all participants; it has also organized fundraisers with the assistance of the dancers and their families. Note that this form of volunteer contribution enables all the folk dance groups to function by providing them with costumes, audiences, performance opportunities, resources and funds. The participants are motivated by their beliefs in the mission of each of the groups and invest a lot of time in their activities.
In March 1992 the new group gave its first performance at the Cultural Fair in Carson, California. The program includes dances from Cieszyn Silesia, the area of Rzeszow in Malopolska (east of Krakow), and Lowicz Mazovia (central part of the area often referred to as “the heart of Poland”). These three locations frequently appear in the repertoire of Polish dance groups in the U.S. since many immigrants came from there.
During performances at Occidental College in June and July 1992 the group peformed a trojak (a Silesian dance for one man and two women), dances from Rzeszow area, a mazur (this dance originated from Mazovia, though is now considered a national dance and a symbol of the history of the country), and the krakowiak (from south-central Malopolska, the favourite dance of Polonian folkloric groups and one of the “national” dances). Neither of these early performances featured dances from the mountains or its foothills, i.e. the Podhale. Soon after, though, John Sobański, who took over directing the group at the age of 18, added a stylized “pas-de-deux” kujawiak for himself and Katarzyna Owczarek. This slow, lyrical love-scene was performed with such grace and beauty that it is still mentioned by audience members as one of the most delightful dances they have ever seen.
Other performances soon followed: in 1994, the group danced four times in Disneyland. In 1999, it was a featured ensemble at the Paderewski Festival in Paso Robles, California. In the same year, the group appeared on Midday Sunday at the FOX 11 station, in Los Angeles. Tony Valdez interviewed the director and the group presented a selection of its repertoire to illustrate the main points about Poland’s folklore and history.
Podhale belongs to the Polish Folk Dance Association of the Americas (created in 1983) and is actively involved in many Polish-American social and cultural events. Performances of the Podhale, held at civic and cultural functions, took the group beyond Los Angeles, to Orange County, San Diego, San Francisco, and Poland (festival of folk dance in Rzeszow). For several years Podhale was a featured ensemble at the Polonaise Balls in Beverly Hills (Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel; balls organized by count Tyszkiewicz); it gave performances at the Polonaise Balls of the Polish Arts and Culture Foundation of San Francisco (balls organized yearly by President of the Foundation, Wanda Tomczykowska, and the Foundation board). The group danced at the yearly Bazaars of the Polish parish of the Roman Catholic Church on Adams St. in Los Angeles (both Podhale and Krakusy performed each year, offering long programs showcasing all the age-levels). Podhale also appeared at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, and at various consular events sponsored by the General Consulate of the Republic of Poland in L.A.
While the Podhale is considerably smaller than the Krakusy, its membership exceeds that of the Gorale or Polskie Iskry and consists of about 40 dancers organized into two groups, senior and junior dancers. The senior group originated from the core ensemble which separated itself from the Krakusy; new dancers gradually joined the company and it reached the optimal size of Polonian dance groups of 12 couples.
However, in the summer of 1999 the majority of the senior dancers left the Podhale. Being of roughly the same age (early 20s), they completed their studies and after graduating and finding jobs they did not have the time that the extensive rehearsals and numerous performances required. In the fall of 1999, after their departure, the senior group was re-created from the small remainder of dancers who wanted to continue their activities. This new “core” group was enriched by new members and by the oldest members of the junior group who wanted to dedicate more time to folk dancing.
In the promotional materials of the Podhale the younger group – here referred to as “junior” – is usually called the “middle group.” This term reflects the past brief existence of the youngest group consisting of children aged 4 and above; this group survived for one year and was discontinued, with plans to revive it if more children could join it. The basic organizational problem with this group was that the rehearsals were held in the evening on weekdays and parents preferred to take their young children to the Krakusy rehearsals which took place on Saturday afternoons, right after Polish school.
The organizational struggles of the youngest Polish folk dance group in California notwithstanding, its dedication and enthusiasm raised the “folkloric” or “stylized” dance to new heights. The dancers who had helped to create the Podhale in early 1990s felt a need for a more professional and polished version of Polish folk dances. They practiced with great dedication and reached a level of artistry that impressed many spectators. The audiences responded with delight and the group received positive reviews in the Polish American press, especially the L.A.-based News of Polonia (editor Marty Cepelik).
Community members fondly recalled watching the Podhale already at the beginning of the group’s career; the dancers’ demeanor and appearance inspired pride in the Polish heritage that the group presented. There is a marked similarity between such a response to the Podhale and one of the traditional functions of the Krakusy in the Polish community, i.e. providing a “taste of our Polish heritage, history, and pride” (expression quoted from John Sobański’s statement in the program of Podhale for the Paderewski Festival). Needless to say, in both cases this heritage was designed and staged for public performances; the dancers rehearsed their complex routines for their audiences. They did not practic the steps or dances in order to simply dance and improvise for their own enjoyment. They worked as ballet dancers would, learning to perform for the public. This pattern is typical of those Polish American folk dance groups which have a large repertoire, senior members and ambitious directors or choreographers (i.e. all the groups listed on our Links’ page and all the groups with membership older than early teens).
The dancers of the Podhale come from Los Angeles and Orange Counties and vary in age from 6 to 23 years. They are organized into two groups, junior and senior (the history of each group is outlined above). According to John Sobański, current director of Podhale, the “backbone of the group” was his father Roman who founded the company in 1992. After Roman Sobański’s departure and resignation from an active involvement in the company (due to his stressful job as a trucker), John Sobański took over all aspects of its management and organization.
In this activity he has been assisted by some parents of dancers or dancers themselves, e.g. M. Borkowski and B. Wicherski (assistance in the organization of special events), Romona Sandman (the women’s costume director), Jolanta Kowalski (the men’s costume director), as well as his mother (directing the special events). The dancers are not listed by name in the Company’s programs except for the soloists, among whom were: Anna Noori, Kasia Owczarek, Michael Czarkowski, Christopher Kowalski, and Lila Stelmach in the senior group.
Born in 1975, John (“Jasiu”) Sobański began his dance career at the age of five when he joined the Krakusy Polish Folk Dance Ensemble; he danced with that group for 11 years gradually becoming more prominent; already in 1985 he was listed by name as one of the four soloists in the Polka performed during a concert Springtime in Poland at the San Gabriel Civic Auditorium. At the age of fourteen he began teaching the “tots” and junior groups of Krakusy. Sobański’s performances with the Krakusy were coupled with his appearances as a dancer in various other Polish-American spectacles, for instance with the Polish theatre in the early 1990s.
In 1992, with his father, Roman, John co-created the Podhale. After the first appearances in California with the new group, he auditioned for the State Folk Song and Dance Ensemble Mazowsze (in June 1992) where he was initially not accepted, and for the State Folk song and Dance Ensemble Slask (in July 1992) where he was offered a position as a dancer. However, he decided to try again auditioning for the Mazowsze and joined this ensemble in the fall 1992 for a tour of Europe and Japan. In half-a-year Sobański mastered the Mazowsze repertoire which he brought back with him to California and taught to the members of the Podhale. Sobański’s “dance education” was not limited to the Mazowsze-membership. Like many other Polish American dancers and choreographers, he studied Polish folklore and dance at the special program held at the Maria Sklodowska University in Lublin; he completed the two-year curriculum and is now working and studying full-time, hoping for a career in the entertainment business.
The model for the Podhale was the large State Folk Song and Dance Ensembles of Poland, especially the Mazowsze in which John Sobański danced in 1992. According to Sobański’s statement (from the program of the group’s performance at the Paderewski Festival in Paso Robles, March 1999), “Podhale performs folklore which is artistically transformed and stylized. The company’s repertoire includes the familiar folk dances plus lesser known numbers from regions throughout Poland. Each dance is faithfully performed by dancer wearing costumes authentic to the region.” The repertoire is stylized and selected to highlight the “national” dances of Poland, i.e. the polonaise, kujawiak, oberek, mazur, and krakowiak.
In a true Mazowsze-fashion all the dances are presented as extended suites consisting of a number of songs or couplets, and a number of dances arranged together and recorded by a chorus and soloists accompanied by a symphony orchestra enriched with some folk instruments, e.g. sheep-bells or flutes. The voices on these recordings are those of well-trained, professional singers performing in folk style. On the basis of comparing the titles used by the Podhale with those in the repertoire of other groups one could assume that the majority of these folk-suites come from the repertoire of the Mazowsze.
Thus, the Podhale (as well as other Polish-American dance groups) has continued and developed in the U.S. the type of dance stylization initiated by the Polish State Ensembles.
Despite the name of Podhale, the group seems not to have made any significant efforts to focus exclusively on the folklore of this area. The group’s repertoire includes the five national dances and numerous dances and dance suites originating from other regions of Poland. A prominent position is occupied by the folklore of the lower mountains which are located to the north of the Tatra Mountains, i.e. Beskidy. A suite of dances for men and women from Beskid Zywiecki, preceded by women singing in the characteristic “white” low chest voice (used by the female inhabitants of the whole mountain area) could be a good example. The dancers appear in authentic costumes, including shoes (leather moccassins called kierpce, slightly different from the kierpce of the Tatras), belts, hats, shirts and other articles made by folk artisans in Poland.
The junior group performs two sets of songs and dances associated with the foothills, Songs and Dances from Limanowa (a Podhalean village, this suite involves girls’ song with ringing small sheep-bells), and Songs and Dances from Jurgow (a town in Beskidy; this suite includes the use of shepherds’ costumes and props).
Both suites have been choreographed by John Sobański. Many other dances and suites have been choreographed by Witold Zapala of Poland (chief choreographer of the Mazowsze State Folk Song and Dance Ensemble); other items present the choreography of Michalina Wojtas (suite from Nowy Sacz, in south-eastern Poland) and of Zofia Marcinek (from the Zespol Regionalny Ziemi Cieszynskiej [Regional Folk Dance Ensemble of the Land of Cieszyn]) who worked on the dances from Silesia and Cieszyn with many Polish American groups during her tours of the U.S. since in 1988 (Ada Dziewanowska’s study of Polish Folk Dances and Songs includes some of her choreographies).
Music and Costumes
The music for all the performances is played back from recordings and includes songs by the soloists and choir, as well as special effects such as bell ringing. The members of the group sing along with the recordings so that live voices are heard during the performance. If the amplification levels are balanced carefully this arrangement works very well – the recordings add volume to the live voices and help the singers to remain in tune (there is a danger, however, of drowning out the singers-dancers by the loud pre-recorded music). During the rehearsals, the group director’s translates the songs’ texts into English, explains their meaning and origins, and coached the performers syllable by syllable and phrase by phrase in the proper Polish pronunciation and vocal emission (including the vocal timbres, articulation and style).
The costumes originate from a variety of sources: some have been made in California on the basis of the models (e.g. one vest purchased in Poland is multiplied into several faithful copies, with embroidery, decorations, etc.), other costumes have been purchased in Poland and are, in fact, antiques, with some linen shirts or wool skirts over 100 years old. The original costumes were primarily made of pure wool and linen, later additions were also from cotton and silk.
Modern copies of costumes use synthetic fabrics of different kinds as lighter and easier to care for (especially for the children). Each of the dancers takes care of his or her set of costumes. Members of the group also provide alterations; during the rehearsals there is a sowing machine in the corner and costumes are being made or fitted. A great care is exerted to preserve the authentic Polish look of all the dancers and a uniform styling, including identical length of all skirts (measured from the floor), identical hair styles for all the women (all hair smoothly combed away from the face, no bangs, one or two long braids extended with hair-pieces to uniform length), and the prohibition of facial hair, earrings, or ponytails for men. This rigorously enforced policy results in a “group identity” which endows the Podhale with a professional appearance on the stage.
A Sample Repertoire: Paderewski Festival
The 1999 appearance of the group at the annual Paderewski Festival in Paso Robles provides a representative sample of the group’s dance repertoire. The spectacle with pre-recorded music and sparse, though colorful stage decorations (enriched by the use of color lightning) was divided into two parts, each consisting of a number of dance suites focused on different regions. The announcers explained the origins of each dance and the location of each region, enriching the performance with an educational dimension. For suites including songs, the program included quotations from the first lines of songs and explanations of their meanings and place in folklore. Each suite included from 3 to 6 segments, ranging from 30 seconds to 2 minutes in length, with the total duration of the suite of over 5 minutes (with the longest ones approaching 10 min.). This variety of melodies and dance patterns stimulated the interest of the audience, enjoying ever new configurations of dancers and patterns of movement. The preparation of such complex song-and-dance segments, however, requires extensive rehearsals and ultimately leads to the narrowing of the repertoire, i.e. repeated presentations of the same few items on various occasions.
The Paderewski Festival performance included the following items:
- “Dances of the Townsmen from the City of Zywiec” (senior group); choreographed by Witold Zapala; including Dance of Handkerchiefs, Waltz, Polonaise. “Zywiec” is the capital of the mountainous region of Beskid Zywiecki south of Krakow. This suite of dances dates back to 1960s when it was presented by Mazowsze during its 1964 American tour. The music was arranged by Tadeusz Sygietynski and recorded by Mazowsze.
- “Songs and Dances from Limanowa” (junior group); choreographed by John Sobański; including girls’ song with bell-ringing and a suite of dances. “Limanowa” is a village in the Podhale area, famous for its lace makers and for its music instruments.
- Podhale in a dance from Nowy Sacz, 1999.
“Songs and Dances from Nowy Sacz” (senior group); choreographed by Michalina Wojtas; including polkas, waltzes, and men’s dance “Krakowiaki Sadeckie” (described as “Krakowioki Sadecki” in the program) which has elements of dances from the lowlands and the highlands.
According to Ada Dziewanowska’s study of Polish Folk Dances and Songs (New York, Hippocrene Books, 1999; pp. 238-244), this “Sacz Krakowiaki” is a display of male prowess and a unique element in the culture of “Lachy Sadeckie” – a separate regional community from south-eastern Poland. The suite lasts for ca. 9 minutes and consists of 1-2 minute fragments.
“Dances from the City of Cieszyn” (junior group); choreographed by Zosia Marcinek. The program does not mention specific dance types but refers to the “middle” and “youngest” groups of children (the youngest group did not exist at the time, though there were plans for its creation). “Cieszyn” is the capital of the southern part of Silesia, divided between Poland and Czech republic, with sizeable minority populations on both sides of the border and cultural interchanges between Polish and Czech folklore.
- Podhale in a dance from Cieszyn, 1999.
“Chustkowy – A Dance from the Region of Cieszyn” (senior group); choreographed by John Sobański. Described in the program as the group’s favourite and its “calling card,” this dance is better known as a setting of a “Mazurka Goleszowska.” This mazurka is in triple meter and originates from Goleszów, located between Cieszyn and Ustroń, i.e. between Silesia and Beskidy in south-central Poland
The dance pattern is described by Ada Dziewanowska in Polish Folk Dances and Songs (pp. 339-342). According to the program, “the costumes are highly influences by the Magyars (Hungarians) when they migrated over the Carpathians.”
- “Dances from Wilanow” (senior group); choreographed by Witold Zapala; including the mazurka and waltz, and a song about King Jan III Sobieski and his beloved wife “Marysienka” (i.e. French Marie-Casimire de la Grande d’Arquien, described by Norman Davies as “the most sensational woman at Court” (Davies, God’s Playground: A History of Poland, vol. 1, New York: Columbia University Press, 1982, 475). The dances are supposed to take place near the King’s summer palace in Wilanow and the song quoted in the program immortalizes the King’s love. This educational content (a history lesson, as well as a dance) resembles such use of dances by the Mazowsze.
- Podhale juniors in a promenade for the polka, 1999.
“Dances from Old Warsaw” (junior group); choreographed by Witold Zapala. This suite of dances is a tour of various lower-class, poor neighborhoods of Warsaw (Wola, Czerniakow, Sluzew, the Old Town). Despite its description as pre-19th century, the suite could be located in the second half of the 19th century on the basis of the costumes used. Dances include several polkas; props and special effects, the appearance of a przekupka (merchant) selling flowers from a basket.
“Wine Gathering from the Lubusz Region” (senior group); choreographed by Witold Zapala. The most unusual part of the Podhale program visits the rarely portrayed area of western Wielkopolska, centered on the city of Lubusz Wielkopolski. The dance is “performed to celebrate the harvesting of grapes” and includes garlands of flower-and-vine-leaves.
“Dances from Jurgow” (junior group); choreography by John Sobański. Dances are not named individually, but attributed to the environs of the foothills of the Tatra Mountains. The performance include playing with sheep-bells and displays of skills by the male shepherds.
“The Krakoviak (Cracovienne)” (senior group); choreographed by Jan Sobański. This national dance originating from the area of Krakow, is described in the performance’s program as being set in a “lively, even wild tempo” and “with its long easy strides demonstrating spirited abandon and elegance at the same time.” The most spectacular, fast-paced and engaging dance, thanks to the vividness of costumes and enthusiasm of the dancers.
- “Grande Finale” (both groups); choreographed by Jasiu Sobański. A dazzling finale of dance displays, bows, and farewells (duration – 3 minutes), without attribution to either regional or national dances.