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Jaap Leegwater Folk Dance Federation of California, South, Inc.

Interview with Jaap Leegwater
By Mitch & Laurie Allen, 1983


When we think of Bulgarian dance, the names of only a few teachers come to mind – Dennis Boxell, Dick Crum, Yves Moreau, and a few others. But rumor of a young Dutchman visiting occasional workshops and camps in the United States has reached us over the past couple of years. Then in June, Jaap Leegwater (pronounced something like YAHP LEEK-vahter) breezed into town as part of a five month tour of the United States. We managee to corral Jaap and his girlfriend, Bianca De Jong, for a couple of hours during his whirlwind week in Los Angeles to find out who theis new wonderkind might be. And, as you will see in the pages that follow, Bulgarian dance fans in the United States will have a lot to look forward to from this dance teacher, choreographer, performer, researcher, dancer, and musician (who is thirty-two in 1983!).


I had the advantage of being at a high school where folk dance was a part of the curriculum. I took International Folk Dance class at thirteen or fourteen. I liked it so much that one hour a week wasn't enough so I joined a folk dance club. When I was sixteen, the school had to release the folk dance teacher because of money problems, so I volunteered to teach the class myself. I started teaching when I was very young.

The Dutch Folk Dance Society has a course for people who want to have a certificate in teaching folk dance, allowing them to teach folk dance to amateur groups. It was a part-time two-year course. I decided to do this course in my last years of high school. Part of the program was to run my own group under the supervision to prove I could do it well. But there were no groups around that didn't already have teachers or that wanted one who was only eighteen. So I advertised in the newspaper to start a group – after all, I only needed the group to pass my course – thirty people joined the group and that's how I started my own folk dance group.

After high school, I got into a school of education, training to be a teacher. Folk dancing had nothing to do with this. But from that time on, I combined my work in folk dance with my work as a school teacher. The teacher training program lasted three years. I was teaching dance all this time. I still had the group I had started, then there were a few other clubs in Amsterdam that I taught as well. By 1972, I was teaching specialized Bulgarian dance classes.


I came across a Bulgarian choreographer teaching workshops in Holland. He was only the third Bulgarian choreographer that had ever come to Holland. I enjoyed his dances very much. I bought the record he brought and played it over and over again. I was very struck by the rhythm and melody patterns.

The choreographer had been told that he could offer a one-month dance scholarship to Bulgaria for one of the Dutch students he thought had promise. This was in 1969 and I was eighteen. I didn't think I was very good, but the choreographer obviously thought I had some possibilities.

I took a month in winter. That was my first trip to Bulgaria. I spent all that month in Sofia observing classes of the state choreographic school. Their level was way beyond my own. It left me very frustrated. They were too advanced, all the instruction was in Bulgarian, and the material they did was the most choreographed – the farthest away from original village material of any of the schools in Bulgaria. But it motivated me as well. It taught me that one cannot become a specialist in Bulgarian dance in one visit. I wanted to go back and learn more.


After 1969, I went about every year. Often twice. I knew if I was going to teach Bulgarian dances in Holland, I should be a student of that subject myself. It is good to go back to the place you learned the dances from. It allowed my own teachers to correct the mistakes I was making. In each trip, I learned new material to bring back to Holland. I also worked with my teachers in the choreographic schools and the state ensembles.


The dances I teach I learned from three basic sources. First, I learned the materials from the choreographic schools in Sofia and Plovdiv. Sofia trains the professional dancers and Plovdiv trains amateurs to work with the amateur performing groups. Second was the ensembles themselves – both amateur and professional. Third, I learned in the villages. Ironically, the traditional evolution is from village to performing ensemble to professional school. I learned my Bulgarian dancing in just the opposite pattern – school-ensemble-village. Doing it that way was very helpful to me when I first started travelling to the villages in 1975. It helped orient me to select that material more carefully. I had a frame of reference to work from.


I worked for a while at Montessori school, then helped to set up the dance department of the Rotterdam Dance Academy. They wanted a special department for folk dance. They asked me to be in charge of Balkan dance. I quit my job at school and went to work part-time at the Academy. A high-school also hired me to teach part-time dance and drama. This was around 1976 and 1977.

By 1979, my interest in Bulgarian dance had become so strong that I decided to go live in Bulgaria for half a year. Learning village dances is a matter of patience and time. Bulgarians are never in a hurry – if I wanted to learn their dances, I had to spend some time there, live with them, be with them, and let them ask their curious questions about Holland. It is an exchange. Only part of the exchange is their sharing their dances with you. That time in Bulgaria was very important to me. It was the first time I had to spend a lot of time in the villages.

I had to quit my job at the Dance Academy and the high school, which was very sad for me because I enjoy teaching. But that year was one of the most important for my career.


Yes, anyone can do it. But you need a lot of preparation. You need good contacts and support from people who feel that what you are doing is worthwhile. They want to feel that it will do Bulgaria some good in your own country. They need to feel that you know Bulgarian history and culture and that you like Bulgaria.

The Center for Amateur Folklore in Sofia was willing to help me establish contacts in the various provinces. Each province has people called methodists who work in the provincial folklore institutes. They are caretakers for folklore in their regions. They sometimes organize local festivals, record dances, and generally visit villages to help preserve and encourage folk arts. The methodists were the right people in every region to tell me which villages had preserved their dances, folklore, and songs. They were very helpful to me.

Hospitality in the villages was incredible. They invite you into their homes. They want you to stay with them, to eat with them, to drink with them. I began to understand that this is the way to learn dances – to go through eating and drinking and conversation first. I would be their guest, go with them to the fields, see their village, get to know their neighbors, their friends, and their family. Finally, I would get to learn their dances. Sometimes the wife would be in the kitchen singing and the husband would do a few dance steps. Then the next day, I would approach the man and ask him to show me the steps to his dance. It was much different than going there with a large film crew.

One very special place for me was the village of Lipen near the town of Mihailograd in the northwest. The evening I arrived in the village was the same evening the mother of the family I stayed with sent her son to the army. He happened to look a little like me. She was very sad because he was leaving for the other corner of the country. When I was there, people in the village asked her "Is your son back already? I saw him walking in the village today," because from a distance I looked like him. She treated me like a son. It gave her someone to care for and for me, more than any other village, I felt like a part of the family.


I have performed with amateur groups, never professionally. I haven't really had that much performing experience, largely because I have spent teaching for so long as a young man. I had to make my choice to spend my time doing research and going to Bulgaria, or spend the time in a performing company. I chose to do research. I have performed with an Israeli performing ensemble and with my own Bulgarian ensemble, the one I direct.


Only one of the choreographies is by a Bulgarian. All the rest are mine. At this point, I provide most new Bulgarian material in Holland. I am fortunate that my group has such a high calibre of dancer – some former dancers with the national folk ensemble, others out of the dance academy. Prasnik has become a kind of laboratory for inventing new choreographies. The best choreographies I do are with them – it is a two-way creation.

I have also done choreographies for other groups. My North Bulgarian suite for Prasnik I also staged with Yves Moreau's group in Montréal. I was very flattered to be asked by Yves. And the Šop suite is being done in Minneapolis. I have done choreographies for many of the other groups in Holland, including the professional folk ensemble.


After my long stay in Bulgaria, I came back to Holland and had many offers to do workshops. I still do that a lot. I also do choreography for amateur groups. And I work with the national folk ensemble – I am in charge of keeping up the Bulgarian material in their repertoire. I have the group one morning a week to train them in Bulgarian and Balkan basics. We want the dancers to have a background in the material they dance, not just learn a specific choreography. So they have two ballet classes a week, one character class, Ciga Despotović's wife, Ivon, does the other. The other job I have is as coordinator of educational programs of the ensemble. I promote school performances for the group and the educational material that goes with it. Working with the ensemble takes up to three days a week. It combines my main interests, teaching, children, and folk dance, so it is ideal for me.


In addition to dancing, I've always enjoyed playing the flute. But I am strictly an amateur. I do perform to accompany dance parties on Sunday nights. Most dance groups have their occasional request parties on Sunday night. Some teacher shows up, and the band plays live music. Our band plays an international program with a pretty decent Bulgarian repertoire. We even cut a record of Bulgarian tunes. But I don't do it as a professional.

I've done several records. The first was with Nevofoon, The Dutch national dance label. We used Dutch musicians, and they hired me to do the record of Bulgarian dances. A couple of years later I made a record with the Bulgarian record company Balkanton. There is a limited amount of recorded music available on Bulgarian dance in Holland. So we compiled a bunch of popular dances on a record that I could use to teach from. We used previously issued recordings but I edited them to fit a Dutch audience. We are now doing a second Balkanton record which I hope to have with me in 1984.


The one thing that will change from my current schedule of working with the ensemble and teaching Bulgarian dance is that I will now be reserving sime time each year to come to the United States to teach. I am here this year on a five-month-long tour, to see the United States as well as to teach.

I do see myself in the future involved in training programs, teaching children, either related to folk dance (like the national ensemble), or not. If I ever get tired of Bulgarian folk dance teaching there is always something more general to try. It is important for any specialist to always have one leg ready to jump somewhere else. It is a very exciting, but not a very secure profession.


I'm impressed with the amount of repertoire in American dance groups. Everything in the United States is on a large scale compared to Holland. I have to get used to teaching classes of 80 or 100 people. We only have that on special occasions in Holland.

The difference that strikes me most is that the average age of dancers here is much older than in Holland. In Holland there are special programs for the elderly, they are divided from the younger dancers. I like the diversity in ages here, but sometimes it is more difficult for a teacher.

Another difference is that folk dance classes here are less structured. In Holland there are established courses that run for a specified number of weeks. Most people commit themselves for three months or half a year. Here someone can drop in one week and not come back the next. As a teacher in Holland, I get the opportunity to work with the same people over a period of time. I try to teach the five basic Bulgarian rhythms, the five most popular dances done at dance parties, and a few dances that are "real" Bulgarian, that I learned in the villages.

That is very different from here. People in the United States know many dances. In Holland you know fewer dances, but you know them well. And the teacher gets to know the people much better.

Another difference is that there are no ethnic minorities in Holland to learn from. I know Tom Bozigian and Yves Moreau have done research with minority populations in their cities. For example, there are a lot of Bulgarians living in the Detroit area that one could research. That's something we cannot do.

There is also a wider range of cultures represented in your international dancing.

But there are similarities as well. The interests of people in folkore, for one. Speaking of two different continents is one thing, speaking of one family of folk dancers is another. They live in Holland, America, France, and Mexico. I'm sure folk dancers from the United States will feel at home with dancers from Holland and the other way around. I feel very much at home with folk dancers in the United States.


I feel that none of the dances I teach are my possession. The fact that I make my living off Bulgarian dancing makes me very grateful to the people who gave me the opportunity to do it, the Bulgarians, the villagers particularly. I am merely handing over to you what people have handed over to me. Folk dance belongs to everyone. I try to represent as accurately as possible what was taught to me along with the memories I have and stories I was told in learning them. But I am not a Bulgarian and can never deliver the same experiences as a Bulgarian could, because I am a Dutchman. On the other hand, it can be an advantage; it allows me to bridge cultures in a way a Bulgarian could not.