Smithsonian Folklife Festival kicks off on the Mall celebrating Hungarian heritage


Ahmed Moussa performs a traditional dance from Hungary, this year’s featured nation at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The annual Washington tradition kicked off June 26 on the Mall. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
June 26, 2013

Can we talk about Wednesday for a second? What a day for Washington.

SCOTUS struck down a key element of the Defense of Marriage Act, which was the main talk of the town. A bear — a baby one — was out and about in Northwest, leading police on a 90-minute chase before getting caught near the Palisades (our second local animal ad­ven­ture of the week). And the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, one of the largest annual events in the District, began its two-week celebration of cultural heritage on the Mall.

The Folklife Festival has been a Washington staple since its inception in 1967 (that’s “end of the fifth/beginning of the sixth season” in “Mad Men” years), luring thousands of tourists and locals to the Mall for cultural immersion and exposition. Crafts, food, performances, food, singing, food, dancing, food. There is so much food.

Three programs are featured in the festival, and 2013’s offerings are “The Will to Adorn,” “Hungarian Heritage: Roots to Revival” and “One World, Many Voices: Endangered Languages and Cultural Heritage.”

In the shadow of the Smithsonian Castle, crowds assembled for opening day, milling about with families and summer camp groups, walking from the Hungarian Dance Barn to model yurts to tents dedicated to Bolivia, Russia, India and beyond.

In the Kallawaya tent, six traditional medicine practitioners and weavers demonstrated Bolivian rituals and modeled cultural garb. On the Danubia stage, what looked at first like an Eastern European interpretation of “Newsies” was actually an all-male assembly of dancers from the Budapest area. They’re young, they had never performed together before and this particular dance was presented exclusively by this group, at this one time and place. It was more of an explosion of energy than a dance, really — about two dozen 20-somethings, all clapping hands and slapping thighs, making for a rousing, electric scene.

Nearby, hungry festivalgoers could taste-test cuisine from all over the world. America’s contribution to this ’round-the-world tour of edible delicacies, by the way, is chicken and waffles.

Hungary, being this year’s featured nation, snagged the most Mall real estate, about a quarter of the space dedicated to the Folklife Festival. Juliska néni and Andrea Dobi, part of the festival staff, performed a traditional dance from Juliska’s village in Hungary, Ocseny. Dobi is a first-generation Canadian (her parents are from Hungary) who’s been dancing since she was 5.

“It’s really a representation of what village folk live like,” said Dobi of the festival’s offerings. “These are living traditions. And Americans can interact with the artists and try out traditions they’ve never been acquainted with before.”

On the other side of the Hungarian Heritage space, Ilona Benham introduced her teenage grandson to her past. Benham was born in Hungary and escaped the conflict-ridden country for America when she was 6 or 7. Almost 70 now, she lives in Virginia and came to the festival with her grandchild and her stepmother, who didn’t move to the United States until she was 65.

“It’s very important for her to see these Hungarian traditions,” Benham said. “And my children, who are in their 40s and are first-generation Americans, will be coming, too.”

Her only memories of Hungary are “memories of my escape,” but, Benham said, her parents kept the culture alive at home, teaching her the music, the cuisine — and oh! You have to try, it’s the csirke paprikas, the chicken paprika, it is just too good — and the language. She said she hasn’t spoken Hungarian since she was a toddler. “But my father always said: You have to know your roots, appreciate your roots and honor your roots to be a good citizen of America.”

The festival “shows how important sustaining our culture is, no matter how small,” she said, echoing the sentiments expressed during the official introduction. “If you lose that, you lose a part of your soul.”

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