Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The 100-day dance

Though the Polish education system has seen changes upon changes in the last couple of decades, the crowning of a high school education is still the passing of the Matura- the so-called 'maturity exam' which earns the student a diploma and the right to attend university.

The exams take place in May, but it is customary to celebrate them in January, approximately one hundred days earlier, with a school dance called the Studniówka.

Think of it as a sort of prom, or high school ball- it's a very important affair. Some schools choose to hold it in their gym, but many will rent out a hotel ballroom instead, which makes it easier for alcohol to circulate. One glass of champagne is the official allowed amount (18 is the legal drinking age in Poland), but we shall not speak of what is poured under the tables. My own studniówka lasted until seven o'clock the next morning, and I distinctly remember the hotel ushers asking us to leave, saying 'enough already'. The trick of the dance is that none but the most confident students can be certain of graduating, and the exam is months away. That certainly adds excitement!

So, precautions are taken that have little to do with studying. One superstition claims that in order to graduate, one must wear red underwear to the studniówka, then wear it again, unwashed, to the exam. In Warsaw, where I grew up, the custom is to go to the Old Town after your Studniówka, find the statues of poet Adam Mickiewicz and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, then jump around them on one leg. An unbroken skip around Mickiewicz will guarantee you a passing grade in literature and language, while Copernicus takes care of mathematics and strict sciences.

Seems simple enough, until you factor in the January snow, ice, and high heels.

But the most important tradition of the Studniówka is the first dance: traditionally and unquestionably a polonaise. Its roots lie in 16th century folk dances, and it is easy enough to learn. Even with two left feet all you need to do is follow the pair ahead of you, in time with the majestic music.

In some cities, the dance has been pulled out of the gyms and ballrooms and brought to the streets. In the bitter cold of January, hundreds of students file through the city, led in the dance by a pair or trio dressed in the historical garb of the 16th century 'szlachta'.

These boys would do fine in suits, but I maintain that even the
homeliest of men looks like a prince in a żupan and kontusz.

As they say 'We hope we don't see you here next year!'

Bystanders are welcome to join the dance and make the parade grow longer- it starts out as a column of pairs and ends up spreading across the whole width of the street with as many as sixteen people in one row. In Łódź, the students have been dancing for seven years now. One of the traditions for the dancers is to grab the statue of Tuwim by the nose as they pass it by (I wrote about the Lodzian poet Tuwim last year)- this is supposed to bring good luck.

So, we do wish them fortune and a calm mind during their upcoming exams. But they shouldn't thank us, no matter how polite that may seem- it's bad luck!

Meta information

The music you hear in the video is the most popular modern polonaise, composed by Wojciech Kilar for the Andrzej Wajda film 'Pan Tadeusz', based on an epic poem of the same name written by Adam Mickiewicz- the great Polish poet mentioned above. Here is the clip from the film featuring the score and the dance:

Wikipedia entry with links to articles about the clothes worn by Polish nobility 

Wikipedia entry about the Polonaise

1 comment:

  1. we don't do anything like that, why is poland so much more awesome!