One of North America’s unavoidable personalities within the Táncház scene is Toronto’s Gábor Dobi. Born in Toronto in 1970, he moved to Hungary for a decade in 2006 and worked as a graphic artist and event coordinator at the Fonó Music Hall. At the present he is a manager at a warehouse in Toronto. Gábor leads the alumni group of the Kodály Ensemble.
Where did you first meet Hungarian dances?
Having grown up in Toronto, and being the son of immigrant parents, I was invariably inundated with Hungarian culture. My parents immigrated to Canada in 1966 from Austria, ten years after they had fled the aftermath of the Hungarian revolution. At the time, Toronto was rife with all sorts of Hungarian cultural programming, created by a community steadfast in its determination to preserve their identity. I was created within this turmoil, just 14 years after the revolution, in 1970. And, as I became cognisant of who I was, I inevitably began to explore my Hungarian-ness, an identity, which was later on, inevitably interwoven within a Canadian-ness that I eventually also embraced and nurture to this day. However, it should be noted, that my formative years were spent in the sanctuary of my parents’ world, a place, which at the beginning, was for all intents and purposes, divorced from any emotional attachment to Canada. It was a fairly low quality record player that my father purchased from a Hungarian salesman, in a Hungarian electronic store, somewhere in the Hungarian quarter of Toronto. I remember riffling through my father’s record collection and stumbling upon an album of the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble. As I put it on the player, the needle amplified the scratches until it gave way to an orchestra of violins and the most enchanting singing I had ever heard. I fell in love their and then. It wasn’t long after, that I was also exposed to the Kodály Ensemble, the local dance group in Toronto. They performed “Ecseri Lakodalmas” and I was mesmerised and hooked. This feeling has been a constant in my life wherever and whenever I encounter folk music and folk dancing.
Was there a moment which decided that dancing would mean more to you than just a sort of hobby?
I had been in the Kodály Ensemble’s junior group for a little more than a year. A couple of us had moved up to the Kodály Ensemble from the local Arany János Hungarian School dance group. I was excited and a little scared. I was the youngest of the lot and it was a time when hormones were racing through our bodies as our minds tried to grapple with the prospects of dancing and having to hold the other sex. Somehow I prevailed. I really enjoyed going to “próba”, as we would call it whether we were speaking in English or Hungarian. I didn’t miss a day of dance practice, and my parents took me religiously. That year we were getting ready to perform at the Pontozó in New Jersey, a yearly gathering of Hungarian groups from Eastern Canada and the United States. This one was going to be a big one. All the groups were going to attend and the Kodály Ensemble, probably the best dance group in North America at the time, had its sights set to make a splash. Dreisziger Kálmán, the director of the Ensemble arranged for Zsuráfszky Zoltán and Németh Ildikó to come out to Canada from Hungary to teach us two choreographies, which we would then perform at the Pontozó. The first dance was exclusively a senior group production from the village of Jobbágytelke. The second choreography was going to be a joint production with the senior group as well as the junior group from the village of Bag. As I was the youngest male dancer it would be the most difficult for me to make an impression. At the beginning Zsura always seemed to pass me over. I was never put into a spot. Then, towards the end of his time with us he yelled out, Narancssárga stand in the spot in the back and dance with Ilona. Narancssárga means orange in Hungarian, and I was assigned this monicker by him for always wearing an orange t-shirt to practice. I was ecstatic. This meant that I would now have the opportunity to go to the Pontozó in New Jersey, an experience that ultimately moulded and shaped my love for this art form. After that tumultuous year of preparation and bonding with my fellow dancers, I eventually moved up to the senior group and began experiencing more successes as a dancer. After having honed my dancing abilities I was turned on to an opportunity to dance with a University group by my girlfriend at the time, Magyar Ildikó. The group was the Tamburitzans, an Eastern European folk dance and music group that gave scholarships to its performers to attend Duquesne University. But, I had to persevere through a gruelling audition process in order to get accepted. I had no formal dance training, my only qualification was my background in Hungarian folk dancing. The first part of the audition process was easy enough. I danced one half of the Méhkeréki párhuzam choreography. This is what got me through to the next part of the auditions. The second part was a little harder and far more intimidating. All the dancers and musicians who made the cut for the first part of the audition gathered at the Tamburitzan practice hall. Once there, the dancers all put their ballet shoes on and started stretching. I looked around and timidly took out my high cut shoes, bakkancs in Hungarian and started lacing them up. We were then taught different sequences from different East European dances, which I felt I did a pretty good job with, until I was confronted with the balletic Ukrainian part of the audition. Fortunately, not too many of the other dancers excelled at this either. In the end I was accepted into the group and danced there for two years. Unfortunately, I didn’t extend my time because I wasn’t enamoured with the stylised versions of the dancing that the group employed. At the time I was completely in love with village dancing, as well as the Táncház Movement that was developing in Hungary. I felt that the Tamburitzans were pursuing the wrong course, so I decided to leave. Coming back to Toronto I became the Artistic Director of the Kodály Dance Ensemble. This lasted through the 90’s. It was a time for growing artistically, having produced several performances as well as a couple choreographies, I started to shape my creative outlook. We also religiously took part in all the Pontozó festivals and organised a number of táncház events. It was also important for me to bring out some of the best teachers from Hungary in order for the group to thrive on a technical level as well. After my time as Artistic Director of the Kodály Ensemble came to an end, I formed a folk music group called the Kecskeszem Ensemble with Faragó Márton, Mateusz Etynkowski, Lőrincz Imola and Speck Andrea, which played Csángó music from Moldva. We organised many táncház events in Toronto inviting guest musicians from other cultures as well. During Christmas and New Years in 2001 we went to Sára Feri’s home, where we were then exposed to the raw culture of Gyimes and Moldva. Other than my initial exposure to folk dancing as a child, this event was life changing in so many ways. In 2006 I moved to Hungary with my then wife Lőrincz Imola, where I got a job as a graphic artist and event coordinator for the Fonó Budai Zeneház. Besides creating countless CD covers for bands who were being released by the Fonó, I also revitalised their táncház event by reinventing it with help from Dezső and Enikő, the directors of the Szentendre Dance Group, where I also danced. After my stint at the Fonó, I went on to organise a country-wide talent search programme in Hungary called Folkbeats, where more than 99 bands applied to wi
n a tour of North America. In the end the Magos band and Guessous Majda Mária won the authentic portion, while the world music portion was won by the band Meszecsinka. In 2015 I returned to Toronto, where I went back to the Kodály Ensemble to lead the alumni group. The group met every Tuesday before COVID and we mainly dance for fun, but, also perform on occasion.
What is your most beautiful memory linked with dances or dance houses?
My most beautiful memory linked with dancing is when I was in Gyimes and Moldva with Kecskeszem. The fact that we went during Christmas and New Years meant that we were able to experience all the traditions associated with the holidays, like the Urálás in Moldva, which is a tradition during New Years where they go house to house dressed in costume and say verses about how the bread is made and how it is given to the lord of the manor. I also look back fondly at the times we went to the Fonó for táncház. There was a community of expats from Canada, the US and Australia who I shared this experience with, most notably Julie Johnson and a few others. It was always wonderful hearing the sound of live music, a luxury that we didn’t always have in North America.
Which is your favorite dance and which is your favorite song and why if there is a reason behind?
My favorite dances are the dances from Gyimes. I have always been drawn to its music and its archaic quality. I also count the dances from Kalotaszeg to be among my favorite as well. And I’ve also acquired a taste for the dances from Somogy. As far as music, I love all types of flute music, especially kaval music from Moldva as well as the long flute music from Somogy as well. I also like the music of Buza and Ördöngösfüzes as it is the most fun to sing to, and of course the music of Gyimes is my all time favourite.
Who is you hero in the dance house scene and why is he/she important to you?
I think simply, my heroes are all the peasants who left us this wonderful culture to use as a tool to not only define our collective national identities in order to magnify our differences, but to also cultivate where we find commonality with other cultures to then nurture understanding through movement. It has always fascinated me how a simple peasant culture can invent such an intricate vocabulary of steps, sequences and movements. Of course, our motivations are completely different, as it only serves us in a fleeting performance oriented context, as opposed to a more fundamental functioning component of their day-to-day lives. However, I would like to think that sometimes we can find some clarity in these constructed motions and somehow find a spiritual connection to our past nonetheless.
You moved to Hungary in 2006 and were a member of the Szentendre Folk Dance Ensemble. In 2015 you returned to Toronto. What is the difference between folk dance ensemble and dance house life at home and abroad?
In Hungary I noticed there is a seriousness about dancing that really doesn’t exist in Canada. I think there are several reasons for this, but perhaps the most obvious one is that dancers in Hungary are working towards becoming professional dancers in a professional Ensemble. Also, more and more dancers are finding independent opportunities to make folk dancing into a career. Of course most dancers don’t actually do this. When I was dancing in Szentendre Folk Dance Ensemble and especially towards the end of my stay there, I felt that it was turning into a group that became a feeder for professional Ensembles as well as developing into a high end semi-professional group itself. In Canada the dance groups, for the most part, are intimately tied to their communities, providing a way for individuals to get in touch with their culture and identity. The dance groups also provide a platform for a community in North America to find its cohesion and energy. In Hungary I was motivated to become a better dancer, in Canada I was motivated to nurture my community through the dance group. I think this is perhaps the fundamental difference.
You have been actively involved in organizing the Csipke Camp in Michigen, USA, and currently organize online dance courses with Dezső Fitos and Enikő Kocsis dance renowned dance instructors. Tell us about this initiative!
I have been part of the organization process of Csipke right from the beginning, providing the Detroit group with posters and graphic work. As I had moved to Hungary in 2006, I wasn’t able to be at Csipke physically, but I have since made an effort to be there recently. When COVID hit us in the spring of 2020 it became apparent that Csipke was going to be postponed. This created a void within the community of folk dancers in North America. Also, it became apparent that COVID would have a financial strain on teachers from Hungary as well. In May of 2020 I called Dezső and Enikő, and together we devised a way for an online teaching workshop to be able to work. The folk dance community in North America resoundingly embraced this initiative and I am happy to say we are now running our 11th and 12th event concurrently, which are Hungarian and Romanian dances from Kalotaszeg. In addition to Kocsis Enikő and Fitos Dezső, Farkas Ági and Tamás as well as Nagypál Anett and Kádár ignác have taught dances as well.