The Balkans Comes to Bowdoin

Published by Tom Porter

Grachanitsa is a folk troupe consisting of more than thirty dancers that celebrates Serbian culture. In mid-November the Boston-based group performed on campus at the suggestion of a Bowdoin senior in an event organized by the Russian department.

serbian dancers portrait

“I was very happy to be able to sponsor this event,” said professor of Russian and departmental chair Alyssa Gillespie. “Even though Russian is the only Slavic language taught at Bowdoin, all the Slavic languages and cultures are related,” she explained. “Serbian is a South Slavic language (the word ‘Yugoslav’ means ‘southern Slav,’ in fact) and, like Russian, it is written using the Cyrillic alphabet. The Serbian Church, like the Russian Church, is an Eastern Orthodox one, and the two cultures are closely linked.”

Grachanitsa performed songs and dances from different regions of Serbia, said Gillespie, in each case wearing the appropriate regional costumes. There was, for instance, a shepherd’s dance, featuring impressive displays of athleticism performed with shepherds’ staffs, and a silent dance, in which the only sounds were the rhythmic stomping of feet and jangling of necklaces. The origins of this dance date back centuries, explained Gillespie, to the days of Ottoman rule, when Serbs were forbidden from playing music by their Turkish overlords—so they had to learn to dance without any.

“I have always intended to bring a piece of Serbian culture to Maine since starting college at Bowdoin,” said Sasa Jovanovic '20, whose idea it was to invite Grachanitsa to campus and who acted as master of ceremonies for the event. Jovanovic’s parents emigrated from the former Yugoslavia in the early 2000s, and she has been steeped in Serbian culture since childhood. “Growing up, I danced with Grachanitsa for about eight years,” she said. “It was a way to remain connected to my heritage and practice my parents’ language, since Serbians are hard to come by in the Greater Boston area, and even harder to find at Bowdoin!”

The Grachanitsa performance at Bowdoin was sponsored by the Jovanovic family together with the Departments of Russian, Music, and Theater and Dance.

Watch edited video highlights of the performance: