Huge Crowds at the Song and Dance Festival

The Baltic Times
Monika Hanley, RIGA
July 10, 2008

Riga was packed as tens of thousands made their way to Mezaparks to attend the opening concert of the 24th Song and 14th Dance Festival on July 6. The number is expected to increase even further as the week”s events move toward the climactic closing concert on July 12.

Streets in the city center were devoid of traffic, as it was diverted to side streets for the sevenhour parade of Song and Dance Festival participants. Tourists who weren”t expecting such a major event were surprised. Takako Hashimoto from Japan expressed her enthusiasm, saying “It is so wonderful how the president stands and waves to everyone for so long. There are so many people here and everyone is singing and looks so happy.”

However, not all aspects of the festival were positive. The transportation system was under great strain on as thousands of performers and audience members made their way back to the center. Trams lined up outside the park around 1 a.m. After the first trams left, three trams came about every two minutes. Despite the efficiency of the transportation, the hordes of people still complained and continued to squeeze into already overcrowded trams.

“I think I broke my toe,” said a choir member on the number 11 tram. “This is so stupid. Why don”t they have limits on how many can be in one tram? It”s unsafe!”

Over 100 performers needed medical assistance as allday rehearsals took their toll. Three were hospitalized.

According to Medicine Center Director Martins Sics, there was much talk about access to ambulances and first aid. “I have to say that first aid will be available to those in Riga, because since the beginning of the festival, there have only been 11 instances of festival participants needing extra medical care, but over 2,500 calls were answered in the Riga area over the weekend, made by locals.”

In years past, the availability of medical services was a concern as well, particularly in the hot summer months, which have prompted festival coordinators to move the times of the concerts up in order to avoid overheating and fainting problems.

Sics added that during the time of the Song and Dance Festival, over 100 extra medical personnel will be onhand to help.

Medical and traffic problems weren”t the only incidents as skirmishes and hooliganism arose amongst concertgoers. Police received word that several windows in a Riga”s high school had been broken. Police attribute the vandalism to minors.

Despite all this, Latvians and visitors alike will be treated to over 35,000 dancers, singers and musicians over the course of the week.

Diana Civle, representative of the Department of Culture said, “When planning and implementing cultural events in Riga, we think far ahead, and longterm investment in the future is particularly important. We perceive Riga as a potential candidate for the title of European cultural capital.”

Already the festival has gained foreign interest far beyond the expatriate community, and people from all over the world are coming to Riga in droves. Finnish President Tarja Halonen visited Latvia on a diplomatic visit and was presented with the Three Star order of third class, in thanks for his contribution to Latvia.

The festival comes on the 90th anniversary of the Baltic states” independence.