The Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH)
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Known as "Vyts" to his many, many friends, acquaintances, and his adopted American Indian family, his interest in folk dancing came naturally to him in his native "kaimas" of Pakumprys, Lithuania, where he was born on February 26, 1908. (A kaimas consisted of an area where farmers lived with their lands around their homes. It did not have churches or stores, which were located in townlets, known as "baznytkaimai.") His father was away most of the time "fighting a war." His mother worked the land of an estate owner to survive, while his grandmother, known to him as močiutė, cared for him and his two younger brothers, Leonas and Julius.
His immediate family was not religious in the full sense of the term. Rather, they were traditionalists, finding beauty in preparing and observing holidays and traditions in general. Vyts' mother was a folk song leader and had committed to memory dozens of songs in a half dozen languages in a period when there were no radios or television. Vyts said that he remembered all the traditions he encountered in later life, regardless of whose they may have been and that is how he learned his folk dances.
When the war between the Russians and Germans reached his part of Lithuania, the family was forced to flee. In Stakliskes, he contracted small pox, but had to move on. In Butrimonys, the family was allowed to find shelter from the rain under an oak tree in a yard, where Vyts was expected to die overnight. That he didn't is a testiment to his fortitude in the face of health problems that would plague him (no pun intended) throughout his life. Later, in Pivasiunai, the Germans overtook the family and they were sent back to Pakumprys, where they found trenches over their cultivated farms and isolated graves of fallen soldiers around their house.
Vyts mother was determined that he obtain an education and handed him over to a tutor, whom she paid with eggs, grains, chickens, or vegetables. There being no movie theaters, bowling alleys, tennis courts, or golf courses, all of the recreation was related to folk dance, folk song, and folklore. The local Jewish synagogue, Eastern Orthodox church, and Protestant German kirche served as gathering places, not only for the devout, but for the exchange of folk dances and folk ways. He finally got to the small town ("miestelis") of Kaunaas in 1922, eventually becoming aware of such nations as Russia, Germany, China, and the United States of America. The book that opened his eyes to the greater world was Jules Verne's Trip Around the World in 80 Days, translated into Lithuanian.
Vyts, accompanying his 85-year-old grandmother, came to the United States on September 3, 1923, at the age of 14, leaving behind his mother and two brothers (a sister, Gyte Jekentes, was born after he left Lithuania). He arrived without the benefit of knowing the English language, but did bring along his Jules Verne book from which he derived his thirst for meeting people of other cultures. After a week's detention at Ellis Island, they headed for Chicago, Illinois, where he had four aunts, two uncles, and two great uncles. (He was surprised that the American race didn't have red skin as their geography books had said was the color of the potatoes Lithuanians called "Amerikankos.")
His extended Chicago family, completely Americanized, weren't too proud to have non-English-speaking "greenhorns" for relatives. Because of this, he was rotated among various aunts. He attended school for one year, entering at the third-grade level and being promoted to the sixth and seventh grades. Although he skipped grades, Vyts was able to learn English without much difficulty.
His first job was with the Swiss Embroidery Company walking behind a lengthy embroidery machine watching for and replacing empty spools. Being fluent in German, he could converse with two immigrant girls from Bavaria with whom he worked. His next job was in a fur ship, cleaning dirty fur coats with sawdust and benzine. His third, and final job, was with an automotive mail order establishment, filling out foreigh orders, packing, crating, and stenciling addresses. In 1926, at the age of 18, he was on his own; thereafter his grandmother lived with her daughters.
Almost immediately on arriving in Chicago, he had begun his activities in dance, circulating around the Chicago area in the hope of finding a group where the folk dances he loved were being perpetuated. He began folk dancing at St. George's Auditorium. He then found the programs at the Lithuanian Auditorium and began teaching in 1930. He organized the Lithuanian Youth Society to teach the Lithuanian-Americans the folk dances of their homeland. The Society was asked to perform at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair and became increasingly in demand, appearing in the mid-western states and Canada. It was in Chicago where he first became interested in Mexican, Italian, and Hindi dances and culture. He spent ten years learning and performing Hindi solo dances and was the only person in the area to authentically interpret the Hasidic style of dance.
During his youth in Lithuania Vyts did not notice any overt animosity by the Lithuanians against the Germans and, in fact, he was on good terms with German soldiers. One was so pleased at Vyts' reading a story in the Gothic script that he presented Vyts with a chocolate bar, not easily obtainable around 1917 to 1918. In America, however, around 1936, Vyts and a friend, Vytautas Slakis, published an anti-Nazi magazine called Concord. Six issues appeared, but they closed down publication, having received one threat but no community support.
As Vyts' dancers became more and more popular, and his dance books began to appear, he was asked to join the Chicago Park District, teaching folk dances which varied with the ethnic population living around each park, retaining the patterns, music, and meaning of each dance he taught. He began editing one of the first folk dance magazines, Lore Magazine, the precursor to Viltis.
Soon, Vyts was traveling continuously and by 1940 teaching folk dance all over the United States in more than 200 colleges, universities, recreational centers, and other venues. Throughout the years, Vyts left an indelible impression on the psyche of the vast of majority of folk dancers in America.
The list of Vyt's superlative "firsts" include organization of the first Lithuanian folk dance club in the world in 1933; the first "kolo" (Yugoslav circle dances) club in the United States to perform before non-ethnic audiences; presented the first folk ballet that combined song, dance, and customs of ethnic authenticity; the first Hindu folk ballet in the United States; the first international folk festival in the southern United States; the first international folk dance teacher to tour Canada; organized the first Isreli group in St. Louis, Missouri; and presented the first ecumenical Easter Passion Play in Fairhope, Alabama.
In 1942, Vyts joined the faculty of the School of Organic Education in Fairhope, Alabama, as a folk dance instructor. In the fall of 1943, he was hospitalized for a tubercular throat, which in those days was treated with "absolute rest" and "fresh air." (Vyts surmised that the long hours using benzine during his job in the fur shop contributed to this condition.) From his bed he maintained correspondence with fellow folk dancers, especially those who were drafted for the war, through hand-written notes that were typed and mimeographed by a friend. By September, 1944, the mimeographed one-pager became a printed four-pager, which he called Viltis ("hope") to express hope that the war would end and that he would be cured. Thus originated the first major international folk dance magazine, devoted to folk customs and arts, especially folk dances, illustrated and printed in English, with a circulation topping 2,500. Vyts was released from institutional care in 1945, but with a barely audible voice.
In 1950, while on a teaching tour of the eastern states, he collapsed and was diagnosed as having tuberculosis throughout his body. At 80 pounds, he was transferred from a Chicago hospital to Denver's Medical Center where he lost his left kidney and much of his hearing. After a long period of recuperation, he moved to San Diego, California, for the milder weather. There, he resumed his typically active program of teaching and presenting folk dances and formed the Viltis Dancers, mostly from local Lithuanians with a scattering of non-Liths such as Dick Oakes, at that time stationed as a medic at the Naval Hospital in Balboa Park.
In 1952, John Filcich started the California Kolo Festival in San Francisco as a fundraiser for his friend Vyts Beliajus who was ill. Vyts taught several Balkan kolo dances there and started a Balkan dancing craze throughout the country. Vyts was on the staff of the Stockton Folk Dance Camp for 22 years and taught at Kentucky Dance Institute, Maine Folk Dance Camp, Lighted Lantern in Colorado, Texas Folk Dance Camp, Oaxaca (Mexico) Camp, and many others. He made dedicated appearances at such diverse venues as the annual Christmas concert at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah; Milwaukee’s Holiday Folk Fair; California Folk Federation and Canadian events and others. Vyts also made international junkets.
In 1958, Vyts moved back to Denver, only to discover he had cancer of the right lung, part of which had to be removed. As soon as he regained his health, he was back on the road, often using assistants to demonstrate what he taught. Denver became his permanent home base where he lived out his life as a respected community member. In the 1970s, he became a member of the executive board of the Colorado Folk Arts Council, serving with Dick Oakes, who had moved to Boulder from Los Angeles for a year and a half. In 1973, Vyts brought international folk dancing to tiny Gilpin County, Colorado, when he taught a group of novice folk dancers at the Belvidere Theatre in Central City on Sundays. In 1986, Vyts was one of the four people who formed the National Folk Organization.
During his travels, Vyts preferred traveling by bus or train. He said that in case of an accident, you are still in the ground and have a greater chance of survival. But he also never owned or drove a car, saying that he was not mechanically inclined. Such inconveniences, however, he easily overcame.
Brigham Young University paid for Vyts' trip to join the BYU Folk Dance Ensemble on their performance tour of France, Greece, Israel, and Spain. However, Vyts never went abroad strictly for the purpose of collecting or authenticating folk dances. He also felt that discovering new folk dances was a questionable undertaking. As he once said, "The natives of some lands see the researching American coming, and for a dinar, or drachma, or whatever the monetary unit might be, they'll 'discover' a new dance even if it takes all night to figure one out." Vyts choreographed some of his dances for folk dance purposes which are still performed at Lithuanian festivals. These include Dzūkų Polka, Ožiukai, Prienu, Suktute, Vēdaras, and Vestuvių Polka, . . . old forms with variants.
Vyts received certificates of appreciation from the American Legion, Western Illinois University, the "Kolo Festival" in San Francisco (Vyts is credited with starting the "kolomania" dance craze after introducing eight kolos in 1951), and numerous other civic and cultural organizations in the United States. In 1972, Vyts was given the prestigeous AAHPHER (American Association for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation) National Dance Association "Heritage Award," joining such luminaries as Miriam Lidster and Michael & Mary Ann Herman. He was written about in the Lithuanian Encyclopedia, Best Known Lithuanians in the United States, History of Lithuanians in Chicago, and Arte Lituano. He is also listed in Who's Who in the West, Personalities in America, Dictionary of International Biographies, Men of Achievement, and Colorado Who's Who. The Indian Encyclopedia mentioned Viltis because in the early days Vyts frequently published news about Indians and their activites (at the time, there were no Indian newspapers to speak of). When Vyts' Indian niece, Mohota (Morningstar) Ordunez Adams died, she left three orphaned children, Sammy, Hiawatha, and Geronimo. Years later, Geronimo Wayne Adams asked to live with his uncle Vyts, and on October, 1985, he moved in. Then, the Friday before Christmas the same year, the state of Colorado declared Vyts an acceptable father and Geronimo became Vyts' foster son.
In 1994, Vyts received the Colorado Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts as a "Folk Artist." In the Fall 1994 issue of the Lithuanian Quarterly Journal of Arts and Sciences, Lituanus (Volume 40, No. 3), Marijona Venslauskaité-Boyle in an article titled "A Journey Home," wrote "I consider [the renowned poet, Czeslaw Milosz] a phenomenon, although he might not like that characterization. There are others, in other fields, who are similar phenomena: notably one Vytautas (Vyts) Beliajus well known in the field of international dance. Vyts publishe[d] . . . Viltis, magazine of international dance, almost singlehandedly. These men are sociological phenomena and so am I."
On September 20, 1994, Vytautas Finidar ("Vyts") Beliajus went to meet his maker at the age of 86, just four days before the 50th Viltis Anniversary party. Vyt's International Folk Dance library, an extensive collection of folk dance and folklore materials, was donated to the Special Collections and Archives of the Carson-Brierly Dance Library of the University of Denver's Penrose Library.
In a book review of The International Encyclopedia of Dance (Edited by Selma Jeanne Cohen, Oxford University Press, 6 Volumes, $1,250.00), Glenn Giffin, Denver Post Dance Critic wrote, "Missing are such things as any mention of the Colorado Dance Festival, Vail International Dance Festival or the late Vytautus ("Vyts") Beliajus, who was a force in folk dance circles and a notable teacher. It's obvious there is a need for better regional coverage in the United States entries."
Here is a list of some of the honors, awards, and recognitions that Vyts received:
Vyts was also acknowledged in the following:
Some of Vyts credits include:
For years, Vyts gave material to the Denver Women's College library, which became part of the Carson-Brierly Dance Library in the Houston Fine Arts Center of the University of Colorado. Glenn Giffin curated, but primarily worked as critic for the Denver Post.
Vyts and DeWayne Young created the Vytautas Beliajus International Folk Dance Collection within the Carson Brierly Dance Library and donated much material. At the 50th Viltis party in 1994, a memorial, actually, because Vyts had just died, DeWayne and Mary Bee Jensen visited and observed much of the material still in boxes.
In 2000, DeWayne discovered that the entire library had been moved to the new Penrose Library at the University of Denver.
Vyts' magazine, Viltis, appears to be defunct, and the last editor, Al Durtka of the International Institute of Milwaukee, as of March 2001, has not accepted calls nor answered letters from several Society Members concerning Viltis.
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