The Polish American Folk Dance Company was founded 80 years ago in New York City, with the goal of preserving and perpetuating Polish folk dance and song among Americans of Polish descent. Since its inception, the group has grown to proudly present the rich and diverse folk culture of Poland for audiences all over America and the world. Through the tireless dedication of generations of its directors and members, PAFDC is recognized today as one of the premier amateur Polish folk dance ensembles in North America.
The group was organized by Frances Wesołowska-Popławska in 1938, under the auspices of the Polish Workmen’s Aid Fund. The original members of the group were the young adults and children of the managing board of the PWAF, who were soon joined by new members. With assistance and support from the Kościuszko Foundation and the Polish-American Aid Fund, research was made to provide a wardrobe of traditional costumes for the company. Ms. Wesołowska-Popławska built a Polish folk dance group that combined traditional folk dances with the technique of classical ballet, a legacy that remains to this day. For 30 years she persevered, teaching not only the group’s members, but holding courses for instructors across the country.
In 1969, Ms. Wesołowska-Popławska turned over direction of the group to her most promising dancers, Stanley Pelc and Ursula Bestecka, and soon after the group moved from Manhattan to Greenpoint, Brooklyn. This began a period of tremendous growth, during which the company was transformed into an accomplished performance ensemble. Mr. Pelc and Ms. Bestecka focused particularly on the authenticity of the dances and costumes, and to that end did extensive research here and abroad. They also served as the company’s choreographers.
Mr. Pelc studied Polish folk dance and choreography in Warsaw, and his goal was to expand the group’s repertoire and reputation. He taught Polish folk dance to children across New York and New Jersey, with the hope that they could then be recruited into PAFDC. He also became the general manager of the company. Ms. Bestecka guided the expansion of the company’s costume wardrobe, with a greater emphasis on authenticity and refining the overall appearance of the performances.
In 1975, Ms. Bestecka moved to Japan, after which dancers Maria Zdzienicka Koncewicz and John M. Poko were named assistant choreographers. Ms. Koncewicz was a graduate of the Academy of Physical Education in Warsaw, and had studied Polish folk dance in Łódź. Mr. Poko participated in folk dance seminars in Warsaw, and was also trained in classical ballet.
This period marked many milestones for PAFDC. In June 1970, the dance company put together its first full-length concert, debuted at Lincoln Center. This was followed by multiple performances across the country. In 1972, after attending several folk dance courses in Poland, the group participated in the second-ever World Festival of Polish Folk Dance Groups (Światowy Festiwal Polonijnych Zespołów Folklorystycznych) in Rzeszów. Since then, PAFDC has continued to take part in this festival, most recently in 2014.
The company received its highest honor to date when, in 1980, it was presented with the Oskar Kolberg Award by the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage for its work in research and presentation of Polish folk culture to American audiences.
Stanley Pelc has been honored by the Polish government for propagating Polish folk culture in the United States and sharing his knowledge to the company and others, thus keeping its beauty alive outside Poland. For his hard work, Mr. Pelc was presented with his own Oskar Kolberg Award in 1980. A year later, he received the Order of the Merit of Culture from the Polish government. PAFDC would not be the group it is today without the hard work and vision of Mr. Pelc, and for his passion and involvement the group is forever grateful. Years later, in 2003, the company received their own Order of the Merit of Culture, for preserving Polish culture in the United States, a mark of Mr. Pelc’s lasting influence upon the group.
Upon Mr. Pelc’s retirement in 1996, Daniel Dziadura succeeded him as Artistic Director of the company. An accomplished dancer, Mr. Dziadura initially served as Mr. Pelc’s assistant. He trained in choreography and ethnography at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin, one of the most preeminent folk dance programs in the country. Under his leadership, the group embarked on a new era. The extensive repertoire was augmented with new, dynamic choreography. PAFDC’s Kapela Ludowa (Folk Band), now in its 18th year, was established, allowing esteemed musicians to contribute authentic song medleys to performances. The company also revived its children’s group, under the direction of long-time member Alice Karpinski-Bajno. Today, the children’s group is led by the joint efforts of Maria Haba Mieliczek, Barbara Chrobak, and Martyna Grochecki.
Following Mr. Dziadura’s retirement from the company in 2005, PAFDC separated its management and artistic functions into two distinct positions. Margaret Pawelkiewicz became the Executive Director, and Ryszard Sudol was named Head Choreographer. This joint leadership was responsible for initiating a new junior’s group, specifically designed to train young dancers who wished to continue on to the adult group.
After the departure of Ms. Pawelkiewicz and Mr. Sudol, Mariusz Bernatowicz took over as Executive Director in August 2010. Tomasz Orzechowski was named the group’s Head Choreographer. Mr. Orzechowski, a former dancer from ZPiT Łomża and Warszawianka at Warsaw University, utilized his extensive knowledge of folk dance choreography and classical training to further build up the group’s repertoire, encouraging a strong base of technique and style. Mr. Bernatowicz, a long-time PAFDC member, brought the group into the 21st century by establishing its presence online and on social media.
Currently, the group is headed by Executive Director Andrzej Buczek, a long-time member, past Vice President of the Board of Directors, and founder of Kapela Ludowa. Under his leadership, the group continues to grow and evolve. By overseeing the ensemble’s training and performance schedules, and coordinating the expansion of its repertoire and wardrobe, he works to maintain PAFDC’s talents for years to come.
Today, PAFDC’s repertoire consist of multiple arrangements of all five Polish national dances, and over 25 folk dance suites from various regions of Poland. This repertoire consists of both authentic and stylized interpretations of the dances, each dynamic and unique to the region of its origin. In addition, part of the repertoire consists of presentations of ancient Polish traditions, including Dożynki (harvest festival), Andrzejki (St. Andrew’s Eve), and Jasełka (Nativity scenes).
The company owns over 600 individual costumes, many of them made in Poland using traditional methods and materials. This legacy exists due to the hard work of Mrs. Cecelia Pelc and other PAFDC mothers and volunteers, who built the costume collection from the ground up. To this day, dancers continue to lend their time and energy to assist with repairs and upkeep. The company is proud to work with multiple workshops across Poland to build the collection and ensure its authenticity and lasting beauty.
PAFDC’s musical repertoire has transformed over the years. It was first enriched by the talents of Halina Mazur Kalitka, who served as the group’s accompanist for over 25 years. Her outstanding musical talent and ability to play a variety of traditional Polish folk music was an invaluable component that helped the group thrive. Much of her recorded music is still used by the group today. Presently, Mr. Buczek keeps this legacy alive by working tirelessly to build Kapela Ludowa’s repertoire, thus providing the rare opportunity for the dance group to perform to live folk music. The music group celebrated their 15th anniversary in 2015, with a CD release and a sold-out concert (“Baciarka z Kapelą”) at the Polish National Home in Greenpoint. They actively perform with the dance group at a variety of venues, including the group’s annual holiday caroling celebrations at the Polish and Slavic Federal Credit Union.
Another member that has had a fundamental influence on the group is Maria Bielska, lovingly known as Dzidka. Dzidka has not only been a dedicated dancer, but also a source of historical and traditional folk knowledge over the years. A pillar of the Polish-American community, she has supported the group in multiple capacities, as a performer, announcer, and indispensable source of information. Her understanding of Polish folk tradition and affinity for the dramatic has provided the group with the basis for its repertoire of presentations and pageants. Dzidka’s endless positive energy and love of all things folk has supported the group through thick and thin, for which the group is incredibly grateful.
PAFDC has had the honor of collaborating with multiple guest choreographers from Poland, in an effort to expand upon the group’s knowledge of various Polish regional folk dances. A long-time friendship with the eminent State Folk Group of Song and Dance Mazowsze has led to countless workshops and collaborations over the years. Zofia Czechlewska, from the Śląsk Song and Dance Ensemble, worked to arrange new and dynamic choreographies for the group, including Kołomajki and Mazurka. Urszula Sajda brought her experience as instructor and dancer from various groups in Poland to strengthen PAFDC’s technique and poise. Patryk Rutkowski, a choreographer and ethnographer from Nowy Sącz, was recently invited to invigorate the group’s knowledge of dances from the Sądeckie region, introducing a deeper understanding of the dances through intensive workshops. Many of these exciting collaborations will be exhibited in tonight’s concert.
PAFDC’s long history includes a multitude of performances across the world, including several full-length concerts at Lincoln Center, Radio City Music Hall, the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., and other esteemed venues. In addition, the group has the honor to be invited by the American Institute of Polish Culture to perform at its annual International Polonaise Ball in Miami (since 1976). Other notable performances by the company over the years include tribute programs where Pope John Paul II, Princess Grace of Monaco, Lech Wałęsa, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Zbigniew Brzeziński, Henryk Górecki and other dignitaries have been honored guests.
The group has participated in numerous folk dance festivals across the United States and Canada, and the world. In 1983, PAFDC became one of the founding members of the Polish Folk Dance Association of the Americas. Comprised of 43 groups from across North America, these groups continue to participate in and host festivals that bring dancers together to celebrate and share in their passion for Polish folk dance.
As much as the group is defined by its international experience, the core of PAFDC’s schedule is taken up by performances across the New York metropolitan area. The group continues to be invited to perform at galas hosted by the Kościuszko Foundation (since 1971), Polish Assistance Inc. (since 1974), and the FDNY Pułaski Association. PAFDC proudly continues the tradition of opening the annual Pułaski Day Parade on Fifth Avenue, kicking off the celebrations by dancing a Grand Polonaise with local dignitaries and elected officials. Locally, the group performs at various Polish schools and educational institutions in an effort to educate and entertain Polish and American youth. PAFDC hosted its first FolkFest (Spotkanie z Folklorem) in 2017. Featuring a costume “fashion” show, small dance numbers, and performances by Kapela Ludowa, the goal was to present the wealth of beauty and history behind Polish folk culture in its many iterations. This is one of many performances the company hosts at the Polish National Home in Greenpoint, which has remained PAFDC’s base of operations for over forty years. The group proudly participates in and hosts many celebrations at the Home, including fundraising parties, Scouting events, and commemoration of Polish Independence Day and May 3rd Constitution Day.
Beyond Polish organizations, PAFDC maintains contact and collaborates with many folk dance groups from other cultures. In 2014, the group began a tradition of performing with Csűrdöngölő and Délibáb, fellow dance companies of The Hungarian House of New York, as part of Polish-Hungarian Friendship Day. In 2013, the group collaborated with the Polish Theater Institute and the Iskra Ukrainian Dance Ensemble in a celebration of “The Night of Kupała–A Midsummer Night.” In 2009, the Calpulli Mexican Dance Company graciously lent their costumes and talents to the group for their Mexican dance presentation at the 37th International Polonaise Ball.
The strength of PAFDC has always stemmed from its members, who tirelessly volunteer their time to maintain the group and to share their love of dance with the public. It is this dedication that has allowed the company to grow and thrive as a cultural organization in New York City. Through 80 years of performances, workshops, demonstrations, and collaborations, the Polish American Folk Dance Company has richly contributed to the beautiful mosaic of American culture. We look forward to adding to this illustrious legacy, and to dancing for another 100 years!