The five dancers rehearsing at the North End Studios last Wednesday weren't clothed in typical dance wear: They sported T-shirts, jeans, a tennis dress, work pants, sneakers and sandals. Their choreography was also atypical — it came from Bosnia.
The dancers — four women and one man — are members of the Bosnian Lilies, a troupe that performs traditional Bosnian folk dances. Most of the multiage group arrived in Vermont following the Bosnian war, which ended 20 years ago. Performing and teaching traditional dances helps preserve their culture in their new home.
Standing with straight backs, the dancers held hands to form a circle. They each took two small steps to the right, then bounced on the balls of their feet three times, each time turning their bodies slightly to the right, then left and right again. They took two steps to the left and repeated the set of movements. The dancers were polishing their moves and getting ready to perform at a community event and fundraiser on September 27.
A recording of the Bosnian folk song "Moj Dilbere," or "My Darling," accompanied them, streamed through YouTube using a Mac laptop.
Dance is an important part of Bosnian culture. It's "something you learn when you're little," said Bosnian Lilies cofounder and lead instructor Mediha Jusufagic. "Dance connected everyone, regardless of their cultural background, ethnic or religious group," she said.
"There's no celebration without a dance."
The Bosnian Lilies have made few public appearances over the last three years. Founded in 2001, the troupe once comprised a core group of 15 young dancers. They used to dance at schools, fairs, nursing homes and other social events, including a national conference for Bosnian associations in New York. But as many of the Bosnians who came to the U.S. have assimilated, interest in traditional dance has waned.
"Kids want to have fun with other kids," Jusufagic, 48, explained. "And the music is not something that's in their ear. Their parents were more into it than they were." As a result, the Bosnian Lilies have essentially been on hiatus since 2012.
But now a new generation is determined to revive the troupe. Selma Zjakic, 30, is Jusufagic's apprentice. She organized the September fundraiser to spark interest in the community and to mark the end of her apprenticeship.
A Burlington resident and IT specialist at the University of Vermont, Jusufagic fled Bosnia in 1992 during the Bosnian war. She spent eight years as a refugee in Munich, Germany, before migrating to Vermont in 2000. Here she enrolled as a student at the Community College of Vermont. During her time at CCV, the mother of two wrote about being part of an amateur dance group in Bosnia.
News of her experience spread, and fellow Bosnians urged her to start a dance troupe. She named it after Lilium bosniacum, a flower that's native to the country. Jusufagic didn't have any financial support back then, but she resisted charging membership fees. "I would feel bad asking from people, who came as refugees, who want to learn about their culture, to pay," she explained. "I just couldn't."
The group had its first practice on March 3, 2001, at CCV — Jusufagic still has the clipping from the Burlington Free Press. In the group's 14-year-history, close to 90 kids performed at least once.
Zjakic, a South Burlington resident who came to the U.S. at age 8, was one of them. Her younger sister was also a member of the troupe. "It was awesome to be able to show all my classmates what I grew up with and what my parents grew up with," Zjakic remembers. She recalls her mother once spent weeks staying up until 4 a.m. sewing costumes. Zjakic danced with the troupe until she went to college in Massachusetts.
A visit to Bosnia in the summer of 2013 reignited her interest. While having dinner at a restaurant, Zjakic watched a dance performance and recognized the steps she had learned back in Vermont.
"I'd never seen it performed at that professional level by people from the country," she marveled, adding that she couldn't stop crying as she watched the dance. Inspired, Zjakic contacted her former instructor upon her return to the U.S.
Jusufagic was "proud and happy" to hear from Zjakic. "She was a serious dancer. She was one of the best," she said of her former student. In the summer of 2014 the pair successfully applied for the Vermont Folklife Center Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program. Zjakic has been studying with Jusufagic ever since.
Greg Sharrow, the Folklife Center's codirector, described the dance troupe as a "little jewel" that deserves support. Since 2005, the nonprofit has given the Bosnian Lilies a few thousand dollars to fund rehearsal space, costumes and transportation costs.
"We have seen the Lilies as a key institution of the Bosnian community," he says. "As Mediha and others are quick to point out, the Bosnian community here is as diverse as the Bosnian community in Bosnia. The things that were divisive in Bosnia hold the potential to be divisive here as well. But these art forms, dance, just as during Tito's Yugoslavia, were seen as a unifying thread."
In addition to funding the troupe, the Folklife Center has helped share its story with Vermonters. In a video clip on the nonprofit's website, 12 young Bosnians perform in front of a multiethnic audience. The girls wear long, plain velvet skirts or loose pants with tight ankles, and long-sleeved white shirts with vests and cummerbunds. The boys are dressed in black trousers and long-sleeved white shirts. Traditional Bosnian costumes are actually much more elaborate and intricately embroidered, Jusufagic explained.
It hasn't been easy to recruit younger Bosnians, Zjakic admitted. Traditional dance is "so old that it doesn't intrigue people," she said. "These days, parents choose soccer and karate over Bosnian dance." Jusufagic and Zjakic are considering recruiting outside the Bosnian community. And she's hoping to attract new recruits at the September performance.
The evening will also include a traditional Bosnian dinner.
Pairing performances with food is a smart strategy, said musician and Young Tradition Vermont president Mark Sustic. "I would recommend having social opportunities where people come together, wherever that might be, around a meal or social time or party, and make sure traditional music and dance is part of that activity," he said.
Sustic himself is a member of the Bosnian Lilies. He joined in 2005 to help create an instrumental band that would support the dancers. It attracted him, he said, because his ancestors were from the Balkan area, and the group presented "an opportunity of self-discovery." Sustic noted the importance of sharing Bosnian culture with a broader audience "so that folks outside the community come to value it and see it as a fabric of what they are," he said. "It's part of what Vermont is."
In fact, not everyone at the rehearsal was Bosnian. Zjakic's friend, Priya Patel, joined her, Jusufagic and the instructor's daughter, Iris, for the first time. Rijad Kapetanovic, who had come to sing for the dancers, couldn't resist joining the group when Jusufagic beckoned him over.
Looking back, Jusufagic speculated that the Bosnian Lilies could have been "much bigger" if she had known about the Vermont Folklife Center earlier. Though she arrived in Vermont as an immigrant, Jusufagic faced challenges similar to those of Bosnian refugees. Learning English and rebuilding her life left little time, or finances, to devote to cultural preservation.
For her part, Zjakic hopes that her event will provide the Bosnian Lilies with enough funds so they can continue renting rehearsal space and purchasing costumes. "We want to get to a point where we can do more shows and get to travel," she said.
Regardless, Jusufagic isn't hanging up her dancing shoes. "Bosnians dance until they die," she said. "You learn to dance and you dance as much as your heart can take it."
International Dinner – Bosnia takes place on September 27, 5 p.m., in Studio A at the North End Studios in Burlington. Tickets are $15 in advance or $18 at the door.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Revival Dance"