Connecting with My Heritage Through Dancing, Costume and Food: My Experiences of Serbian Culture

As part of my work experience here with the aspire-international team, I’ve been working on the NADINE Project, which focuses on integrating migrants and refugees into employment. I am a third-generation immigrant – my own family are from Serbia and Greece, and though I was born in the UK, the cultural influence of Serbia in particular has really made an impact on my identity and my life. I want to share some of my experiences from within the Serbian culture, including traditional dancing, learning the language and, of course, the food!

One of the parts of Serbian culture I participate in the most is the traditional dancing. I have been dancing and taking part in shows since I was 3 years old, and after almost 20 years I’m making the effort to continue by joining a local dance group closer to my university town in Leicester. My mum started dancing at the age of 3 as well, and has taught almost 4 generations of Serbian dancers, so it comes as no surprise that the drive to dance comes naturally to me! The sets of dances we perform come from the different regions in Serbia, as well as some from Bulgaria and Macedonia – much of the culture is shared in the area. There seems to be a never-ending queue of dances to learn and perfect, so practices – though around 4 hours long each weekend – never get boring!

IMG_6306
My dance group, Oplenac, after a show in Leicester

With all the different dances from the regions, new costumes must be made for each set. As the daughter of the group leader, I’ve played a big role in coordinating costumes and organising teams of people from the community to hand make some of the costumes for the group. My favourite costume that I have made features thick fleecy jackets and embroidered woollen socks from the Macedonian traditional costume – which as you can imagine is terribly warm to dance in! I also enjoy dancing in a costume from Southern Serbia – silky colourful trousers and heavy golden necklaces which jangle as you move, influenced by the Persian culture of the Ottomans. More recently, my new dance group in Leicester has the fortune of being sponsored by a company, which means that all of our costumes are made by experts in Serbia, saving me a job of making two-metre long wrap skirts out of heavy, woven cloth! As someone of Serbian heritage living in the UK, it’s nice to have a connection to another culture, to enhance the already rich culture which living, studying and working in the UK gives me.

The Serbian language, for me, has always been a tricky subject. Both sets of my grandparents speak Serbian as their first language, as do many members of the Serbian community in West Yorkshire. This meant that I grew up around Serbian-speakers and, as a result, grasped a basic knowledge of the language. Spending summers in Serbia also helped my confidence in conversation, but as I grew older, this continuous influence lessened, and my speaking skills stopped growing. My understanding and listening skills are still strong, but as more people around me could understand English, I did not need to speak as much Serbian. Being a part of a dancing group with native Serbian speakers has more recently helped me to better develop my speaking skills, which makes me much more confident and connected to my heritage.

Serbian food is perhaps my favourite part of my cultural heritage – which I don’t think comes as much of a surprise. All of my Christmases, Easters, and family meals are dominated by both Serbian and Greek influence, and while a British Sunday meal might not necessarily call for masses of pickled vegetables, they are an essential at ours. My grandmother’s cooking will, without fail, involve some fluffy potatoes smothered in oil and heaps of salt, and there is always bread. Even with all manner of potatoes, rice, and dumplings, there will always be a loaf of bread on offer to mop up all the oily saucy goodness – how else are you going to scoop up the lost grains of rice making a break for freedom from the confines of the stuffed cabbage?

Sarma
Sarma: Pickled cabbage leaves stuffed with rice, meats and vegetables and covered in sauce

Food – clearly – is a part of my culture which I’m very passionate about, and is the thing I look forward to at every celebration and event. The processes of cooking which have remained the same for generations give me a link to my relatives who used exactly the same methods in their villages in Serbia and Greece. The traditions and history that my Serbian and Greek heritage provide are very influential in my life, and add a richness of culture to my life in the UK.

 

Ana Tokos, Studying Politics and Criminology at Loughborough University

 

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