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Last Updated: Saturday, 26 March, 2005, 12:55 GMT
Dance fever reaches Albania
By Kieran Cooke
BBC News, Tirana

Since the downfall of communism in the early 1990s, Albanians have been struggling to rebuild their country. But many of them have also been turning their skills to some interesting pursuits.

Tango dancers
Ballroom dancing is a popular pursuit right across the world

There was a problem finding the dancing school among Tirana's maze of streets.

My Albanian is rudimentary to say the least.

I went to a brightly lit door.

"Dancing?" I asked, idiotically miming a waltz round the room with an imaginary partner.

My audience did not quite conform to images of the dance floor.

They bulged out of tracksuits. One man, with a "Who is this foreign fool?" type of look etched on his face, had a large head which flowed into a barrel-like frame.

Instead of the dance school, I had blundered into a gym for weightlifting, a sport in which Albania excels.

Only the day before, I had my hand crunched by a former prime minister, once a middleweight champion he proudly told me.

Then, I heard it.

Cha, cha, - cha, cha, cha. Cha, cha, - cha, cha, cha.

Monika Spahivogli is an Albanian entrepreneur, with that kind of "can do" spirit that does not see obstacles, only opportunities.

Ballroom dancing

A few years ago, at a time when Albania's economy was on its knees, she decided to open a shop selling local organic products.

Madness, people said, how can a population which has to struggle to find the bare minimum to eat be interested in such things?

This sort of dancing, the foxtrot, the quick step, and certainly things like the tango, were strictly forbidden
Monika Spahivogli

Yet the project has succeeded. Now, Monika has moved on to another scheme, running Tirana's first post-communist ballroom dance school.

For nearly half a century, in the years after World War II, Albania's three million people were virtually isolated from the outside world.

Enver Hoxha, the communist dictator who based his ruthless rule on paranoia and stern self sufficiency, was not one to allow such bourgeois activities as Western style dancing.

Ledio, the young dance teacher, insists that I try.

Cha, cha, - cha, cha, cha. My timing is off, my rhythm clumsy.

"Just let yourself go," says Ledio.

I collide with my own reflection in one of the giant mirrors.

Monika, the dance school owner, says that in the days of Hoxha, Moscow influenced ballet and opera in Albania was of a high standard.

"But this sort of dancing, the foxtrot, the quick step, and certainly things like the tango, were strictly forbidden."

Restrictions

That was not all that was not allowed under the old regime.

Tirana skyline
Albania has been trying to rebuild itself since communist rule ended

One of the leaders of a group of students who helped overthrow the communists told the story of his love for jazz.

The former student, now the mayor of Tirana, said that he would cower beneath the bedclothes at night listening to foreign radio stations, an activity punishable by a long stretch in a labour camp.

He became fascinated by the saxophone. Yet, as such instruments were considered to be an evil influence and were banned, he had never seen one.

"Then we heard of a friend who had a saxophone. It was hidden at the bottom of an old trunk belonging to his grandmother," he said.

"It was like a top secret operation. One of us stood guard outside while the rest went up to the apartment. The trunk was opened and there was a smell of camphor and mothballs."

Albania does not exactly receive a good press internationally

"A crinkly wedding dress was taken out. We inched forward and peered down and there, shining and so elegant, was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

"We didn't touch the saxophone, we certainly didn't attempt to play it. But that moment will be etched on my mind forever."

Cha, cha, - cha, cha, cha. I am on the dance floor again. I manage one round, two.

"Yes, yes," says Ledio, the teacher. "It is much better. Be natural. Let your body go loose."

Albania does not exactly receive a good press internationally.

As well as the activities of an increasingly well organised and ruthless Albanian mafia in Europe and elsewhere, there is continuing corruption in the country, some of it at a very high level.

Education

Yet there is another side to all this. Albanians are very resourceful and many are highly skilled.

Map of Albania

Some, after years overseas, are returning to try and rebuild their country. One thing not lacking under the old Hoxha regime was education, particularly in technical subjects.

My translator, she speaks four languages, is one of the hundreds of trained agronomists from the old times, once involved in a thriving market garden industry.

In the mid-1980s there were only about 3,000 cars in the whole country, and those who wanted to drive had to study for two years, full-time.

They had to learn how to take an engine apart and put it together again. Hence, Albanians have great mechanical skills, and to visitors they are extraordinarily hospitable.

Cha, cha, - cha, cha, cha. One more time round the dance floor.

In the old days, long before Enver Hoxha, in the time of King Zog, Albania's last monarch, Tirana was famous for its glamorous parties, a place where Europe's glitterati would gather to dance the night away.

Now the old dances are coming back.

"Slowly," says Monika, "Albania is recovering, and getting back its soul."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 26 March, 2005, at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.



SEE ALSO:
Country profile: Albania
04 Jan 05 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Albania
08 Feb 04 |  Country profiles


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