West Mifflin school to host ethnic dance groups as part of anniversary celebration
In 1930, a local organization was established to serve as a center of Bulgarian and Macedonian cultural activity.
That tradition continues as the Bulgarian Macedonian National Educational and Cultural Center in West Homestead celebrates its 85th anniversary with a folk festival on Friday and Saturday.
“To celebrate the 85th anniversary of our official founding as an organization, we wanted to do something instead of a sit-down dinner and banquet,” board chairman Patricia French said.
The two-day folk festival will feature the three dance groups from the center along with two from Canada and five from cities across the United States.
The celebration begins at 7 p.m. Friday with a performance by the center's award-winning Otets Paissii Dance Ensemble at West Mifflin Area Middle School auditorium. Performing as well are the Danka Folklore Dance Group and the Shareni Chorapi Children's Group, both directed by renowned Bulgarian folk dance choreographer and instructor Aleksandar Zankin.
The folklore dance group was named for French's mother, Danka.
On Saturday, there will be a Bulgarian dance workshop led by Zankin at the cultural center from 2-4 p.m. Performances begin that night at 7 at the West Mifflin school and feature Bulgari from Montreal, Bulgarian Spirit from St. Louis, Dimitrovche from Toronto, Friends of Bulgarian Dance and Izvor, both from Detroit, Horo from Chicago and Rosa from Atlanta.
A Vecherinka Balkan dance party is planned at the center each evening after the performances. “That will give the dancers a chance to meet and talk with each other,” French said, noting both dance parties are sold out.
This is not the first time the cultural group has marked its anniversary with dancing.
“In 1980 we did a similar event at Soldiers & Sailors (Memorial Hall & Museum) to mark Bulgaria's 1,300-year anniversary as a country,” she said.
A variety of events are offered at the center to keep the cultural traditions alive. There are cultural classes for children that include Bulgarian language, folk dance, geography and history, and dance classes for adults.
“I had to go to Bulgarian school every day when I was a child,” French said. “I learned the language and the culture.”
That experience has enabled her to travel to Bulgaria more than 30 times and to serve as a State Department interpreter for 40 years.
Reflecting on the center's history, French said, “We survived the closing of the steel mills and I believe we were able to do that because we got our young people involved. We are firm believers in involving the young people as much as possible.”
The original name for the center was the Bulgaro-Macedonian Beneficial Association, which was the center of social and cultural life for Bulgarian and Macedonian immigrant families who settled in the Pittsburgh area. The organization helped the families integrate into American society, including with insurance plans that provided benefits if the breadwinner died. At its heyday, 800 families were active in the organization.
“A lot of the people came to work on the railroads and then the steel mills,” French said. “They worked to make money so they could open their own businesses, and most of the time those businesses were bakeries.”
At one time, she said there were 33 Bulgarian-Macedonian bakeries in Allegheny County, including the West Homestead Baking Co., which was her father's.
In 1995, the BMBA was dissolved and the Bulgarian Macedonian National Educational and Cultural Center was established. A few years later, Soup Sega! was introduced as a fundraiser and has been a big success. Offered Saturdays through May 14 from 9 a.m. to noon at the center, 14 varieties of homemade Bulgarian soups and other specialties are offered. Soup is available in quarts and half quarts. More information about Soup Sega! is available at bmnecc.org/soup-sega.
“We were all born and raised in this country,” French said, “but we feel a connection to the traditions of Bulgaria that make us who we are.”
Keeping the center active takes a lot of work, she said, “but it's not a burden because preserving your heritage is not a chore. This is my legacy. I owe it to my parents.”
Carol Waterloo Frazier is an editor for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1916, or email@example.com.