Photo: Justyna Lorenc

A Marriage Made of Jazz and Folk, with Maria and Rafał Ślęczka

One of the joys of running this website is that I get the chance to do long-form interviews. It may take a little longer to read, but without this format it would be much more difficult to see the bigger pictures of why people dance. For this interview, I sat down with Maria and Rafał Ślęczka, who are an organizing and teaching couple in Kraków. Just as a marriage is a fusion of two individuals, a dance school is the mixing of many dance backgrounds. Let’s listen in to their story…

Greg Austin We’re here with Maria and Rafał. Y’all were just up on the Polish coast for your May holidays with your children. How was it?

Rafał Ślęczka It was quite difficult because of the behavior of our children.

Laughs

That was the main challenge. It was fine for 3 nights, the weather didn’t help us, it was quite cold and sometimes raining, but the children were the biggest challenge. For us, it was a test. In a month, we plan to go to Greece by car for the Swing & Swim festival. We decided to make a test and go by car. We wanted to know how it would work.

Greg And how old are your children?

Rafał Weronika is five and a half, and Karol is eight months.

Greg Eight months? Congrats.

Maria Ślęczka In Gdańsk, we had a very nice evening on Saturday, with Professor Cunningham and His Old School. The music on this event was really great.

It’s funny because many people told us, “Wow, your children are so great, they just sleep at the party.” We were so tired and still everyone was amazed with Karol’s sleeping during the party. A different perspective, I guess.

Greg The challenges of kids. Ok, let’s start talking about your origin stories, how did you come to dancing? Maria, let’s start with you.

Maria Ok, so I started dance when I was 7 years old. It was the beginning of my school. I come from Tarnów, 70 kilometers from Kraków. There was a culture center, with a group for children, and my parents wanted me to sing, not dance. In this group there was a class where it was maybe 1 hour of singing and 1 hour of dancing, but no one liked this singing. So after a couple of months, they cut the singing group and it became only dancing.

It really cut me here, I really loved this group. After two years there remained only one group for teenagers, 15 to 18 years old. I was then 9 and I really cried. I was crying and crying and crying, and my parents called to the center and they asked if I could stay in this group for teenagers. And they agreed.

So, next the couple of years I danced together with people much older than me. For me, it was very exciting. But difficult as well because in the beginning no one treated me seriously. So I needed to work twice as hard as the rest. We danced Hip-hop dancing, a bit of funky even, because my instructor, Teresa Lamot she traveled to New York and she brought us a bit of funky dancing. Some Jazz, Ballroom dancing, it was a mix of everything, but with Jazz and Classical backgrounds.

Greg But a Modern dance background?

Maria Yes. I was there for 12 years, and then I moved to Kraków. I was looking for a Jazz group, not open classes, to be in a community, but I didn’t find anything satisfying enough, so I used to go to these open classes, just to be still in the dance. But it wasn’t I guess what I was really looking for.

Greg Gotcha, and Rafał?

Rafał I come from a really small town, in Bieszczady. It’s only around 10,000 citizens. I was 7 or 6 years old and there was only one group that was dancing. Today I find it funny, because it was Country dancing and we danced like cowboys to Country Folk music.

I did that for 5 years, and then my parents decided to move to Kraków. We moved with the whole family. We didn’t know anyone here. My cousin used to go to a Folk group and I went with him, along with my brother. After several years, my brother stopped doing it, and I continued. I really liked it. There was a point when I had to decide what I wanted to do with that and I decided to go deeper into it.

At that time, the only way to be better in Polish Folk dancing, and to know more in that matter, was participation in an instructor course. So I participated in such a course. It was a 2 years long, organized by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. My specialization was Folk dancing. Basically in Poland, there are a lot of Folk companies, Folk groups, and most of them are based on Ballet. So, we were trained with a Ballet warm up, Ballet exercises, and a lot of Jazz techniques. The technique was really important. It was half of the class, and then the second half was the proper Folk dancing.

So it was really beneficial for me, now I see it. I’ve learned a lot about techniques, I learned a basic understanding of how the body moves, how it works. It wasn’t only about Polka or Waltz. It was about dancing in general.

Greg And today, you both dance and teach mostly Lindy Hop?

Maria and Rafał Yes.

Greg How did that happen?

Rafał It’s a long, short story. We met at our studies. We studied Culture Studies and at some point we decided to dance together. Maria was dancing solo, and I used to work in couples. We decided to go somewhere together and dance. And we found, I don’t know how, West Coast Swing. We decided to participate in West Coast Swing classes, and we paid for a 3 month course, but the group was closed after only 1 month. Since we still had 2 months paid, the owner of the Swing school proposed to us to go to the Lindy Hop class.

At first, we didn’t like it. You want to know why? Because we looked at them, and I thought, “No. Monkey dancing?! No, I like the West Coast Swing, the smooth, nice movement.”

But you know, we had already paid, so we went to the Lindy Hop classes. I remember my first class was Jitterbug Stroll choreography, and my first couple class was swingout 6 count. Now I understand what I was doing, but that time, not at all. So it was quite funny because it was easy for us to catch the basic Lindy Hop. We were used to dancing and we could easily copy the movement, but not with much understanding. That’s the story how we started dancing Lindy Hop.

Maria At that time, the community of Swing dancing was very, very small. So after a couple of months, our teacher looked at us and thought, “Ok, they have basics, the body movement, the technique of their dances, so maybe they can teach.”

Rafał It was 8 years ago…

Maria The beginning? Ten years, it was ten years.

Rafał Ten years? No, no, no. We got married in ’12, so it was like 2011. We started dancing at the beginning of 2012. It’s quite a lot of time.

Greg And then you got married and opened your own school, Jazz Like That?

Rafał Not at all, no. Then we moved for a little while, abroad.

Maria When we started to dance Lindy Hop, it was the beginning of 2012, in January. Then in March, I remember our first Swing festival here in Kraków, it was Swing Era Festival, and then we got married in October and right after we went abroad to Palestine –

Rafał Israel and Palestine for our honeymoon. And we spent there some time. It took us a year to get back long term, because we were there 3 months, and we were back, and we’d go again –

Maria But I remember our first group here in Kraków was in February, 1 year after we started to dance Lindy Hop. Then we went again abroad and when we finally came back we started to teach regularly, but it was not at Jazz Like That.

Rafał We were in the Swing & Sway school, and that time was a point when we really wanted to improve and the only possible ways were learning online or going abroad for the festivals. We didn’t have so much money to travel, so we decided to take online courses.

We trained with the Rhythm Juice, and we really appreciated it. It helped us a lot to clarify our basics. We really loved this service and it helped us a lot. At the same time, we were teaching at different levels and it went like that for several years. And then, almost 2 years ago, we decided to set up with our friends our own school, and that’s how Jazz Like That came into existence.

Greg Congrats on that. Now that we have your background established, we can move on to the game. We’re going to play a game where I’ll ask one of you a question about what the other person thinks on a topic. And then the other person will get the chance to respond.

So starting with Maria, what do you think Rafał’s favorite thing is about his Folk dance background?

Maria About his Folk dance background? I think I know. I think the music is the most important for Rafał. When we dance now, we have fun with Swing dancing. Swing music is very joyful, it’s funny, but when Rafał wants to go deeper with music, he always listens to Folk music. Ethnic music or Polish Folk music. I think Folk music gives him more emotional context here in dancing, with sometimes something sad, even. There are many nostalgic songs in our Folk music, with very sad lyrics, sometimes about love, but not this happy love. So I think it’s music.

Greg How’d she do Rafał?

Rafał Maria’s right. I love Swing dancing, and it brings me a lot of fun and joy, and I really like the music, but still when I go to a Folk party, it’s more “transic,” if that is a word. Like a trance, the repetition… you repeat, repeat, repeat and for me it’s more, like Maria said, more emotional. I found it somehow more interesting for me. I don’t have to create so many shapes and variations, I only need some basic steps and a little bit of turning. And it makes me really, really happy.

Swing dancing I feel more like, and maybe it’s my fault, but I feel forced to do variations. To do something. To create something new. Folk dancing is completely different, I can turn, that way or the other way, and I can continue for several minutes the same movement and I’m not bored. So I think that’s why I love Folk music, Folk dancing.

Greg So Maria got it right?

Rafał Yes –

Maria One point for me!

Greg Alright, to switch it around, Rafał, what do you think is Maria’s favorite thing about her more modern dance background?

Rafał I think for me it’s more difficult to answer that question. I think for her the most important thing is technique, and I believe, to express herself. So that she can do it on her own, and she’s not limited by the other person. I think that’s it.

Maria I think he’s right.

Laughs

Rafał We’re a marriage, come on!

Maria So the technique? For sure. When I see my dancing now, I think this technique is very important for me, and it helps me now to improvise in Swing dancing. So this feeling of freedom, to express myself. Maybe also something emotional in this Modern Jazz, even Lyrical Jazz techniques, because we dance to very different music than Swing. So yes, I think that’s it.

Greg Excellent. Maria going back to you, do you think there’s something about Modern Jazz dancing that annoys Rafał?

Maria You mean now, in our Swing dancing? Or in general?

Greg In general.

Maria Maybe there is one thing. Sometimes when we watch Modern Jazz dancers, there is more often something “gymnastic” in it. Something only to show off one’s abilities and it’s not really dancing. I think this is what Rafał thinks. In Folk dances, as he said, you can only do one thing, for example turns. It gives you pleasure.

Greg Rafał, is there anything that annoys you about Modern Jazz?

Rafał Maria is right, but I would like to make a small comparison. Modern Jazz is more about performance. You’re trained for performances, to do choreographies. Your body’s trained to be stretchy, you are trained to jump higher, to be higher, bigger. I don’t think I like that way of thinking, it focuses only at improvement. To be better, better… you’re not stretched enough…so let’s work more. It’s not for everyone. I really appreciate Modern Jazz dancers’ bodies, but sometimes it’s too much for me.

But it’s not every time. There are incredible performances, Modern, but they use their technique to transfer a message. And that’s the way I think about dancing. They use the technique, steps, to transfer something else. It’s the tool. For me, I use the steps and the technique like a tool, not like the purpose.

Greg Gotcha, and going back the other way, is there something that you think Maria finds annoying about Folk dancing?

Rafał Yes for sure. For sure, for her it’s boring. She doesn’t feel always the same as me. Sometimes I guess that she would love to have more variations and to have music not always be the same. I think that’s all.

Greg Maria is that fair?

Maria Yes, and no.

Laughs

I will explain. For me there is a difference in Folk dances between the performing style, for example Mazowsze or Śląsk, these types of Folk dances, and the regional dances. The performance style is super nice for me. I’m not bored, I can look at them and I feel excited –

Rafał It’s more like Ballet. Like Folk theater, but on the whole dance.

Maria Yes. So it is more, can I say, “stylish?”

And the second option, the second family, is the regional one. You are focused only on the way of how it was in the villages, the traditional way of Folk dancing.

But I really like the “stylized,” performance Folk dancing, maybe because of my background. So for example, I think I could dance this stylized dancing, this is something for me. When I see them flying somewhere, or doing very fast turns, I get excited watching this. So this is for me.

Going back to this question, the very traditional music, like Rafał said, is quite boring for me.

Greg So you are both correct on both questions. Now the final one of these questions is about your school, Jazz Like That. Rafał, what do you think is Maria’s dream for Jazz Like That?

Rafał There’s no dream, I think. There’s no dream. It’s an interesting question, I haven’t thought about it…

Greg Feel free to take your time –

Rafał No, no, no, the answer for me is simple, there’s no dream. The only thing we try to do is to share our passion, to be open to people, and we do it for people and it makes us happy. That’s how we do it. Because we try to be focused on people, and at the same time we really receive much from them. What would happen? We will see. I think there’s no specific dream.

Greg Maria, do you have a dream for Jazz Like That?

Maria If you ask me this question, I think there are two ways of my thinking here. One is about Jazz Like That as the community. The other thing is my own improvement here in dancing. When I think about myself, I don’t really have any specific expectations here. I’d love to dance more Balboa, but now I don’t really have time for this. It makes me sad, but –

Rafał That’s your dream? Balboa in Jazz Like That?

Maria Maybe. It’s a very little dream.

Everyone laughs

It’s not like a big dream. I think so –

Rafał We can work on that.

Maria When we have the time. You know, when the kids are a bit older. So, yes maybe this. About community, I think still we’re very open for some changes here. In general, in our life we don’t really have big expectations. For example, here we started this school and it gave us more than we really expected.

So, I think my dream is to make this community bigger, stronger with better relations here, to share something good with people. Not only dance technique, but also like Rafał said, maybe more of a message. That dancing is something good for people in general, I think. Because it makes you feel happy, you can express yourself, you can meet other people, and build something together, so I think for now this is the most important thing for me. It’s my dream to make this community more open, not to create the great dancers, but to build the community.

Rafał May I add something? Like Maria said, it’s more about people. For me, it’s like Swing dancing is only a tool for us. We could do anything else, it could be Tango, Salsa, but somehow in our lives we started to dance Lindy Hop. So this kind of dance is for us the base to introduce people together, to connect them with each other, and to be really helpful. That’s what we have discovered since we started Jazz Like That two years ago, that people are really helpful and they love to help each other. When you create the environment which is friendly, there’s a lot of benefits for everyone.

Greg And to wrap up the game, Rafał may have dropped some hints to the answer to the next question, but Maria, what do you think Rafał thinks is the most important thing for the success of Jazz Like That?

Maria I’m sure about this question. Yes, it’s about community here in Kraków. Hmmm, how to say it… I’ll try to be delicate here. Sometimes in Swing communities there is some conflict between people. I think this is something that happens in every bigger city, and I think now Jazz Like That is a place which connects all swinging people here in Kraków.

Rafał You are 100% right. We always try to be above these conflicts. The school is not for the instructors. It’s for the people, we want them to have fun, to meet together, and that’s our goal. We are honest, we don’t have conflicts with anyone, and that’s how it works. And we found it working really well, not to make conflicts, but to be above them.

Maria Yes, and still I think we have had very good feedback from people not only from Kraków, but from different cities around Poland. They see it, and they appreciate it. I think it even makes a small change in thinking in the whole Polish community.

Rafał We hear sometimes that what we do can be an inspiration for others. It is nice to hear, but at the same time it is the biggest challenge for us, because we still want to improve, to do better, not to stop. We want to create a better place, and it’s nice that at the meantime we can be an inspiration for someone else.

Maria I can say we have one rule here. Just do the best we can.

Rafał And always for the people.

Greg Excellent. So that was the end of our game. How do you think each of y’all did? The other person?

Maria I think we know each other quite well.

Rafał Yes. My favorite question was that about the dream for Jazz Like That. It was quite interesting because I understood 5 minuter ago that it’s not the way we think about Jazz Like That. We create, and we will see what happens. We are open.

Greg The final question of the interview is a question for both of you together. What dance would you like your children to learn first? Their “native tongue,” so to speak.

Maria Ok, so our daughter dances now. We started with Folk dances and Ballet, at the same time. And why? I think Ballet is the most important for every dancer. It’s a very, very good background for her. And why Folk dancing? I think because it’s very nice for children. There is a group, she can go there with her friends from kindergarden. And what do you think?

Rafał I think the same, but I have different arguments. For me, I would like for my daughter to have a good fundamentals. Like Ballet or Jazz techniques. So we suggested to Weronika to try, and we went to one school, then another one, and finally we found the place she likes. We don’t force her to dance.

Maria It was her idea.

Rafał It was her idea to go to Ballet, not ours.

Maria Because she saw something on Youtube.

Rafał It’s maybe our “fault,” but every child wants to watch cartoons, and from time to time we don’t allow her to watch cartoons. Instead, we put on some Mazowsze Folk Company, Folk dance performances, or some Ballet. There’s the London Children Ballet, on Youtube, and they have some very good performances. She saw them, and decided she wanted to try.

But at the same time, from my perspective, I don’t want her to practice only Ballet. At some point, for me it’s disturbing. It’s more difficult to enter other techniques because you have so many Ballet habits. It’s hard to quit them. So at the same time, I would like her to dance something in addition to ballet. Now it’s Folk dancing, because she went to my classes, when I was a Folk instructor, and she really likes it. So that’s why now it’s the combination of Ballet and Folk dancing.

But in the future, I guess it would be Hip-hop… popping, locking, laughs, but it’s her choice.

Maria And Karol? We don’t know. Maybe football – more laughs.

Greg Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for your time.

Rafał Our pleasure.

Interested in learning more about what Maria and Rafał do? Head on over to their school’s site, Jazz Like That. Alternatively, they can also be reached through their Facebook profile.