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Cruising NWKS: The usual song and dance

7/31/2012

By GAYLE WEBER

By GAYLE WEBER

gweber@dailynews.net

WILSON --  Malia Rich wasn't born with Czechoslovakian heritage, but she grew up in Wilson, so she jokes she acquired it, becoming a "Czech by default."

"When you're born and raised here, you are (Czech) whether you like it or not," said Rich, who now lives in Garden City.

But who wouldn't like it? With kolaches and polka music, Wilson celebrates its heritage each year with the Czech Festival in late July.

Even though Rich left her hometown at age 17, she returns for the festival almost every year, usually bringing a friend with her who never has experienced the festival before.

She sat on a bench Friday night eagerly awaiting the start of the Czech Dancers' performance, which features young girls in similar red, white and blue outfits dancing throughout city park.

"It reminds me so much of when I was young," said Rich, who was one of the early Czech Dancers as a child.

The dancing troupe was started by LaVange Shiroky in the early days of the 52-year-old Czech Festival. Many girls who grew up in Wilson participated, Rich said.

"You could always get what you needed at her store to make your outfit," she said.

The tradition now has continued through generations, and it's one of the highlights of Rich's time back in Wilson.

"We realized it's not something that everybody else did," Rich said. "It's unique."

And it's a tradition that has sentimental value for Jana Macek, who led the Czech Dancers this year. Macek wasn't a Czech Dancer as a girl  --  she didn't even grow up in Wilson, her husband did -- but the tradition was one of her mother-in-law's favorite parts of the festival. Her mother-in-law died during the festival a few years ago, shortly after watching a performance.

"It's in tribute to her," Macek said. "It's one of the reasons I do it."

More than a dozen girls in red and blue skirts, vests adorned with hearts, and ribbons in their hair skipped around the park, danced around a maypole and eventually did the "Chicken Dance" with help from the audience.

Along with the dancers, the Wilson City Band is a long-running tradition at the Czech Festival. The band used to perform every night of the event, but now draws its members from a 60-mile radius and puts on concert just one night.

"The last I don't know how many years, they've come from all over," said Mary Mattas, Wilson, who was one of the first to get to the park to hear the band play.

Reading yellowed sheet music, the band played favorites throughout the night and dedicated its performance to longtime director Leroy Klema, who died last fall.

Among the tributes, the fun and the music, the Czech Festival hit the right chord with the hundreds who flocked to Wilson during the weekend.

And for people like Rich, it's even more than the activities that make it worthwhile.

"This is home," she said.