One man who has perhaps done the most for preserving traditional Croatian folk dance in the diaspora is Željko Jergan.
Željko has been teaching Croatian folklore around the world since 1986.
Born and raised in the northern Croatian city of Varaždin, Željko joined a folklore group at the age of six. He also went to the famous Varaždin music school. At the age of 18, Željko headed to the capital Zagreb to study architecture at university but he was also destined to be in dance.
After auditioning, he was accepted in the Croatian National Folk Ensemble LADO in Zagreb, which was a childhood dream, and became a professional dancer at just 19 in 1974.
It was at LADO where Željko would meet his wife, Cindy, and his life would change path. Cindy arrived to LADO from Pittsburgh and was the first dancer from outside Croatia to perform with LADO.
Despite Željko not speaking English then and Cindy not speaking Croatian, the couple fell in love and got married.
“We were dating, it was not easy, and I remember we were going on tour to China and Japan and I said to her this will not work if we don’t talk and when I come back from the tour, if we can’t have conversations I think we should break up. Three weeks later I land at Zagreb airport and she says ‘bog stari, kako si?’ She could understand Croatia and speak Croatia but she was just afraid. And that was it,” Željko recalled on the All Things Croatia podcast, where he was a recent guest.
In 1986, Željko would go on tour to USA and Canada with LADO. At the end of the tour he went to Pittsburgh where he and Cindy would have a church wedding.
“Five month later it was time to go back to Zagreb, I still had an apartment there, and she said to me she would prefer to stay in the United States and that was the reason I stayed here,” Željko said.
For the past 37 years, he has shared his in-depth knowledge and travels around the world to spread the culture and traditions of Croatian dance.
On the podcast, Željko talks more about his journey in the US, the importance of preserving traditional Croatian folk dance and how diaspora communities around the world are helping to keep the traditions alive.
To listen to the full interview click the play button below.