Folk Culture

The field of folk culture includes creative activities based on national traditions, traditional culture, intangible cultural heritage, research, preservation and recording of national and local cultural traditions, public cultural events and folk cultural activities, training and continuing education.

The task of the state is to ensure the valuing, preservation and development of the intangible cultural heritage, as well as the sustainability of the song and dance festival tradition.

In Estonia, many people are involved in folk culture and their number is increasing despite the fact that the population is decreasing. The popularity of folk culture ensures that ancient traditions will continue to remain alive today. Thanks to regular activities and those who carry on tradition, zither playing, choral singing and the tradition of wearing folk costumes remain viable. They are only a part of Estonia's rich folk culture.

Folk culture specialists are educated at Tallinn University, the University of Tartu, University of Tartu Viljandi Culture Academy and the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre. A system of professional qualifications has been established in several sub-areas.


  • According to the database of the Estonian Folk Culture Centre, there are more than 83,000 enthusiasts involved in permanently active groups. They are active in approximately 2,800 institutions or organisations and have more than 4,700 supervisors.
  • In Estonia, there are almost 40,000 amateur singers in choirs and more than 20,000 folk dancers.
  • There are 450 community centres (cultural centres, social centres or village houses) in Estonia.

Song and dance festival tradition

Estonia's first nationwide song festival took place in Tartu in 1869. Forty-six male choirs and five brass bands with a total of 878 singers and musicians participated in the first song festival. The First Estonian Dance and Gymnastics Festival in 1934, in which 1,500 folk dancers participated, is considered to be the event that inspired the dance festival tradition.

The song and dance festival tradition is a constantly evolving process of the Estonian folk culture. The Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian song and dance festivals have been added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The song and dance festivals are organised by the Estonian Song and Dance Festival Foundation, which was established by the Ministry of Culture.

The number of people aspiring to participate in the song and dance festival sets records before each event, and includes people from all over the world. The national Song and Dance Celebrations and the Youth Song and Dance Celebrations alternate with each taking place every five years. The next Youth Song and Dance Celebrations will take place in 2022, and the national Song and Dance Celebrations in 2024.

Construction of the dance stadium

While the song festival has been held at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds for decades, the dance festival has yet to have a definite venue so far. It has usually been organised at the Kalev Stadium.

The Ministry of Culture, in cooperation with the City of Tallinn, is renovating the Kalev Stadium so that dance festivals can take place in a modern environment that is safe for both the audience and the dancers.

Song and dance festival study

According to a song and dance festival survey conducted in 2013, 49% of the Estonian population has performed at the festival at least once. 91% have been indirectly involved in the festival - either by attending or watching on TV show. The song and dance festivals are an important expression of identity for Estonians. The study showed the important role played by the Estonian choral song and folk dancing traditions as they relate to song and dance festivals in the preservation of national value orientation and identity. At the same time, the results of the study warned that the sustainability of the tradition should not be taken for granted.

Intangible cultural heritage

Intangible cultural heritage can be defined as the living heritage of our ancestors, carried on by communities and individuals through their skills, traditions, customs and practices, and passed on to future generations. The term intangible cultural heritage is quite new, it came into circulation in connection with the adoption of the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003.

Estonia joined the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2006. According to the Convention, each state must establish its own list of intangible cultural heritage and, if necessary, adopt legal acts to protect it. The Estonian list of intangible heritage is administered by the Estonian Folk Culture Centre. 

Since 2003 the Kihnu cultural space and Baltic (Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian) song and dance celebrations have been in included in UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The Seto polyphonic singing tradition was added in 2009, and the Smoke sauna tradition in Võromaa was added in November of 2014. In 2020, the building and use of expanded dugout boats in the Soomaa region was nominated. Confirmation of the listing should be received by the end of 2021.

Valuing the uniqueness of cultural spaces

Since 2000, the Ministry of Culture has valued the heritage of cultural spaces, i.e. traditional cultural areas. A cultural space is a community with a common identity, whose activities can be classified as intangible cultural heritage. Measures to support cultural spaces have been prioritised by the Ministry of Culture.

Through support measures, the state contributes to the preservation of the intangible cultural heritage of cultural spaces and to the activities of the communities therein. Measures to support cultural spaces are of regional importance, as they generally support peripheral communities where traditional culture is better preserved.

    Important partners

    The Estonian Folk Culture Centre is a national competence centre that compiles professional information, provides training as well as advises and supports organisations and people dealing with folk culture.

    There is a folk culture specialist working for the Folk Culture Centre in each county, whose main tasks include managing the field of folk culture and organising the national folk culture events (song and dance festivals, folklore festivals).

    The most important tasks of the Estonian Folk Culture Centre include:

    • maintaining a sectoral database of folk culture;
    • managing the list of Estonia's intangible cultural heritage on the basis of the UNESCO Convention for the Protection of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, to which Estonia acceded in 2006;
    • organising application rounds for folk culture support programmes, which are financed by the Ministry of Culture;
    • organising training and courses in the field of folk culture.

    Estonian Song and Dance Festival Foundation is the state foundation that organises both the general and youth song and dance festivals. The foundation organises the distribution of grants, which are financed by the Ministry of Culture, to the groups participating in the preparation of the song and dance festivals.

    The Intangible Cultural Heritage Council is an expert group of the Ministry of Culture established in 2009. The main tasks of the Council include developing policies and measures to safeguard the intangible cultural heritage; to submit the corresponding proposals to the Ministry of Culture; and to approve the list of Estonia’s intangible cultural heritage based on their proposed cultural values.

    The main work of the central folk culture societies or partner organisations is to develop sectoral creative extracurricular activities. The societies operate as non-profit umbrella organisations. The societies often commission new works, organise national and international sectoral events for various age groups, provide training and issue professional certificates.

    The Ministry of Culture allocates annual operating grants to the central folkd culture societies so they can implement their action plans based on their developmental goals.

    The central folk culture societies are:

    Estonian Choral Association

    Estonian Folk Dance and Folk Music Society

    Estonian Folklore Council

    Estonian Folk Art and Craft Union

    Estonian Amateur Theatre Association

    Association of Estonian Cultural Societies

    Estonian Association of Community Centres

    Umbrella organizations and institutions that coordinate the community's joint activities in the field of traditional culture are important for the cultural spaces. For instance, these include: Kihnu Cultural Space Foundation; the non-profit Viru Institute; SA Seto Institute Foundation, the Võro Institute as a state agency and others.

    The Võro Institute is a state research and development agency founded in 1995 and administered by the Ministry of Culture. The institute deals primarily with historical Võro County and maintaining its unique language and culture.

    The Estonian Traditional Music Centre is a national non-profit organisation, which promotes live traditional music and supports specialised extracurricular education. It is a partner and information centre for Estonian music schools, civic associations, folk music ensembles, folklore groups, soloists and folk music enthusiasts. The centre includes the August Pulst extracurricular school and a traditional music information centre. The Ministry of Culture allocates operating funds to support the Traditional Music Centre.


    Eino Pedanik

    Adviser (Folk Culture)

    Last updated: 12.12.2020