New Age, Same Dance For Former Duquesne Tamburitzans

Jul 1, 2016

The Tamburitzans are an Eastern European music and dance ensemble.
Credit The Tamburitzans

Friday is a monumental day for one of Pittsburgh's longest running coed dance and music ensembles as Duquesne University's Tamburitzans officially split from the school to become their own nonprofit organization.  

Executive Director and former “Tammie” Robert Vukic said the move will secure the group’s financial future and preserve the Tamburitzan legacy as both an educational and cultural institution.

It was an economic choice, Vukic said, adding, “We’re the first 80-year-old start-up.”

Born of the Eastern European folk tradition, the Tamburitzans came to Pittsburgh in 1937 from Austin, Texas under their first director, A. Lester Pierce. According to Vukic, Pierce chose to transfer the ensemble because he believed the city’s booming ethnic communities would be a welcoming space for the group's signature blur of costume and language.

Shortly after their arrival, the dancers joined Duquesne University, which provided full scholarships with housing and book allowances to student dancers. Throughout the 20th century, the touring group honed reputations both individually for unique cultural celebrations and for the university as an institution accessible for international students.

“The Tamburitzans have always been viewed as unofficial ambassadors of Eastern European culture," alumnus Nick Jovonovich said. "Whether it’s for public officials from those countries … or they’re representing American culture in Europe."

University officials were involved in the decision to separate, Vukic said. Duquesne will transfer ownership of all Tamburitzan property, including its costume collection and building to the organization, as well as subsidize the nonprofit’s operations for its initial two years.

Vukic said those costs became a financial burden for the school some time ago, prompting  the creation of a now $4.5 million endowment initially funded by performance revenue, fundraising, former university matches and donations. The fund yields about $200,000 in interest annually, which the group distributes among 30 students.

At the current rate, active members who attend regular rehearsals and performances can earn around $7,000 in scholarship money per year, according to Vukic. Duquesne charged $30,070 for tuition alone in the 2014-15 school year.

The Tamburitzans currently have 30 members.
Credit The Tamburitzans

“We went from an era when Duquesne University basically funded the entire (full) scholarship to today, when the endowment funds the scholarship,” Vukic said.

A folklore performer since childhood, Javonovich said the ethnic breakdown of the ensemble exposed him to unprecedented diversity and sped his personal growth, but that inclusiveness within the organization didn't always extend to leniency and understanding among members of Duquesne's administration. 

When he was a student, performers' admission into the Tamburitzans prevented group members from accepting outside scholarships, though even then the Tammie awards didn’t always cover the full cost of tuition.

Jovonovich said he's hopeful the new nonprofit structure will help encourage student dancers to pursue their true academic passions without the limitations of insufficient financial aid.

“We were students before anything else, so the fact that we put our education as high as we did but also represented the university and the city and our own culture and heritage by doing this -- you would hope that it could be rewarded justly,” Jovonovich said.

Vukic said that group members are now encouraged to layer financial aid from outside organizations with that from the Tamburitzans. As a result, money won’t be the focal point of the group, he said.

“Because we don’t have full scholarships to give to students, what we do sell to them is the exact same experience…you will leave this place with something special,” he said. “I was able to hone skills related to public speaking, poise, teamwork and time management. These things are essential to be successful in today’s world.”

Starting this season, the group opened to full-time students from any Pittsburgh-based college or university. A dozen freshmen will join later this month to rehearse a brand new show, Vukic said.

“The experience of being on stage with other students…who have this common bond of wanting to perform and wanting to perform their traditions in a way that other people have the chance not only to respect it but enjoy it," he said.

Former students draw on those experience the rest of their lives, Vukic said. Ideally, someday the full scholarships could return.

“That we would be self-sustaining from an operational standpoint, and that we would have accumulated enough donations for our scholarship effort that we would be able to fund substantial if not full scholarships for all of our ensemble participants, that’s the dream, that’s the goal,” he said.