-By J. Taylor Basker
Vija Vetra is still dancing—her lifelong passion. She was born February 6, 1923 in Riga, Latvia. Her family did not want her to be a dancer; but she ran away from home at 16 to an aunt in Vienna, Austria, where she secretly trained in classical ballet and modern dance at the Academy of Music and Performing Arts.
After escaping the Soviets, Vija spent years in refugee camps in Germany. She then went, still a refugee, to Australia. There she became the epitome of Indian dance, where she had her own dance TV series, and performed in East/West concerts around the world. She was received in India by Prime Minister Nehru and Indira Gandhi. She was the principal dancer in the musical Kismet, and a soloist in a performance for Queen Elizabeth ll and in Carmen in London.
In 1970, following one of her tours, Vija remained in the US due to many offers to perform and teach. She received numerous awards from the Latvian government after it gained independence from the Soviet Union, and has visited her native country annually, performing and teaching master classes since 1990.
Although interrupted by the Covid pandemic for two years, Vija performed in Latvia again last summer. At age 99, she was likely the oldest performing dancer in the world. She also visited her beloved Greece on her own. This February 6th she will enter her 100th year. She is featured in three documentaries and two books and has been named a Westbeth Icon.
The young woman who survived, and was nearly crushed to death on the last refugee train out of Austria, was a seed that escaped imprisonment and flowered into a dancer, choreographer, teacher, and inspiration.