Vija Vetra Turns 100
By Arthur Z. Schwartz
I never thought I would be a groupie, but here I was, sitting with a group of 50 Westbeth residents, watching movies of an incredibly beautiful dancer, performing all over the world, followed by tributes from friends, neighbors, and even the Latvian Counsul General. And I joined in too, congratulating Vija Vetra on making it to 100—and having just returned from dance performances in her home country, Latvia, followed by a vacation in Greece.
Dancer Vija Vetra was born in Riga, Latvia in 1923 and has been a Westbeth resident since 1970. Ms. Vetra has travelled the world as a solo dancer specializing in various styles, from modern to Indian. From 1990 until the Pandemic in 2020, she returned every year to her native country to teach master classes at the national theatre, receiving from the government the Award of Three Stars, their highest civilian honor.
It was after seeing a local production of Swan Lake that she decided she wanted to study dance professionally. But her family was against it. So she ran away to Vienna to live with her aunt. “I was 16. My aunt also didn’t want me to become a dancer, so I had everyone against me. I knew what I wanted, though. I knew it was my destiny. You either know it or you don’t.” Vetra did study dance in Vienna. But WWII began; Latvia, which gained its independence after World War I, was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, then by Nazi Germany a year later. During the Nazi occupation of Latvia, between 65,000 and 75,000 Latvian Jews were killed. By 1944 about two-thirds of the country was occupied by the Red Army. During the War, while practicing dance in the Vienna Academy, the building was bombed and collapsed on the class. Vija and her classmates had to be shoveled out. About 100,000 Latvians fled to Sweden before the arrival of Soviet forces.
When the war ended, Vetra emigrated to Australia with her sister, mother, and aunt. She lived there for 16 years, opening her own studio, starting her own dance group, even having her own television program, and even giving a command performance for Queen Elizabeth. In 1964 she was invited for a coast-to-coast dance tour of America and Canada. “I danced in 36 cities,” she says. “Then I was asked to be on the faculty at Carnegie Hall so I never returned to Australia. I opened my first studio in New York on Sixth Avenue and my second in Westbeth in 1970 [at age 67], where I still live.” But she continued to do dance tours around the world, numerous short trips which would not endanger her immigration status.
VIJA VETRA OVER THE YEARS:
I got a call from Vija in March 2020, just as the Pandemic shut our lives down. She found my name in WestView and got my number from George Capsis. She had had $3000 in her name, what she called her burial fund. And she had been scammed out of it by a phony social security ruse. Then, when she called Social Security (from which she received SSI), and told them the story, and instead of being sympathetic they sent her a letter taking away her SSI (her sole source of income) because they only allow recipients to have $3000 in the bank, and she had averaged $3500. Then she got a letter that her Medicaid and Medicare was being cancelled. I got involved, meeting with Vija in the Westbeth courtyard, and stopped Social Security and Medicaid in their tracks.
Vija was quite shaken, almost out of money, scared to be living alone during those dark early days of the pandemic, and very depressed that she wouldn’t be able to either perform or travel. Indeed, her hopes were dashed by the pandemic, as she was looking forward to traveling to her native Latvia where she is regarded as a national treasure and performs annually for an audience filled with some of her most respected and influential countrymen, including the president of the country. We met up frequently during 2020. My own mother is even older than Vija (she too is now 100) and I was shut off from seeing her during the pandemic. So Vija sort of became my substitute, and we bonded. When I ran for NY City Council in 2021, and shot a campaign video, Vija made an appearance, and gushed out to the camera, “Arthur is my angel!”
In 2015, the Baltic Times wrote about her “Secret for longevity.”
“Movement is key, and dancing is the best kind of movement. It is important for everyone as it has an emotional side, more so than sports. We satisfy our emotional world, our duality. Both spiritually and physically,” Vija explains. She also emphasized the importance of remaining child-like throughout one’s life. “Although, it is important to be child-like, not childish,” she clarified.
When she told me last year that she was going to Latvia once again to dance, and then Greece, to see Athens, one of her favorite cities, I was ecstatic. And what did she want from me—“please fix my will so that all of my memorabilia can go to the museums I love.”