by Elyse Wild
For one week in May, the city of Holland, Michigan. undergoes a breathtaking transformation: People donning intricate ensembles that harken to another time and place fill the streets; a food court materializes, serving pigs in a blanket, pea soup, stroopwafels and more; one can turn any number of corners to find a wooden shoe carver, quilt maker and potter immersed in their craft; and of course, more than 5 million tulips awaken to push through the soil and greet the city with their vibrant blossoms: Make no mistake about it, it’s Tulip Time.
Now an internationally recognized event boasting numerous awards that sees upward of half a million visitors, Tulip Time has humble beginnings. In 1927, high school teacher Lida Rogers gave a speech before city council to advocate for naming the tulip the official flower of Holland due to the city’s close ethnic ties to the Netherlands (the area was settled 80 years before by Dutch Calvinist separatists). Rogers suggested that planting tulips throughout the city would not only serve as a tribute to the population’s heritage but would also significantly increase the areas civic beauty. She finished her speech with the reading of a poem titled, “Come on Down to Holland in Tulip Time.”
Persuaded by Rogers, the city council ordered one hundred thousand tulip bulbs from the Netherlands and planted them in the soil throughout the city in 1928. In the spring of 1929, the tulips bloomed, enticing locals and visitors alike to dedicate a few days in May to enjoying their floral charms.
Now in its 89th year, the celebration runs from May 5-13. Gwen Auwerda, Tulip Time Executive Director, emphasizes the significance of the festival.
“It supports our city’s heritage,” Auwerda expressed. “It takes a step back in time and gives people the opportunity to see what the Netherlands may have been like more than 100 years ago.”
From the Dutch Dancers, traditional foods made by volunteers from recipes passed down for generations, the 250 year-old De Zwaan Windmill (the only authentic working Dutch windmill in the United States), around which 120,000 tulips bloom; to national musical acts, sunrise photo walks, city tours, improv performances, a 5K, dinner shows, and yoga,
Tulip Time has grown to encapsulate a number of experiences that evoke Dutch heritage while also nodding to modern day Holland, Michigan.
The Klompen Dancers
Since 1933, Dutch Dancers, formly known as Klompen Dancers, have been a much-anticipated fixture of Tulip Time. Each day of the festival, nearly 1,000 performers gather at Centennial Park in downtown Holland to dance for onlookers.
“Everyone loves the Dutch Dancers,” Auwerda commented. “There are more than 50 performances during the week, so there is a good chance you will see one if you are there.”
The dance troops are historically made up of high school students in the Holland area, along with alumni dancers. In 2010, the festival introduced dance programs for third through eighth graders. Each troupe has 12 members who pair up to perform the same dance that has been performed at Tulip Time for more than 60 years.
“It’s a compilation of different folk dances from around the Netherlands,” Amanda Cooper, Tulip Time Dutch Dance Coordinator, explained.
Cooper’s role entails supporting the various dance and costume directors in their preparations for the big week.
“The dance is such a unique and distinctive way to celebrate our community,” Cooper, who performed at Tulip Time as a teenager and now dances with an alumni group, expressed.
Cooper emphasizes that costuming is equally as vital and time intensive as learning the intricate steps to the dance.
The ensembles worn by the troupes are authentic replications of clothing representing eight of the Netherlands’ 12 provinces from the late 1800s. Each piece is hand sewn by seamstresses in the community who are provided detailed instructions by the costume directors and undergo a meticulous inspection for authenticity. Of course, each performer wears wooden shoes, or klompens, the soles of which echo through the streets as dancers link arms, twirl, stomp, tap and kick their way through the signature dance to the delight of audiences.
“There aren’t many places where you get to be such an active part of celebrating the city,” Cooper expressed. “To be a part of that and to know you are making people smile feels so good.”
“When the Dutch Dancers start, time stops; Centennial Park closes down, the music starts and times stands still.” — Michelle Frieling
A Tulip Time Family Legacy
For Holland native Diane Vanderkolk Kluitenberg Bloem, Tulip Time is a thread that interlaces five generations of her family.
“In 1953, my mother took me in a baby carriage to watch the Dutch Dancers,” Bloem said.
Bloem recalls sitting next to her grandmother, perched in the same folding chair on the same corner every year, and reveling in the parades, costumes and dancers that flowed through the streets. As a young girl and teenager, Bloem marched in all three Tulip Time parades, The Children’s Parade, The People’s Parade (also known as “the street scrubbing”) and The Music Parade, donning a traditional Dutch outfit made by her grandmother and worn by her mother before her. The skirt of the outfit bore a signature from the Tulip Time of her mother’s childhood: a smear of bicycle grease.
“During the street scrubbing, kids decorate their bikes and ride in the parade,” Bloem explained. “When my mother was a girl, her skirt got caught in her bike wheel during the parade, and it was marked with grease.”
Bloem’s memories of Tulip Time are profound and laced with the joy of nostalgia: the sweet taste of carmel corn procured from concession trucks; marveling at the Dutch Dancers with her grandmother; and the thrill of taking an afternoon off of school to march in the parades.
“I am a firm believer that if you live in a town that celebrates something, you should embrace it and join in,” Bloem expressed. “It has so many fond memories for our family. I love being able to say, ‘My grandmother used to do this with me!’”
When Bloem grew up to have children of her own, she carried on the tradition by bringing her daughter, Michelle Frieling, as a baby to watch the dancers. Just like her mother, Frieling was raised on Tulip Time; in elementary school, she looked forward to marching in the parades and watching the dancers perform.
“Tulip Time is such a big part of my life,” Frieling laughed. “As a kid, I just loved it. It was a big deal to go downtown and watch the Dutch Dancers.”
As a girl marching in the parades, Frieling wore the same traditional ensemble Bloem wore; the special skirt marked with bicycle grease.
“As a mom, I was so proud when I watched my daughter walk by in her uniform,” Bloem said. “It was very special for me.”
When she was a sophomore at Holland High School, Frieling joined a Dutch Dancing troupe, practicing in the evenings and in the early mornings before school in preparation to perform every day of the festival.
“It was so much fun, and something that you just wanted to be a part of,” Freiling recalled. “When the Dutch Dancers start, time stops; Centennial Park closes down, the music starts and time stands still.”
In 2009 and 2010, Frieling joined the Alumni Dutch Dance program and once again slipped on her klompens to perform.
“I was surprised at how quickly the dance came back after so many years of not doing it,” she expressed. “But that music stays with you forever.”
Frieling now has two daughters who march in the Tulip Time parades, walking in the footsteps of the women who came before them.
“Marching in the parades is a right of passage,” Frieling said. “I am sure both of my girls will be Dutch Dancers when they get older.”
This year, along with mainstays such as the marketplace, artisan market, food court, tulip tours and Dutch Dancers, visitors can expect to enjoy contemporary entertainment the festival has grown to embrace. The celebration features live shows by national musical acts such as Joshua Davis and Jake Kershaw; dockside tours of Friends Good Will, a replica Great Lakes sloop from 1810; a performance of the award-winning play Calendar Girls; and some comic relief by River City Improv.
“We are always looking for ways to engage our community and have evolved to serve our demographic,” Auwerda commented.
With all of the evolution, one thing hasn’t changed: the tulips. With more than 5 million bulbs sourced from the Netherlands and planted each autumn, the festival remains a celebration of the exquisite blossoms that saturate the city in stunning hues, bringing the civic beauty to Holland that Lida Rogers advocated for nearly 100 years ago.
Susan Zalnis, Tulip Time Director of Marketing and Entertainment, attests to the allure of the flowers.
“Everyone shows up and says, ‘Where are the tulips?’” Zalnis said. “Our city is beautiful. During Tulip Time, I love talking to people who come from all over the world who come here. It is a beautiful experience to welcome everyone for the week.”