MY FIRST TIME AT HERRÄNG DANCE CAMP
Herräng is an ex-mining town (iron ore, I think) on the Baltic coast of Sweden, a couple of hours' drive north of Stockholm. Here, every year, for four weeks, there is a swing dance camp. People come from all around the world to get the best teaching from the best teachers. Sweden, Switzerland and America were strongly represented, with fair showings from Britain, Latvia, Estonia, Holland, and some from as far away as Singapore, and New Zealand. They stay in the new, but abandoned, houses of the little town/village. The punters pay by the week one lump sum, and this covers everything: teaching, food, laundry, parties, cabarets, evening dances... the lot. I went for the last week, during which there were tap and Lindy Hop courses. I chose the Lindy Hop intermediate/advanced course. I had been teased, warned, scolded, and teased again, by those who knew me in Britain, for choosing so high a level. I held my own.
For those who don't know, Lindy Hop is a 1930s swing dance. It uses jazz steps, and is normally danced as a partner social dance - that is, a dance with couples dancing together for a while before changing partners for the next dance, with no choreographed routine, but instead an improvised series of moves. It is danced to an eight-beat rhythm, which gives the dancers a lot of room for adding twiddly bits.
My course involved learning the Shag and jazz dance too, and I took extra lessons in Rock and Roll, and Madison. I still haven't been shown the Shim Sham properly though, and most people seemed to be able to do it.
I arrived on the Friday evening, just in time for the evening party which had the theme "National Stereotypes". I and a few others there had gone for the "Brit Abroad" look, which involved a knotted hanky on my head and very baggy shorts. Other British costumes included all five (yes, I know that there are normally only four) Telly Tubbies, football supporters, and punk rockers. Foods of the various nations was laid on, and the entertainment included Swiss wrestling (a bit like a cross between Cornish wrestling and Sumo), which involved an especially surreal moment in which Dipsy Wipsy beat Tinky Winky pretty decisively; the Swedish doing their Santa Lucia parade; an amazing jazz routine danced to a Latin beat; the Americans singing their national anthem with frightening gusto, before showing everyone the "American dance: the Hokey Pokey" which turned out, to the disgust of the Brits, to be just like the Hokey Kokey, but without the choruses. Next thing, they'll be claiming apple pie to be an American invention. The Dutch came on in clogs and did a rehearsed silly clog dance, and while they were leaving the floor, were challenged by shouts from the crowd to do the Shim Sham. Someone took up the microphone and sang "Flat foot floogie with a floy floy" while the Dutch rose to the challenge and did the noisiest version of the Shim Sham one is ever likely to hear, for which they were much applauded.
The standard of costume was impressive. People were dressed as elk, tubes of caviar, and special mention must be given to the Norwegian group which wore its skis and mountain woollen gear all night.
Saturday was the day off for the camp, and was amazingly hot. Sweden was suffering from drought, and all the grass was brown. Fires outdoors were banned, and reports reached us of forest fires north of Stockholm. The temperature reminded me of Crete last year, and I was glad of my factor 20. I went to the beach, a short walk away, swam in the cold sea (which has such a low salt content, and such a tiny tidal range, that grass and grazing animals can be observed right up to the water's edge - I even saw a swan and one signet swimming quite some distance away from land), and met people. I visited the local shop which prominently displayed its range of aerosol deer repellents (for spraying on plants, I think). In the evening, we saw a very funny video which introduced us to Herräng, and the Rhythm Hot Shots (a Swedish Lindy troupe) showed us what good performance Lindy Hop looks like. One of these then stood on stage and sang. The audience started clapping along with the song. This in itself was not unusual, but the nature of the clapping was very unusual:
1. ALL the claps were in time with the song. Instead of the usual extended crunch sound which an audience makes when it claps, each group clap was a distinct sharp sound.
2. The claps did not speed up at all.
1&2 together put this audience in the top 1% of audiences, when it comes to clap skill. But there's more...
3. Without exception, everyone clapping, after no prompting whatsoever, clapped the off-beat, not the on-beat.
1+2+3 put this audience in the top 0.001% of audiences around the world. I knew then that I was in special company.
In the evening the freestyle dancing started in the Dansbanan which was a large raised wooden dance floor with a roof held up by wooden pillars, but with no walls. Very pleasant on a warm summer evening, although mosquitoes were a minor problem. Later, we moved upstairs to the Folkets Hus, where there was a hall, with stage, and a very smooth dance floor. For me, the first three nights of freestyle were a little awkward. It was a novel situation for me. In Britain, I can go to any jive event, even the national championships, and feel confident that I can ask anyone to dance, and give them a decent bop. In Herräng, though, things were different. In Britain, the young looking girls are probably beginners. In Herräng the young pretty ones are probably professional dancers. A few times, I asked someone for a dance, and realised during it that I was matched with someone much better than I. I became very cautious about whom I asked. When I jive in Britain, I get a very accurate picture of how good my partner is. Lindy Hopping in Herräng, this was not the case. If she was better than I, I had little way of telling by what degree she was better (the woman can seldom dance much better than the man can lead), and if I was the better dancer, then each time things went badly, I assumed that I was the one at fault. There was one woman I danced with often at the camp, and it took me most of the week to realise that the reason I could never seem to gel with her on the dance floor, was that she wasn't very good.
Sunday morning started with Chester Whitmore's class. This scrawny wiry American pushed the class as far as it could go. He taught us a jazz routine which was fairly difficult, but more importantly, he got us to dance it to outrageously fast music. I felt that the class as a whole was incapable of going any faster. I was wearing long trousers. After a while, the sweat was dripping off my nose, and my trousers were sticking to me. Eventually, while executing a move which involved bringing the knees far apart, my trousers failed to ride up my thighs with sufficient velocity, and I heard a distinctly recognisable sound as my trousers split at the crotch. Fortune smiled on me, as my underpants were the same colour as my trousers. One is always well advised to wear beige. The drinking of water was banned in his class, and this became the subject of many jokes. One offender was required to do twenty press-ups. She was a game girl, and impressed me by managing this.
Later in the week, at one of the evening meetings, Chester was challenged to do some press-ups. First he did them with his right hand, then with his left hand.
The Americans at the camp were so amazingly American, that one felt that they must have agreed amongst themselves to act as stereotypically as possible. The guys were all square, and the girls were either fat or worryingly thin. Two of the teachers, Silvia and Eric (they were very good teachers, teaching Hollywood style Lindy - I especially thought Eric was a nice guy) shall suit as examples: both chewed gum a lot. Eric's once flew out during a fast spin move. Silvia's was sometimes blown into bubbles absent-mindedly, while she executed dips and jumps. Both talked very quickly, in strong accents, and had to be asked to slow down and repeat a lot. "Saucy Steps" came out rhyming with "Star Sea Steps". He wore a red base ball cap at all times, Nike sweat shirt, trainers, and sporty trousers of such length and bagginess, as to require him to hitch them up every now and then, so that we could see where his feet were. She wore a tight thing from the waist down, a naked midriff, peroxide hair, and at least two powerfully elasticated things to keep her breasts in check. These, it was widely speculated, were shop-bought breasts. I have never knowingly seen silicone in action, but so high and so immobile were these that a chap's suspicions were raised. Other Americans displayed similarly high-tech looking frontal encumbrances.
Other characteristics of Americans included shouting out unfunny things in public, and saying "Wooo!" a lot. I don't know why they do that last thing.
A British dentist I met there said that she was having a remarkable time observing the various caps and porcelain sculptures in the mouths of the Americans. Not only were their teeth typically alarmingly white, square, and even, but it did seem that certain of them had more that the usual human number of teeth. Perhaps this was an illusion, but certainly many of the smiles I saw that week came to their owners very expensively.
These started at 8pm, in the Herräng sense which meant about 8.30 on a prompt day. People carried their chairs, cushions, plastic stools which broke a lot (oh the hilarity!), and weary bodies into the Folkets Hus, and Lennart would sit stage right with a microphone, and speak in his Swedish accent, very slowly, and with great dry wit. Announcements about the lesson schedules and the like would be made, but almost all the time of the meetings was spent mucking about. Some of this was a deft way of dealing with social problems. For instance, there was a problem with one of the dance floors in the marquees, with nails sticking up. They did a skit involving people trying to sit and "row" across this floor, and getting punctured bottoms. This got the message across "Yes, we know about the floor, and we are dealing with it" without any unpleasantness, and without any one person's having to stand up and make a complaint.
Some examples of events at the meetings: the administrator, Marie (or "Marie MARIEE MARIEEEEEEEEEEEEE!" as the joke went) had apparently been so unwise as to say that she had four wishes. These were granted, in public. The first was for a bath. The curtains opened to reveal one ready. She got in fully clothed. She was then asked more questions about the next day's timetable, which she answered, covered in foam, and surrounded by little night-light candles on the dark stage. Next, a comedy masseur turned up to grant her second wish, and he got the audience to chorus "Ooooommmmmm" to help her relax. Third, she was put in a bed, fourth, she was joined by a man in the bed. The curtain closed on this sequence, though when it opened again, some while later, she and he were amusingly still there.
One meeting involved a "Blind Pant" event, in which Lennart was surprised to participate. Behind a screen, three men modelled three trousers ("Pants") which Lennart might choose to wear. Lennart was given questions to ask the men modelling them, about the trousers, and by the answers received, and audience reaction, had to choose which trousers to wear to replace the patched blue things he had on.
On the Thursday, I got involved. Someone on the Tuesday night's meeting had proposed marriage, and the wedding was to happen. I was the bride's mother, and wore a funny ugly woman mask. I was the first to end up in the hall, and was interviewed by Reverend Lennart. I managed to get a few gags in ("She looks so lovely, she's a real princess, I suppose that makes me a queen!" and as I cried I threaded my hanky through the eye holes of the mask and pulled it back and forth like a pipe cleaner) and then the wedding got going. Inevitably, a pregnant Other Woman showed up (giving me a cue to bash the groom with my handbag), but the Rev Lennart went through with it, getting the couple to vow to stay together "In Swing-out and Lindy Circle, 'til next blues night do you part."
Fayard Nicholas, a black American tap dancer, got his night of wallowing in sentimental appreciation. It started with a video of clips of his dancing with his bother in 1920s, 30s and 40s movies. He was amazing then, doing terrific leaps and landing in the splits. He was one of a few elderly American teachers there who were treated a bit too much like gods for my liking. Frankie Manning in particular was always spoken of in awed tones. Fayard then spoke at great length and with great charm, about his life, and answered question after question from the floor, mainly from Americans, who seemed to value his opinion on anything, even mobile telephones. When he referred to the audience as "wonderful people", there would be a round of applause. I'm not sure for what the applause was given. Was the audience applauding itself for being wonderful, or Fayard for perceptively discerning this? After an age, and several compulsory standing ovations, we were let free. He was a very charming old man, but we were sitting there for hours, and my body started to stiffen and become sleepy, not ideal for the dancing to come.
Tuesday night my confidence started to come back. The DJ played a lot of quirky medium paced Lindy numbers, and after a shaky start (my third dance was particularly awful, and I take full blame) I cracked how to dance these numbers, and I found myself able to muck about, adding all manner of silly breaks, without disrupting the flow of the dance. The smiles I was getting at the end of my dances changed nature. Whereas before the women were smiling because they were glad it was all over, now they seemed to be smiling because they had actually enjoyed dancing with me. If the woman is not having fun, then there is little pleasure in it for the man.
WEDNESDAY: BLUES NIGHT
I tried to think how this night might be replicated, and failed.
Imagine a room, dimly lit, with a large smooth dance floor. The room is fairly densely populated by people who are mainly young and attractive, and who all can dance, and who all know the rules of dance etiquette. None of these people has paid specially to get in, since this night is in the middle of a week of a dance camp for which customers pay by the week. No one would come just for blues night. The sound is of gentle bluesy music, and the swishing of a hundred feet over floor. The people are dancing close. Very close. Any closer would involve unhygienic acts.
Like everyone else, I went about the room asking members of the opposite sex to dance, and then danced with them for a number, and then asked another, and so on. No strings, no embarrassment, no "Oi that's my wife - BIFF!", just slow gentle, and really very enjoyable close dancing. One girl I danced with suggested that we dance another. At the end of the second, I discovered which continent she was from. This was an unprecedented experience for me, bordering on the surreal.
If you tried to create a blues night at a pub in Newcastle, things wouldn't last very long. Men would get the wrong idea, faces would be slapped, and the brown ale bottles would soon be put to unfortunate use. Only at a long dance camp, perhaps in a foreign country, which has a good reputation, could you do this.
THURSDAY NIGHT: CABARET
Thursday, the weather broke, and we had a lot of thunder and lightning. Friday morning, the marquee roofs hung low with water.
I ended up, I can't say whether by choice or by cajoling from Joo Lee and John, doing an act in the cabaret. I had considered juggling the Flying Penguini Brethren, but settled instead for a quick comedy act. At the meeting beforehand, it was made clear that acts were to last no longer than three minutes. I took this seriously, and went to time my act, which at most lasted about four minutes. I cut it down even more. In the event, I think only one or two other acts obeyed this rule, the others flouting it by a very long way.
The performers sat in the bar downstairs, watching the show on a video projection. The audience crowded into the hall which became very hot. One lady passed out and had to be carried out, and took twenty minutes to come fully round.
The acts varied in quality. Some were songs ("Wintertime, and the living is dreary, fish are frozen, and the cotton is low. Your daddy's poor, and your mother's butt ugly"), others dances. I particularly liked the two tap dancing chefs who did a very impressive routine in which they did a comedy fight, armed with wooden spoons and saucepan lids which added to the percussion of the dance. Less popular was a very confident lady who came on twice, doing tap routines, the second of which was a solo done in spangly gear. The point is to judge the audience. She danced as though she thought that she was very good. She was okay. She might have got away with it had not the audience included so very many very good dancers.
One act was a fast shag routine (fnar fnar). Half way through, the piped music suddenly cut out, leaving the six dancers with silence for accompaniment. The audience started clapping the rhythm, and the band picked up the tune, and the dancers carried on. It was virtually seamless. Where but at Herräng?
My act consisted of my being introduced as a human behavioural scientist from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. I said that classic dance camp psychology involved a phenomenon which led to people's being incapable of telling good from evil. To test to see if this had taken effect at Herräng, I showed them the Obi Wan Kenobi side of the clip file Joo Lee gave me the day before setting off on holiday, and got the audience to call out "good". They called out "evil" on cue when I showed them the Darth Maul side. I said that response time was a factor, and then sped things up a bit, turning the folder this way and that "Good, evil, evil, evil, good, evil, g-good, goo-evil, good whoops!" said the audience. I told them not to be afraid, that it was only science, and that treatment is available. To illustrate the importance of being able to tell good from evil, I sang them a cautionary tale about the contents of a chicken coup which was converted to the Dark Side. This involved singing "Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens", using a Darth Vader voice (as produced using a Pringles tube) when replying as the chickens ("You will point that gun the other way, and you will hobble hobble hobble off and hit the hay, or you will die"). I didn't seem to get many laughs, but was told later by very many people that the audience laughed a great deal. Someone had been sent to buy Pringles, just for me. I didn't get to eat any, though.
FRIDAY: JAMAICA NIGHT
Friday night is party night at Herräng, and the theme was Jamaica. I got into my costume back at the bungalow. This was big shorts and a string vest in black, green, and yellow. The three girls in the bungalow spent about two hours getting into their costumes, and I must admit that I got just a tad annoyed. We missed the tap demonstration. Anyway, the party involved reggae in the Dansbanan (which is a very boring dance when one is used to Lindy), some salsa and tango, and Lindy in the Folkets Hus. The winner of the limbo competition got a free week at Herräng next year. I played the bongos in the lobby for a while. People kept asking me how long I'd played the drums for. I said about twenty minutes. These were big loud bongos which stood about four feet high. Good fun. Drinks were free, the decor was impressive (how did they plan to clear up all that sand?), and I danced my last dance at about 7.35am. This last dance was significant to me because it was the first Lindy track I had danced in a very different way. I did it sort of electro-boogie/hip-hop, and my partner followed. Another stage reached.
I went back to the bungalow, showered, packed, and went to breakfast. The previous night I had had two hours of sleep, with three the night before. I was a little the worse for fatigue. My ankles hurt, my left hand and right forearm were swollen after some mosquito bite reaction, my eyes kept hinting that they would prefer to be shut. On Wednesday morning, the skin on the underside of my toes hurt so much that I thought I would have to sit out the classes, but after a lot of dancing on them, they stopped complaining so much. I caught the bus to the airport, and the 'plane to Heathrow. In the airport someone said, after observing my tired trance-like face "You look sort of elsewhere." "Aren't I?" I replied.
From Heathrow, an expensive coach to Gatwick, thence a train to Redhill, then another to Reigate. I got to Lucy and Jamies' wedding reception as the speeches were ending. I had just enough time to change my shirt, and brief the DJ on what tracks to play, and be issued with a head-mike, before starting to teach modern jive to the wedding guests. My fatigue fell away, and I really enjoyed myself, and I got lots of jokes in. That night, I was billeted with friends of the family in a room with Keith, the salsa teacher. He went to the bathroom first. When he came back I was sound asleep, fully clothed. It wasn't the most refreshing holiday, but it was one of the best.
Gosh that was so fascinating, I'd like to go straight on to read what happened the following year.