My time at the Herräng Dance Camp 2015
Tradition demands that I write another Herräng account. Every time I start to write one, I think that this time it will be very short, because I have so little to say. So far, I have been consistently wrong. Perhaps this one will prove at least mildly exceptional. I have the advantage of six weeks' having passed since I left the camp, and so I'm hoping that more than the usual amount has been forgotten.
Keen and luke-warm readers of this site alike may have spotted that I wrote no account for 2014. That's because I didn't go in 2014. 2013 had been a particularly disappointing trip for me, and I was in no mood to repeat that. I should stress here that the disappointment was in no way the fault of the camp, but was instead experienced as a result of the behaviour of a couple of people at the camp for which the camp's organisers were in no way responsible. I went to a wedding in Finland instead.
This year, Laura Halttunen asked me to go over and be the compère for a cabaret show in a casino in the centre of Helsinki. There was no money in the gig, however. To sweeten the deal, she suggested I stay for a week and teach workshops at her dance studio (Jazz Factory) and get paid for those. Never wanting to say 'no', I said 'yes'. One week in Finland.
An event I had been considering attending for some while was 'medieval week' in Visby, capital of Gotland in the Swedish Baltic. I could go there and shoot lots of video for my YouTube channel. This was immediately before the weekend in Helsinki. One week in Gotland, a second in Finland.
Laura got back to me and said that she was renting a cabin with four bunks in it for the last two weeks of Herräng, and did I want to make up the numbers? Split four ways, it would be 700 SEK each per week. This would slot in nicely with the Visby trip, and gave me an excuse to go to Herräng yet again. I could tell myself that I was being polite, pleasing someone else, and that this time it would be a different experience – sharing a cabin with others. Never wanting to say 'no', I said 'yes'. Two weeks in Herräng, one in Visby, then one in Helsinki. The trip was starting to become a bit grander in scope.
Laura got back to me again, and said that she'd been talking to the organisers of the Tenhola swing dance camp in Finland, and that they had seen me some years before in Krakow and decided that I would make a good compère for their camp. On what exactly they based this decision, I'm not sure, since I wasn't doing anything special in Krakow – I was just a party-pass visitor. The camp was the weekend after the cabaret in the casino. The trip was now a five-weeker.
As is now my habit, I bought a one-way ticket. I would buy my return when I knew more about my return. This gives greater flexibility and is usually only slightly more expensive. This was a good move, as it turned out.
I was unsure of the cabin decision. I happen to rather like sleeping in a tent, and a tent is a private world, a personal escape-pod, to which I could retire and be alone whenever I wanted. There was also the very remote possibility that I might persuade a young lady to join me in it. Not only this, but I had a nice new tent, and I would need somewhere to sleep in Visby.
Become Your Opposite
I arrived on the Friday, in time for the 'Become Your Opposite' party. Almost immediately, I was roped into helping out, but I didn't mind. I aided the photographer who was setting up a huge chair and a tiny chair, and I came up with some suggestions for false-perspective shots. My main task was to run a game which involved drawing up a big grid in chalk on the forecourt, and marking two snaking paths across it. Contestants formed two teams, each of a pair. One in each team was blind-folded and had to race across the board along his coloured path, following the instructions of the other who had to say the opposite of that intended (e.g "take a not-large step to your right" = one large step left). This proved quite popular, and the game went on for an hour or two.
A common idea for a costume was simply dressing as the opposite sex. I danced with a man who was wearing a backless dress, and I was reminded that men are horribly sweaty creatures. My own costume was simple enough: a French flag pinned to my shirt, created at speed from cloth from the Prop Shop and glue from the No No Box, and four safety pins found for me by Paul Wood, who described his feat accurately: "That's as difficult as finding safety pins in Herräng."
Doubtless there were other attractions at this party, but as I sit here typing, I have been spared the memory of them. If you were there and can remind me, feel free to write in.
The camp was much its old self. By far and away the biggest difference between this year and most previous ones was the number of new faces there. Whereas the camp has previously been populated largely by regulars with a few newcomers here and there, this year somewhere in the region of 70-80% of the people were there for the first time. It seems that the previous generation has grown up, married, had babies, got proper jobs, and no longer goes there. When the camp was smaller, and I was living and eating amongst the throng, I would meet many new people. Now, I was living in a cabin where we cooked our own meals, wasn't doing classes, and the camp had large numbers of strangers in it, so I got to know few new people.
Another thing that attracted some comment was that the line-up of teachers was far from familiar to most. I recognised most of the people, but not as previous teachers at the camp. Apparently, there had been a few last-minute changes. Since I wasn't taking the courses there, I was not directly affected.
I'm happy to be able to report that the mosquito population still does not seem to have recovered from the bad year it had a few years ago, and so I only once applied repellent from the ample supply I bought at the airport, and that was just before first arriving. I was bitten a few times, but not enough for it to seem worth smelling slightly odd, and having even shinier skin.
Last year, I had been at my desk, working at my computer, when word reached me that Lennart had left the camp. He had done so only minutes before. Immediately, messages flew around the world on Facebook. It made sense to no one. Supposedly, he had been accused by some fliers that had been left somewhere at the camp, of once having had some connection with a neo-Nazi party in Sweden. Almost no one had seen the fliers. I have still never seen an image of one. Did no one photograph one? Lennart had announced his departure at the evening meeting, and immediately people were questioning it. Did anyone believe that Lennart is a Nazi? How long would a true Nazi last in the world of swing dance? Even if there had been a glimmer of truth in his having once associated with Nazi-types, what does a man have to do to prove that he's moved on? I'd say that organising a swing dance camp for three decades is probably enough. No one demanded that he leave. So far as I can tell, no one even imagined that he might. I'm told that when he did, it was as though someone at the camp had died. Gunnar of the Dream Factory (the upstairs office that organised things like the evening meetings and the making of camp videos for them) left at the same time, and from then on, evening meetings in the Folkethus ballroom were not carried on by others, but instead an equivalent but different meeting happened outside the Folkethus every day, and the camp carried on.
This year, there was little talk of that event, at least within my earshot, but what I got from what I did hear was that people were not going to question it publicly, and instead just let it lie and move on. There were those who suspected that Lennart himself had created and placed the fliers, to give him an excuse for leaving.
Lloyd gets busy in the evenings
They had me do quite a few things in the evenings. I taught four evening classes, refereed two table football tournaments, compèred six Lindy hop competitions, and one evening party. I dare say some people were sick of the sound of my voice.
The table football tournaments were held in what was once the 'Mission Impossible' tent, now rebranded as the 'Tingle Tangle Tent', and used for a variety of things. We had only the one table, but the number of contestants was not huge. I had helpers to keep the time and write up the names of the winners in each round's matches. I made good use of my referee's whistle (they really are startlingly loud) and each time a winner emerged from the chaos, and things seemed fair enough to satisfy the contestants. I was very harsh on such foul play as spinning, but I'm glad to say that there was no time-wasting, which I had been fearing. Fortunately, none of the players was skilled enough to time-waste. Had I been a contestant, I think I might have won. The prize was a pizza. One winner was French, and needed a translator to make his acceptance speech on stage the following night. You can see a clip of the tournament at 4 mins 50 seconds into this YouTube video.
The evening classes I taught were: the inevitable ska class; my 'How To Dance Really Well (a class for people who think that they are good dancers but are not)'; and something I have not before taught at Herräng – blues. The practice is to have a blues-for-beginners class on what used to be called 'Blues Night' but is now 'Slow Drag Night', although they don't call it a 'Slow Drag' evening class. This is quite a high-profile and therefore perhaps coveted gig to get, and I was a little surprised to be asked, because it usually goes to more internationally famed teachers than I.
My cabin-mate, Laura, is someone who has done intensive blues-dance training in Berlin and elsewhere, and it struck me as the height of both rudeness and madness not to ask her to teach with me. Planning the lesson took deft negotiation, not least because our backgrounds in blues and approaches to the dance were quite dissimilar. After some while, Laura had a piece of paper with a very detailed lesson plan on it. In the event, as is usually the case, much of the plan got abandoned, but it was useful to have the paper standing by as reference work to show us all the things that we hadn't got time for. That it was well-attended perhaps shouldn't swell our heads with pride, because there were a lot of people there in week four, and interest in a free blues class before blues night is always high. However, Laura gave us all a very professional warm up, which included lots of bluesy isolations, and then the pair of us got plenty of big laughs with our various demonstrations of how not to dance the blues (we did also give hints as to how it should be danced). Anyway, we seemed to have been a bit of a hit, because we were then asked to repeat it the following week.
Slow Drag Nights
There seemed to be an unfortunate effect of being the blues teacher of the night, however. Throughout the night of sultry moody potential passion that followed, I was asked by many people to dance because I was the blues teacher, and I felt obliged to keep my dance to the style Laura and I taught, and to keep everything strictly legit. My dance was stifled. How one feels about one's own dance, however, and the impression formed by others, can vary. I recall dancing with one lady, slowly as is the usual manner in blues, and feeling rather as if I were just running through the text-book of standard moves. I ended up behind her with my right arm around her and my hand resting on her front side. I could feel her heart beating. Despite her slight frame, it seemed that there was a gang of panic-stricken goblins inside her, desperately wielding hammers in an escape bid.
As I have written before, Slow Drag Night is not what Blues Night used to be. The cool people now all shun the main floor. They are often quite vocal about this, which seems to me to form a bit of a disdainful insult to those of us who remain in the Folketshus ballroom. Who are we, then? The beginners, incompetents, and sleaze-bags? I choose not to be ashamed of dancing blues on Blues Night. Yes, I dance blues with women, because that is a significant part of the pleasure. I do not feel the need to dance with men in order to demonstrate that I regard the dance-form as a technical exercise in lead and follow.
I talked one night for an hour or two with Norma Miller. I started with a simple greeting as I passed her in the Blue Moon Café, but one tangent lead to another. Norma's attitude to blues dancing was robust. "It's just fucking, with your clothes on," she opined. She wasn't being critical or dismissive, she was just being direct. She had little time for those who get very analytical about it, and taught/took lessons in blues. Back in the day, she reminded me, people just put on some music and got on with it. I may soon be making a video rant in which I have a go at people who insist on using the term 'authentic' before the word 'blues'. It is meaningless.
Norma is putting together a show for Broadway. She seems very New York-focussed in her opinions of what is important. The only place that matters is Broadway. She will start with an off-Broadway show, aiming to take it to Broadway. Chester is to help with the directing and choreography. One of her ideas is to give people fried chicken in the interval, and then not signal the start of the second half. Instead, the show would just start again, and word would have to get round, and people would be wandering in with half-eaten chicken. I can see how those responsible for keeping the seats clean might have qualms. At this point in the conversation, a girl had joined us and asked "What about the vegetarians?". Norma's reply came before anyone could blink. "Fuck 'em – they get fried chicken!"
Norma's eyes have gone quite a striking blue with age, and I can report that though her talons remain a little daunting, her hands are soft. She doesn't dance as much as she used to, and is now more of a vocal contribution to the camp than a terpsichorean one. I reminded her of a conversation we had when I was MCing Goodnight Sweetheart. She had asked me bluntly whether as a dancer I was any good. Too British to answer this one quickly, I had stuttered that I was sort of all right in my way. "Okay, well then you're just a dancer who didn't make it, so you should become a producer."
Norma paused, tilted her head, and formed a contrite smile. "Did I really say that?" Yes she had, but I liked her for it. I said that I could possibly help her by using my YouTube channel to publicise her project. We'll see if anything comes of that.
Anyway, back to blues: at one point, Norma was talking about how blues is a sexual dance, and how a blues dancer's mouth is close to the ear of the follower, and she brought my mouth to her ear and asked me what I said to my follows. I hesitated, unsure of what was appropriate to whisper into the ear of a ninety-five year-old lady from Harlem. I fear I may have disappointed her.
Back to the blues floor: one issue is the 'thigh lead' and whether it is to be encouraged, condoned, discouraged, or severely punished. People often seem to say one thing and do another. Many of those strongly advocating plenty of room for the Baby Jesus are to be observed in close vertical proximity with their various partners when the lights are low. I find the thigh lead to be clear and tactile and therefore good, but it leaves little space for the follow to contribute to the choreography. She just reacts to the lead, more or less. I, perhaps more than most, will break away from my partner to offer her space to contribute ideas, change the mood, breathe a bit. Most follows in blues, though, do next to nothing but react, and some love to do nothing but follow. Blues is one of those dances when the follow can switch off and drift with the dance, and just enjoy the simple physical sensation of a close dance, like dozing in sunshine on a small boat rocking on a lake. I had a complaint from one partner that I was not offering her space to do her own thing, and yet when dancing with other partners in exactly the same way, they proved themselves very capable of doing their own thing, and I could go with whatever they came up with. Styles and expectations clash.
Slow Drag Night continued. The one and only time I got off with someone at Herräng was on Blues/Slow Drag Night, and so there may linger in me some last vestige of hope. I don't generally feel that it is my place to get terribly sultry, however, and perhaps my partners are waiting for a cue from me. Right near the end of the night, one German girl led the way in sultritude, and I was happy to follow. This was the first moment that Mr John Thomas got interested, but she was so attractive that it was quite obvious that I had no right to exist in the same universe as her, so I soon called it a night and went to bed.
My cabin-mates reported that I dance in my sleep. I think that they may be confusing 'dancing in his sleep' with 'twitching his feet a bit'.
Hosting the competitions
I was asked to host the week 4 Lindy competitions. This involved showing up early to the evening meetings on Monday and Tuesday, in full beige and with hair slicked down. The various contestants would then dance either in the dansbanan or on a temporary surface in front of the Folketshus (when the weather was more trustworthy), while the three unfortunate teachers of the day who had been obliged into judging decided which of them would make the best finalists. I had an amusing stab at saying everyone's name, the music played, and we whittled the contestants down to two couples. Any same-sex couple was always a crowd favourite, and judges were routinely booed when eliminating one. In the evening meeting, the dance-off between the two selected couples was something of a moveable feast, and I had to be ready to get on stage at short notice.
Just before the meeting started, I would have an iPad handed to me, on which would be the music that had been chosen for the final dance-off. I would then listen to it, and decide when to cue in the first couple. This was generally after a two or four eight-count intro. One night, though, they had picked a piece with a very odd structure. I consulted experts, and they agreed that it was an odd piece and not suited to the purpose. There wasn't time to pick another. I warned the contestants that there would be no introduction – they would have to starting dancing on the first beat. This is a point to bear in mind when picking music for competitions: the tempo is not the only consideration.
I tried to be fair. I tossed a coin to determine which couple went first. One night, the stage manager told me in a very matter of fact way that I had complete control over who won, because whichever couple I asked the crowd to cheer for first didn't stand a chance. The crowd would cheer a bit for that couple, and then would be warmed up for a second louder cheer for the other couple. Those who wanted the second couple to win knew how loudly they had to cheer to have their way, and those who wanted the first couple to win usually cheered a bit for the second out of politeness, adding to the second couple's accalamatory din. He did seem to be right. The second couple always won.
My method evolved quickly. Its final form was this: get a member of the audience to stand in the middle at the front, with his back to the stage and eyes shut. This way he did not know which couple's cheer he was hearing (the direction the rest of the audience was looking would give this away, hence the need for shut eyes). I would then indicate one couple, the crowd would cheer, and then the other couple would get a cheer. I would then reverse the order of the couples and give each a second cheer. Each couple, therefore had both a first and a second cheer. All times but one, one first cheer and one second cheer were the loudest of their pairs, and so a clear winner was selected. Otherwise, I took the last pair of cheers as the decider. I think this worked reasonably well, and I heard no complaints. Possibly I was taking it all too seriously. The prize for winning the final on the Thursday was enough store credit with The Lindy Hop Shop to buy most of a tie (and, as it turned out, a free pass to a swing dance camp in South Africa – flights not included!). On the other hand, I saw how daunted and thrilled some of the couples were to be selected for an on-stage dance-off, and so it seemed right to take fairness seriously.
The first time I tried this method, I confused the hell out of my audience volunteer. Part of the problem was that I may have been rushing it. I didn't want to spend ages explaining what I was doing. I am conscious of how annoying a host can be who turns a competition into a look-at-me-show, and of keeping Lennart and others waiting in the wings.I was asked to host (they usually use the term 'MC' as a verb) the competitions in week five as well. I don't recall their ever using the same host twice before. I think they must have been feeling the lack of Mark Kihara. The feeling I had was that I did a better job of it in week five. I was more relaxed and took my time. If I thought of something funny to say, I said it, even if it took up time. No one seemed to mind, but then people usually speak up only when something is notably wrong, rather than when a slightly sub-optimal performance is delivered. In the second week, I had the audience well-drilled in the cheering process, and did longer sillier introductory speeches that had less and less to do with the competition. I also toyed with the volunteers more, although this risked making them look silly and deterring future volunteers, but I'm confident enough that they all took it in good spirit.
Chester arrived (late as usual – he missed his flight, which he does 3 times out of 4) with ambitions of getting me in a spacecraft and having a space battle, all to be achieved by the video magic of green-screen. This quickly got changed into an episode of Dr Who, and I was to be The Doctor. It fell to me to write the story. I came up with something that I think made sense. One major problem with the script, though, was that it required me to use a video camera as a prop.
Chester had already been liaising with Carl. Carl was an eager young (still in his teens, I think) special effects man, who had iAdobeEverythingStudio9 on his computer. He had honed his English in Alabama, and he reminded me both by accent and face of Jesse in Breaking Bad. He had a fancy stills camera which could shoot high-quality video, and a computer that could edit and do fancy stuff. He was on-board with the project.
Making videos with Chester is always a bit stressful. I wish he'd stop saying 'trust me'. We had three heads working on this one, and we all had different ideas of what it should be. I think Carl wanted something for his showreel of special effects, and was thinking in terms of something that might rival Tron Legacy, while Chester wanted to do something more knock-about and corny, with some charmingly-approximate green-screening. I meanwhile wanted to make something quickly and simply, in the genre of Dr Who, with a story that made sense, without demanding too much of the volunteer actors. I get tense when I'm aware of keeping people waiting. I got very tense.
The villains were to be cheap versions of the 'weeping angels'. These were not the same as the monsters in the BBC telly series, because that would involve making an awful lot of statues, and we didn't have time for that. These ones looked like Lindy-hoppers, and looking at them prevented them from using their powers of fast movement and teleportation to their alien planet, but when someone looked at them while knowing what they were, they froze and could do nothing. So The Doctor had to work out which ones were monsters and which were actual Lindy-hoppers, and to do this, he videoed them, then went back in time and watched the videos and spotted the aliens, then forwards in time again to arrive already knowing which ones are aliens, and thus able to freeze them by looking at them. This meant going around with a video camera.
The trouble was that Carl was carrying on with his tap lessons, and would not let us use his camera. This caused many delays, and my camera couldn't be used, because it was a prop. Eventually, we ended up shooting quite a lot of the piece on Chester's mobile telephone. The picture quality was less than ideal, and the sound was terrible, but at least we got it shot. Carl would then disappear for many hours into obscure bolt-holes and edit. Whenever I tracked him down, he was in a bit of a huff, having wrestled with the footage for many hours, and doubtless encountered many technical challenges along the way, trying to knit together footage from different cameras. Chocolate seemed to improve his mood slightly. In not many minutes, I could fix a fair few problems, but I didn't want to push it, so I generally left him to it.
The production of the video dragged on. I thought that I had been clever by writing a story that required only two main locations, and few characters that needed to be seen in both, but getting enough people still proved tricky, and we lost a lot of time to not having a camera. Having Chester to work with had the great advantage that Chester had licence to do things like get the teachers' lounge for use as a location (the TARDIS interior). Sometimes, recruitment of cast seemed to be greatly aided by the fact that the subject was Dr Who. There were plenty of Whovians at the camp. We did in the end shoot the entire story, and it was hoped that we would get to show the result in the evening meetings. It became clear early on that we would have to put it into two episodes, because Lennart would never want to show anything ten minutes long. Time kept passing, however, and the post-prod period extended, which imperilled the mission. Possibly, had the finished first episode been presented by Chester to the Dream Factory, then we may all have seen it one evening, but this did not happen. I am hoping to put it up on my Lindybeige YouTube channel soon.
Invasion from Mars
My Doctor Who outfit doubled as a party costume for the Friday night. It turned out that I was not alone, although other party-goers modelled their garb on specific Doctors. Indeed, I was pleased to learn that people recognised me as The Doctor despite my not having copied any specific Doctor's look. I don't recall doing anything much for this party, so I was free to wander about as a punter, and take photographs.
They filled the Prop Shop with some opaque vapour, and people were challenged to go in to find (rescue) the three alien babies in there. We were told that we would know them when we found them. I found two, but it seems that neither was what I was looking for. I fear I may have failed as an alien-baby-rescuer.
They had a pitch set up for a game of this version of football. Teams were three-a-side, and I played in two matches. My team won the first, and then got knocked out in the second, which was ideal. Two quick matches was just about right. The level of violence was good. You can see me getting knocked over 8 mins 55 seconds into this YouTube video.