My time at the Herräng Dance Camp 2016
Another year, another Herräng. Why do I keep going? Why have I spent almost all the summers of my prime in this mosquito-ridden camp half way up Sweden? I suppose one might call it a triumph of Hope over Experience.
I was sort of looking forward to it. I think this says most about the life I have been living lately. For the last two or three years, my existence has centred on a computer on a table in my bedroom. Here, I sit on various uncomfortable chairs all day, editing videos. Elsewhere in my flat there is plenty of evidence of other interests of mine – half-completed projects piled up in the naïve expectation of being returned to sometime soon. I'm told that being a YouTuber is much like doing a PhD. If I am working on a video, then I am doing my job. If I am ever doing anything else, I am shirking. Confined to a few square feet of space, thanks to a constant need to faff around, delaying the process of productive work by a thousand acts of self-distraction, my life passes in solitude.
Given this, an escape to a land of fresh air and camping, activities, sociable people, and... I am trying to fool you here, and worse, trying to fool myself. These factors are all next to irrelevant because they are so utterly dwarfed when viewed next to the real main reason. It's the girls. The camp is always well-populated by happy smiling great-looking healthy genial exotic friendly girls who want to dance with me. After a year in my editing cell, I wanted to meet girls. Of course, I knew that this was a stupid thing to wish for, but I am human, and humans have inherited instincts that drive them this way.
Booking a one-way ticket at the last minute has sometimes saved me money, usually cost me a little but been convenient, and never been so expensive. My flight to Arlanda cost me more than any other ticket I have ever bought. Perhaps I should have gone somewhere cheaper, like New York. Still, it was only money, and at least I have some of that now.
I arrived on Thursday evening, week four. Work on my forthcoming graphic novel (In Search of Hannibal) had been going a bit more slowly than I had hoped, and I had found no time to make any videos to be uploaded in advance of my trip. To counter this, I did something that was possibly foolish, or possibly long over-due: I bought a laptop. Needing to be able to edit HD videos on it, I got a pretty swanky one from John Lewis, and for the first time in my life, travelled with a laptop. Normally, a significant part of the pleasure of a holiday was walking away from computers, ignoring Facebook's illusion of community, letting my e-mails pile up, and having a break from swearing in confused frustration at the screen as yet again the machine does something unexpected and unwanted.
I had heard of various changes that the camp had made. Some seemed to be for the worse, but I'm sure that they had their reasons. The camp had no 'volunteers' any more, but instead had 'staff', except that some people were volunteers, and they still needed a word for the people who used to be called 'staff'. 'Heads of department' sometimes served, but wasn't always accurate or useful. Full-time volunteers were now some sort of 'staff' and were paid, but it seems that part-time volunteers were compensated in the traditional form of free parties and the like. The new system was more complicated but seemed to have no other advantage. Something that might be symptomatic of a more professional attitude amongst the staff/volunteers was that this year the issued T-shirts remained unsullied, rather than as in previous years converted in a hundred creative ways.
Thursday night was the final of competition night, hosted very competently by Naomi Uyama. The contestants got ready, the first couple swung out, and then one from the second couple stole in, and then the rest of the bout involved similar, clearly pre-arranged, acts of cooperation. Result: standing ovation.
Thursday night used to be 'cabaret' night, but now was 'amateur vaudeville' night. The three differences were 1. a different name, 2. they didn't broadcast it to the rest of the Folketshus, and instead it was possible to go a dance somewhere instead, and 3. it was always presented by Frida Segerdahl. The idea seems to be that they wanted Frida's hosting of the night to become an institution in the same manner as Lennart's doing the evening meetings. Now of course I wouldn't dare suggest that Frida is a bad compère. She seems quite at home on the stage, wore an iridescent beige blouse, and squeezes all the humour out of Swedish diphthongs. However, I think that perhaps the camp is losing an opportunity to make the most of the people there. "Did you see the one hosted by...?" will no longer specify a cabaret, and each one will seem less of an exciting one-off event.
In the show were the usual singers, bands, and dances; some skinny men hiding behind towels, pretending to be even more scantily clad than they were; two men who passed a cherry between them on spoons, taking the full length of the Peter Gunn Theme to do so; and the prize for the weirdest act goes to the one cut short by the stage management, after it showed little willingness to conclude, and had carried a canoe through the audience and onto the stage.
I taught just two evening classes this year. The first was, inevitably, in ska, and the other was one of my rather technical ones, about the many subtle differences between triple stepping and walking, and how to lead and follow these. On the strength of it, I was booked for a private lesson later. After this second evening class, I had to rush to the Folketshus to get to the final (and for me, only) rehearsal for the blues party opening show. I arrived at about 11.20, and the producer, one Mr Chester Whitmore, was nowhere to be seen.
This show might perhaps be my greatest example of not going stale through over-rehearsal. The show started at midnight, and before that, we had to get the audience in. I learned that I had to introduce the night, and set up the scenario with some stooges picked from the audience, and take them up to meet 'my girls'. I'd like to assert that my casting as a pimp was against type. I would have to wing it, somewhat. This was a complicated opening show, involving songs and dances, and scenes. "Where are we in the show at this point?" I once asked one of the singers. She laughed. She said she had no idea.
Thinking it reasonable, I sat down after introducing the four singers, and acted my character at the table on stage. Chester then told me that at some unexplained point in the show, I had to be down on the floor in front of the stage for some reason. During the performance, I worked out a way to transition between these two points without being too distracting from what the others were doing, I hope. Chester had added me to the final dance number. I ended up dancing in a routine that I had not been taught the steps for, and perhaps even more unusually, had not even seen. I think the total amount of time spent performing in the show exceeded actual rehearsal time. Perhaps my highlight was popping the cork of a bottle of bubbly I found on the table on stage, and contriving to do this to add emphasis to one crescendo in the music. The effect of this may have been spoiled, or perhaps enhanced, by the stage manager's bursting out laughing at it.
In recent years, the blues night opening has used little floor space, and the audience of lucky people who made into the room in time have been crammed in. This time, we had enough space to get everyone in, and still had lots of space on the floor. This was week five, and there were strangely few people there after the crowds of week four. In week four, to see an evening meeting in the upstairs ballroom, one had to queue for about forty-five minutes. In week five, one just turned up and walked straight in.
We snowballed, taking members out of the audience and dancing with them, and then started another 'slow drag' night. I quite liked the first DJ's music, although it was near enough all familiar to me – period jazz, but with enough to enable some interpretation, but never anything packed with a satisfying amount of oomph.
For reasons hidden from me, they had replaced the dance floor in the Folkets Hus. That had been possibly my favourite floor in the whole world. I have heard others say the same. It wasn't sprung – it was quite unyielding, but it had just the right amount of smoothness. On that floor, it was possible to dance all night every night without getting tired, because one could let each step slide slightly and yet keep a safe grip, which saved so much energy. This year, though. It had a new surface. In look, it was very similar to the old, but this was not the smooth floor I knew and loved. Perhaps a thousand feet dancing for many weeks on it will in time wear it to the perfect smoothness, but until then it is a rough-seeming thing on which I had trouble doing double spins. It may not be a coincidence that almost every night the dancing continued in the dansbanan longer than in the ballroom.
Three people were employed to be hosts of the parties. In week four these were three gentlemen in distinctive hats, and in week five three ladies who were harder to pick out from the crowd. Their duties were quite wide-ranging, and included security, clearing up spills, reporting things that needed doing to those who could do them, hanging around the foyer, and generally jollying things along. They often seemed to be less than tremendously busy, but perhaps this is a sign that everything was going swimmingly.
Friday night theme parties
Every year when I write about these, I have at least something interesting to report, and usually have some pictures to illustrate a unique and memorable event. Not this year. For reasons which they may rue, they chose to abandon one of the main things that makes Herräng special. Gone were the amazing feats of decoration, gone were the unique parties that were showcases for the imaginations of Lindy hoppers, gone the great anticipation of a weekly one-off event. In its stead was simply a night on which people were asked to dress up nicely. People did dress a bit more in the vintage kit on Fridays, but otherwise there was nothing more of note to Fridays.
As a sop to the critics, Wednesday was declared 'Masquerade Night' and people were expected to come up with some fancy dress of some sort. I did not think that this would work. I think I was right. Without a theme, there is no inspiration; no reason not to just wheel out an old costume; no reason to innovate, nor coordinate with others; no reason to expect that others will go to a great effort which should be honoured by emulation. Most people wore next to no costume at all, and many costumes were just any-old-thing from the Prop Shop, and none had any relevance or reason to stay on for long. I anticipate that this decision will be reversed.
Having many times made videos at the camp, and yearning for some future time when I would have my own camera and/or editing equipment, this year for the first time I had both, and ended up making no co-production with Chester, despite having ideas for two. I managed to get one video out for my YouTube channel, and that had nothing to do with the camp. I was on holiday. Making videos is now my work.
The Dr Who videos I shot last year with Chester were shown in the new cinema. This was a screen and chairs set up in a trailer, where most nights an old feature film would be screened. The videos were considered more suited to a B-movie there than for showing in evening meetings. They were making another (failed) attempt at keeping the meetings from over-running.
For week five, I was asked again to run the competitions. I donned my beige, slicked back my hair, and despite a cold, got on with it. This involved turning up to the dansbanan and running things there with a head-mic, introducing the competitors by saying their names approximately, doing much the same with the three teacher-judges, and then seeing that the field of competitors got whittled down to two couples. These would then have to be nabbed and briefed for the evening meeting dance-off. This was often the hardest bit.
Upstairs in the meeting, I would crouch in beige near the side door near the stage, and watch the show, and wonder where the hell the two couples who were supposed to be there with me were. When the time seemed near, I would then gather the necessary people side-stage, tell them where to wait in readiness, and then step behind the dark 'legs' to await my cue to enter, which would often be such a long time coming that I'd start to wonder if they'd forgotten about us.
Ricky Whitfield the stage manager contrived each night to make the microphone more interesting than mere bland competence would have provided. The first night he managed to drop it down onto my head, and then I found it wasn't switched on. It was one of those old-fashioned ones that is lowered down, as to a boxing ring announcer. The next night, it came to knee-height, and from there I lifted it to my mouth and announced the bout. I then signalled for it to be raised. The dancers started dancing. It dangled in the middle of the stage, vulnerable to the violence of the Lindy hop. I signalled ever more frantically, and then grabbed it and held it to the side of the stage out of the way. Only then was its cord slowly reeled in, which pulled me back towards the centre of the stage again. Thank goodness for my height and long arms. The third night, the side-stage crew upped their game by covering a mic-raising mistake by showering me with giant gold confetti. All part of the show.
There were also solo dance competitions in front of the Folkets Hus. I watched a couple of these. Despite hosting so many of them, I've never been a fan of them, and as usual, I disagreed with the results (Maya – you were robbed). Once I saw them try a winner-stays-on battle format, which meant that the victor of the first pairing had to beat all the other dancers in order to win, while the last to dance just had to beat the one exhausted victor to claim the prize. This is unfair, but actually a degree of unfairness might actually help – it might stop people from taking the battle too seriously, and it might throw up a surprise winner.
While walking to the Folkets Hus one day with Manu Smith, I saw a greater number of frogs crossing the road than ever before. Manu captured part of the scene on his camera. It resembled some great migration of gnu, and I did my David Attenborough impression.
I am now so rich that I can afford to use the laundry at the camp for one smallish wash. Now that I can afford it, it doesn't seem too expensive. One's perspective of cost rapidly shifts.
One man who was there I think for the first time and had jumped in with both feet was Jon Tigert. He seemed to be everywhere doing everything. I encountered him firing up the new pizza oven, which has been installed permanently where the old barbecue was behind the Folket Hus. This sold pizzas before the evening meeting, but then closed so as not to compete with the cafe and bar. The only time I sampled its wares was at a staff party to which I got invited despite my not really being proper 'staff'. Straight out of the oven, the pizzas were blisteringly hot, and I cannot say much about the toppings, since my attempts to wrestle a scorching slice off a paper plate held in mid-air nearly always resulted in my getting a piece of pizza base, the goodies having run off onto the plate. One topping I did sample was one of the dubious desert pizza toppings, and involved marshmallows. It was violently sweet and quite ghastly.
One night, an American lady I'd danced with a few times stopped me to ask why so many people were so quick to criticise her home city and nation. She reported that when she told people that she was from New York, many people's first response was to say that they could never live there. The USA also was described by many as somewhere less than ideal. Clearly she found it both rude and mystifying. I did my best to offer explanations, but of course I was guessing. I think I made her feel a little better, but she remained hurt by how her nation had been spoken of. Things have changed. People are now readier to criticise the USA. Perhaps it is a good thing that people feel freer to do this, and perhaps it is good for the USA to have to the star-spangled spectacles lifted from its eyes, but this is no excuse for rudeness. There is good and bad in every nation, and we don't have to be ungracious.
Passport control had been combined with reception. This seemed a reasonable idea to me, but those involved more closely with it than I seemed to be more aware of the drawbacks of this move. There was no Internet Igloo this year. Instead, one could buy daily and weekly passes for wi-fi access, and sit reasonably close to the Ice Cream Parlour, which is where the waves emanated from.
One development was that the library dance floor played music of different styles, and these styles were announced in advance. These included Latin rhythms, bebop, New Orleans jazz, and rhythm and blues. I wasn't in there much.
One night there were four extra parties going on at once. One was a fund-raiser for Chazz Young who was ill. This took place in a marquee that had been accommodation in week four. Another was the staff party I mentioned, which took place in the pizza parlour. The library and bar also had independent parties in.
A shot taken in crash-down week. Stage manager Ricky Whitfield and Iris Schouwenburg have been stacking furniture on the mezzanine floor of a barn, to be left there for another year. It was Paul Wood's initiative to add the safety rails this year.
The music there this year was organised by yet another DJing team. The music was fine, but very conventional. I recognised near enough every number they played, and the same usual suspects came round again and again. Incredibly, some people are still playing Lavendar Coffin despite its having been outlawed in most areas of the civilised world.
One night the band Stockholm Swing All-Stars played. I often avoid dancing to bands, mainly because the dance floor tends to be too full. I did dance to these a bit, though, and can report having some rather nice dances, these made so by the fact that the music had a lot of story to it. In each number, the feel and rhythm of the music would change a few times, giving me an excuse to change the way I moved with it. The opposite of this is the music that was very trendy a few years ago that went chug-chug-chug all the way through.
Recurring things in the meetings included 'staff on stage' where members of the staff would do a quick turn. These tended to be simple. One was that they all gathered on stage, and then laughed a lot, and then exited.
They held a tombola to pick out winners for a blind date to be held on the floating platform in the lake, to which a meal for two would be delivered, and photographs taken to be shown in the next meeting. Of course, the course of love does not always run smoothly, and one night pirates attacked the platform, another night was rainy, sea monsters got in on the act, the harmless but vicious-looking dog Kingsly interrupted one date, and one night two men were selected by the supposedly random process (this eventually turned into a double date).
I think two couples were honeymooning at the camp at different times. One such was sleeping in the rather communal and low-grade general accommodation, and these were given a rather nice secluded cabin as a replacement, and driven out to this from the middle of a meeting, with live telecast coverage on the screen of their leaving by limousine.
One of the highlights of my trip was a dance with Janice Wilson. I well recall how intimidating she was when I first encountered her. She was a course teacher in 2000, and her look said "are you man enough?" Some men shot themselves in the foot to avoid her classes. I was glad when my partner did not put her hand up after Janice said to the class, "Ladies, raise your hand if your man gave you a pussy lead." Would I have dared ask her to dance in 2000? I don't know, but that was then, and this was chuffing now. Janice has a very unusual style. She hangs back off her partner in a wide-footed stance, which seems well-suited to counter any attempts by her lead at judo. If she wanted counter-balance, I'd give her counter-balance. It was an exercise in controlled violence. I threw her around from one heavy move into another. As we circled, I kept her falling backwards, into my frame, but she was there with me. A couple of times she quietly screamed "What?!" One occasion was during some particularly brutal pump-action tacky-Annies. I think I acquitted myself reasonably well. Another box ticked.
With the help of reception, I got through the curiously complicated and awkward business of paying for a bus trip to Nynäshamn whence I took a ferry to Visby. There, I camped in the outrageously expensive camp site (just camping there was the same price as a night party ticket to Herräng, and it didn't even include the showers, which were extra (and surely the main reason one uses a camp site at all)), where I again enjoyed the medieval festival, and got recognised by a lot of YouTube watchers, but didn't ever recover from the fatigues and viruses of Herräng. Thence I flew to Helsinki, and went on to the last ever Tenhola dance camp, where again I was the MC. There I fulfilled an ambition to get a whistle solo with a jazz band. The band seemed impressed, and I was called back to do another, but no one actually dancing to us seemed to notice.
The trip ended back in Helsinki, where I was MC again for the Palladium Nights show in the Helsinki Casino. There I got to perform alongside Finland's top swing dancers. After the show, I got to social dance with many of them too, including the superb Reetta Koivuniemi who knows how to be creative. I also got to teach workshops at Laura Halttunen's Jazz Factory, Finland's premiere swing dance studio. While there, I shot a few videos including this one on the long-legged Charleston. Possibly I should do more like this. I don't intend to set myself up as the great authority on Lindy on the web, and I am aware that far more esteemed dancers out there have made how-to-Lindy videos, but their business model is of necessity one involving selling their videos, whereas I now have such presence on YouTube that possibly I don't need to sell anything. At present, my subscribers on Lindybeige are expecting videos about Vikings and sword-fighting, so may be dismayed to see me upload many videos on the girly topic of dancing.
It seems that I managed to write a reasonably short account this year. Veterans of many Herrängs tend to say that the camp is not as good as it used to be. It is difficult to separate how much this is due to the fact that we have changed, from how much is due to the camp's having changed. Perhaps it just isn't as new to us any more. I meet fewer new people there each time. I was talking to some doctors who go to conferences a lot, and they confirmed that a conference attended by forty people is great, because one meets and talks to everyone there, but one attended by thousands isn't because one meets no one.
And no, I didn't.