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Roo Lester Folk Dance Federation of California, South, Inc.

Interview with Roo Lester
By Karen Bennett

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DO YOU COLLABORATE/EXCHANGE DANCES WITH ALIX CORDRAY, WHO MAINLY TEACHES DANCES FROM NORWAY BUT OCCASIONALLY DOES SOME FROM SWEDEN AND GREENLAND?

Absolutely. She's one of my best friends in life.


I DON'T SUPPOSE THE TWO OF YOU WORKED OUT "HEY, I'LL SPECIALIZE IN SWEDEN WHILE YOU DO NORWAY?"

No. In a way, Stockton camp made that decision. I would love to do Norwegian, but I was asked to teach Swedish dances this year. I love both Norwegian and Swedish dances, especially the bygdedans and gammeldans. Bygdedans are the dances from the villages and more rural areas and include the springar, gangar, pols, springleik, halling dances in Norway, and the polskor in Sweden. Gammeldans/gammaldans are the waltz, polka, mazurka and schottishces of Norway and Sweden.

Alix is a teacher and leader in a group in Oslo focusing on dances of the western parts of Norway. They dance the full range of dances in the group: springar, gammeldans, figure dances and song dances from Voss and other areas in the west. Alix does dances from all of Norway. I have experience with bygdedans and gammeldans mostly from the eastern parts, and much less experience with the figure dances and song dances.


WHEN ALIX WAS AT STOCKTON IN 2016, I NOTICED THAT A NUMBER OF HER DANCES HAD BEEN CHOREOGRAPHED BY A GROUP IN SWEDEN AND TRANSMITTED TO A SISTER GROUP IN NORWAY.

There's a huge sharing of things between the two countries. The Swedes seem to choreograph more dances, and they share the dances. The Norwegians tend to "Norwegianize" the shared dances by using Norwegian music for the dances and their own dance characteristics and style.


DID YOU LEARN SWEDISH OR NORWEGIAN IN ORDER TO PURSUE YOUR INTEREST? I KNOW THAT YOU'VE BEEN TO BOTH COUNTRIES TO STUDY DANCE. I'VE READ THAT NORWEGIAN IS SO SIMILAR TO SWEDISH AND DANISH THAT ALL THREE LANGUAGES ARE COMMONLY USED TO COMMUNICATE.

I started studying Norwegian in Norway. There was a six-week course for foreigners who had moved to Norway. I was there on a three-month visit. Then I came back to the United States and took a course at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I also took some classes in the Chicago area. But I'm not fluent. I tend to use Norwegian but I use some Swedish words occasionally.


THE UNITED NATIONS SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT SOLUTIONS NETWORK ISSUES AN ANNUAL WORLD HAPPINESS REPORT. IN THE 2018 RANKINGS, FINLAND WAS FIRST, NORWAY SECOND, AND SWEDEN NINTH. IN VIEW OF THIS, HAVE YOU CONSIDERED ADDING TO YOUR HAPPINESS BY EXTENDING YOUR EXPERTISE TO FINLAND?

I've almost finished reading a 2016 book called The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life by Anu Partenen, a Finnish journalist who moved to the United States. Sometimes I have to stop reading the book because it breaks my heart that in the United States we aren't learning from the Finns and applying what they did to change their society–such as paying their school teachers the same as lawyers and engineers, and giving teachers more resources and status in society as well as expecting the students to apply themselves.

At one point, the Danes were at the top of the happiness list. They don't stress out the way North Americans do. They define themselves as happy people.

The other fun book I read is by Michael Booth–The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia (2016).


LIKE YOU, I WAS INTRODUCED TO SCANDINAVIAN DANCE BY INGVAR SODAL. WAS THERE A TEACHER WHO PIQUED YOUR INTEREST IN BASQUE DANCE? AND DID YOU LEARN SPANISH TO SPEND THREE MONTHS IN SPANISH BASQUE COUNTRY?

I have a master's in dance from UCLA. A thesis was required at the time. Elsie Ivancich Dunin and Allegra Fuller Snyder were my mentors at UCLA. I had done some Basque dancing in Westwind South. Candi de Alaiza, a friend from UCLA, was going to the Basque provinces. She suggested I go with her and I did! I had studied Spanish in high school and took a course for a few months before going. But my thesis did not end up being on Basque dance; it was on the United States Scandinavian dance community and Norwegian bygdedans.


DO YOU HAVE A HOBBY THAT YOU DO FOR RELAXATION? IMPROVISATIONAL COMEDY? ANTIQUE BARN RESTORATION? THE CULTIVATION OF KUMQUATS?

I'm an itinerant folk dancer as profession and hobby. I like to hike and backpack, but haven't backpacked recently. My dream is to do some more hiking. I also like to cook, but my husband has been doing more of the cooking recently because I'm very busy with many aspects of folk dance, including Scandia Camp in Mendocino and the National Folk Organization, and he is fabulous in the kitchen. I do not have a "day job" at this time.


Used with permission of the author.
As appearing in Let's Dance! magazine, July/August 2018, "Roo Lester and the Road to Happiness" by Karen Bennett.