By Gordon Ekvall Tracie
A noted country fiddler from Sweden's "folklore province" of Dalarna once told me, "To us, music is not an art form, but a necessity of life." The same might well be said about traditional dancing in yesterday's rural Swedish society; it too was not an art form, but an essential part of a lifestyle. Its function was strictly socio-recreational, having lost for the most part any ritualistic implications which may have had some significance ages ago.
I refer, of course, to the actual dance legacy of the people, not the formal book-learned "folk dances" which have long been the stock-in-trade of the organized folk dance societies. While the latter are also, in a sense, recreational, the approach to them has been, from the beginning (mid 19th century), performance-oriented. In striking contrast to that repertoire are the unpretentious (except where the men may be showing off to his partner!) "fun" dances which were transmitted from generation to generation "by osmosis," so to speak, developing simultaneously with the music which inspired them, without regard to their suitability for public performance. In short, there participatory nature was (and is) an end in itself.
The aim of these teaching sessions at the 1981 University of the Pacific (Stockton) Folk Dance Camp, therefore, is to convey in a direct a manner as possible, the art and spirit of traditional dancing as it has been practiced by the Swedish folk for many generations. Presentation of the material is based upon a unified approach to Swedish dancing, not just a collection of dances from Sweden. Each acquired skill, from a simple turning step in a schottische to a relatively sophisticated rotation step in a syncopated polska, serves to enhance further acquired skills, until the dancer's response to various rhythms is "second nature."
For the American folk dancer yet uninitiated into Scandinavian dancing, a few salient features of the Nordic dance idiom should be pointed out. As mentioned in the previous paragraphs, traditional Scandinavian dances are recreational rather than consciously ceremonial in nature. Also, in contrast to the ethnic dances of many other cultures, they are nearly all "co-educational," requiring partners of the opposite sex. While this is obvious in couple dances, it is also the norm for dances in rings and other formations.
Perhaps the single most characteristic feature of the old dances of the Swedish people is the predominance of couple rotation. Because this turning is relatively fast, it brings into play certain physical factors not obvious in slower dances, such as momentum, counterbalance, torque, leverage, et cetera. The net result is that the focus is not on two persons merely dancing given steps in close proximity, but on a single couple dancing together cooperatively. Because one of those persons must "start the wheel turning" and "steer," the matter of leading takes on great significance. This is the man's job. Thus, essential to the success of a Nordic turning-dance is a strong male lead.
As is the case in most folk cultures, the traditional dances of the Nordic lands are predicated upon a relatively limited number of step patterns, each corresponding to certain basic rhythms. These steps occur, however, in a multitude of different figures, styles, and music settings, and are subject to numerous dialectal interpretations. So, while the number of separately identifiable dances covered in a week's camp or weekend workshop may seem unduly ambitious, it is really no more than a practical application of a limited number of figures with, of course, an adequate understanding of their intimate relationship to the music being played.
Because of time and space limitations, only a few of the several legitimate "folk-style" rhythms which comprise Sweden's native dance heritage are covered here. But, they should serve to allow the dancer to understand in theory and enjoy in practice, the fun of couple rotation, which is the essence of the typical Swedish traditional dance.
While old-time dances are done quite alike throughout Sweden and have therefore become somewhat standardized, the regional ethnic dances, being products of local rather than "national" tradition, are found in a multitude of variants. To simplify, their presentation to a non-Swedish public, a generic approach, rather than an idiosyncratic one, has been employed both as to choice of a particular dance form, and use of the dance's name. In every case, an effort has been made to capture the spirit of the regional idiom with a minimum of needless confusion.
It is the hope of the instructor that at the conclusion of the teaching, students will be able to exclaim, "I've learned to dance Swedish Style!" rather than trying to remember how many different Swedish dances they've gone through!
Dances taught: Bingsjö Polska, Fyrmannadans, Gammal Polska, Gammal Schottis, Gånglåt Snoa, Jämtländsk Polka med Bakmes, Jämtländsk Polska med Bakmes, Jämtländsk Schottis med Bakmes, Kulldansen, Medelpad Senpolka, Medelpad Snurrbock, Polska med Bakmes, Västerdalsk Bakmes.
Reprinted from the 1981 University of the Pacific (Stockton) Folk Dance Camp syllabus.