Feature: Tango Fever, Finnish Style

Wednesday 5 September 2007

*The Waldorf Hotel has reinstated its Tango Tea dances, classes across the UK
are in demand and the stage show Tango Fire opens at the Peacock Theatre on 8
September. We seem to be in the midst of a tango resurgence, but in Finland,
enthusiasm for the tango has never waned.*

*This summer Katie Gregory visited the 2007 Tangomarkkinat a five day festival
of tango dance and music to find out how this notoriously reserved nation fell
in love with the flamboyant foreigner…*

After its creation in the brothels of Argentina, the tango travelled across Europe,
evolving and adapting as it did so in response to the demands of a fickle climate.
While the music and dance style found itself sliding out of fashion elsewhere,
in Finland, it struck a more lasting chord – one that led to the creation of a
new way of dancing the tango, and an unwavering national obsession. The tango
may be making a comeback in the UK, but over in Finland, it never left.

Firstly, dancing Finnish tango isn’t as easy as it looks. I had (wrongly) assumed
that my previous experience of its far more ostentatious Argentine predecessor
would stand me in good stead for my lesson with Klaus Blomqvist, son of Åke – one of Finnish tango’s most important figures – and a well-respected dance
teacher. In fact, the nuances of the Finnish version take some getting used to
and, as with any social dance, there is that first hurdle to overcome: whether
you like it or not, you are required to nestle up to your partner, and in the
case of Finnish tango, it gets pretty cosy.

This of course is all part of the fun if the two of you happen to be in love/lust,
like Klaus and his very pretty girlfriend. If, however, you are relatively new
acquaintances, and suffer from an acute case of British reserve, the results are
less effective. So how did the Finns – not such distant relatives from the Brits
in terms of sweeping personality stereotypes – ever come to embrace the tango,
not merely in a literal sense, but as a huge part of their national identity?

stc-2005 2 The answer can be found amongst the crowds at the annual Seinäjoki Tango Festival (or Tangomarkkinat), who gather on Tango Street, a stone’s throw from the Åke Blomqvist Dance Studio where I found myself learning the ropes with my fellow-novice partner.
The first noticeable difference to the Argentine style is the hold. Although
there’s pressure inwards from both dancers, there’s no pronounced inward-lean,
and instead the stance is more upright, with body contact equally pressured from
chest down to thigh – where the point of leading and following stems from. The
steps are based on a basic “slow, slow, quick quick” rhythm, and with no crossed
steps or flicks, on the whole it’s far subtler, although no less intimate. As
Klaus squeezed us closer together, his demonstrative thrusting action – while
off-putting – made it clear what it was he was looking for. Essentially, and in
keeping with its original Argentinian gaucho forefathers’ intentions, Finnish tango is a useful method of finding a lady.

Tango dance was first introduced in Finland around 1913. Elsewhere in Europe
it was superseded by more fashionable newcomers, but the Finns largely shunned
these, having found an affinity with the melancholic aspect of tango music. While
this has remained a fundamental element of the sound today, the Finns have their
own very distinct style, with no bandoneon, and with most songs played in a minor key.

The pinnacle of Seinäjoki’s festival is a tango singing contest, offering winners
the chance to be crowned Tango King and Queen. On the Friday night of my visit,
the faces of ten semi-finalists grinned out from flyers and TV screens around
the town, before the qualifying trials were broadcast on MTV3.

Kuva21 “It’s a very emotional experience – you’re often close to tears yourself” explained 22-year-old Antti Ahopelto, one of the finalists whose face I recognised from the front page of the morning’s
local paper. “Although they’re not all sad tangos – some are happy, too” added his fellow fresh-faced rival, Henri Stenroth. Indeed, the atmosphere around the town is far from melancholic, thanks to a
potent mixture of high spirits, some of which are of the alcoholic variety. The
set-up is more formal at the Halla Atria, a large sports arena a short bus ride
away, which had been transformed into a dance hall and venue for the Nordic Tango Championships. Surveying the talent, I spotted Johanna and Frans Karki, winners of the 2005 Snow Tango championships in Tampere.

“You can be a good dancer technically and dance your steps right, but if you
don’t show your inner feelings, it’s not the same,”_ explained Johanna of her success. Having initially danced ballroom and Latin
American as a little girl, like many, she turned her hand to tango later on.

“Finns are very shy people,”
explained Frans when questioned about the nation’s obsession with the dance. _“They’re not very talkative. So, fifty years ago you couldn’t find a woman. With tango, because the lady should say yes, you get the chance to share your feelings without talking. You can see if there’s a connection between you. And if it works, you don’t know – maybe one day you will marry that woman.”

banner The formalities of the dance deem it rude to decline a request from a man, and
once you’re up on the floor you’re committed to two dances in which to find that
elusive connection – something that the judges look for in competition.

“In couple dancing, the most important thing is that it is heart to heart,”
explained Tomo Sukegawa, president of the International Dance Centre in Japan, from where he had travelled to adjudicate at the tango championships.
And while the Japanese presence at the festival is flourishing, the Finnish style
itself has begun to emerge elsewhere.

Julio Vallejo Medina, an architect by trade who works at the Seinäjoki Polytechnic, was originally
drawn to the area by the structural designs of the town’s most famous architect,
Alvar Aalto. He’s now working on an EU-funded project, Intertango, whose aim is to create an international association for Finnish tango; so far
it has established links in Paris and Grenada. _“Finnish tango is in many ways the same, but it’s not got the ‘showyness’ that
Argentine tango has. Argentine tango has sharp stops and starts, Finnish is much
more fluid, with closer contact between the dancers,”_ he told me. _“And it’s changing, too. Over in Paris, it’s electronic tango now. They’re using
Piazzola, but updating it.”_

Intertango seminars and performances formed part of a long list of features available
over the week in Seinäjoki, which spanned a range of ages and interests. “In Argentina, people go mainly to look at the tango,” explained AP Kuismin, managing director of the Tango Festival. _“Our festival is different, because Finnish tango is different. Finnish people
are not so social usually, so tango is like a key that unlocks their emotion.
Everyone can take part – everyone is a part of it – and that is why so many people
come.”_

In terms of numbers, Kuismin has a valid point – this year there were over 104,000
attendees, of all ages. For Henri Stenroth and 18-year-old Jenna Bågeberg, the winning Tango King and Queen, it’s the route to recording contracts and
glittering careers, not to mention the shiny new cars they won. After the Final
on Saturday night, the crowds on Tango Street launched into yet another evening
of dancing, the tango becoming less and less reminiscent of the one I attempted
to master in Klaus’ lesson. It seems that while the Finns love a bit of competition,
their tango is primarily a social tool, which makes it perfect for beginners.

Dancing restaurants and dance halls are popular across Finland throughout the
year, but if you’re planning a trip, it’s well worth timing it for next years
Tangomarkkinat (9 – 13 July). There are plenty of reasonably priced flights from London Heathrow to Helsinki,
where you can get a train (3 hours) or a connecting flight (50 minutes) to Seinäjoki.

Seinäjoki Tango Festival, 9 – 13 July 2008

www.tangomarkkinat.fi/

South Ostrobothnia Tourist Service for package details and prices www.epmatkailu.fi

Tango Tea dance, the Waldorf, Sunday 16 September.

£55 per person, includes champagne afternoon tea.

www.hilton.co.uk/waldorf T: 020 7759 40 83

Tango Fire, Peacock Theatre, Portugal Street, London WC2, 18-29 September. www.sadlerswells.com T: 0844 412 4322

More on Finnish tango in the Observer Travel section, 2 Sep 07

_*A version of this article first appeared in the August 2007 issue of Dance Today,
the magazine for social and competitive dancers, and sister publication to Dancing
Times – Britain’s leading dance monthly covering ballet and performance dance._ www.dancing-times.co.uk*. Katie Gregory is the editor of Dance Today & also writes regularly for Dancing Times.

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