Thursday, October 11, 2007

Dancing in Denmark

I will apologize in advance that my first real news of northern Jutland is not about fish and contains no photograph evidence of my adventures…but it is about Danish folk dancing, which warmed my twirl-deprived heart after the long hiatus since my last contradance in May. A brief introduction for those of you who are not folk dancing aficionados: for my last year and a half in New England, I discovered the joys of contradancing, which involves lots of jigs and reels played by generally-excellent bands and then there’s the twirling and the skirts and lots of other happiness. This may once again prove that there’s something odd about me, but I can definitively say that the most fun I had going out on weekends in college was had by going contradancing. I’ve missed the dancing a lot since I left home, and have been determined to find some local folk dancing in the course of my Watson travels.

Using my internet sleuthing skills, I found a listing for a folk dance fairly close to Hirtshals, a mere twenty minute train ride away in the town of Hjørring. So Wednesday night, I found my way to the dance hall to see if I could find some Danish folk dancing. And…success! As I got to the top of the stairs and found myself in the dance hall (with an old-fashioned pub feel from the wooden tables along the side), the first band was warming up. Although it’s not quite the same as the folk music I know, the sound of three fiddles and an accordion was familiar in all the right ways and brought an inadvertent smile to my face as soon as I walked in. The music was very good – two different bands, with lots of fiddles and accordions, but also a drum set, a banjo, and even an electric guitar. The dances were generally arranged in couples in one large circular set and mostly based on the waltz (which I know) and the polka (which I need to learn), though they also did a Faroese dance with some fun kicking steps and a neat arm-linking section and a few four-couple sets with dance arrangements similar to things I’ve seen before.

In addition to the dancing and the music, they also had some extra lovely traditions: rather than simply having a break in the middle, everyone moved the tables and benches from the side of the hall to form a long table down the middle, where a dancer who works at a local bakery provided a snack for the musicians and everyone else pulled out their own coffee and cakes from home and sat to talk and eat together. Then after we finished, they passed around song books and everyone sang traditional local songs together (though I couldn’t understand most of it, the gist was about the natural beauty of northern Jutland - the strand and the sand and the fjords…a proper proud folk song). And then we sang again at the end, this time while doing the traditional circle dance to Auld Lang Syne – in Danish of course, although one of the musicians who I had talked with made a point of smiling at me and singing along in English.

I was too busy dancing to take any pictures, so here’s one from one of the many websites with lots of good history, pictures, music, and instructions all about Danish folk dancing. The dance I went to wasn’t outside or in traditional Danish costumes, but still pretty fabulous.

I had been worried that I would be lost with the dance explanations all given in Danish, but it turns out that the Danish folk dances are generally less complicated than contra dances – rather than calling the dance as it goes along, it’s just explained at the beginning, or just assumed to be one that everyone already knows, so they have to be simple enough that dancers can remember the whole thing. I still was lost as to the instructions, but I could generally pick up most of it as the dance progressed, and nobody seemed upset when I did something wrong. One man made sure to explain to me that this group does the dances for fun, not to try to be completely proper or even entirely authentic to the “original” folk dances of the 1860s – which, after all, is more authentic to the spirit of folk dancing. Though there were a number of people who I had difficulty talking with (not everyone here feels comfortable with English, and my Danish is still at the point where I can smile and say thank you – tak – but my pronunciation even of “Jeg taler ikke dansk” – I don’t speak any Danish – is apparently incomprehensible), the group was overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming and made every effort to include me. It’s a fairly small group, with maybe 30 or 40 people (I guess that’s not so small, but my dance scale is based on Greenfield, Massachusetts, one of the largest regular contradances in the USA), all from Denmark, and I’m fairly sure everyone there was at least twice my age.

I think it was a bit of a novelty that this young American girl would find her way to their dance – the woman who made the announcements at the break made a point of telling everyone that I had come all the way from Pennsylvania and had found their group on the internet, which everyone seemed to find remarkable. A few people – those who seemed most comfortable with English – went out of their way to talk with me, including a civil engineer from northern Jutland now living in Copenhagen who told me about the history of the folk traditions here, a teacher in Hirtshals who plays accordion in one of the bands who gave me a ride home, and a former fisherman who invited me over the next morning to talk about fishing and show me how he smokes his own mackerel in the backyard (I can attest that it’s very good).

Pretty much the most fun I’ve had in Denmark – and it even turned out to have some relevance to fish (of course, like everything when you’re living in a small fishing town). I’ll definitely have to go to more dances while I’m here, and maybe actually learn how to do the polka properly. I should never again go this long (nearly five months!) without dancing.

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