Wednesday, August 01, 2001

Tangomarkkinat 2001

When I said I was going to Finland for the Tangomarkkinat, various people had comments to make. My sister Penny said that most Finns are bilingual, but the second language of choice is usually Swedish. Penny’s boyfriend said the last time he had thought about Finland was when the Russians invaded, and the whole Red Army froze to death. My half-sister Anita, who is Danish, said the Finns spend hours in the sauna, thrashing one another with birch twigs. They come out fearfully dehydrated, and drink huge quantities of lager. Then they start fighting with knives. The men are worse. And Penny's friend Kaisa, who is Finnish, said the Finns are very uncommunicative. The old Russian joke is perfectly true. (Two Finns in a bar. One says “cheers”. The other says “Are we going to drink, or talk?”) Apparently it is quite common for two young men to go into a bar together, drink in total silence, and stagger home at midnight without having exchanged a single word.

Have a look at the picture of Mira (pronounced “mirror”) Kunnasluoto. She was Tango Queen in 2000. This is a singing competition, though marks are not deducted for good looks. But the picture could easily have been taken in 1950. And that is what impressed me about Finland: in many ways this modern country is in a time warp. The people are helpful, polite, formal even. You never see any litter, and there is hardly any graffiti. Some phone boxes even have directories. The subway trains are spotless. I felt safe on the streets at two in the morning. And of course there is the devotion to ballroom dancing, particularly the tango.
I wasn’t expecting Finland to be so hot. It was in the high seventies nearly all the time I was there. I stayed with Kaisa and her husband Garth in Helsinki for two days before moving on to Seinäjoki. The only Garth I had ever heard of was the muscular superhero in the Daily Mirror strip in the fifties. This Garth is American and works in telecommunications. Kaisa’s baby is due on 22nd August. She showed me the goody box that all new mothers get free from the Finnish government. It has nappies, summer and winter clothes, blankets, a potty, a rattle - everything you might need for a baby. It all comes in a strong cardboard box that can be used as a cradle. She and Garth live in a one-bedroom apartment rented from the government. They hope, if they have more children, to be allocated a bigger one. They have no serious hope of buying a place of their own. A bit different from the average 31 year old British couple. When talking with Kaisa about housing conditions, I mentioned the tin bath my grandparents had in the 1920’s. On Friday nights it would be filled up with kettles, then used by my grandfather, then my grandmother, then the children in descending order of age. By the time it was my father’s turn the water was cold and dirty. Kaisa was horrified. She said that even the poorest Finns always managed to keep themselves clean and always had access to a sauna. I think I have now convinced her that the English are a race of filthy barbarians.
Garth took me to what he said was the roughest pub in that part of Helsinki, but it was quite refined by British standards. He also said he would take me to a sauna where an elderly lady would wash and bleed you. Yes really - she would cut your skin, then put a hot glass over the wound. As the air in the glass cooled and contracted, it would draw the blood out and do you no end of good. In the end he chickened out - he is not a real Finn after all - and I went on my own. I had no difficulty finding it - if I had missed the huge neon sign saying “SAUNA”, I couldn’t fail to spot the crowd of towel-clad chaps lounging round outside drinking beer.
The man at the desk spoke a little English. I asked him about the bleeding. He told me it didn’t hurt, but I couldn’t find out what I really wanted to know - did they use a new blade for each customer? If they didn’t, it could lead to hepatitis, Aids, tetanus - so I chickened out.
The sauna was no small wooden cabin but a vast room with tiers of benches. It had a nice smell from the burning wood used to heat it. It was intensely hot - much hotter than the saunas in Britain. The chap next to me said it was the last wood-fired sauna in Helsinki and he had been going there since 1950, when he was 2 months old. There was a similar room for women upstairs. I noticed an old man beating himself with twigs and asked about that. My companion said you could get the birch twigs from the cashier for 50 marks (10 marks to the £) and “it makes your skin taste nice”. I assumed he meant smell, but you never know. As the old man went out, he left a cloud of perfume as if he had doused himself in herbal aftershave.
I couldn’t stand the heat for long, and soon went out for my wash. The “elderly” lady was only elderly by Garth’s standards. She was my age. She spoke excellent English, and chatted away in the way hairdressers do as she scrubbed me down with a rough loofah. She was very thorough, going over me twice, including the soles of my feet and between my toes. And no, she didn’t do my willy. Afterwards I went outside for a beer. It was strange to be in the street wearing only a towel.
When I got back, Kaisa and Garth laughed off my misgivings about hepatitis. No possibility of that in Finland, they said. In Russia it would be a different matter. I mentioned the birch twigs and said I hadn’t bothered as it didn’t seem much fun if you had to do it to yourself. Kaisa told me sternly that one didn’t go to the sauna for fun. It was a serious business - holy even. At one time women used to give birth in there. I asked if she intended to do this. No, the custom had almost died out; but her grandparents probably, and her great-grandparents certainly, would have been born in a sauna.
Public transport is very cheap in Finland. A 24-hour pass for the buses and trams in Helsinki is 25 marks. The rail fare for the 200 mile journey to Seinäjoki is 212 marks return. As I was waiting my turn in the ticket office, I got talking to a lady who had emigrated to Canada in the fifties and came back to visit her family every year. She didn’t believe I was English, saying I didn’t have the right accent. Presumably because I was not plummy Oxford. I said I came from Essex, which is a rough working class area; and my accent is called Estuary English and is perfectly authentic.
I arrived in Seinäjoki at half past one on Wednesday 11th. The accommodation I had rented was in a 2 bedroom apartment in the centre of town. Many Seinäjoki residents go away during the Tangomarkkinat and let out their apartments, and this is what the landlady had done. But she only got 250 marks per person per night. I wouldn’t let out my house to total strangers for such a paltry sum. It suggests that the average Finn is actually quite poor. Things in the kitchen and bathroom changed position, so I knew I had a flatmate, but I never saw him/her.
I picked up a guide to events and for 400 marks had a bracelet permanently attached to my wrist. This would let me into all the dancing events, but not classes, seminars or shows. Nothing was happening till 7.30 that evening so I set out to explore the town. Strawberry sellers were everywhere - July is strawberry season in Finland. I found a health food shop outside which two heartbreakingly beautiful ladies were giving out free samples. The blonde Nordic ice-maiden had Tangopussi, which was perfectly ordinary dried fruit, and the dark brooding Finn had a foul-tasting herbal medicine. Between them they had enough English to amount to a smattering, so we were able to indulge in some stilted flirtation.
A street in the middle of town had been closed off and named Tangokatu (Tango Street) for the duration. The Mayor, or some such dignitary, gave a long speech and everybody remained politely attentive throughout. They didn’t chatter amongst themselves, or shout “shut up, you silly old fool”. All music was live, the bands being small, usually consisting of electric guitar, bass, synthesiser, percussion and harmonikka, a reed instrument similar but not identical to the bandoneon. There was always an attractive young male or female singer. At one time or another I heard all the classic Finnish tangos featured on the CD Kaisa had sent me, as well as many unfamiliar ones. I only recognised 6 foreign tangos the whole time I was there: La Cumparsita, Jealousy (these two only in shows, not in public dances), El Choclo (only in a competition), Hernando’s Hideaway, and Ecstasy. All the numbers were vocals, the words beautifully enunciated and utterly incomprehensible except for the odd English word that seemed to sound out clear as a bell. I heard enema, laxative and custard water, this last proving that my subconscious is not entirely filthy. The style of tango dancing is smooth and flowing, with few or no figures. There are a few open natural and reverse turns, but no equivalent of ochos, giros, or anything else that involves the man and woman doing different steps. There is nothing resembling the ballroom tango. Tangos are always danced in the close hold, nearly always with heads touching.
Not all the numbers were tangos by any means. Here are some of the others. Some of these observations were made at a later date, when I went to an indoor venue and saw people dancing on a wooden floor, rather than the tarmac of the Tangokatu.
Foxi (foxtrot). Usually a lively quickstep. Some people jive to this, others do slow or quick walking steps. A few, but not many, quarter turns. No locksteps, fishtails, or similar ballroom figures. The tunes are often British or American, with Finnish lyrics, examples being I Only Want to be with You, Bye Bye Blackbird and Whispering. There were a few slow foxtrots, again with simple walking steps. Turns are open, with no heel pivots. Again, nothing complicated like hovercrosses or weaves, or even feather steps. Unless jiving, the close embrace always used.
Valssi (waltz). This is the Viennese style waltz, complete with crosses and heel pivots but not fleckerls. Usually close embrace. I found it possible but difficult to waltz on tarmac. By remembering what I was taught and dancing from the body, allowing the feet to follow, I was able to hurl myself round but found it very tiring and heel pivots impossible. Tunes were mostly unfamiliar and presumably Finnish, but I did hear classics like Tulips from Amsterdam and Vienna City of my Dreams. Nothing really old though - nothing dating back to Strauss’s time. I didn’t see any slow waltzes.
Polkka (so spelled). I found it impossible to polka on tarmac, though it must be just me as others managed it perfectly well. All tunes were unfamiliar.
Humppa. This is a Finnish dance sounding a bit like a combination of milonga and polka. Steps are vaguely similar to those of the samba. All tunes unfamiliar of course.
Jenkka/Letkis. I remember these as alternative names for the daft sequence we used to do to March of the Mods. The only sequence dance I saw, though the sequence was never rigidly kept to. I couldn’t manage it on tarmac because of the polka ending. Apparently the jenkka and the letkis are not the same, but the subtle difference escaped me. All tunes unfamiliar.
The band plays two tunes in the same rhythm, after which the man must take the woman’s hand and escort her back to her place. He then bows, she curtseys, and he says “Kiitos” (thank you) and returns to his own place.
My partners included a tall and very pretty girl who couldn’t have been a day over 15; an elderly lady with bright red hair (I don’t mean ginger - I mean red like a pillar box); a glacial blonde who clasped me so close I could hardly breathe and crooned the words of the song into my ear; a Bette Midler lookalike; and others boring for other people to read about but not for me to remember. Then I met a slim elegant blonde who looked a bit like Mai Zetterling. Her name was Liisa (I just love the Finnish spelling) and she was staying in Seinäjoki with her sister. Liisa was wearing very sexy shoes which although they did wonders for the libido had a minor defect for dancing in that it wasn’t possible to step backwards in them. Fortunately my improvisation skills honed at Tango West were up to the challenge, though it made the valssi even more difficult. We stayed together for the rest of the evening. At midnight it was starting to get dark and at one o’clock we left, having arranged to meet again when the dancing resumed. As I sat in my hot stuffy room thinking about the events of the day I suddenly realised it was two in the morning, I had a date in 8 hours, and I hadn’t gone to bed yet. I was awakened by the light streaming in through my window at 3 o’clock
Liisa was wearing different shoes next day, which added a whole new dimension to our dancing. Her English was a smattering, and my Finnish non-existent, so conversation was hard work. It was easier to clasp each other close and let the tango speak of passion for us. The dancing ended at 5 that afternoon, and I went to the class held by Åke and Leena Blomqvist. Liisa didn’t see why I wanted to go, but it proved impossible to explain. We agreed to meet later.

Åke (rhymes with “worker”) is a dapper elderly gent with a white tash and unfeasibly bright blond hair. Leena is young and glamorous. The class was in Finnish, with English for the benefit of myself and an American couple. The class was a disappointment as it covered jive, polka and English waltz as well as tango. Why Åke included the last I do not understand, as none of the bands ever played it. For the record, he taught a sequence of overturned natural turn followed by two change steps.
For the tango, Åke demonstrated the walks familiar to us all, and the close hold. He seemed to have a good time pushing the American lady up against her partner. “No need to be nervous” he said, “no sex in Finnish tango. That comes later.” He taught a sequence of two walks, close, and an open natural turn. Leena told me off for not sticking to the SSQQ rhythm Åke had specified, and said my lead was too strong. I asked if she did private lessons, and she said she did, at their studio in Helsinki. She offered me their tango video, but I didn’t buy it as it was in Finnish.
I liked the open air dancing under a sky that never got dark. The Tangokatu opened between 10 and 12 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon, then again from 7.30 in the evening to between 2 and 4 the following morning. There were indoor venues for bad weather (though it only rained once) and which provided a more genteel atmosphere. On Saturday 14th there were 4 dances going on at the same time.
The people attending aged from teenagers to about 80, 30s - 50s predominating. There was a fair number of handicapped people. There was literally no litter thrown about. I didn’t see anyone the worse for drink, though plenty of booze was on sale. The favourite brand of beer was Koff, and the tables in the bar area had umbrellas with KOFF KOFF KOFF written all round them. I thought it would be amusing to photograph one of these umbrellas with a crowd of people underneath smoking, but very few Finns smoke. I tried some reindeer meat with mashed potato from one of the food stalls. I found it very bland. The only thing that had any taste was the accompanying lingonberry sauce (a bit like cranberry sauce).
It was surprisingly difficult to get tango CDs. I got hold of a few from shops in the town, but I had to get the assistants to hunt them out for me. I will probably pontificate on these in my usual manner in due course. No CDs were on sale near the Tangokatu itself.
There was also dancing in the shopping mall. Music was provided by a singer with harmonikka accompaniment. I found this combination very pleasing and asked if any CDs had been made, but none had. Two couples were dancing Argentine tango in the mall - one of the few times I saw it. The mall also had a cat show.
Most couples exchange life stories in the first hour of the first date. Liisa and I hadn’t got nearly that far. Every question had to be rephrased several times. To extract a small nugget of information, a great deal of linguistic ore had to be shifted. As I looked into those eyes, blue as an Arctic summer sky, I thought about the whole exotic world that was there, hidden behind the language barrier.
There was a tango seminar in Finnish on Thursday 12th. There was a concert by Cuarteto Tango, a Uruguayan group, on Friday which would normally have interested me but I wanted to immerse myself in Finnishness this week. An important event during the Tangomarkkinat is the singing contest, held in the Seinäjoki Areena (so spelled) over three days. The winners are crowned Tango King and Queen and can usually look forward to a successful singing career, not necessarily in tango. It is expensive (230 marks for the final) but you can get into the afternoon rehearsals for half price. The Areena is vast, the performers barely visible from the back seats. There are huge TV screens so you can see what is going on. It was interesting to go once, but I preferred the dancing.
Saturday afternoon the finals of the National Tango Dancing Championships were held in the Atria Hall. I recognised some of the competitors from the Tangokatu. The dancing was presumably formalised, but it was still pure and simple, with few figures, although there were some picture figures like those from ballroom tango: the oversway, the
right lunge, and a figure involving the lady bending over backwards so that her hair, if long, brushed the ground. She usually raised one leg while doing this. It looked much more elegant than it sounds from the description. I didn’t see any contrachecks or same foot lunges. There were no vocals during the competitions. These were the only instrumentals I heard during the time I was in Seinäjoki.
Between the rounds was public dancing. I was still having problems with the valssi even on a good wooden floor. It was difficult to negotiate the crowded floor. I had trouble dancing cheek to cheek. Not only was it very hot, but I couldn’t get the momentum unless we were leaning outwards, ballroom style. Everybody else was managing fine, so I thought I really must go to Leena for lessons sometime. In the evening we returned to the Atria Hall for the Coronation Dance. It was fine till about ten o’clock, when it got extremely crowded. The dancers were packed shoulder to shoulder and it was hardly possible to move. When we got pushed off the floor and couldn’t get back on again, we gave up and went to the Tangokatu. People were still streaming in as we left. The Tangokatu was just as crowded opposite the stage, but at either end of the street there was room to dance. It went on till 4, but we didn’t stay that long.
Sunday was the last day of the Tangomarkkinat. When we met in the morning we abandoned the crowds and went down to the river. We strolled past the rustic bridges and profuse wild flowers hand in hand, stopping occasionally (well, frequently) for a kiss. It was wonderful. It was like being 14 again.
That afternoon Liisa had to go to the 9th birthday party of a young relative. This child was described both as Liisa’s niece and her sister’s son, and it proved impossible to resolve this little discrepancy. Not that it mattered, and in any case Liisa’s sister looks to be about 60. We arranged to go to the Royal Dance, the last event of the Tangomarkkinat, at 5 o’clock.
The first part of the Royal Dance was broadcast, and the finalists of the singing and dancing competitions given a chance to strut their stuff on TV. It was of course very crowded. But after the TV crew had gone, the hall emptied somewhat. There were enough dancers remaining to provide a good atmosphere but not so many that it was difficult to negotiate the floor. In our last few hours together, the dancing took on a sublime quality. The humppa was no longer a silly country or party dance but a distillation of joy and happiness. A freeform foxtrot to Green Green Grass of Home had no feather steps, heel pivots, or any of the things so important in ballroom classes. I don’t know what steps I did - all I was aware of was the music and Liisa’s proximity, her cheek pressed against mine. I imagined this was what ballroom dancing was like before the OBBD formalised the spontaneity and passion out of it. And the tangos! We would gaze into one another’s eyes as we picked up the rhythm. We exchanged a soft kiss, then melted into one another’s arms and entered tango heaven. I wasn’t leading Liisa - the music was leading both of us. Every beat, every step was perfect.
Of course it had to end. At 2.30 we said our tearful farewells, making all sorts of promises we would probably never keep. Slowly I made my way back to the apartment. The sky was cobalt blue, brightening in the north-east. Soon it would be dawn. Liisa had burst into my life 102 hours ago, brightening it up like the Northern Lights, and now she had vanished as suddenly as she had appeared. It had been beautiful, passionate, happy - and very very sad. Just like the tango.