I couldn’t help but look at the tango during this month of trying to figure out what love is, in a Finnish sense. My first response when I was told that the tango was the favourite dance of this country, I think I laughed out loud. But then I looked further and discovered that since the 1930s, Finns have been dancing tango in community halls, barns and taverns, and owning it – having carved out their own official variation, the Finnish tango. There is also a tango festival that takes place each year in a town near where my family is from that draws over 100,000 dancers each year.
What is this about? My experience of the Finns is of a reserved, outwardly serious people. It’s the kind of country that offers a collective shake of the head at laugh-tracks used in North American sit-coms and where you might be considered a little “off” for getting on a city bus and smiling at everyone. It’s not that they are unfriendly (quite the opposite!), it’s just that it’s not necessary to force niceties on one another all the time.
So, I am pretty sure the Finnish Tango has something to do with love, Finnish-style. The songs focus on love, longing, nature and nostalgia – typical folk stuff. But you can get that from just about any folk dance. Why the tango?
The Finnish Music Information Center (FIMIC) describes the Finnish tango as expressing “the longing for love and the beloved …without any trace of the sentimentality or escapism typical of other European tangos. Whereas the Argentinean tango is clearly an element of urban culture and the setting for the events is a shady waterside drinking house, the Finnish tango is often set in the countryside, in the bosom of nature.” The subject of the tango, usually a man, “has lost his beloved, is suffering from loneliness and is overcome by melancholy. He is desolate and longs to be back in the time when all was well.”
While travelling in Finland, I took an overnight ferry to Tallin; this ferry was a mini-cruise ship complete with buffet dinner, floor show, casino and at one end of the ship, the tango bar. I spent the better part of an evening sitting off to the side watching the Finnish passengers dance. The dance floor was always full; the accordion music reminded me of episodes of Polka Time that I would sometimes find one of my parents watching when I was kid; only this music had that serious tango vibe. I remember thinking about the stories my mom would tell about the dances she and her friends would go to when she was young. Riding their bikes to the community hall in the summer, the sun never setting while they danced and danced. On the ship the dancers were older; dance postures were precise and pressed close, and faces were serious. I did not catch a lot of coy looks, eyelash batting, or cheeky smiles but let me tell you, those bodies moved around the dance floor and around each other in perfect rhythm. They laid that tango down and it stayed there.
To me, all this tango points to a passion deep under the skin. The kind of passion that doesn’t need to be teased out; it will show itself when the time is right, and the accordion plays that song calling out to young love, green fields and pine forests in the light of a midnight sun. Trust me.