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A Dancer's Perspective - Swedish dance

Photo: Phil Keen

The Painted Hall at the Early Music Show in Greenwich is a pleasant and elegant, if over-heated, place to catch up with friends. Jane Moulder turned our discussion to dance. Was dancing to Swedish music and musicians different in some way, from say, English or even French folk styles, she wanted to know. It had struck her that there was something more intimate, more interactive from a dancer’s perspective. Did I agree? I talked enthusiastically, flattered that Jane was so interested, pointing out that for Sweden, read also Norway. ‘Can you write a short piece for the next edition then?’ asked the Editor of Chanter, and moved briskly on.

I first went to Sweden in 1998, when I spent a week in Dalarna trying to dance polska – something I had believed I could already do. Partner after partner pointed out my errors, telling me to concentrate on the music, watch the fiddlers’ bows, listen, listen; was I on beat 1? Yes, but on the wrong foot. I slowly improved, and began to hear and identify some of the subtleties. I was struck by the huge variety and range of ways that this dance called ‘Polish’ had of expressing itself, nuances undreamed of in our rough and ready ceilidh folk dance scene..

One major difference in the Swedish style is that musicians do not always occupy a stage, especially if they play in small numbers. Couples usually dance round the circumference of the room, leaving a space in the middle. On crowded floors this may be taken up by an inner circle (usually of more experienced dancers as steering is trickier), but when the musician is a soloist she or he will usually occupy this middle area, creating an intimacy between the musician and dancers which is harder to achieve when separated by a stage. In dance workshops in Sweden the musician often plays from the centre and may take an important part in the workshop, contributing ideas and sometimes even demonstrating the dance. At our first ‘Scandimoot’ event in 2008, dance tutors Petra Eriksson and Anton Schneider chose nyckelharpa player Erik Rydvall to accompany them as their musician. Erik encouraged us to actively engage his attention as we danced past, adding a percussive stamp of a foot, or even small movements of the head or shoulders, to which he reacted by playing a little differently.

For a dancer, to be able to influence a musician’s playing is an astonishing and powerful experience. Klas af Edhom, a performer and researcher as well as a dance teacher, came to Scandimoot in 2014. He feels strongly that the dancer is part of the music, using movement instead of an instrument. ‘A good musician knows how to use the dancers to find inspiration for variations, and a good dancer is able to catch it’, he says. ‘The musician takes a tune as the basis, but then will add, or modify, the expression and the development of the music according to the dancers. Percussive footwork is a very good way of clarifying the relation between music and dance. When music and footsteps are synchronized, and when both have the same “direction” we reach “sväng” (synergy/harmony is the nearest translation I can find). This can become a game between an experienced dancer and a sensitive musician, as Klas explains. ‘As a dancer, I may play along with the musician using the same tools (like timing, expression, speed), to reach a common interplay which can then open up small variations in the interplay (i.e. we may be consciously ”un-timed” for a second)’.

This degree of intimacy describes a situation where a ‘good’ dancer is matched with a sensitive and solo musician. This is not uncommon in Sweden, as playing for dance is regarded as highly as playing in concert. Every year in Sweden the Zorn committee honours about 10 or so new musicians with the title of Rikkspelman, or National Musician. Looking through the lists I am surprised by how many names I know that I have personally danced to, sometimes in workshops. Additionally, it is rare if ever one meets a Scandinavian musician who cannot dance to the music they play. Geoff Bowen, a hugely experienced fiddle player in the traditions of Yorkshire and Northumberland, and also a very knowledgeable player of Swedish music, agrees. ‘All the Swedish fiddlers that I know play for dancing. I can’t think of one who plays only for concert or in session. They are all ‘dance musicians’, no matter how high their profile. I don’t think we describe ourselves in that way in England. There is a feeling around that playing for dance is easy and perhaps not so ‘good’ as playing a concert..

Swedish folk musicians also play together as groups, ‘spellmanslag’, a playing arrangement of sometimes up to 80 or so musicians, the majority of them fiddle players, who regularly play tunes together, and have a characteristic ‘wall of sound’. Bollnäsbygdens Spelmanslag playing at Svaben is amongst my personal favourites and I remember a very young Lena Jonsson in the centre of the group, who all seemed to dance, lifting their bows and their bodies as one. The effect on the dance floor was electrifying; the floor filling rapidly as dancers rushed to be there.

In the Swedish tradition there seems to be a general understanding of the relationship between dance and music and that no-one can begin to play a polska unless they have some idea how the dance works. ‘A good music teacher will often start by getting the whole workshop group to walk to a långdans so that they can get the 1-3,1-3’, said Geoff. ‘You have to have the rhythm and it doesn’t make sense without seeing the dance. If you watch the dancers you can alter the way to play to make the dancers move differently. .

However, Geoff feels that there is no fundamental difference between playing for dance in any of the traditions that he knows, if it is played well. ‘I think in English music a good musician can do a lot to help the dancer – in set dances it is possible to ’tell’ the dancer where they should be. It’s very important to be able to play without a music stand of course. Any fiddle player- as opposed to a violinist – must understand how music and dance are related. English traditional music and Swedish dance music use solo fiddle a lot – and a solo fiddler provides their own percussion, - there is a lot of bowing across the beat – it’s part of a long established tradition of playing for dance which we have to an increasingly lost’. Bagpipes have been played for dancing for much longer than fiddles, though the tradition was lost in Sweden and had to be largely re-created. I can assure you though, that Erik Ask-Upmark and Alban Faust are both a joy to dance to.

It is not hard for any dancer or dance musician to come up with examples from all over the world of the inextricable interplay between the dancers and the music. At Blowout in 2014 we heard Auvergnate bourrées from central France, with their complex bar structure and dancers’ percussive footwork, which when danced well becomes indeed a ‘synergy’. It is this very interplay which allows dances to evolve, as a living organism, and not become fossilised.

Nevertheless, the indivisible has become divided. ‘Lost’ seems to be the recurring theme in comparing English and Swedish dance in particular. The context of dance music is everything. Geoff Bowen pointed out that Irish music is played in sessions far more often than for dancing these days. ‘Sessions are fun, but they’ve killed dance music,’ Geoff remarked. Geoff feels that the solo fiddle player makes an ideal dance musician, and is saddened by groups with a percussionist who forces the speed and rhythm and reduces the fiddler to ‘floating a melody somewhere over the beat’. A far cry from Klas’s description of dance and dance music as “sväng”.

The recipe for the essential elements for the kind of intimacy experienced in Sweden might therefore be as follows; that the musicians play from the heart and the memory; that they understand and are aware of the dance and watch the dancers, and that musicians and dancers can and do respond to one another, so that the musician is able to be part of the dance and the dancer to become part of the music.

Finally, and most importantly perhaps, is that a culture needs to exist where playing for dancing has just as high a status as playing in concert. In Sweden, the Rikkspellmän, in receipt of the greatest honour traditional music can bestow, are also amongst the most sought after and valued dance musicians. It will not surprise anyone then if I explain that I was so impressed, so filled with a desire to bring my Swedish Experience to the UK, that I caused Scandimoot to arise from the ashes of Yorkshire Dales Workshops in 2008. I could not let the earlier work of Geoff Bowen and others in this field fade away, and I wanted, passionately, to bring over here the flavour of Swedish dance floors. Scandimoot is now in its 8th year, and growing as more people get hooked. They must have found something, too.

For further information about Scandimoot or Swedish music and dancing, email Pat: or visit