Unlike the previous posts on Tango Argentino and Ballroom Tango, which are based to a significant degree on personal experience, this post on Finnish Tango relies entirely on web-based information sources. Nevertheless, the interpretation of Finnish Tango within the diversity of genres of dance and music called tango is unique for the most part and is relevant for the evaluation of tango within a wider sociocultural perspective, which is one of the primary foci of this blog.
Tango is a very popular dance throughout Finland today. There are many Finnish musicians who compose, play and sing tangos, and most dancing is to tango music of Finnish origin. There are over 2000 places in Finland to dance Finnish Tango. There is an annual Finnish Tango festival. The Finns have created their own tango music, dance, and culture, and although it is based upon Argentine roots, it has a distinctly Finnish character. These issues will be elaborated upon below.
Origins and Proliferation of Finnish Tango
Tango was apparently introduced to Finland in Helsinki in 1913, around the same time it was proliferating in other European capitals. However, direct exposure to Argentines, as was common in Paris, was absent in Finland. The early tango music played in Finland included tango melodies from Argentina, as well tangos composed by Europeans from other countries, particularly from Germany. Thus, even early in its exportation to Finland, tango music had already been modified to have a more northern European character than an Argentine character.
During World War II, as Finland became more isolated from the remainder of Europe, tango music in Finland developed a more Finnish character, as most of it was written and performed by Finns. During the 1940s tango became the most popular music (by sales) in Finland, and although until this time tango dancing had been primarily an urban phenomenon (Helsinki and nearby cities), it began to spread to the countryside.
However, the peak of tango popularity in Finland was in the 1960s; more tangos were recorded and sold in this decade than in any other decade. Much of the music from this decade is still played for dancing.
There has been an ongoing tango revival in Finland since the 1990s, and tango is still widely popular in Finland today. Finland’s entry into the European Union in 1995 has been accompanied by more awareness of Finnish Tango outside of Finland.
Characteristic of Finnish Tango (the Dance)
The characteristics of the Finnish Tango can be seen in these demonstrations (video 1) (video 2) (video 3). In Finnish Tango, the posture is upright (not forward as in Tango Argentino – Estilo Milonguero), balanced on the heels, but not pulled backward and arched away from the partner as in Ballroom Tango. The standard partner hold is a closed embrace, with contact from the upper chest to the abdomen and pelvis, with cheek to cheek contact common. The woman typically places her left arm on the man’s upper right arm, contacting the right shoulder blade, not over the shoulder, as is standard in Tango Milonguero. The embrace is offset to right of the center of the body. The woman positions her head to look over the man’s right shoulder, unlike some styles of Tango Argentino (e.g., ‘Estilo Villa Urquiza‘), where one option is for the woman to turn her head inward towards the man’s chest. The lead comes from the man’s hips, in contrast to the lead coming from the chest in Tango Argentino. Walking is with long steps, low to the ground. The man generally walks with his right leg between the woman’s legs; contact at the level of the thighs is commonplace. However, the man may also sometimes take a few steps outside partner right. All walking is in the parallel feet position. The promenade position is not used. There is an alternation of quicks and slows in movement, some say a predictable constant SSQQ, although this constancy is not apparent in the demonstrations referenced above. There are also occasional pauses in movement. The movement is smoother than the sharp, staccato movement of International Tango, but not as varied in rhythmic interpretation as used in Tango Argentino (especially Tango Milonguero). There is more contra-body motion during walking than typically used in Tango Argentino, and more rotation of the shoulders in the vertical plane (i.e., shoulders not always maintained parallel to the floor) than in other genres of tango. The Finnish Tango has few figures; it consists mostly of walking and stationary and progressive turns and is highly improvised. In a social setting, Finnish Tango, like other forms of social tango, is danced progressing counterclockwise around the dance floor. There is a movement that is superficially similar to the quebrada, perhaps derived from the Canyengue, where the man bends the woman backward, although this movement is smoother in Finnish Tango; it appears romantic rather than aggressive (as primitive Tango Argentino was). There are no ochos (forward or back), no cruzada, no molinetes, and no adornments as used in Tango Argentino. In appearance, Finnish Tango is distinctly different from other genres of tango. However, there is an apparent sensuality in the dance (seen particularly in the first demonstration, where the dancers’ faces are visible) that, along with simplicity and smoothness of movement and in improvisation, that makes it more similar in these respects to Argentine Tango (de Salon) than to the Ballroom Tango with which it shares a more recent common ancestry.
Finnish Tango Music
In contrast to Tango Argentino and Ballroom Tango, Finnish Tango music is almost always in a minor key, a characteristic of Finnish folk music in general. There is usually a 4/4 time signature. The music has a marchlike beat emphasized at times by drums, but the tempo is slower and the beat is not as prominent or insistent as it is in Ballroom Tango music, and may also vary from harder to softer emphasis during a tango, although it varies little in tempo. The accordion replaces the bandoneon used in Tango Argentino. A larger ensemble has violins in addition to the accordion and drums. Finnish Tango is also played by symphonic orchestras.
Most Finnish Tango music has vocal accompaniment, with lyrics almost always in Finnish. The lyrics of Finnish tangos are mostly sorrowful tales about love lost, loneliness, and nostalgia for the past, sometimes for a simpler life in the countryside. Although male vocalists were more common in the early history of Finnish tango, both male and female vocalists are well represented in contemporary Finnish tango music. Vocal music is used for dancing more often than in Ballroom Tango, although Finnish Tango competitions typically use only instrumental music. In contrast to Tango Argentino, the tango music used for dancing Finnish Tango includes female as well as male vocalists. The role of the vocalist in Finnish Tango music used for dancing is more prominent compared to classic tango music from the Golden Age in Argentina (1930s – 1950s), the primary music used for dancing in the milongas of Buenos Aires (Music Played at Milongas / Tango Social Dance Venues).
The melodies of traditional Argentine tangos are sometimes used in Finnish Tango, e.g., “La cumparsita” and “El choclo”, although this may reflect European influences, as these tango melodies are also used in Ballroom Tango. The Danish tango “Jealousy” and the American tango “Hernando’s Hideaway” (video with dancing) have also been incorporated into the Finnish tango music repertoire. Lyrics in Finnish are often substituted or inserted into tango melodies of foreign origin.
Finnish tango music, much of it composed by Finnish composers and almost all of it played by Finnish ensembles, has comprised a significant proportion of the recorded music purchased in Finland since the 1960s.
The Social Dance Environment for Finnish Tango
Although concentrated in the Helsinki area due to population distribution, Finnish Tango is danced in over 2000 restaurants, bars, and dance halls throughout Finland (video). In the short summer season, tango is also danced outdoors, often in open air pavilions designed for dancing; however, even the cold of winter does not preclude dancing tango outdoors as well (video). At the typical tango dance venue, there is a mix of dances in the music program, including not only tango, but also other Finnish dances such as ‘foxi’ (more like quickstep, or some dance jive to it), valssi (Viennese waltz rhythm, using similar steps), polkka, humppa, and jenkka, as well as International Ballroom dances such as rumba, cha-cha, and samba. Most dance venues have live music. It is standard for live bands to play two songs in the same rhythm; it is the custom to dance both with the same partner, after which the man escorts the woman back to her place (which may not actually be a table in a crowded or outdoor venue). In some clubs there are separate sections for men and women. Usually the man asks a woman to dance by approaching her and making a verbal invitation, although there are certain specified times (indicated by a lit sign in most venues) where women ask men to dance, although it is not unusual for a woman to ask a man to dance at other times, particularly at venues where the lit signs are not used. In almost all cases, the man leads and the woman follows; in rare cases two women dance together.
Annual Finnish Tango Festival (Tangomarkkinat)
The Finnish Tango Festival, or Tangomarkkinat, has been held annually since 1985 in the summer in the city of Seinäjoki (population 57,000), located about 350 km north-northwest of the capital of Helsinki. In recent years the festival has attracted more than 100,000, the overwhelming majority of whom are Finnish, although foreign representation has increased in recent years. The festival includes social dancing, tango singing contests, a tango dance competition, shows with singing, orchestral and dance performances, dance lessons (not only Finnish Tango, but also ballroom dances and, in recent years – Argentine Tango), tango karaoke singing, a tango market (bazaar), and a parade. Events from the festival, particularly the singing contests and concerts are carried throughout Finland by radio and television and the winners of the singing competition are usually guaranteed recording contracts. Although the focus of the festival is on tango, other Finnish social (folk and ballroom) dances are also represented in social dance events and instruction, the only requirement being that tango comprises at least 40% of the dance music. In recent years Argentine Tango has been represented to a limited degree, mostly in concerts and somewhat in teaching and social dancing (the latter mostly by individual choice). However, in 2011 the international Argentine Tango festival Cumbre Mundial del Tango will be held in Seinäjoki just prior to the Tangomarkkinat.
The Cultural Milieu of Finnish Tango
A report on the ‘60 Minutes’ television news program describes Finland as
‘… a country where gloom is pervasive, where melancholy, sorrow, and shyness abound. All of this is alleviated by a massive intake of alcohol.’
Morely Safer narrates
‘These are Finns in their natural state – brooding, private, grimly in touch with no one but themselves, the shyest people on earth, depressed and proud of it. … Finns … have a difficult time making even the most casual contact.’
Tango is perceived as a means for Finns to break down the natural social inhibitions, giving them permission to come in contact.
However, Safer notes
‘The Finnish Tango is not to be confused with the groin-grinding, passionate Latin American version. The Finns have managed to neutralize all that into sad shuffle in a minor key, with lyrics to reaffirm a couple’s instinctive sense of hopelessness. … The tango singer has become the speaking surrogate for the silent Finn. He or she says things that no mere civilian would dare utter publically or even privately.’
Perceiving Tango Argentino as ‘groin-grinding’ reveals the level of awareness and objectivity that is brought into the evaluation of Finnish culture and the role of Finnish Tango in it. The 60 Mintues unidimensional portrayal of the Finnish character is a more of a caricature than an exposé. A Deutsche Welle television program report portrays the integration of tango into Finnish culture in a more positive light than the 60 Minutes report, even emphasizing the passion incorporated into the dance, even though it misrepresents Tango Argentino as lacking that passion (the opposite of the 60 Minutes report). A credible and also generally favorable portrayal of the Finnish character from the perspective of a foreigner is provided in Englishman John Ward’s Finnish Tango blog. Nevertheless, the consensus that can be derived from these sources and those cited in the Bibliography below is that Finns in general are prone to melancholy and are hesitant under most circumstances to make physical contact. Paradoxically, the standard partner hold in Finnish folk dances, not only tango, is a close embrace, which contrasts with the open hold characteristic of the ballroom dances that are popular in many northern European countries that also have a reputation for being somewhat contact aversive.
It is not surprising that Argentines, who hug and kiss each other regularly upon greeting, have no difficulty entering into a close embrace in dancing tango. It is indeed paradoxical that Finns, who are contact shy, embrace tango, albeit their own version of it, with an obvious passion. The themes of Finnish tango songs are also similar to Argentine tangos, speaking of lost love, loneliness, and nostalgia for the past, possibly for the place of one’s childhood. These themes were pre-existing in Finnish poetry and folk songs, but tango has provided Finns the rhythm for dancing these emotions. What the Finns have done is to adopt tango and make it their own and give it a prominent place in their own culture and make it a part of their national identity. It is the only country outside of Argentina and Uruguay, the birthplace of tango, that has done so; in other countries where tango has been introduced and adapted to local cultural tastes, it has lost much of its essential character – the passionate expression of emotion in the close physical connection between man and woman – to such extremes that in International Ballroom Tango, the emotions portrayed in the sharp marching movements and head flicks are aversion and hostility. The Finns appear to have traded the aggressive posture and movement of European Tango for a sensuality that is more consistent with the desires of Finnish dancers; thus, in its evolution Finnish Tango has converged closer to its roots in the Argentine tango lineage. The Finnish Tango may be different from its Argentine ancestor in its general appearance (steps, movement, and interpretation of the music) and the rhythmic expression is also somewhat different, but there is a similarity in lyrical content and partner connection that reflects similar emotions. Thus, at two ends of the earth – the southern tip of South America and the northern tip of Europe – tango has found a comfortable home.
Jaakkola, Jutta (2000) – The Finnish Tango. It’s history and characteristics (translated by Susan Sinisalo)
Savolainen, Piia (2005) – Finnish Tango; on Tango-L
Teicher Khadaroo, Stacy (2009) – Finland’s Tango Fever; Christian Science Monitor
Ward, John (2001-present)- Finnish Tango (blog)
Wikipedia – Finnish Tango
Wikipedia – Tangomarkkinat