Tango – a perfect venue to meet
The famed South American dance is one of the country’s most popular pastimes.
It’s nearly midnight on a balmy summer’s evening and, thanks to the latitude of the Finnish lake district, it’s nearly broad daylight outside. The wooden pavilion just north of Tampere is brimming with Finns of all shapes and sizes, striding about the dance floor, each holding a partner tightly and gazing impassively into the other’s eyes. Virpi, my tango instructor, compresses me against my assigned partner. “Stand clooooooose to her,” she booms.
Even though Finns are considered fairly reserved, they have a real facility for intimate physicality in public. Tango is one of the country’s most popular pastimes, and it offers the perfect venue for otherwise-sheepish Finns to meet, greet and court each other.
Unlike the sensuous sounds of the Argentine version, the Finnish tango is darker and much more solemn, with lyrics that wax about love and loss; and deep, drawn-out sorrowful tones that evoke emotions of wistfulness, regret and a longing for a homeland. The growth of nostalgia and melancholy as Finnish cottage industries stem from the country’s star-crossed history.
Finland was haplessly tossed around for years as a political hot potato between Russia and Sweden, and lost a massive chunk of its eastern border to the Soviet Union following World War Two. Rather appropriately, the most famous Finnish tango, “Satumaa” (meaning ‘Fairytale Land’), is a lament about a faraway place that can never be reached. This uniquely Finnish sense of solitude and yearning is succinctly expressed by kaiho, a notion rather similar to the Brazilian concept of saudade.
As we pause for a moment on the dance floor, it occurs to me that perhaps to feel content and untroubled, Finns need to appreciate heartache and disquiet: to be truly happy, maybe one has to be unhappy first. I direct my gaze straight at my dance partner. We lock eyes, and I grasp her hand, then place one hand on her hip. And as the accordion plays its first slow, woeful notes, we begin to dance.
Contrast is the main ingredient in Finnish cultural life, probably because everything looks and sounds different from our northern perspective.