Traditional Swedish "Gammaldans" is still alive and - literally - kicking in Chicago.
A mutual passion for dance brought Linda Westergren-Muhr and Paul Muhr together 31 years ago. Not any kind of dance mind you, but folk dance, of the Swedish variety.
Linda and Paul continue their passion for traditional Swedish folk dance. In March, the couple gathers similar enthusiasts to dance traditional Swedish dance at the Swedish American Museum in Chicago.
They are long-time members of the Nordic Folk Dancers and have held different types of folk dance programs for 22 years. Their focus has been on the traditional "gammaldans" (old-time dances), which are the polka, schottis, waltz, mazurka and hambo. Old-time dance is a bit of a misnomer since most of these dances became popular in the late 19th century and were brought to America by the Nordic immigrants. Similar to some other customs, the dances have become synonymous with traditions among Nordic Americans and are not widely practiced in their countries of origin anymore.
Many of the traditional dances generally considered folk dances likely have their origins in varieties of “polska”—a name that is shared by most Nordic countries and was influenced by the Polish court during the 17th century. The dance form is often considered an evolution of the polonaise set dance into a couples dance. (With a faster pace)
National dance of Sweden, hambo
On Friday, March 30, a group of 11 individuals with little or no experience gathered to explore the hambo, an energetic social dance from 1840s Hälsingland. It was a combination of the older dance form polka, with origins in Poland, and possibly the polka-mazurka, which was popular in Europe at the time.
“The hambo is known as the national dance of Sweden, and other dance groups often include it in their repertoire,” said Linda Westergren-Muhr.
“It’s the dance you want to be able to do but it takes some time to learn,” said Patty van Lengen.
And here's how it's done: Hambo session with Linda and Paul
Patty van Lengen attended her second consecutive year to keep up with her husband's 15 years of folk dance experience.
“It’s so beautiful and I always wanted to dance with (my husband) Chuck,” said Patty.
Chuck van Lengen has been dancing in various international folk dance groups for several years, but dancing was not his initial reason for joining a folk dance group.
“I was new in town and I joined mainly to get to know people and socialize,” he said. “I kept going because people were friendly and after a while I picked up the dances.”
Paul and Linda grew both up with Swedish traditions since their grandparents came to America from Sweden. However, neither of them actually danced while growing up.
“I went to one practice in college and I had so much fun—and 31 years later I’m still dancing,” said Linda.
“I met Linda there and we have been married now for 31 years, and we love dancing,” added Paul.
According to Dorothy Carlson, dancing to the traditional Swedish music brings back memories from childhood that would be hard to get any other way.
“My father always played Swedish music on the recorder when I grew up,” said Dorothy. “I never saw the name of the songs but later in my life I always recognize them.”
Her husband, Henry Carlson was taught the mambo in the 1940s, when there were lodges all over the city.
“We gathered on the streets and played accordion and danced to Scandinavian music,” said Henry. “Unfortunately, most of the lodges are disintegrated today.”
Part of the history of Swedes
“Dancing is a part of the culture and the history of the Swedes in Chicago,” added Betty Johnson.
Lauralee Reese enjoys dancing and thought it could be an opportunity for family time with her parents.
“At all our family reunions my family played the accordion and we would dance,” said Lauralee. “My husband doesn’t dance but my dad does,” she added, laughing.
Noël Abraham was curious about Swedish dance and originally came to watch, but she was quickly dragged out on the dance floor.
“The hardest part was being brave enough to go out and do it in front of people,” said Noël.
Kaia Koerm danced in her youth but quit as she got older. Now she brings the folk dance back to her life to get necessary exercise.
“I always thought running and swimming was boring, but with dance you exercise without feeling it's exercise, and it’s enjoyable,” said Kaia.
Rhonda Feren has been folk dancing her whole life. She especially likes the hambo since she enjoys the feeling of flying and spinning around.
“Dancing combines some physical activity with music and partner fun—it all comes together to be an exciting activity.”
The dance class was scheduled for 7:30 to 10 p.m., but when the last dancer left it was passed midnight.
“We shut down the place when people can’t take another step,” joked Linda.
If interested in Nordic folk dance, contact the Swedish American Museum for more information.
Text & Photo: Erik Kinnhammar
Interested in joining? For now look for news at http://swedishamericanmuseum.org.
A website for folkdancing itself is planned for the not too distant future, look for www.nordicfolkdancers.org
towards end of summer, 2012.