Waltzing away in Finland

This week I had an opportunity to attend some cultural events in Joensuu. On Thursday I went to see the “world premiere” of a Finnish opera, “Rautatie” (“The Railway”), which was a modern composition based on a book written by one of the renowned Finnish writers, Juhani Aho. The music was by a Finnish composer, Hannu Bister. I really enjoyed the music, although at times I felt the words were not in synchrony with the melodies; they seemed to fail to express the emotional charge of the music. But it was a thoroughly enjoyable event.The following evening I attended what is known as the “Vanhojen tanssit” (“the ball of the new Seniors”). It is a tradition at Finnish schools for the second-year students of high schools to dance old social and ballroom dances when the students who will be graduation from the gymnasium (high school) in the spring leave school to concentrate on studying, by themselves or with friends, in preparation of the matriculation exam, and, thus, the students a year below them become the seniors of the school.

To highlight the importance of their position as the “oldest,” as the “seniors” of their school, they dress up in period costumes that they wear at school through the entire day. I still remember when I became a “senior” how some of the most impressive costumes were borrowed from theaters and could include wigs, shoes, and parasols; others were purchased from vintage clothing stores. Many (including me) dug some more recent, 1920s and 1940s, costumes from their grandmother’s attic. We all wore matching shoes, purses, hats, and gloves with our costumes and had our hair done in the style of the period to match our dresses. Nowadays girls tend to wear more modern ballroom gowns rather than period costumes, whereas guys dress up in tailcoats. Many of them wear the traditional white gloves, some even top hats. 

The day culminates in a performance of old Italian and French dances from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that were popular also in Finland through the nineteenth century. We used to dance at the school gym but now the dances have become a serious form of entertainment. Therefore, the dances are now performed at sports arenas or theaters that seat all the family members, friends and relatives who want to participate and watch the performance. This high school ritual is a great way to keep traditional European dances alive. I still remember how the rehearsals started early in the fall semester, and although most guys seemed reluctant to participate in the rehearsals, I am convinced that deep down they actually enjoyed leading their partners in the dances. To support my conviction, you just need to watch the dancers: their enjoyment is clearly visible in their postures, those straight backs, articulated gestures, and serious, concentrated faces.

 

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