by Rita Leydon ©2006
There are times in life when unrealized desires and passions must be either addressed or forgotten. Being a displaced Swede in America since childhood—I wanted desperately to learn to dance the hambo. My need to act on this personal deficiency erupted two years ago. My startled husband of 23 years, Chris, agreed to humor what he thought must be a passing whim. After some false starts we found ourselves in the welcoming care of Joel Remde and his Skandinöje dancers in New Jersey. We learned not only the hambo, but also scores of other wonderful turning dances from all over Sweden. Chris and I became thoroughly enchanted with both the treasure trove of Swedish dance forms we discovered as well as with the music.
During this time I befriended one of the premier and senior hambo enthusiasts in the greater New York area, Thor Bergström. He understood and encouraged my enthusiasm for this most Swedish of dances. It was Thor who planted in my consciousness the germ of the idea to “someday” dance in the Hälsinge Hambo competition. He did this by the very touching gesture of presenting me with his own well-earned bronze medallion for having danced Hälsinge Hambon in 1985—stating “When I die, they’ll clean out my room and throw most of it out, but I want you to have this.”
Months passed, life became complicated and dancing provided sanity during otherwise trying times. In the spring I offhandedly suggested to our friend Joel and his dance partner Margette O’Neill that the four of us ought to go to Sweden in the summer and dance in the Hälsinge Hambo. Joel’s eyes grew large. He embraced the challenge with eagerness. YES! We were going to Hälsingland!
This year (1996) Hälsinge Hambon marked its 31st year. It is the “VM” (world championships) of hambo and the mother of all lesser regional hambo events that dot the landscape during the Swedish outdoor season. Participants dance a version of the hambo called “nighambo”—a slow, controlled dance with a characteristically deep dip on the first of three beats. The music danced to is “Hårgalåten,” a trance-inducing melody attributed by local legend to the fiddle playing devil on Hårga mountain. The dancing takes place on a Saturday in early July in four locations: Hårga, Bollnäs, Arbrå and Järvsö.
Peak participation of 1500 couples occurred in 1985—the year our friend Thor danced with his partner Dagny—in 1996 roughly 425 couples came forth. In order to participate one pays a fee roughly equivalent to $120 per couple. Authentic “folkdräkt” from a recognized region must be declared with pre-registration and worn in the competition. The four of us were in good shape: Joel / Rättvik—his vest generously loaned by Thor Bergström who was thus there “in spirit”; Margette / Rackeby—in one of my two costumes; Chris / Rackeby; Rita / Vadsbo. We would be beautifully indistinguishable from the natives!
The vanity plate on my '87 Jaguar says it all: HAMBO. This being a fitting human interest element, I had sent off a photo of myself with car to the organizing committee suggesting they might be able to get some PR out of it in the local press. Sure enough, a splash was made of the four Americans coming—in the local daily Ljusnan—they jokingly wondered if we had learned hambo by correspondence course. The reality is quite different; we here in America benefit from the travel teaching trips made by the “best-of-the-best” Swedish dancers. That is how we happened to be already acquainted with no less than three of the judges and both the eventual first and second place winners of the competition, as well as a handful of dancers and musicians from Östergötland. We felt at home and among friends.
We had the bounty of being hosted by one of Hälsingland’s premier fiddling families, the Jonssons of Bollnäs—parents, Kerstin and Bengt, as well as children Lena and Staffan. The Jonsson home, deep in the forrest, is Swedish country idyllic—a charming old timbered cottage painted the requisite red with green and white trim. Their cleared area includes a “potatis land” and vegetable garden containing the world’s largest rhubarb plants. After supper on the Eve of the Big Event, Bengt and the children played Hårgalåten for their visiting Americans who joyously danced barefoot in the grass and savored the magic of the light summer night. Our friends would be among the musicians playing for all of the dancers on the morrow at the Bollnäs soccer field. “I will wake you at five in the morning,” said Bengt.
There is an air of ceremony to the act of dressing in folkdräkt—the various separate garment elements are decidedly a bit unusual by 1990s standards, there often being many more pieces making up the whole than we are used to. The garment is probably handmade with great care and one can’t help but have respect for the maker and the traditions involved. The four of us lace up and assemble ourselves privately and in silence. We gather on the front stoop for a commemorative photo. Breakfast is at Hårga.
There are roughly 850 other dancers in the environs, several hundred support crew and thousands of tourists groggily making their way to Hårga. Dancers are transported via busses from one venue to the next. Almost every person who climbs on board our bus bears a different costume—colors, patterns, embroidery, laces, leathers, ribbons, hats, shoes, stockings, skirts, stripes, flowers, vests, coats, scarves—a celebration of life expressed in personal embellishment parades in front of my dazzled eyes as everyone finds a seat. Being a textile aficionado and folkdräkt admirer from way back, I am in heaven. If I died at that moment it would be as a happy woman. We four carry nothing; but these seasoned folks are carting baskets with blankets, thermoses, water bottles, rain ponchos and such support materials. Obviously we are neophytes among veterans. Kamraderie prevails. Excitement high. Weather holding.
All busses converge at Hårga—this is not a town, it is a field at a “gård” (farm). Breakfast—coffee, filmjölk, smörgås, flingor. Registration. Mud—it has been raining. Greeting friends. Music. Sky watch. Practice turns on the grass. Hambo on grass is NOT anything like hambo on a nice indoor wooden floor. Anxiety. Don’t panic, remember we are here for fun. Others are going through the same mental and physical exercises as Chris and I. Each couple is assigned a number, either “udda” (odds) or “jämna” (evens), and this dictates where they dance during the day. Joel and Margette are odd (#357) and we are even (#334).
There is nothing professional about all this. The dancers are just regular folks ranging in age from twelve up to the seventies, in a wide array of body types, shapes and temperaments. The flavor is decidedly folksy, country, small town, human scale, festive and joyous. Organization and food service is excellent. The event is engaging for both the participants and the observers. Everyone has fun.de
I learn a new Swedish word at the Hälsinge Hambo: defilering. It is the dancers arriving with pomp and circumstance, a “Grand March” before the public at each location before we dance, usually to a schottis (4/4) or a gånglåt (2/4). At the last venue Chris and I were delayed and missed the defilering across the Järvsö bridge, but the music was still playing and rather that run to catch up we decided to dance a schottis across the river instead. The crowds lining the bridge were delighted and cheered us on; shyness doesn't exist for us when it comes to dancing because it allows for such joy, both for us as dancers and for any observers.
There were ten very serious judges making numerical decisions on the various nuances pertaining to the dance—rhythm, style, technique and the interaction between partners. Each couple is judged four times. First at Hårga—twenty couples at a time on each of two roughly sixty foot diameter grass circles in a meadow, the ground is uneven, muddy and slippery. Then at Bollnäs—on the nice flat grass surface of a soccer field. One dances the full length of the field, makes a U-turn and dances back again. Next in Arbrå—400 meters straight, slightly uphill on an asphalt road. Asphalt looks pretty good after grass! Finally the home stretch at Järvsö—down a hill and over a very long bridge crossing the river Ljusnan. Wind is a factor on the bridge. Chris and I hit our stride on the bridge; we are happy, having fun, doing well and in the middle of the bridge Ingalill Bäcklin (wife of one of the judges) jumps out and cheers for us, yelling that we look great and are doing beautifully! We really appreciate this dramatic vote of confidence and dance on to the end, slap “high fives” and embrace. Now we can relax and simply enjoy the euphoria in the air. There is a grand feeling in surviving and reaching the conclusion of such a highly anticipated experience, but the feeling is mingled with a touch of sadness. The higher numbers are still coming across the bridge, Hårgalåten is still in the air. This is an endurance event for participants and spectators alike.
Stenegård, situated on the sloping banks of Ljusnan in Järvsö, is the venue for the semifinals and the finals. Rain threatens and clear plastic ponchos are donned, but it only drizzles slightly. A large “snickarglädje” (gingerbread) pavilion houses the musicians and all electronic gear. To its left is a basketball-court sized open strip-wood dance floor. It is well used and quite weathered. The bannister along two sides is festooned with a string of small white lightbulbs and freshly cut birch branches—the effect is terribly Swedish summerish. The grassy slope above the dance floor creates a natural amphitheater for watching from blankets. Most folks are tired and just want to rest. Chris and I are too excited and charged up and can’t possibly SIT when there is dance music in the air. So we take our exuberance to the dance floor; no one joins us—which we think is strange—and no one asks us to stop. It is not hambo music now, rather gammaldans variety.
Between each staged event Chris and I pop up and dance. By this time Joel and Margette have joined us—so as the Swedes watch, the four visiting Americans enjoy the otherwise empty floor. Our friend (and judge) Rune Bäcklin jokes that “one has to be careful with Americans, you never know what they’ll do with all that freedom.” I think he was amused by our audacity and enthusiasm.
When the semifinalists are announced, we are pleased to note that our defilering neighbors #331 and #332 are included; we give them a cheery thumbs up greeting. The winnowing process is under way.
A very dramatic manner has been devised to announce the ten finalists: five parachutists descend from the heavens bearing banners fluttering numbers. All the landings go well; Chris and I have our eyes on the still standing midsommarstång (Maypole) among us, hoping none of the sky divers impales him or herself on it.
The finals begin around ten o’clock in the evening. The ten finalist couples are of course all brilliantly wonderful dancers of the nighambo, poetry in motion and a pure delight to behold. We are suitably impressed and inspired by the 1996 crop of Hambo Royalty. Couples tend to be at the top for a series of years. There doesn’t appear to be any limit to the number of times a couple can take honors, and this creates an expectation as to which couples will stand on the podium when all is said and done.
We have now earned our bronze medallions—our certificate of participation—and collect one each. This small business card size plaque displays a relief sculpture of a very robust couple in the midst of a hambo with the words Hälsinge Hambo in capital letters at the bottom. I smile at the sight of the familiar piece, it is exactly like the one I have hanging from a chain on my bedpost at home—the gift from my friend Thor—the only difference being the year engraved on the backs.
The music and dancing continues into the night for the enjoyment of the general public. The dance floor is packed. I am not tired at all, if Chris is, he isn’t saying. What a sport and support he has been to my surge of passion for “archeological Swedish dances”—as I call what we now pursue together. At the very last moments, as we are preparing to leave, something very wonderful happends to me. An older gentleman approaches and asks me for a dance—a schottis. I am flattered and am expecting him to do the dance in the “hoppy skippy” fashion that most occasional dancers use. Rather I am thrilled to realize that this lovely older man is an excellent schottis dancer of the old school. He has grace, style, wit, many variations up his sleeve and beautiful response to the music. He tries all his tricks with me and I only miss a couple of cues to some obscure figures that I am unfamiliar with—he doesn’t mind. He keeps me on the dance floor through several schottis and walz numbers, we are well pleased with each other. When he finally releases me he sweetly explains (so Chris also can hear) that he had been observing my dancing all evening and that I was the only girl he wanted a turn with because I danced beautifully and correctly according to his own particular criteria. Chris beamed with pride because he understood that this unsolicited affirmation of his wife’s skill in dancing meant a great deal to her.
Time to go home
Our adventure has been a big success and the memories will undoubtedly last a lifetime. Chris and I settle back into our irregular routines and independently spawn identical ideas. We don’t discuss it, we just do it quietly and without fanfare. I send my bronze medallion to Thor because I have his and now desire for him to have mine—this reciprocal gesture is rich in personal meaning and symbolism. Chris and Thor also have a special friendship forged by complicated circumstances they both suffered through together. Chris’ sentiments toward his elder friend suggest that honoring Thor with his medallion is the appropriate thing to do. Full circle.
It is said that when one gives freely and from the heart without any expectations of return, he will eventually receive twice the measure back. Thank you, Thor, for sharing your passions and fostering my love for the hambo.
Published in Nordstjernan, September 19, 1996