Casual Cultural Conservation Through Dance

The only working Danish windmill in the US.

A few weeks ago I visited a friend from Cornell whose family lives in Nebraska and comprises a good portion of the Scandinavian Folk Dancers of Omaha. I’d seen them perform before at the New England Folk Festival in April, held in Mansfield, Massachusetts, but unfortunately at that point my phone’s camera wasn’t the right tool for the job of documenting their great dancing. This time, when the group performed on a much more intimate stage at the Danish Tivoli Festival in Elk Horn, Iowa, (Elk Horn and neighboring Kimballton apparently make up the largest rural Danish settlement in the US) I was ready with my camera and was able to take some half-decent videos of several of the dances. The audio quality isn’t the best given the slightly windy conditions, but hopefully you can get a general feel for the experience in the video below.

We’ve featured some thoughts on dance on the blog before, especially given Kerala’s famous and theatrical Kathakali. In a way, traditional dancing like that practiced by the Scandinavian Folk Dancers of Omaha represents Raxa Collective’s principles of Community, Conservation, and Collaboration. The group forms a community of people with mostly Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian heritage, but also some Finnish (and even Czech) background. This community gathers to celebrate their shared roots by dancing, a collaborative custom in itself. As you can see from the video above, many Scandinavian dances are not only performed by partners but also in a greater synchronized group — this is common throughout traditional folk dances everywhere. Conservation comes in the form of practicing the traditional dances across generations, preserving the steps and music over time for people to share and enjoy.

In fact, at the yearly Tivoli Fest there’s an accordionist called Dwight Lamb whose grandfather moved to the US from Denmark with plenty of folk tunes in his head. He taught Dwight the melodies, or Dwight just listened and learned them by ear. Dwight is now 81, and a couple years ago a Danish duo (accordionist Mette Jensen and fiddler Kristian Bugge) came to a folk festival somewhere in Minnesota and heard Dwight play many unadulterated Danish tunes they recognized, as well as a couple they had never heard but which Dwight told the audience were songs his grandfather brought from Denmark. For Kristian and Mette, who both studied at the Danish Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts’ folk music program, this was quite a surprise, and they were happy to learn some recovered tunes from Dwight, who they now play with whenever they’re in the midwestern neighborhood. I got to watch Dwight, Kristian, and Mette play together at Tivoli, and even danced to their performance the next day in Sioux City, Iowa, happy to play a small part in some casual cultural conservation.

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