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Herräng

SWEDEN | Thursday, 7 August 2008 | Views [2313] | Comments [2]

Herräng is a small town in Sweden on the north coast of the bulgy bit that Stockholm and Uppsala are on.  For centuries it was the site of small-scale iron ore mining, until this became unviable in the 1960s.  Now, about 1000 people live there and most Swedes have never heard of it.  Most swing dancers, however, know it as the host of the largest and longest running swing dance camp in the world, and as one of the sights of the Lindy revival in the 80s.  This post is mostly aimed at swing dancers who know something about swing dance camps and as such I don't plan to give too much extra info for the lay people among you, but knowing me I probably will anyway so feel free to read on even if you don't know a swing-out from a K-flip and see how the other 0.01% live.

Herräng International Swing Dance Camp both kicks and sucks arse.  It combines the best and worst of what you'd find at other dance camps.  And, even more annoyingly, it's often the case that a single aspect will fit into both categories simultaneously adding a Hamletian multidimensionality to the camp's character which, I guess, is its ultimate charm.  Its motto of "organised chaos" pretty much sums it up.  If your Myers-Briggs profile (and anyone who has worked in an office for more than a year has probably done one) has you as a (poorly named in my opinion) "J" and you are proud of this, then you may want to reconsider turning up.  It makes Brian from Lismore seem super organised (gasp).

The camp takes place over 4 (sometimes 5) weeks in July (ie the middle of the summer holidays) and is run in week-long blocks, starting and ending on Saturdays.  We did Week 3.  Just getting there from Rockhammar was a bit of an adventure (getting home was even more of an adventure but we'll deal with that later).  For a town you could drive to in 3 hours, it took us about 5 to get there since it involved taking a train to Stockholm (somewhat of a diversion), getting the T-bannen (metro) to a different part of town and then getting 2 different local busses (with no luggage compartments) to Herräng.  As most of the people on the busses were going to Herräng there was a lot of luggage.  There were also some Russians (I think) who decided that they'd like to listen to some music on their portable speakers and everyone else could get stuffed.  Luckily the music was Bob Marley so it wasn't toooo bad (I have a pet hate of people polluting communal space with noise or smoke without a good reason). 

Anyway, we got dropped off at a bus stop in Herräng and followed the crowd of Russians to a place that wasn't the check-in (damn their ex-commie hides).  So we carried our gear back in the right direction and passed a woman sunbathing in her undies on the lawn next to the path (not an uncommon sight on a sunny day in Scandinavia).  Just as Emma was about to chide me for staring too long I called out "Lovisa!"  Our friend from Malmö (via Brisbane) looked up and said (in her Swedish accent) "Holy fook!"  Given that we'd been planning to meet her and our mobiles hadn't been working this was a nice turn around (it was the beginning of our Lovisa radar that had us running into her for the next few days before she went home) and she helped us find where we were supposed to go to register and even minded our stuff while we endured some organised chaos inside.  One aspect of this was the cash-only nature of the camp admin, meaning we each had to have with us about twice our daily ATM limit in cash (in a town with no ATMs) to pay for camp fees and our private accommodation.  Luckily we'd worked this out before coming and were sufficiently cashed up, and after handing most of it over on the first day it was now the Camp's problem - honestly, if I was an armed robber I'd totally hit that camp rather than a bank or something.

In Herräng, there is free accommodation if you stay in one of the bunks in the dorms that are provided in the school (next to the teaching tents) or marina (a 30min walk or 5-10min bike ride away).  If you don't like sharing your personal space with about 50 strangers (like Emma refuses to, and I'm not mad keen on either) you can pay for private accommodation somewhere "in" the town - many residents cash in and leave town for the duration.  And they really do cash in since it’s not hugely cheap - we ended up paying about $600 for a week in a one room shed behind a summer cottage 3km out of town along an unlit dirt road.  We might have gotten somewhere closer in if they hadn't lost the first few days of emails back in February asking for private accommodation, putting us to the back of the queue through no fault of ours.  They did drop us out there with our stuff (after we waited 20min for another old bat only to find she was being dropped around the freaking corner from the check-in building).  Once we got back in we decided we'd have to rent some bikes from the bike rental place, and at least they were friendly and cheerful.  Anyway, back in our shed, we handled this whole turn of events in typical Lazzarini-Jakku fashion - we bitched and moaned and complained to each other until finally getting on with it.  A bright side of the accommodation was that the people staying in the main house (where our toilet and shower facilities were) were two absolutely lovely couples from Skåne (the area around Malmö and Lund), further increasing the number of dancers we know from Skåne (pretty much all the dancers we know from Sweden).  The other bright side was it forced Emma out of her "no bikes" policy (hah!).  And it got us out into the peaceful Swedish countryside/forest.

So we hopped on our bikes and headed in to get some food.  After a quick investigation of the facilities in Herräng (one small corner shop and a slow food kiosk) we decided that the food provided by the camp was pretty good value (about $180 for a whole week of breakfasts and dinners) and bogged in.  And I'd just like to say that the catering at the camp was the one area where we have nought but praise - it was good basic food, with about 4 options plus a vegie option each night, the portions were huge and you could go back as much as you wanted, the price was very reasonable and they even took credit cards (all this organisation was possibly because it's a private catering business, though their kids were helping out).  Add to this the ability to make rolls for lunch from the breakfast bar (not sure if that was totally what they had in mind but it worked for us), and the fact that it freed us up from food shopping, cooking or washing up, and they get a big thumb's up from us.

Then it was off to the first nightly meeting.  The "meetings" are a bit of a Herräng tradition and are one of the highlights of the camp.  They are sort of a cross between a talk show, a variety show and an uplifting dance love-in, as well as providing the odd bit of (otherwise lacking) information.  They are excellently hosted by Lennart, one of the original organisers and still going strong.  He looks like a slightly taller version of Niles (the character from Frasier played by David Hyde Pierce) and has much the same comedic style.  The contributions to the meetings come from whoever wants to contribute.  Regular features included old dance clips - Nicholas Brothers, Berry Brothers (both 1940s tap dancing duo/trio of the jumping-off-a-mezzanine-and-landing-in-the-splits variety) as well as some Hollywood dance numbers (as well as the crazy aerials clip Mattias played on the Gold Coast one time that was "the shit" - if you were there you'll know). 

Two of the teachers (Peter and Mia) did short demonstrations of different minor dance styles from different eras (complete with intro and costume) that were great fun.  There were films made each day of "What Would Daniel He-Man Do" which were hilarious - involving weird solutions (eg ninja training) to common problems (eg gatecrashers) - sort of a camp etiquette lesson made fun I guess. There was a segment of "Ask the Experts" where the resident camp know-it-alls Simon (who's been teaching since the 90s) and Lloyd (from what I can make out, just a camp regular very much like my friend Paul in personality) and whoever else wanted to have a go fielded any questions from the question box on life, the universe and everything - one of the highlights was Lloyd explaining the "smidgin" system of measurement and concluding that the amount of blood taken by the mozzies during the camp each year was equal to about 3 sheep.  As you may have guessed it's a forum where improvisation and creative bullshitting are the name of the game, and that goes for the meetings as a whole - the improvisation and spontaneous creativity displayed excellently mirror the art of social dancing itself.  The highlight though was Lennert having fika (a Swedish term for meeting up for a coffee and chat and subject of a running joke throughout the week) with his little frog.  We only missed one meeting the whole week (for the valid reason of having an impromptu drinkies with yet more Skåne dancers introduced to us by Lovisa) and they are a great part of the camp.

We wandered around and watched some of the night classes (Lloyd teaching ska dancing and some guy doing some hip-hop) and then tried out the social dancing that started at 11pm.  We had a few good dances in the half hour before the floor became too crowded.  There is an unfortunate lack of space in Folketshus (the main venue) and the people there were either beginners who were not able to avoid people or people who just didn't care about running into others (not many apologies or even acknowledgments of contact were forthcoming).  The floor-craft in general was pretty poor.  So we headed off home to get some rest. 

Next day (Sunday) saw the start of the classes.  In general we had 3 or 4 1:20hr classes per day between 10am and 7:20pm, and they were the usual sort with (often) the usual teachers you'd get in Lismore.  It was nice to have some non-American teachers (a Swedish couple and an Italian couple that were really good).  The highlight of the teachers were Eddie and Eva (Swedish couple who have been at it since the 80s but now have two young kids and missed the last few years).  They were the reason we did week 3, since they don't travel much and will probably never come out to Australia.  Eddie is (as Paroz says) "the man".  He moves with such dynamism and fluidity.  Think Mark B style times 10.  When he gets low he's about half his height (for all those Demo troupe people there).  Unfortunately during their second session they got trapped into the "we'll just recap quickly for the people who weren't here yesterday" trap and didn't end up covering much new material (though I did seem to get their stuff a bit quicker than most - I'm not trying to brag, I just seemed to hook onto the Eddie vibe quicker).  Steven and Virginie were great too, especially when she came up to me and said "You're still leading with your shoulder too far back", referring to something she'd told me in Lismore 18 months ago!

Sunday night (I think) we had impromptu drinks at the tent of a couple from Skåne (Anna and Anders - not Emma's uncle and cousin) and met a bunch of nice people.  We also got to practice our Swedish a bit more, which was really great.  It takes a certain amount of patience to listen to someone talk slooowly in a new language and so we really appreciated Anna making us practice.  Like I said, we missed the meeting that night, but it was worth it.

One big problem in Herräng is finding time to sleep.  The meetings are on at 9pm to about 10:30ish.  Then the dancing starts at 11pm and goes all night.  However, the lack of space means that the best dancing is really between about 2am (when it stats to thin out a bit but the really good people are still there) and 4am (when it thins out a bit too much and one is a bit too tired to dance - the hard core people are still there BTW).  Then breakfast is between 8am and 10:30am (assuming you've opted for the camp breakfasts).  Therefore, on Tuesday night (Blues Night) Emma and I decided to try going home after the meeting to sleep for about 3 hours and came back in at about 4am.  People get really dressed up for blues night BTW, it's great to watch.  Got to see Daniel and Åsa have a cool sloow dance in their 30s finery (they got engaged that week BTW for anyone interested).  Then we hung about for breakfast to start.  Did I mention that it took us about 15min to ride in from our shed?  Oh and another problem with the timing was that the two or so hours of actual dark night time in Sweden at that time of year coincided with about 11:30 to 1:30, right about when you want to go home on a normal night when you stay in from the meeting - not great for our 3km unlit dirt road (Mum, that small torch you gave us for the trip finally got a good use). 

So anyway, at the end of the Blues night (about 7am) we were listening in to a group next door to the dance floor in the cafe have a discussion about euphemisms when the DJ (Naomi) called last song. So everyone got up and danced to it.  When it finished, another song started and everyone was confused.  Naomi explained that she was supposed to keep playing till 9am but could finish if there were less than 3 couples on the dance floor, which there had been, but now there were about 6 (I'm not sure why the dormant organisational skills of the camp chose to activate themselves at 7am after a long night).  Anyway, after a long discussion between Lloyd and Naomi, a gentleman's agreement was reached to end the dancing and the End of Night Tally was taken totalling up the number of people from each country still standing for reasons of national pride and nothing else.  Despite Emma and I representing for Australia, I think Sweden won over the USA, though Lloyd got together an unofficial Commonwealth team together to pip them (although a similarly derived Nordic team would still have won - ahh the things that are fun on no sleep).  Special mention, though, goes to the 3 hard core Czech guys who, despite dancing vigorous (in the extreme) solo Charleston downstairs for the past hour still jumped around chanting "Czech Re-pub-lic" and then danced back to the campground singing a barbershop round of "Good morning!  Sun is shining!"  Emma and I had a very enjoyable breakfast with Lloyd and a Swedish guy called David and then went home to sleep till 1pm (it was the day off).

Other people we met included Keiran from Melbourne (the guy who got into the top 100 of the Australian So You Think You Can Dance) who, despite being a fantastic dancer, displays absolutely no ego and is a really, really nice guy to hang out with (and dance with according to Emma).  He's backpacking around the world and is at Herräng for 3 weeks - on week of Lindy (in the super advanced stream), one of Jazz and one volunteering for the takedown which gets him the other 2 weeks free.  And it was great hearing an Aussie accent again for a change - the Swedes are great and speak perfect English, but there's something nice about relaxing into the familiar sometimes.  Other people we met included a big group of Lithuanians in our stream (Intermediate Advanced).  One of the girls, Ina, was really friendly and I got her to teach me some simple Lithuanian since every third girl seemed to be from there (hello is “labbas”, thankyou sounds like “atchoo”, sorry is “atsiprashu” - that's phonetic spelling BTW).  Armed with this secret inside knowledge I had a great time freaking out the Lithuanian girls with the odd word.  One of them was so weirded out ("What did you say?  That means thankyou in my language.") that I was wondering if Ina hadn't doublecrossed me with rude phrases.  Ina later said that all the girls were talking about this guy speaking Lithuanian.  I think possibly they're not used to foreigners speaking their language, it not being particularly high on anyone's list to learn.

On different nights we went in from 11pm-2am, 4am-8am, 2am-4am and all night, so we can definitely say the best time is between about 1:30 and about 4:30.  That's about the time things get late-night-silly and there was even a teachers band playing in the bar - totally acoustic with Peter playing drums on a suitcase, Todd on guitar, some guy on clarinet, Mia singing (unamplified so she really had to project, nice voice too) and playing slide kazoo and Ramona on pill bottle shaker and various people tap dancing - another highlight.  There were bands playing at sensible times on the stage of the main floor, but the floor was too packed to bother - better to sleep at that time.

Herräng social dancing goes all night.  There is something cool about this but it is, ultimately, pointless.  Lismore went from 8:30pm to about midnight and frankly I danced way more at Lismore.  People (normal people like me) have about 2-3 hours of good dancing in them (on a good night when the vibe is there).  So it doesn't really matter if it's from 9pm to midnight or from 2am to 5am.  And at least if you finish at midnight you get some sleep.  If they had as much space as Lismore (sorry to keep referring it to there, but we didn't go to Camp Oz yet, hope it's as good) it'd be better since everyone could dance at the same time.  But they don't, which is why I guess they string it out so you can take it in shifts.  There's also not a lot of room to sit and watch other people dance, which is a real shame since that's also a great way to spend a night (and get the vibe working to get up if you're a bit flat).  I did see a few dances though, and watching Daniel and Naomi dance one night was a highlight - among all the yanks doing their intricate smooth-style with lots of cool moves (great to watch but without the bounce it starts to look like west coast - sorry dudes), there was Daniel dancing simple moves well, not taking himself too seriously and having fun.  I should point out that this guy can do the Hellzapoppin’ routine if necessary, he just chose not to dance that way.  Class.

The DJing was, on the whole, disappointing.  There was no coordination between dancefloors and the music was usually too fast, and not fast lindy, but rather that chugging style of fast music that screams balboa or 20s Charleston.  There was a real dearth of slow grooves - the style that Steven Mitchell had spent his lessons getting us in the mood for.  The exception was the blues night (as you'd hope).  When I say not much coordination between dance floors, I mean that they often had 3 dancefloors going in Folketshus that were all pretty much the same.  Dansbanan out the back was the nominal "beginner's dancefloor" but that was usually just as fast, and at least the Library was supposed to be Bal-oriented.  Rather than wanking about how they could keep their showoff yank friends happy all night with the fast stuff and keeping the floors full of people who were all moves and no floorcraft they should have played different sorts of music in each floor and give us the decision to go dance fast or slow or whatever we felt like (y'know, the people the shindig is there for).  So general thumbs down for the DJing.

The Friday night party (the reason we'd had no sleep on the final night) was great fun.  Each week has a theme and people REALLY get into the theme.  Our theme was New Age, so I just took along my "Voice of the Revolution" shirt and found a tie for a headband in the prop shop (you can rummage through stuff there and borrow anything as long as you bring it back).  Apart from about 5mins sleep on some cushions near the entrance at about 3am, we went all night before having breakfast with a Canadian guy called Carrwright from our level - fun guy to talk to (ie he let me crap on like I knew everything (-:).  Actually, I went for a sauna and shower about an hour before the end at about 6:30am since our private accommodation had run out of water (but don't worry, they had instructions on how to carry water from a pump about 1km away - tools).  On the way to breakfast I saw the Czech guys walking back in their undies after (I hope) a dip in the lake behind Folketshus (there's also a small mine back there too) - yep, they definitely get the hard core award.

Tips and Tricks

It's unfortunate that the lack of information at Herräng means that you'd really have to go one year and learn all the trick on how to enjoy it and then go back another year to get the most out of it (a shame for people paying $2000+ for the airfare that is) - mind you my first year at Lismore was similar I guess.  So I thought I might give a bit of info and my tips on things I'd do if I went back, just in case anyone is interested (or in case I ever go back in the distant future).

  • There are two main areas of activity: 
    • the school where the dorms, camp eating, showers, laundry, ice-cream parlour and most of the classes are.  This is to the right as you enter town on the main road (through an open grassy area with gravel path, or along Skolgatan just before it).
    • Folketshus ("the people's house" or community hall) where the meetings, all night dancing (main, dansbanan and library dance floors), bar bedlam, cafe blue moon, reception, bike rental, prop shop and lindy shop are.  This is on the left down a short street (opposite the gravel path area) as you enter town on the main road.
    • Other things of interest are Kuggen (the general store), this is further along the main road on the left;  and the marina which is about 1km further along the main road on the other side of town from where you come in.
  • Herräng goes for about 4 weeks, plus 1 week to set up and 1 week to take down.  If you volunteer for any of those weeks, you get free tuition for another week.  If you do the setup or takedown, you get 2 free weeks.  Allegedly, the volunteers are pushed a little less hard these days due to a bit of a scarcity of helpers (so they have to be nicer).  This is probably worth it if you have lots of time and not much cash.
  • The food is definitely worth it, though it would be good if the breakfasts started a little earlier.
  • Don't miss the meetings, and get there at least 30min before they start to get a good seat (45min is best).  If you get there less than about 15min before, you probably won't get in the hall.
  • Assume there's a sign on the road in saying "Abandon sleep all ye who enter here."
  • I reckon it's probably best to go to the meeting, then go to bed till about 1am and head into the dancing till about 5am.  Then sleep some more and catch the end of breakfast before classes start.  If I go back (without Emma) I'd seriously consider the dorm accommodation since it's free with the classes and close to the action, and although there's about 50 to a dorm you're more likely to miss out on sleep because there's too much to do rather than noise in the dorm (I hear people are pretty good at keeping quiet there too).  A happy medium is the marina which I hear was quite nice and also free.  Take showers at weird times (like 5am when you get back from dancing). 
  • If you do private accom, get somewhere close.  It was nice to be out in the country in some respects (we nearly ran into deer riding home one night – the bike guys rent to anyone), but you need to be close to be able to catch sleep when you can.  Consider maybe doing your own breakfast so you can sleep in in the mornings.
  • Wherever you go there will be mosquitos, especially at night.  And these are big, Scandinavian mozzies and they really do come in swarms.  Bring repellent if you don't want to get bitten, although we noticed a big difference in reactions to bites - some people got big welts and some had a few "scratched too much" spots, but the one interesting thing was that Emma and I had no reaction at all.  When I was a kid I occasionally got mozzie bites that I scratched till they were red lumps, but thinking back I haven't had that as an adult.  I always assumed that mozzies at BBQs and such just weren't biting me, but now I am 100% sure that the 10 or more mozzies in our shed each night were biting at least one of us (judging by how full a few were when we splattered them), probably all night every night (our shed had ventilation holes that let them in) and neither of us had a single itch.  Which was nice.
  • Bring enough cash for the week (including classes, accommodation and spending money) as the nearest ATM is in Hällstavik (a bus ride away on a dodgy bus system when you have better things to do).  This runs to about 7500-10,000SEK ($1500-$2000), less if you are sleeping in the dorms.
  • Bring booze if you want to drink (I recommend a bottle of vodka - it's easier to pack) as there is no Systembolaget (the Swedish state monopoly bottlo) in town and the bar ain't licensed.  They also don't sell red bull or other energy drinks in town as far as I could see, though Coke is available.
  • Pharmaceuticals I'd recommend are: garlic tablets ("vitlök") and some sort of vitamin tablets (we've been taking this stuff called "Imunxl" which is great for keeping away colds).  Also ginseng tablets are good - garlic and ginseng are available in Swedish supermarkets (but not in Herräng).
  • The bus to Hällstavik leaving town on Saturdays DOES NOT stop at the stops on Folketshus side of the main road that are labelled "Hälstavik" but rather enter town, drop people off and pick people up from the same stops before continuing through town and looping back around outside of town to return to Hällstavik.  Go to Kuggen and find the big group of people waiting, and jump on any bus you see (don't assume it'll turn around and pick you up on the way out).  I can't vouch for weekdays, but just be VERY CAREFUL in general or you'll have to wait 2hrs for the next bus, the signage is VERY POOR.

OK, from that last point you may have gathered that we missed our 642 bus to Hällstavik on the way home despite waiting in the stop across the road from the one we were dropped off at, and which had a sign saying "642 - Hällstavik", which was what our ticket said.  Maybe there was small print on the timetable in Swedish saying "This bus doesn't stop here on weekends" or something, but I blame the bus company for not honouring their sign, the bus driver for not thinking (when he dropped people off) that two people standing with luggage in the bus stop across the road that he KNEW no busses were going to stop at might like to get on his bus and would appreciate helpful suggestions on the topic, but most of all I blame the camp for not putting a bloody great sign on that shelter saying "THE BUS TO HÄLLSTAVIK DOES NOT STOP HERE ON SATURDAYS".  Luckily for us our friend Maria (from, you guessed it, Skåne via Brisbane a few years ago) rounded up someone to drive us to Hällstavik, but unfortunately we'd already missed the connection so we were 2hrs late for each succeeding bus (x2) and train.  Luckily the bus drivers honoured the tickets (though they could have made us buy new ones) and the train conductor didn't pay attention to the times and clipped the tickets without realising.  Did I mention that we hadn't slept the entire night before (except for 5min on cushions in the corner of Folketshus)?  Not a good memory to take away from the camp!

So, overall, a memorable experience and one I’d do again if I was in the neighbourhood.  Who knows, maybe when we take the kids to Sweden in a decade I might get to go back one day (-:

Comments

1

What swedish accent? I do NOT have a swedish accent! And by the way, i said: Oh fuck, not holy fuck. And my accent was perfect. Extremely good. More english then any one naturally english.
*Argh argh*
:D:D:D

  lovisa Sep 1, 2008 1:59 AM

2

Hey! Thanks so much for the stories/tips! I am going to Herrang for the first time this year (2009), and I feel so much more confident with your suggestions!

  Becca Jul 5, 2009 7:47 AM

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