by Nic Hartmann
Folklife Initiatives Fellow
College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, University of Arizona
When I first met native Swede and VASA dance leader Ami Kinnison last October, we were standing behind the VASA Lodge booth at Tucson Meet Yourself, where she had been helping to sell meatballs and saft during the festival. I had been interested in the Scandinavian cultural groups of Tucson; I was curious to how these groups maintain their cultural traditions in the desert landscape.
A discussion about Borderlore quickly turned into an invitation: “You should come to our dance group on Monday nights. We are looking for more people, and I have a costume for you. You don’t need to know how to dance, we will teach you.”
Being a dancer myself, I did not hesitate to visit the group at their usual practice space: the lunchroom and stage of Whitmore Elementary School in Tucson. Every Monday night, the lunch room becomes a performance space for the VASA Dancers, a group dedicated to traditional Swedish set and couple dances such as the jamtpolska, the tullinge polka, and the schottis i turer. Drawing a diverse group of dancers, some with Swedish heritage and some without, the group has been an organized dance ensemble since the late 1980s, and according to Ami, the group naturally fit into the festival due to the VASA Lodge’s long-term involvement: “VASA has participated in TMY since the beginning, so it was natural that our newly formed folk dance group would also be a part.” The group performs throughout the region; in addition to TMY, they recently performed at a Scandinavian gathering in Green Valley, and will be performing at Tucson’s Nordic Fair in December.
The members of VASA bring a diverse array of dance experience; some bring experience in other forms of world folk dance, and sometimes even ballet, into their Swedish dances. Nancy Bannister, who participates in the group along with her husband Gerry, told me that an interest in couple and partner dances brought them to VASA: “We were looking for an opportunity to do more couple/partner dancing and the VASA dancers were happy to welcome us. We found it very easy to pick up the VASA material and it was great to start doing all the different set dances.” The group’s performances, as well as their practices, are accompanied by members of the Aurora Borealis Band, thus making them one of the few dance groups in Tucson (if not the only one) to have live accompaniment.
In addition to the dances themselves, the VASA dancers also wear highly detailed costumes while dancing — some of which have been passed down from their elders. Ami Kinnison is very dedicated to creating a strong sense of authenticity within the costumes; her own outfit, which she found at a market in Sweden, comes from the province of Dalarna (located in Central Sweden), and includes an apron, scarf, wool stockings, and an embroidered hat (the latter of which was given to her for her 80th birthday). Ami also found many ways to create her own costumes: “A real folk dress is very expensive, so through the years I have copied and made several of them, often with an apron, pin or something I brought back from Sweden…to make them even more authentic.”
Nancy Bannister, when asked about performing at TMY, spoke of the attention her costume receives, as well as how she adapted her costume: “It’s interesting to wander the crowds at TMY when I’m wearing my costume. I’m often either asked about it or people will try to guess where it’s from. I wear the folk dress from Rattvik in Dalarna, Sweden. There’s a very tall, pointed hat, a long blue skirt with a woven-in apron of horizontal stripes, and a green vest, which I made by copying a real one.” Nancy’s hat and skirt are originals, thus showing examples of both tradition and variation within folk costume.
The group offers its members an opportunity to connect with, or to gain knowledge of, Swedish culture; for Ami Kinnison, it is a way to maintain a connection to her birthplace, to where she returns each year, learning new dances and having an opportunity to dance with local ensemble.
Phyllis Gracy, another member of the group, actually learned that she had Swedish ancestry through being a part of the group: “My only knowledge about Sweden was what I learned in school… I also learned about life in Sweden and traditional foods. It was about a year ago that I discovered I had ancestors who were Swedish. [It] is now more personal and I like to think that I’m learning dances that my ancestors did in the fourteenth century.”
The benefits of dancing with VASA are many, according to Ami: “Dancing has become a very important part of my life since it provides friendship, good mental and physical exercise. It teaches how to get along with people, how to be constructive in relationships on the dance floor. It is fun!”
Phyllis stresses the openness of the group to all people regardless of level, saying “I would like people to know that our group welcomes everyone to join us. You don’t have to be Swedish and never think you’re not a good enough dancer to join. We all started as beginners. Watching people tapping their feet and smiling is the greatest experience of all!”
- Folk Dance overview: http://autocww.colorado.edu/~flc/E64ContentFiles/DanceAndDancers/FolkDance.html
- More about Scandinavian folk dance: http://www.folkdance.com/scandi/whatitis.htm