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Originally published July 20, 2013 at 6:12 AM | Page modified July 20, 2013 at 4:18 PM

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Finns embrace the passion, melancholy of tango

Finland’s love of the tango may come as a surprise — but only to people who don’t know Finland. Take a look at a tango festival that’s been drawing up to 100,000 dancers to just one Finnish city.

The New York Times

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SEINAJOKI, Finland — Every July, this modest Finnish town, population 59,000, transforms several square blocks downtown into a vast dance hall. Stages are erected, tents are put up and thousands of Finns — along with Spaniards, Germans and even some Japanese and North and South Americans — gather to dance for four days to the smoldering rhythms of the tango.

The tango? What can the Finns, those cool blonds rendered melancholic and morose by the long, lightless winters (or so the cliché has it), understand of Argentina’s passionate national treasure?

And yet they come, in recent years as many as 100,000, starting to dance in the early afternoon, listening to Finnish stars belt out tango tunes, taking part in lessons and contests, and striding, twisting and leaning to the “thump, thump, thump” of the beat until the early hours of the morning.

The tango in its Argentine form is brooding and nostalgic. While the Finnish variety is more upbeat, many here say its blending of passion and melancholy perfectly expresses the Finnish soul.

“It’s so powerful, with a lot of emotions and feelings,” said Eija Eerola, an office worker in her 40s, wiping sweat from her brow after a turn on the wood floor of a huge white tent.

Dozens of couples — women in shorts, pedal pushers or skirts, and men in baseball caps, fedoras or 10-gallon cowboy hats — danced to the soft strains of an accordion and a violin.

A passionate dancer, who takes to the floor “a couple of times a week” when at home in Helsinki, Eerola was visiting the festival, sleeping in a trailer, for the first time in seven years. What draws the Finns to the tango? “It’s a bit melancholy,” she said. “And that’s the way we are.”

For Monica Wilson, who grew up in a Finnish family in Thunder Bay, Ontario, dancing the tango and being Finnish go together like pickled herring and new potatoes.

Wilson, 40, a schoolteacher, came to the festival, which ended last Sunday, with her brother and a cousin while on a trip back to the home country. She took some tango lessons and, with her cousin, tried out a few steps under the L-shaped tent, half the size of a football field, called the Pavilion. In Canada, she said, it is the two-step, but in Finland, it is the tango.

Her Finnish-born parents in Canada, she said with a laugh, “danced the tango in the kitchen.”

The festival here was founded about 30 years ago to fan the flames of what appeared to be a dying tradition. The tango had been introduced to Finland a century ago by a Finnish ballet dancer, Toivo Niskanen, who learned his classical steps in St. Petersburg, then the Russian capital. But he became enamored of the tango while visiting Paris.

The tango flourished in Finland to the point of almost becoming the national dance. To this day, about 2,000 tango clubs thrive across a nation of 5.5 million people, and the festival in Seinajoki is one of the largest anywhere.

Yet, after World War II, with the arrival of rock ’n’ roll, the tango’s influence began to wane. By the 1980s, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones threatened to drown out “Hernando’s Hideaway,” the tango show tune.

“The tango was not popular anymore, though not forgotten,” said Juha Teuri, 31, the festival spokesman, at a high school that was serving as headquarters.

“At this point, something had to be done, so it started as a tango singing contest, then quickly grew bigger and bigger,” Teuri saud, explaining the origins of the festival in the mid-1980s.

The festival is not the only summer tango gathering. A website dedicated to Latin dance, festivalsero.com, lists 20 such events in July alone, including the Puerto del Tango in Tallinn, Estonia; Tango Magic in Seattle; and the International Queer Tango Festival, one of a number of increasingly popular gay tango gatherings, in Berlin.

But Seinajoki’s festival stands out, not only for its size, but also for its juxtaposition of Scandinavian brooding and Latin passion.

“For us it was a nice surprise,” said Anabel Saldaña, one of Argentina’s leading tango performers and teachers, who was invited this year with her partner, Jorge Mendoza, to perform and to teach at the festival. The couple’s nighttime duet on the festival’s main outdoor stage, before a crowd of thousands and amid flaming torches, smoke and lights, was a huge hit.

Finnish tango is not the Argentine variety, Saldaña said. “But we think it has the same feeling, though with different words and concepts for the experience.”

Mendoza, who like Saldaña studied Finnish tango before arriving, agreed. “We don’t say, ‘We have the real tango, or the true tango,’ ” he said. “We are showing them another tango, that it’s nice and cool to tango.”

“Here, the people, they took the tango and they made it their own,’’ he added.

The difference between the Argentine original and the Finnish offshoot was evident at one of many classes the Argentine dancers gave for festival visitors in the school gymnasium. As eight Finnish couples listened attentively, Saldaña explained that the tango was “like a puzzle.”

“If you know the pieces,” she said, “you can assemble them in different ways.”

The organizers worry that the festival is increasingly becoming an affair for middle-aged and older people. To draw a younger crowd, big-name rock musicians — big in Finland, at least — now fill the gaps between tangos.

On one sunny afternoon, Antti Tuisku, a kind of Finnish Adam Lambert, sang one of his hits to crowds of fans who waved their arms in a mosh pit, even as older dancers in the Pavilion continued to twirl and bend to a tango beat.

Younger Argentines, who had similarly drifted away from the tango, have returned in droves, according to Saldaña.

Over at the Pavilion, Aarno and Sirpa Ervasti did not miss the mosh pit one bit as they glided around the floor, closely entwined. They have come to the festival every year for the past 10 years.

“We’ve been dancing the tango for 43 years,” Ervasti, 66, said. She, like her husband, Aarno, 70, is a retired elementary-school teacher.

“It’s the quiet, the melancholy, maybe what we get from Russia,” he said. “Our Slavic side.”

“It’s love,” she said. “It’s our way to make love.”

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