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Reserved Finns express their deepest emotions through tango

The annual Finnish Tango championships, which would have culminated on Saturday, represent a national obsession that dates back more than a century.

Tangodans
Image: Yle/Seppo Sarkkinen

Saturday would have marked the final in the annual Seinäjoki Finnish Tango championships, which were cancelled for a second year in a row due to the pandemic.

Tango arrived in Finland in 1913 as a performing art that was initially only viewed in Helsinki hotel restaurant stages. The Latin dance has come a long way since its arrival at the beginning of the 20th century, becoming the dance of a whole nation.

It has helped form couples and serves as an interpretation of emotions. The tango says what many a Finn would like to say but can't express otherwise, according to one veteran singer.

There is something unique about the Finnish version of the tango. For older Finns in particular, the tango is about singing, dancing, matchmaking, expressing emotions as well as the overarching dance hall culture. It seems like the magic recipe of the tango is the touch between dance partners, as the words in the song express deep emotions. In the documentary The Magic of Tango, currently streaming on Yle Areena, the late singer Kari Tapio revealed what the tango is all about.

"When a Finnish man starts dancing a tango, he doesn't dare whisper 'I love you' into a girl's ear. But when the lyrics of the tango say something to that effect, the man can squeeze his partner's hand a little tighter," Tapio explained.

Emotional lyrics and touch may be a combination that has given rise to the popularity of the tango among many Finns.

Finnish tango legends

Susanna Heikki onnittelee vastakruunattua Aki Samulia.
Susanna Heikki hugs the newly crowned Aki Samuli Image: Miikka Varila / Yle

Major Finnish tango singers have included Olavi Virta, Henry Theel, Annikki Tähti, Tamara Lund, Taisto Tammi, Eino Grön and Reijo Taipale. Dance hall culture has played an important role in the vitality of Finnish tango and -- driven by the popularity of tango music -- the Seinäjoki Tango Festival in western Finland annually gathered around 100,000 fans of the Latin dance before the pandemic. The last event was held in July 2019, and the next festival is scheduled for 6-10 July 2022.

More recent tango artists have emerged from the singing competition at the Tango Market, where a tango king and queen are selected each year.

Arja Koriseva, Risto Nevala, Kaija Pohjola, Kyösti Mäkimattila, Marita Taavitsainen, Jari Sillanpää, Kaija Lustila, Aki Samuli and Erika Vikman are among those who have launched successful careers stardom through the competition.

The ultimate purpose of tango

Maila Talvio wrote a description of the tango in her novel Children of Nineveh a couple of years after the tango made its way to Finland in 1913.

"There was wordless longing in their eyes and outstretched arms. Even the melody wailed and sobbed," recites writer and historian Maarit Niiniluoto, quoting from the book.

Niiniluoto explains the importance of the tango for Finnish people.

"In the 1920s and 30s, tango became a way for Finns to process things and return to deep layers of emotions that they had already experienced. The Finn quietly ruminates on whether they did the right thing or did the wrong thing – is there any hope left?" she says.

Finnish literature professor, artist and author Jukka Ammondt, who goes by the artistic name Doctor Ammondt, sees the therapeutic side of the phenomenon.

"Tango has a healing effect. Tango belongs to everyone, and it can be sung by everyone in their own style," he says.

Regarding the content of the Finnish tango, Ammondt says that the lyrics are always a matter of life, destiny and death.

Finnish rock singer Olli Lindholm, who died in 2019, recalled the Finnish tango phenomenon as follows:

"A Finn listens to sad songs, dances and, through this experience, deals with his own life and unleashes his feelings. Singing sad songs makes a person happy, at least it makes me happy," Lindholm says in the documentary.

From matchmaking potential to fitness sport

Seinäjokelaiset tanssinharrastajat Harri Marttila ja Janna Takala.
Tango enthusiasts Harri Marttila and Janna Takala from Seinäjoki. Image: Jarkko Heikkinen / Yle

In 2009, during the making of the documentary, there was concern that the dance hall culture was disappearing from Finland. Tarja Närhi, the editor of Yle's dance music programmes, says that the dance hall culture has changed significantly and irreversibly since her own childhood and adolescence.

"Due to dance turning into a sport, even the tempos of the songs are now of a certain type, at the request of dancers, in order for the tango to be suitable for this hobby," she says.

Espoo-based dance enthusiast Mervi Koivukoski confirms that dance hall culture has become more of a form of fitness than finding partners and socialising.

"The way people dress reveals who has come to exercise and who has not. We dance athletes have uniforms on, so you know that a person is there because of dance as a sport. We wear dance sportswear made of special materials," Koivukoski says.

She adds that her hobby also includes dance courses, where one can study dance patterns, musical structures and interpretation with qualified instructors.

Catching the dance bug

Marko Maunuksela.
Marko Maunuksela Image: YLE

Marko Maunuksela, who won the tango king title in 2010, agrees with Koivukoski’s assessment of the evolution of the Finnish tango.

"Tango is no longer a staple in the life of the average person as in the past, when everyone participated, from cradle to grave. Fortunately, in addition to active dance athletes, there are also so-called regular dancers in the dance venues, and a completely new, young dance crowd has also begun to form. Usually new visitors discover the dances and the music through someone else - my own spouse is an example of this. She wouldn't listen to this music if it wasn’t for me. Someone has to ignite that spark and, in turn, pass it to others," he explains.

It will be interesting to see how the dance hall culture in Finland continues to evolve. In the future, will there be a new, urban dance hall culture in addition to the provincial cultural centres? Signs of this already exist. Preserving the dances as part of the country's cultural offerings would be valuable, as long as there is a way to make it economically viable.

Kari Tapio, interviewed in the documentary, was convinced that the tango is in Finland to stay:

"Tango will never disappear. It is eternal," he said.

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