Finland's tango fever

Despite being continents away from Argentina, the shy Finns have a passion for the melancholy music and dance.

Courtesy of Martti Hautamˇki/Seinˇjoen Tangomarkkinat Oy
A crowd dances on "Tango Street" on of the main scenes at the Tangomarkkinat, a Tango Festival in Seinˇjoki, Finland.
Courtesy of Martti Hautamˇki/Seinˇjoen Tangomarkkinat Oy
Dancers perform during the "Opening Parade" as it goes through the Seinˇjoki Downtown and opens the Tangofestival in Finland.

Finland. A nation of reindeer, saunas, Nokia cellphones, and its own special version of... tango?

Yes. It seems the melancholic music is a perfect match for the typical Finnish soul. "It's a little bit sad, and it's beautiful," a woman tells me at a dimly lit Helsinki restaurant that regularly hosts dances. Paradoxically, when she moves to these sad melodies, she feels happy. (She didn't want to be named, her reason being another national trait: shyness.)

When Finns first laid their eyes on performances of the Argentine tango nearly 100 years ago, they latched on and soon made it their own. By the 1930s, songwriters were penning original Finnish lyrics, setting the stories in their own snowy landscape.

During World War II, dancing was forbidden, but persisted in secret. Tango records avoided prohibition, however, and became soldiers' favorite method for courting sweethearts back on the home front.

The lyrics spoke of people "longing for each other,... feelings of passion, desperation, hope, the hunger of love. Tango became the way of communication between people during the war," says Maarit Niiniluoto, an expert on the history of Finnish tango.

It's a chilly afternoon in Helsinki, but it's warm inside Cafe Tin Tin Tango, where the mood is set by the minor-key tunes playing perpetually in the background.

Tango music doesn't sell so well these days. Young Finns favor heavy metal or the latest hits from abroad. People under 30 haven't lived enough to fully appreciate tango lyrics, Ms. Niiniluoto says. Nevertheless, it's etched deeply into the culture. Most schoolchildren learn the Finnish version of the dance, along with the waltz, foxtrot, and a Finnish dance called humppa.

Most Finns know by heart classic tangos like "Satumaa." Composed in the 1950s by Unto Mononen, a 1962 version became a bestseller. Its title translates as "Happyland" or "Fairy-tale Land." And its words embody that telltale melancholic longing: "Beyond the open oceans, there is somewhere a land, where the wave softly takes the shore of happiness.... But without wings I cannot fly, I am a prisoner of the ground.... Fly my song to the place where you see the happyland, to the place where my own love waits for me."

At countryside dance pavilions scattered throughout Finland, "you see all kinds of people between 18 and 80," Niiniluoto says. All ages also follow an annual tango-singing competition on television here. The tango "king" or "queen" is named at the Seinäjoki Tangomarkkinat, a popular July festival that has at times attracted more than 100,000 visitors.

The dance is all about "nearness," says Jari Sillanpäa, the "Tango King" of 1995 and a popular singer of a wide range of musical styles ever since. The Finnish dance is not as expressive as the Argentine version, he says, which is "like telling a story to your partner." The dance is easier, but no less potent or romantic. "If it wasn't for the tango, I think this small country would have less people," he says with a laugh during our interview in a quiet hotel near his home in Helsinki.

He worries that the tango, and partner-dancing culture more broadly, may be slowly dying out in Finland. But there are still devotees who dance nightly or weekly, and the annual tango competition gets about a million viewers a year. Not bad for a nation of just 5.3 million people on the opposite side of the globe from Argentina.

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