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Finns dance 'tangotanssi' to find their inner Latino

Tango has found a lasting home in Finland, and every summer the Finns' love affair with the dance breaks out into the open, showing that under their cool North exterior beats a warm, Latin heart.

world Updated: Jul 26, 2014 15:50 IST

Tango has found a lasting home in Finland, and every summer the Finns' love affair with the dance breaks out into the open, showing that under their cool North exterior beats a warm, Latin heart.

For many practitioners of "tangotanssi", the dance offers an opportunity to give free rein to emotions that social mores usually require them to keep in check.

"Dancing tango gives us space for emotions that we find it hard to express otherwise," said Outi Suoninen, her brow beading with sweat after an hour on the dance floor at Tangomarkinnat, the year's biggest tango festival, held in the western city of Seinaejoki.

Her partner, Heikki Kyroelaeinen, nodded in agreement: "We can be intimate. It strengthens our relationship."

This year the annual July festival, one of the world's biggest, celebrated its 30th anniversary and attracted 116,000 visitors -- or, in a population of 5.4 million, roughly one in every 50 Finns.

The climax: crowning the tango "king" and "queen", who become instant superstars in tango-dancing circles.

"It's about maintaining and strengthening the Finnish tradition of tango," said the festival's artistic director Martti Haapamaeki. "Besides, the festival provides a kick of energy for the entire nation."

Getting close to the other sex

First-time visitors to Finland are usually surprised to find that tango has a massive following an ocean away from its Argentinian home, but to the Finns themselves it makes perfect sense.

"Tango is an ideal way to approach the opposite sex for a Finn," Haapamaeki said.

Tango came to Finland in 1913 -- when the country was still a part of the Russian empire -- introduced by Toivo Niskanen, a ballet dancer who had warmed to the exotic fad while visiting Paris.

Modern Finnish tango, which evolved in the 1950s and 1960s, has departed from its South American origin in ways discernible even to untrained eyes and ears.

The dance looks different -- the couples pressing themselves closer together than in the Latin version -- and the music has a distinctive local ring to it.

"Finnish tango is a bit like military music with its striking rhythm, whereas Argentine tango is more fluid and gives more opportunities for dancing," said Markku Lindroos, who takes tango lessons in Helsinki.

Tango in every part of the world is a mixture of joie de vivre and sadness, but the Finns, some say, place the emphasis decidedly on the "sad" part. Minor keys -- traditionally associated with sorrow -- are used often.

According to historians, the melancholy mood reflects the atmosphere during and after World War II, when Finland twice fought against the Soviet Union and had to cede large parts of its territory to the numerically superior foe.

"After the war, tango helped us come to terms with our grief. The loss described in the tango tunes attained a wider meaning," Yrjoe Heinonen, a professor of contemporary cultural studies at University of Turku, told AFP.

Competing with Elvis

Since then, tango has had to compete with other forms of popular music, from Elvis Presley to rap and heavy metal, and as it enters its second century in Finland, sceptics wonder how long it can last.

The optimists see little reason for concern, noting that the opportunity for physical intimacy is a permanent attraction that will appeal to future generations as well.

"Today people are always handling electronic devices, and all communication is done electronically," said Kaisa Saarinen, organiser of the annual Frostbite tango festival in Helsinki.

"There's no physical contact. Tango brings us very close physically."

Argentina's Martin Alvarado, an internationally known tango singer who performed in Helsinki in February, said he was surprised by the vibrancy of Finland's tango scene.

"I know Russian tango and German tango," he told AFP, "but a tradition as strong as Finnish tango you find nowhere else."

First Published: Jul 26, 2014 15:49 IST