Swing Dance Camp Part Two: Herrang, the experience

(I am eeking this blog post out from Spannocchia, the farm I’ll be on for three months this fall. I’m desperately trying to get this post out now, as there is of course tons that I want to write now about my time so far in Italy, so again, apologies if this writing is not as tight as it could be.)

I was an hour early for registration at Herrang, so I dropped my bags and got a quick tour from Michael, my new Swedish friend from the bus. Immediately I regretted—no, remorsed—that I was only staying for one week, not two. I instantly felt that I never wanted to leave this place.

We got in line early for registration, which notoriously takes forever. The registration line snaked through a crowded room, and I realized that I hadn’t received a confirmation email in the week or two before coming here, like you might with a flight or hotel reservation—did I actually complete the registration process? Did I sign up for the right week? Am I going to reach the front of the line and not be in the system at all? It didn’t help that my friend Michael said that yes, I should’ve received an email, and gave me a concerned look. I was deeply anxious (really, just short of panicking) for the full hour it took to reach the head of the line, imagining how humiliating it would be for them to say that sorry…I wasn’t registered. I thought of a zillion ways it could play out, but ultimately it wasn’t needed, as they were able to check me in, no problem.

After registration I went to choose my bunk. It’s very crowded in the gymnasium, so I chose a bunk on the edge with a wide open space in front of it, right next to the emergency exit door, which turned out to be a big mistake as the emergency exit actually just went into a stairwell that led to the bathrooms and showers, and so was opened and closed about 800 times a day by the gym’s 90 residents, with the door slamming right next to my head. When I told other people at the camp which bed was mine, they would cringe and ask “are you able to change bunks?” On the plus side, at least because every single person uses this door at all hours of the day, everyone would know when I was sleeping and when I wasn’t.

The People

After unpacking and settling in, I toured the place and then grabbed dinner with the Norwegians I’d met. After dinner, I walked to the beach with Jure, my new Slovenian friend from the bus. Friendships are accelerated at Herrang, all interactions are stripped down of reservations, shyness, and unnecessary politeness that I find just hinders real conversation and real connection. Everyone is themselves instantly, and it was so refreshing. And everyone is nice—it’s the only place in the world that I’ve ever been where, at mealtimes, you can just sit down at a full table where you know no one, and everyone will welcome you immediately, no questions asked, and fold you into the conversation. It’s easy to start conversations, too, the standard questions are how long have you been dancing? Where are you from? What’s the dance scene like there? Now I have a set of dancing friends all over the world, with offers to visit in England, Germany, France, Norway, China, etc. to go dancing, and I’ll know I’ll have a place to stay.

As an unequivocal extrovert, I loved constantly meeting and being around new people, and felt almost electrified with excitement the entire time. Though sometimes I did long to be alone with my thoughts, for even just a moment, and there were only a few times I can remember this happening (besides, you know, using the toilet): once when I managed to score the only single shower stall (I usually used the group shower, four ladies at a time). When I locked the door to this tiny wooden stall, it felt luxurious—despite its wet slimy floors, grungy enormous water heater, and pathetic low-wattage light bulb, it was a haven from the life that was moving at breakneck speed outside.

The other time I was without company was when I borrowed my friend Xenia’s bike in order to go up to the beach on the lunch hour, in an amount of time that really didn’t make sense for it, but I really wanted to do it anyway. She’s a small person, and the bike was a tiny cruiser, replete with streamers and non-functioning brakes. It was, without a doubt, the shittiest bike I hope I ever have to ride, and I looked ridiculous on it; I was certain that people would see me and assume that I’d mugged a small child for it. But it got me to the beach, and I was able to wade out into the water and cool down from the heat before going back to class.

The Classes

Speaking of class, each day we had between three and four classes that are 70 minutes long. The first hour on the first day was a peer-led audition, where essentially you dance with a partner for one minute, then write down their names on a square of paper and write how they were to dance with, give them a rating, then hand it to the organizers. You do this about 8 times, with different partners, and then in the end you’re slotted into a group.

Then, each day there is a different schedule, with classes at different times and at different floors. There were sometimes classes back to back, and sometimes two free blocks in a row, which would be great for those people that are able to nap (I am not.) Or we could walk to the beach—we lucked out with the weather, it was beautiful and warm all week (the same heat wave that made it unbearable in the rest of Europe made it totally pleasant in Sweden.)

We had the same group of people for class throughout the entire week, and it was fun to learn the unique style and feel of each partner. Two men in my group I joked were my dancing soulmates, as we had such good dancing chemistry, and I always felt I danced my best with them.

Nightly Meetings

Every night the head of Herrang, Leonard, hosts a meeting in Folkets Hus, dressed in a suit and sitting on a little red chair. These meetings are part news announcements, part Herrang and dance history lessons, and part variety show. Leonard has a totally weird way of speaking, kind of like Werner Herzog, and a really oddball kind of dry humor that I found hilarious. He would tell us things we would need to know about the camp, then go on to show an old clip of a famous swing dancer, and explain a bit about their importance in the canon of swing history. Then the activities director, a Swiss girl who I heard is a professional opera singer, or something, would come out yodeling and dressed in different Swiss-related themes every evening (as a clock, as cheese, as a Swiss village girl) and read off any relevant announcements. I found myself perfectly willing to sit in wonder at whatever Leonard decided to share with us each evening.

I think too that the nightly meetings perfectly captured Herrang—scrappy but impressive, earnest but playful, absurd and delightful. Herrang is like a fairy-tale land, where we can choose the best parts of adulthood and childhood and mix them together in a way that feels like nowhere I have ever been, and where it never gets dark, so you feel like it’s never time to sleep. But O=once again, I find myself frustrated at my inability to express it adequately. There’s a sense at Herrang that anything is possible—if someone wants to teach a class about juggling, or art, or dances from Brittany (as my friend Paul did), they can sign up for a timeslot and teach a class to anyone that wants to show up. You can do whatever you want at Herrang, it feels like it’s a place that runs on dreams (and coffee, and truly terrible Swedish 3.5% ABV beer.)

The Rest of It

Despite my sadness at not staying a second week, I was so tired at the end of my first week that I honestly don’t know how I could’ve managed another one. Generally, we’d have around 4 hours of class a day. In between classes, sometimes we’d do more practice on an empty floor. After dinner, we’d have a few hours rest before the nightly dances began. My first few nights I went to bed on the early side, around 12 or 1, because I didn’t want to be too exhausted for class the next day. But the last few nights, I stopped caring. Brian, one of my swing dancing soulmates, would dance until 1, go up to the café and eat a slice of pie, and then go back down and dance until 3 or 4 in the morning. Making my way back across the main road, my legs absolutely vibrating exhaustion, the sky dusky, never getting dark, seeing a stream of people heading to and from the cabins, I thought that really, is this place real?

After my nights started to get progressively later, I slept like a rock despite the poor location of my bunk. But I still wasn’t getting enough hours of sleep, and I hadn’t been able to nap—every time I lay down, my mind would be buzzing with a million different things.  And really, why nap when you could go out and swim to the floating dock on the lake? Or go to the beach? Or hang out with all of the amazing people around?

Even so, I was getting a little desperate for sleep, and one of the activities that Herrang hosts is a different swing-related movie each night. At one point, Leonard announced that not a single person had attended the movie the previous night, and I thought—perfect! I’ll curl up on the couch and be able to finally get some peace and quiet for a few hours, and I sleep so well when I watch movies. When I finally found my way to the movie room, I found out that it was a tiny TV set up literally in the boiler room, with nothing but foldable chairs and stools set up for seating on the concrete floor. There were a few people watching the movie, as well, and when I poked my head in, I thought that I should at least watch for a little bit, so as to be polite (polite to whom? The movie?) After 5 minutes, I wondered what the hell I was doing, so I got up and wandered out.

When I think about Herrang now, I think about being nearly delirious with exhaustion, and everything seeming funny. I think about my friend Paul, whom I met the first day and was my very favorite person the whole way through; I would never have guessed that I would feel such deep kinship with someone that grew up eight years before me, thousands of miles away from me, in a different culture and with a different language, but I did. And I think about how I became much more closer to becoming the kind of dancer that I want to be. I finally became more comfortable in my dancing, which made room for me to finally be creative with it in the way that I have always wanted. And it felt amazing, I had this incredible surge of creativity, my inhibitions slowly crumbling away.

After dancing for about 8 hours each day, it was hard to come home to an average of 0 hours of dancing a day, and the post-travel existential blues took hold, and when they did I felt a drain of my creative energy, which is why I’m writing this blog post a full two months after leaving. But now I’m in Italy, and I’m on a farm with 7 other amazing interns, and some of them have expressed interest in learning some swing….

In the next post! I talk about this farm in Italy where I am! And I do hope to be blogging more regularly from here on out.