Two Weeks at Herrang Dance Camp

I'm almost at the end of my second week at Herrang Dance Camp, and it's just as overwhelming and wonderful as I remember it being. It was a bit surreal being back at first, like revisiting the best dream ever had. In the early part of the week I had the famous Herrang Flu, which is not an actual flu, but just a general sickness that inevitably goes around when close to 1,000 people from 45 countries are living in close quarters, staying up until 4 in the morning, and touching each other all the time (usually for about three minutes at a time, before rotating into a new person to touch for another three minute song.) Despite my best efforts, I succumbed, and had to sit out two nights of social dancing. Luckily, I'm no longer in General Accomodation (aka sleeping in a bunk bed in a room with 100 of my new best friends) but am instead sharing a private accommodation with an Australian dentist; his name is David. Our lodging is the world's cutest little house with a loft with two mattresses very close to the slanted ceiling. The first night, I smacked my head while trying to roll over, and since then I've self-relegated to the couch downstairs.

The loft occupies about the top fifth of this house

The loft occupies about the top fifth of this house

It's hard to describe this place, though I tried last year, twice. It's like summer camp for adults, of course, but with a charming Scandinavian twist. There's a sauna, and a new addition this year is a woodstove hot tub, which I had never heard of  before but now am quite keen to export to New England, specifically perhaps western Mass (Alex are you picking up what I'm putting down?) You see, it's a hot tub, that has a cylindrical chimney-looking wood-burning stove submerged in it as the water's heat source. Bathing with a stove is something I never would have thought of, but I'm glad that someone else did. I haven't been in yet, it's often full-up, but It's right next to the tents where classes are, and I love that there's usually woodsmoke wafting around. (Edit, the other day the hot tub vanished as mysteriously as it had appeared.)

 

Herrang is a fanciful, whimsical place, where any person's charming, bizarre, and/or completely impractical idea can become a reality, with seemingly no other other justification besides "why not?" There's a birthday party every night at midnight for whoever's birthday it is—the camp supplies the traditionally Swedish cake and coffee and the birthday people are allowed to invite friends for a party at midnight into their birthday. There's a masquerade night on Wednesdays, because dammit those things are fun. Someone paddled a bunk bed out onto the dock in the lake, equipped it with a non-working wall clock and a non-working plastic, shiny phone in the shape of big lips, and swathed it in multi-colored gauze (for mosquitos). Now, this typical, dreaded Herrang bunk bed, the kind in which hundreds of people sleep few hours every night, looks almost majestic out there on the lake, its gauze billowing in the breeze as the dock rotates around lazily. It's rumored to be the most peaceful place at camp to sleep.

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A few months ago, someone as a joke added on Google maps that there is Annedal's Pizzeria behind the building where the evening dances are held. This area is really just a patch of grass next to some wooden huts and the meadow--in short, a location where the idea of a pizzeria is preposterous. Herrang, in it charming optimism, asked itself "why not?" and bought a pizza oven, and has created a makeshift pizzeria back there that opened this week. This, despite the fact that I'm pretty sure not one person had experience safely building and then safely operating an 800 degree pizza oven. But it's there now, christened with one of the ubiquitous drippy paint on rough-cut wood "Pizza 80 SEK." I hear it's pretty good.

 

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There's a sawed-in-half bathtub that is a bench during the day but is sometimes reincarnated as a bar at night. There's a nightly meeting where Leonart, the camp's director, mixes announcements with a sort of bizarre variety show, made all the more amusing by his unique accent and speech pattern, basically sounding like a Swedish Werner Hertzog. There is Vaudeville Amateur night, with acts varying from two staffers passing a coconut back and forth from spoons their holding in their mouths to actual opera singers singing a madlibbed opera, improvised on the spot. This week there was a schlubby looking German guy that sang, a capella, the best cover of Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" that I've ever heard (the audience went nuts.) There are delicious cappuccinos available at the Ice Cream Parlor, and there is an Ice Cream Parlor (perhaps most famous for its banana bread (not as good as mom's)). There are almost 400 bicycles that dancers rent to get around. There's an entire little cabin dedicated to housing the camp costumes, which anyone can make use of.

And there are lots and lots of mosquitoes, though notably absent here are any sort of screens that would prevent them from getting inside—screen technology has perplexingly not yet made it to Sweden.

There is all this weirdness and wonderfulness, and much more, but of course there's something dance-related going on around the clock, too. People dance until 8 in the morning, immortalized on the "Last Dancer Standing" wall where photos are posted of anyone still dancing when the DJ decides to go home. There are lectures on dance history, documentaries and movies about swing dancing are shown every night, and there are classes on other styles of dance held from 10 to 11 at night. There's late night blues in the Russian Kitchen (so-called, I was told, because it's always full of Russians.) There's Savoy night, with a red carpet, where everyone is dressed to the nines. There's a Shag Pile at 1:11 am every night (shag being a kind of swing dance, and yes, the double entendre of asking if people like to shag is used nearly every time it's spoken of.) There's a group of people practicing tap out on the lawn on a sole piece of two-foot square floorboard they found somewhere. There are people practicing aerials on the front lawn. There's perhaps the world's smallest pure Balboa dance floor—the "Pure Bal Palace"—which is just an old fashioned telephone booth playing crackly 1930s tunes, with a sign that says "Max 5 people"—the joke of which I won't bother explaining not only because it probably still wouldn't be funny to you, but also because it pains me to have to acknowledge just how deep into the subculture I've gone, and how unrelatable so much of my life feels to non-dancers these days (though perhaps this is the subject for another post...)

 

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The other night I found myself accidentally in the right place at the right time to watch an unannounced burlesque show, where one woman imaginatively utilized a feather balboa and a big, plume-y fan to strip down, in an old school classy jazz-style, to nothing but a lacy thong and pasties. I watched this while standing on top of a (single) chair with my Australian dentist roommate—it was one of our first times hanging out together. And it was preciesely during this performance that I realized how Herrang is almost like traveling back in time, where the spirit of the 30s and 40s lives on in little ephemeral, 5-week blips every summer. I've been to other dance camps, and while the people are similarly crazy for this dance, none are quite like this, none explore so many aspects and nuances of swing dancing. I haven't fully articulated this thought, but suffice to say it's really its own little world here.

I could write for days and days about this place, and I would still feel maddeningly unsatisfied because I know that I'm not capturing it quite right. But my parents are coming tomorrow to pick me up, and I'm not only excited to show them everything here, but also excited to be that 28-year old whose parents are picking them up at summer camp. It will be interesting to hear their observations. I will be sad to leave, but I feel ready, too. It's exhausting here, and I need some time to reflect on all that I've experienced.