Social dancing in Finland

In Finland going out for social dancing is a very popular way to spend time, meet people, enjoy music and take exercise. The young and the old alike go dancing. Many people have met their future spouse at a dance, but it is very common to go dancing just for the fun of it.

Where, when and how to go dancing

In Finland there are dancing houses and pavilions which are only open in the summer and others which are only open in the winter. In some places dances are given throughout the year. You find information on where dances are given in newspapers and on the calendar pages of this server.

Summer pavilions are often located in beautiful places in the countryside. Dancing places are seldom located in the centre of a city or a town, because it would be too expensive, as the places are empty and unused most of the time. Therefore you need a car to go to dancing. Some places arrange a bus service. When you drive yourself, it is recommended to make the route clear to yourself in advance; either on the this server or in a tourist information bureau.

The most common day to give a dance is Saturday but dances are given also on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Especially in the summer dances are given on almost every day of the week.

When you go to a dancing place you first buy a ticket (that costs 10-15 euros) and in some places get a stamp in your hand so that you can leave the area and come back again, if you want to.

When entering the building you can check your coat and walking shoes. In the summer you can leave them in your car if you prefer that. Checking your coat is free or costs one euro. Any valuables that you can not easily carry with you (e.g. wallets and cell phones) should be left with your coat so that they do not interfere with your dancing.

Foreigners are welcome

You do not have to speak Finnish to go to a dance in Finland. Not much talking is done during dancing anyway. If you are a woman, you can simply smile when you are asked to dance and if you are a man, you can bow or nod and hold out your hand when you ask a lady for a dance. After a dance it is customary to say "kiitos" (thank you) but that is about the only Finnish word you need to know.

You can come to a dance with or without a partner. Even if you come with your partner, you both can dance with others if you want to.

If you want to dance with the local people, you may ponder, whether you will be asked to dance if you look like a foreigner (that is, not like a European). Of course, there is no guarantee. Not even Finns always get to dance in a place where they have not been before, where they are not known. But if you are a good dancer, you always get to dance. So first you have to show your skills. This is no problem for men, who do most of the asking. For a woman it is more difficult, if she goes without an escort. It would be advisable for her to have a male friend with her, who can "introduce" her by dancing the first dances with her. If no such friend is available, it is possible for a woman to ask herself. She can look at the dancers, note a man who dances well, and then go and ask him even though it is men's turn to ask. The man has the right to refuse, but it is more likely that he will be flattered and gladly takes her to the dance floor. And every evening there is the women's hour during which it is the women's right to ask men.

Foxtrot, waltz, tango, humppa

The all-purpose foxtrot is the most common dance in Finland. Its basic step is slow-slow-quick-quick. Most people dance the tango with these steps, too, although you can see many skilful variations.

The Finnish waltz is traditionally a little slower than the original wienerwaltz. In addition to the waltz also the slow waltz (or the English waltz) is popular nowadays.

The "humppa" is a Finnish samba-like dance. But while samba is danced to a slow-a-quick rhythm, the humppa goes more like quick-quick-quick-bounce. It could even be described as a fast waltz with a bouncy character.

Polkka, jenkka and masurkka are usually played once per dance party, and many dancers consider them the high moments of the evening. Polkka, or Finnish polka, is a unique, fast variant of the well-known Bohemian dance. Jenkka stems from the slower Bavarian polka. Masurkka is based on the Polish dance mazurka.

Even Latin American (cha cha, rumba, samba, and recently salsa) and swing dances (jive, bugg, oogie wogie, discoswing) are done. But you do not have to master all these dances; only very few dancers do them all. You will have a nice enough evening if you know how to do the foxtrot and the waltz.

Refreshments and alcohol

In most dancing places there is a cafeteria, where tea, coffee, soft drinks, pastries, sandwiches and bread rolls are served. In some places even alcoholic beverages are available. However, it is not considered good manners to drink a lot during a dance evening, and anybody may refuse to dance with a person who has had too much to drink.

In some dancer-friendly places water is free and you do not have to ask for it; it is easily at hand.

How to dress

The dress code in Finnish dancing places is quite free and varies a lot. Most people put on something nicer than the clothes they wear day to day but formal attire or actual party dresses are seldom seen. However, the clothes absolutely have to be neat and clean. A shirt should never be worn for two nights in a row without washing it in between.

Women may (and do) wear both skirts and trousers, but the truth is that most men find a skirt more charming, especially if it is wide. A tight skirt is impractical, because it hinders movement in dance.

Women should never take their handbag or shoulder bag along to the dance floor. Bags should be left behind, on shelves or hooks behind the women's row. Anything valuable should be left with your coat in the checkroom.

During cold weather even a pullover may be necessary, especially in poorly insulated summer dancing places. However, a more common problem is sweating caused by too much heat. A wet nylon shirt is not nice to touch for your partner. Some people are far-sighted enough to bring along an extra shirt or even several, to change when necessary.

Where to sit/stand

One wall in every dancing place is reserved for the women's row. The women's row is the place for all the women who want to be asked for a dance (couples sit elsewhere). There is no logic in choosing which wall is for women. If you go to a place where you have never been before, you just have to wait and see where all the other women take their place.

Customarily there are benches or chairs along the wall, but there are never enough seats, so usually women stand in a row along the wall. Some places even have a special wall for men, but this is not always the case.

Traditionally, the end of the women's row which is farther from the door is considered most special or worthy. In olden times the farthest end of the row was the so called cream bench, on which the most wealthy and the most educated women took their place. This tradition has been preserved in many dancing places, but nowadays there are no external requirements for taking your place on this special bench or "diva corner" as it is sometimes called. Usually the woman's own idea about her dancing skills is the reason why she chooses or does not choose this place.

"May I have this dance"

The normal procedure is that men ask women for a dance. Men can do this by bowing or nodding or saying something appropriate. The traditional "Saanko luvan?" ("May I?") is one alternative among others. The woman responds with a nod or even with a curtsey and holds out her left hand. The man leads the woman to the floor, away from the row. Greetings ("Hyvää iltaa" - Good evening - or simply "Hei" - Hello) are exchanged only after the couple has left the area where the asking takes place.

Introducing yourself is not necessary; in fact it is not even usual. It is possible for a man and a woman to dance together once or twice every Saturday for many years without knowing each others' names.

It is considered impolite to refuse when somebody asks you for a dance, but not everybody is polite. A valid reason to refuse is, if the person asking you is drunk or unclean or behaves inappropriately.

Because the asking often starts before the band starts the next tune, it sometimes happens that either of the partners does not know how to dance this particular rhythm. If the man finds out that the dance is unknown to him, he must immediately return the woman back to her place, so that other men can ask her. If the woman does not want to return, the couple waits together for the next dance. If, on the other hand, the woman does not know how to do this dance, the man should not take her back unless the woman suggests so herself. If she does, the man may ask somebody else, but it is polite to ask her again as soon as possible.

Dance tunes always come in pairs, e.g. two tangos, two waltzes etc. At least they should come. Some unprofessional performers can pair for instance a waltz with a jive or a humppa with a tango, but this is not usual.

After the first number both partners say "kiitos" (thank you) and stay on the floor. After the second number both thank again, after which the man escorts the woman back to her place. Once there both of them say thank you once again. The man escorts the woman either by holding her left hand in his right hand, or, more formally, by offering his right arm to the woman, who takes it with her left hand.

When women do the asking

In most (though not all) dancing places there is a specified time of the evening, usually one hour, during which women do the asking. In some places every second hour is for men and every second hour for women. Special women's dances are also organised. During these only women have the right to ask, though often there is one hour reserved for men.

Whether it is men's or women's turn to ask, is let known on a sign which says "miesten haku" (men's turn) or "naisten haku" (women's turn).

If there is no sign, the band announces the change of the turn. Only the asking changes: everything else stays the same. The man still is the one who leads the dance, and after the dance the man escorts the woman back to her place, not the other way round.

If women want to dance with each other, it is allowed. However it is not polite for women to dance with each other during the women's hour unless all the men have been asked.

Men do not dance with each other.

After the women's hour it is polite of a man to ask at least those women who asked him, and with whom he has not danced during the beginning of the evening.

Leading and following

When a man and a woman dance together, the man is always the one who leads the dance. He chooses both the patterns and the route. The dancers go round the floor in an anti-clockwise direction. The man should give way to the couples who dance ahead of him. The man should never dance backwards for more than a couple of steps at a time, so that he can always see how much space he has. If some other couple moves in the way and the man does not see them, the woman can give him a little sign by pressing her left hand against his back. If there should be a collision, it is the man's job to apologise; the woman need not do so, for she is only going where the man leads her.

The traffic on the dance floor flows fluently if the slower dancers circle the floor closer to the centre than the faster ones. Unfortunately occasional visitors do not know this rule, although they usually are the slower ones who should abide to it, so that the dance would go smoothly.

During the break

The band and/or the vocalist usually perform for 45 minutes at a time. If there is only one band (or if the second band's repertoire is not large enough for a whole evening), there is a fifteen minute break between sets. During the break recorded music is played. The dancing goes on as usual, and dance tunes come in pairs.

When the evening ends

It is often informed in newspaper advertisements that the closing moment of the evening is the time when the place should be empty. The dancing ends half an hour earlier. Thus, if the advertisement says 20-02, the dancing may end at 01:30 (and it may also begin at 20:15). If the minutes are mentioned, the music plays all this time.

It is a tradition that the last pair of dances are waltzes. If the audience is satisfied with the performers, people may clap their hands until the performers come back on the stage. Encores do not have to be waltzes, they may be any kind of rhythm.

Translated and partly written by Eeva Vainikainen.