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The Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH)

Scandinavian Dance
By Gordon Ekvall Tracie, 1965

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Gordon E. Tracie

Scandinavia The term commonly used to identify those countries bordering the North Sea and the Baltic Sea – the home of the Vikings – is "Scandinavia." This word is somewhat ambiguous, however. It was first brought into use by early Latin historians, in reference to the southernmost province of Sweden, Scania (Swedish: Skåne). Since then, it has come to mean, variously, Denmark, or Norway and Sweden, or all three, or all three plus Finland, or all four plus Iceland. Actually, this entire area is known to the inhabitants themselves as "Norden" – the North.

Although both a geographical and a cultural entity in many respects, Scandinavia (in the broadest sense) is made up of several different peoples. They encompass three distinct racial groups: the Nordics, the Finns, and the Lapps. And they comprise five different nationalities: Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, and Icelandic.


The Scandinavians make definite distinctions in the types of folk dances of their countries. There is, on one hand, "folk dance" (Swedish: folkdans; Danish and Norwegian: folkedans), as defined by the organized folk dance societies. These dances, which vary in age and origin, are frequently formalized, and are usually danced in a series of figures and formations, often to a fixed melody. Nearly all the music is traditional, and the preferred instrument is the fiddle. On the other hand, there is "oldtime dance" (Swedish: gammaldans), the popular dances of yesterday, that are still danced by certain segments of the public. The greatest share of this music is played on the accordion, or by orchestras in which that instrument is prominent. Popular traditional Scandinavian dance rhythms are the waltz (vals), the polka, the schottische (Swedish: schottis), the rheinlander (Norwegian: reinlendar), and the mazurka, all of which are common to Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland, plus the hopsa of Denmark, and – perhaps most significant of all Nordic rhythms – the polska of Sweden, and the related pols and springar of Norway. Swedish folk musicians, by the way, do not consider the schottische or the polka to be "folk" music because of their relatively recent origin.


As a musical and rhythmic form, the polska has been known in Scandinavia since the Middle Ages. There has been mention of the "polska-dance" in Swedish literature since the sixteenth century. A decidedly baroque quality, which is frequently reminiscent of the music of Bach and Handel, discloses the age of many polska melodies.

Although many dance and music authorities credit the name "polska" to Poland, it is very possible the both the dance and the musical idiom may have existed in Scandinavia as a native form prior to its acquiring foreign nomenclature. The polska spread eastward from Sweden, where it was the predominant dance form for several hundred years, to Finland, and westward to Norway, where today it is known as pols, springleik, and springar. The polska reigned supreme as Sweden's national dance well into the 1840s. Its characteristic 3/4 meter constitutes the rhythmic framework for the greatest share of all Swedish folk music. Truly, the distinctive rhythm of the polska may fittingly be called "the pulsebeat of the Northlands."

The finest living examples of native couple-dance tradition using instrumental music are unquestionably found in Norway. Three distinct classes of these dances are recognized: (1) songdansar (song or ballad dances), (2) bygdedansar (country or village dances), and (3) turdansar (literally, figure dances).

According to Arnold Elverum, scholar of the Norwegian dances, Norway is most noted for its songdansar. The origin of these song dances has never been proved. Various theories have been offered, but the one advanced by Dr. Ole Sandvig, a teacher of music in Norway, is the most plausible and acceptable. His theory is that these song and ring dances originated in the Balkans. To study his theory we must go back to the third and fourth centuries, when Constantine the Great had as his most trusted bodyguards a group of men from the Scandinavian countries, most of them from Norway. Dr. Sandvig noted the great similarity between the many Balkan dances and the song dances of Norway, especially where the six-count is used. His contention is that the song dances had their origin through these returning soldiers.

For hundreds of years these song dances were popular. Then several events occurred that caused them to disappear almost completely in Norway, though they in no way affected song dances in the Faroe Islands: (1) the Black Death infected Europe in 1347-1350, killing almost half the population of Norway; (2) the pietistic movement tried to do away with all kinds of dancing during the Reformation; and (3) French court dances became very popular during the Danish rule of Norway between 1307 and 1814.

An event that saved the old song dances from extinction was the settlement of the Faroe Islands in the ninth century by peasants from Norway. On these islands – situated between the Shetlands and Iceland and still inhabited by hardy Norse folk – the oldest living dance tradition in the North exists. An ancient form of the song or ballad dance is still performed there. Danced in a ring or in long lines, with repetitive steps (basically, two to the left, one to the right), a vital element of these dances is the singing. Song dancing closely follows the text and the mood of the ballad. Surviving from the Middle Ages or earlier, the ballads often have hundreds of stanzas, which everyone knows by heart. The theme may be humorous or heroic, or it may deal with tragic love. Instrumental accompaniment is never used for these dances. Everyone participates in the Faroese song dance, which for centuries has been virtually the only form of social entertainment. Ironically, this tradition has greatly affected the course of folk dancing in Norway.

Another Norwegian folk dance, the characteristic bygdedansar (country or village dances), can still be observed at weddings, festivals, and even dance competitions. Still performed as they have been for centuries are dances such as Halling and Gangar (in 2/4 and 6/8 meter), and Springar and Pols (in 3/4 meter). The Springar (running dance), which contrasts the exuberant masculinity of the male dancer with the feminine modesty and grace of the woman who remains in the background throughout the dance, is considered to be the most widespread country dance. It varies from one locale to the next, being heavy and philosophical or light and carefree as the mood indicates. The Gangar (walking dance), a slow and stately dance except where the man may show off his strength and vigor, survives primarily in the valley of Setesdal, an area that had held on to the customs of the Middle Ages until a generation or so ago. The Halling (wild solo dance for men) employs kicks and jumps comparable to any of the most strenuous dance steps of Ukrainian dancers, The Pols, found in eastern border areas, is closely related to the Polska of Sweden. Although simple in pattern, the pols are extremely subtle local-style dances, and can be mastered only with a great deal of practice. Traditionally, all these dances are performed to the music of the hardingfele (Hardanger fiddle), or, in the easternmost valleys, ordinary fiddle.

Beginning in Sweden around 1875, the first "folk dance" movements sprang up in various countries for the study, collection, and preservation of their folk dances, music, and songs. These movements were followed by the formation of national folk dance societies; the first was in Sweden, and others appeared in Denmark, Norway, Finland, England, Scotland, and the United States.

In Sweden, folk dance descriptions were first published in the 1890s by Svenska Folkdansens Vänner (Friends of Swedish Folk Dance). Since 1923, the standard folk dance textbook has been published by Svenska Ugdomsringen för Bygedekultur (The Swedish Youth Society for Rural Culture), which promotes folk dancing as a primary activity. Traditional Swedish dances are often classified as (1) folkdanser (folk dances), which include (a) pardanser (couple dances) and (b) gruppdanser (group dances); (2) sällskapsdanser (literally "society" dances), also referred to as högerståndsdanser (upper-class dances); (3) samkvams and gilledanser (dances for social gatherings), often also called smådanser (little dances); and (4) gammal dans (oldtime dance), which include the basic steps of waltz, hambo, schottische, and polka in couple-dance form. As can be seen, the lines of distinction in these dance forms are not too clear.

Unfortunately, in the past, little attention has bee paid in Sweden to the historical origin of folk dances. From the folkloristic standpoint, traditional Swedish dances can be divided into two groups: (1) Ethnic dances still surviving in the rural areas, actually danced by the "folk" without benefit of promotion through organized societies. Such native country dances include countless polskas, such as Fyramannadans, Snurrbocken, and the Hambo. Numerous traditional quadrilles from Southern Sweden, such as Landskrona kadrilj and Övraby kadrilj, also belong in this category. (2) Dances in "folk style," that were originally designed for stage presentation and which are products of the national romanticism of the mid-nineteenth century. Although the melodies are traditional, the steps and figures are often fanciful. For three generations, however, Swedish folk dance societies have been performing these dances to the point where they have become virtually a tradition in themselves. Classic examples are Daldans, Frykadalspolska, Schottis i turer, Vingakersdans, and Fjällnäspolska.

Traditional melodies handed down by ear from father to son constitute the truly ethnic music of the land. These folk tunes are called latår or folklatår and are the chief tunes of the authentic country fiddler's repertoire. In Sweden, the folk music is usually referred to as spelmansmusik. There is no specific English equivalent. A player of musical instruments was, in old Nordic, called spelman (folk musicians). Because of the predominant use of fiddles in Sweden, however, the spelman would best be called a fiddler. A great portion of the old fiddle tunes were danceable. The latår (folk tunes) were placed onto four rhythmic forms, as listed below, with only the first being a non-dance rhythm.

  1. Gånglåt (walking tune), Brudmarsch (bridal march), Skänklat (wedding gift tune), and other ceremonial music are played in 4/4 meter.
  2. Polska, a 3/4 meter, was the paramount Swedish dance form for many generations. It was considerably older than and distinctively different from the waltz, and in no way related to the polka, which is in 2/4 meter, much more recent in origin, and definitely not native to Scandinavia.
  3. Vals (waltz), in 3/4 meter, includes Gammalvals (oldtime waltz) and is a pre-Viennese waltz form that can be compared to the ländler of Austria.
  4. Kadril (quadrille), in 4/4 meter, is found primarily in southern Sweden and on the island of Gotland.

Contrary to many opinions, the schottis and polka are not classified as true Swedish folk rhythms The polska is by far the most common dance rhythm played by the Swedish fiddlers.

In the Swedish-speaking districts of Finland, folk dances have been annotated according to a structural classification. Excellent descriptions of "Finlandsvensk" (Finland-Swedish) folk dances have been published since the 1930s by the Brage Society. Categories are broken down into couple dances and various types of formation dances. In all cases, authenticity of geographical origin is observed.

One interesting tradition is that of the singing games, called sånglekar or folklekar in Swedish. More popular in Sweden than anywhere else, these simple folk games are similar to the play-parties of the United States. At certain places in the song, the dancers choose partners and dance together. Every Swedish school child learns these singing games, and they are an integral part of all holiday festivities, when everyone joins in. The ancient langdans (long-dance) also exists in Sweden, coming to life spontaneously every Midsummer when the serpentine is formed around the Midsummer pole, and at Yuletide when a similar phenomenon takes place around the Christmas tree. Such ceremonies are definitely pre-Christian in origin.

Danish folk dance manuals are based on a geographical classification. Dance notation, in an excellent series of booklets published since 1901 by Foreningen til Folkedansens Fremme (Society for Promotion of Folk Dancing) is simple and direct. The dances are not classified by structure or cultural origin; arrangement is based entirely on regional source – that is, where the dance was found in the form described. In Denmark, more than 1,000 dances have been collected and recorded to date. At least 10,000 dance tunes have been found in old music books that belonged to village fiddlers. Most of the tunes were from abroad. But over a period of time the usage by the peasantry has turned them into Danish traditional tunes. With a few exceptions, most of the tunes were probably used all over the country, and cannot be claimed as local possessions.

In Finland, the folk dances of today are the ballroom dances of yesterday. These dances came to the Finnish aristocracy and the rich middle class. The names of these dances imply their origins – Anjglaise, Française, even a Pas d'Espagne, which is from the Spanish Waltz found in all the Nordic lands as well as in the rest of the continent. Virtually unique to Finland is the existence of the Minuet as a dance form up to the present time. Although minuets went out of style as ballroom dances, they kept their once-fashionable names and became changed and adapted to the tastes of the "folk," by whom they are still danced today.

Many dances were created by the country folk, and, being inspired by the activities around them, bear such names as Net-Dragging Dance, Bear's Dance, Reaping Dance, and many others that mimed everyday life.

The polska, in 3/4 meter, was danced often as a pair or couple dance, but just as often as a dance for four or more couples in a square or round formation. The most complicated of all of Finland's dances is the Purpuri, that contains many figures such as the waltz, Russian quadrille, the polska, and the march. Often, the first figure may be in a square formation, danced by any designated couple. Like the Czechoslovakian Beseda, the tempo changes with every figure, and each one has its own tune and steps.

Young Scandinavians today are modern. Their countries rank high in education and industrialization, with a standard of living barely surpassed, if at all, by the United States. The old traditions, intimately bound up with the agrarian economy of a bygone era, cannot be expected to survive in an urbanized, technologically advanced society without concerted effort. Fortunately, there are many throughout Scandinavia who continue to learn and teach the arts of their countries.


From "Folk Dance Progressions" by Miriam D. Lidster and Dorothy H. Tamburini
Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1965.

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