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A Midsummer Night's Dream,

Maarit Niiniluoto


The sound of an accordion echoes across the lake surface, the wind rustles in the reeds, the dark shadows of the white birch trunks are reflected in the water, and the invitation of a lighted open-air dance pavilion can be heard from far away.

"The leaves are falling like tears from my eyes..." A man and woman are holding each other closely. It is impossible for an outsider to know whether they have danced together for three minutes or three decades, and whether they will part after the tango or stay together for the rest of their lives. "Although I see the evening star through a veil of tears, I still know you look for it, too..."

Last summer - perhaps more often than ever before - I was asked to take journalists, researchers, and students from abroad to witness a scene like this. The Finnish open-air dance pavilion culture has stirred substantial interest, although it is not easy, even for Finns, to understand its meaning. The open-air dance pavilion is a cocktail of Finnish epic poetry, history, sociology, and mythology.

Visitors never cease to marvel how deeply the open-air dance pavilion culture is rooted in Finnish history. In the 1920s and 1930s, summertime open-air dance pavilions run by local youth and labour organisations epitomized the entertainment culture, which spread with the aid of modern ballroom dancing, the favourite melodies of the era, the radio and the record industry. The venues were situated by lakes and on islands, and were widely popular until the eve of the Winter War against Russia. During the Second World War, however, a ban - unique in its kind in wartime - was put on dancing. In a small country like Finland, dancing during wartime was considered "dancing on graves". It was not until the Allied Control Commission left Finland in 1948, that the then Minister of the Interior, Aarre Simonen, lifted the ban.

Owing to the dance ban during the war, the lyrics of the popular songs became a focal point. Finns basked in their melancholy, symbolic language, their metaphors and images, at home and in the dugouts. The songs floated through the darkened ether from radio request concerts at the front as a form of communication bringing home messages of love.

Post-war Finland saw the construction of thousands of open-air dance pavilions across the country. Amidst the struggle with war reparations, reconstruction, and supply shortages, the dance pavilions provided the only sensual dimension in people's weary lives. Between 1948 and 1968, the majority of Finns met their future spouses on open-air dance pavilions. Structural changes and depopulation of the countryside emptied open-air dance pavilions in the 1970s and 80s - until the recession in the early 1990s and EU membership in 1995 brought the open-air dance pavilion culture back permanently.

Open-air dance pavilions tell their own story about the survival of Finns and how life goes on. The birch and the star, Finnish national emblems, are usually somewhere to be seen, and dancing on the open-air dance-pavilions will go on in one way or another as long as there are Finns.

Maarit Niiniluoto is an author and cultural journalist.