IT’S HARD to come across something that rouses the feelings of nostalgia for the Finnish countryside more than lavatanssit – traditional dance hall dances. Of course Helsinki has its share of dance halls also, but to acquire a true experience you have to head out of the city. Once you find yourself amidst grain fields, lakes and tractors you’re starting to get to the heart of it all.

Just about every town in the countryside, no matter how big or small, has its own lava where locals from children to grandmothers head to in the summer weekends. This is where traditional Finnish music is still alive and kicking as the music at a lavatanssit is always performed live.

The most common dances danced at lavatanssit are tango (the Finnish kind, forget about all that passion that Argentinean tango entails), foxtrot, waltz and humppa (fast pace Finnish dance music – you have to see it to believe it!). There are no written rules about how to act and what to dance to which music, resulting in a (usually) controlled chaos on the dance floor. You may witness separate couples dancing different dances to the same music, or even swapping the dance style in the middle of a song, and this is no crime. But this does not mean there are no rules.

The dancers move around the dance floor counterclockwise, with faster dancers on the outside and slower ones on the inside of the space. Important rules to know before heading to a lavatanssit are also those concerning dress code and how to ask someone to dance. Women traditionally wear a dress or at least a skirt and blouse, although nowadays pants are also acceptable. Men are expected to wear a tidy shirt and straight pants. Another unwritten rule is that a man should not have anything in his pockets that may touch his dance partner – to stay clear of any confusion, I suppose.

Key terms to get a grasp on:

lavatanssit – traditional
Finnish dance hall dances
lava - literally “stage”, but
refers to a dance hall
naistenhaku – women’s turn
miestenhaku – men’s turn
Saanko luvan? – May I?

More info and an ample
list of dance halls

Now the question of asking someone to dance is a delicate one. Traditionally it is only men who are allowed to make the step of walking across the hall to ask a woman to dance, but as the world becomes a more liberal place, it is no longer frowned upon if a woman asks a man instead. Usually, however, at a certain point of the night the lava hosts a naistenhaku (women’s turn), when the turns-of-asking are turned around and women can pick their partners to accommodate for equality.

The dance halls usually have a cafeteria or a bar, although drinking alcohol is not necessarily a part of the lavatanssit experience, and drunkenness is not tolerated. The halls are usually situated a fair way out of town, resulting in the fact that most people arrive and leave by car. If you want to experience something authentic this summer, head away from the concrete jungle and find yourself a lavatanssit to attend!

Petra Nyman