It was the night of the 3rd of November in 2010 when I passed through the vintage doors of the dance studio called Chicago. The jazz music beckoned to my heart, already happy with so much celebration. And now I was floating on the clouds. I passed my money over, changed into my dance shoes, and descended a few stairs onto the actual dance floor. Everywhere I looked people were dressed like they were from the 30’s and 40’s in vintage outfits, with pin curls and flowers dotting their hair. As a 5’ 10” tall woman, I was excited to see so many men that were taller than me. It was a reminder to myself, “I’m not in Seattle anymore, I’m in Stockholm!”
Stockholm was a major player in the Lindy Hop dance revival of the 1980s when swing dancing got its second birth. Even though Jazz music and Lindy Hop dance both originated in the US, several Swedes were part of the first group of teachers who undertook to get the rest of us to remember and learn this wonderful dance. They sought out original dancers such as Norma Miller and Frankie Manning, who had given up on teaching because they didn’t think the world cared anymore. These people brought them out of retirement to help create a revival and every year in the summer they have 5 weeks of classes, live music, and dancing in a little town called Herräng located a few hours north of Stockholm. And if you come to Sweden for Herräng, you always pass through Stockholm. So, I really felt I was in the epicenter for Lindy Hop.
As I sat down to think before jumping into dancing with someone else, I pondered the fact that you usually have to ask others to dance when you are new. This excited me because it gave me a chance to think about what qualities I was looking for in another dancer: a kind heart, a gentle lead, and space to improvise. I knew I should ask someone to dance, but I couldn’t help but want to pause and drink this all in. To observe and watch the dancers swinging out on that floor, with smiles on their faces, showed a mirror to my happy feelings in my heart. However, I knew the only way to truly experience swing dancing is to participate.
As I slowly wandered around the side of the room, one tall gentleman caught my eye. I noticed he was dancing Balboa with his partner.
In the land of Lindy Hop, not everyone dances Balboa, so if you know this subset dance of the swing era, it’s like having a magic key to another ballroom that only those who know the secret password can enter.
Since no one was making any move to ask me to dance, I sat down near where he was dancing, to watch the close embrace stylings with quick shuffle steps. Having recently taken my first class in Balboa, but still not being proficient in the dance, I figured I would watch their feet closely to see if I could learn something new.
Partway through the first song, he noticed me watching and gave a sweet smile in my direction. I returned the smile. Now I was certain that I wanted to dance with him. No one else was going out of their way to chat with me or welcome me, so this invitation of a smile was a welcome relief.
As is the custom in Sweden, they danced a set of two songs and my interest and curiosity about who this man was continued to grow. When they parted, I stood up to talk with him. For some reason asking him to dance wasn’t the first thing on my mind. Instead, I wandered close and told him, “I just took my first class in Balboa, but if you want to dance balboa with me sometime this evening, let me know.”
That’s when I got that big smile from him and he said,
“How about right now?”
“Yes, that would be lovely.”
I enjoyed being in the arms of this gentle soul and asked his name. I introduced myself as we kept dancing.
“It’s nice to meet you.”
His was a name I had never heard before and so it was quick to leave my memory. We twirled around the floor, our feet moving in swift, small shuffle steps with the quick tempo of the music. I enjoyed the chance to practice this dance I was learning and he used moves that made me feel at ease on the floor. I felt safe and warm in his embrace. After two songs we parted and went on to dance with other people.
A while later, I sat down for a break and the gentleman across from me left, without so much as a nod in my direction. I was a little discouraged, as I often like to talk to people, especially being in a new city for the first time. So, as conversations happened around me mostly in Swedish, I was feeling a bit lost. I looked up and saw the tall gentleman I had danced with earlier. I smiled at him and he took that as an invitation to sit and talk with me.
“So, where are you from? Did you say the US?” I nod.
“I have never been there, but we always get many dancers from the area for Herräng.”
(I’m suddenly envious of this whole room full of people who get to go to the biggest swing dance camp in the world — every. single. year.)
“I’m from Seattle.” I offer.
”I’ve heard they have a great dance scene there.”
“It is a great place to learn how to dance. In addition to the basics of balboa I just learned, I’m currently taking Lindy Hop classes also. My dance partner is female and she’s teaching me how to lead so that we can trade-off leading and following for a routine we are working on. She wants to impress everyone with our throw-out move.”
(This is where the leader boosts a jump by the follower, making it look like the one person “threw” the other away from them.)
I laugh to myself and continue on, “She’s quite a bit shorter than me and wants to look good by leading the move, but in reality it looks much better if I am leading.”
He smiles at me with that beautiful sparkle in his eyes. I find myself enjoying the simple conversation. Then someone tugs at his sleeve and asks him to dance. I wish him well.
Eventually, I work my way over to the corner of the room where the hot-shot dancers hang out. There seems to always be such a corner in all the big city dance places. No one is making eye contact with me or looking particularly inviting. But, part of going to a new country is all about getting out of your comfort zone. So, I decide to be brave and ask several of them to dance. No one refuses my invite to dance and I actually have a good time. I enjoy the playful Lindy Hop improvisation. My favorite part of the dance is the fact that, similar to jazz musicians improvising solos, dancers also improvise. This means that as a follower, you get to have a say in how the dance goes. I revel in the chance to take part in a conversation that has been going on since the 1930s. A chance to speak to someone from another country without any words, and take delight in the creativity.
At some point, I find myself standing off to one side when the tall gentleman comes and asks me to dance again. “Of course I would love to dance with you.” I am quick to answer. This time we dance Lindy Hop, my favorite. This tall gentleman is not as skilled at this style because his love is dancing Balboa, but it’s still a lovely dance with someone who isn’t afraid to smile at me. When we finish this set of dances we end up talking a little in the middle of the dance floor.
“I’m sorry to ask again as I know you told me when we first danced, but can you tell me your name again?”
“Mattias.” I decide to say his name again so I can try to remember this time.
“Mattias, can I get your last name as well so I can add you on Facebook?”
“My name is like the English words for birch tree and power — Björkström. It will be hard to remember, so when we end the night I will write it down for you.”
I stop and realize that we are still in the middle of the dance floor and it’s not proper etiquette to take up space there when you are not dancing.
“So, what brought you to Stockholm?” Mattias asks me.
As I pause to answer, he gently takes my hand to lead me to sit at a table. I can feel the softness of his touch and the fingertip to fingertip of our hands. I’m holding hands with this man I just met and I don’t want to let go. I can’t remember the last time I felt such a gentle touch. I am getting a little starry-eyed at this point and thinking I need to talk to him more.
I pause, thinking about the experience of the week.
“Tonight was the most amazing night. The reason for the trip was to be here for my Dad to win an award that he was presented with this evening. In fact, I almost didn’t think I would get to come dancing when I found out the Lindy Hop dance and award ceremony were on the same night.”
“What sort of award did he win? A Nobel prize?” Mattias asks.
I smile at the thought. “Well, it’s not exactly a Nobel prize, but one given out by Karolinska Institutet. It’s a prize for Excellence In Medical Education Research. The highest international honor for his field, so still a really big deal.”
I start to talk faster and louder as I get excited.
“They started out with a tango group when I entered the hall. I used to dance tango, but I gave it up because I don’t like the social dance aspect of it. However the music always moves me.”
Mattias nods in my direction, encouraging me to keep talking.
“I grew up going to the Opera with my parents because my mom was a highly trained singer, so she and I were awed by the soprano singing the Mozart Alleluia with a chamber orchestra.
There was even an award for a guy that took amazing photos of snowflakes and so they worked in a ballet number from the Nutcracker. And of course, after a long wait, with a trip up the red carpet and lots of trumpet fanfare, my Dad was presented with the prize in Medical Education Research. We were lost on most of the rest of the prize and faculty presentations as they were nearly all in Swedish and you tend to feel left out as people are laughing at all the jokes. But, the music and dancing needed no translation. The performances alone were stunning and the presentation was quite fancy. My mom turned to me at one point and said,
‘This is a night I will remember for the rest of my life!’”
Mattias listened carefully, and then asked
“How long are you in town for? There is another dance event Friday night and it would be lovely to dance with you again.”
Sigh. I just got invited to do something with this wonderful man and I am leaving town.
“Oh, I would love to come, but I fly home on Friday morning. This really was a pretty short trip.”
He looks disappointed and this encourages me to keep talking.
“But, I have really enjoyed being in Stockholm these past few days. I can see why we have so many Scandinavian people that settled in the Northwest, US. It looks very similar, the evergreen trees and other plants and animals.”
I get so caught up in the moment of telling the story and sharing with him, I even proclaim.
“I could imagine myself being happy living here someday.”
Even after the words escaped my lips, I wasn’t sure why I shared that observation. Maybe to give him a hint of my interest, or maybe it was simply my heart speaking my future wish.
As we are talking, I’m aware of his presence next to me and enjoying the feel of us sitting next to each other. I secretly hope that too many people sit down next to us so that we are forced to sit closer together. Eventually, I decide I should get a few more dances in with others while I’m in this city. Mattias suggests some other dancers to ask. I choose someone who is fairly skilled and clearly not impressed with my dancing. I have a good enough self image that I don’t let this bother me. However, I feel a little like he’s only biding his time in the dance before he can choose someone else.
I was mostly done with dancing once we had the first song. We paused and awkwardly look at each other while waiting for the next song to come on. The DJ announces,
“This is the last song of the evening!”
My heart sunk a bit because I really wanted to dance one more song with Mattias, but I felt politeness and tradition should be observed. When the music starts to play and I realize it’s a blues song, now I really want to dance with Mattias. When Mattias hears the blues song come on, I see him out of the corner of my eye walking up to ask me to dance.
The guy standing in front of me hears the blues song start to play and tells me, “Oh, wow! It’s a blues song. Yeah. I don’t dance to these.”
He laughs and his friends in equal measure drop their partners, and all migrate back to their corner to chat it up before the end of the night.
I turn back around and now Mattias has walked away to try to find someone else to dance with, thinking that I’m not available. I find myself realizing I really want to dance with him. So, I hurry my step to catch up with him before someone else says, “Yes.”
Finally, he turns around and sees I’m not dancing with the other guy and breaks into a smile.
“Do you dance blues?” He asks me.
“Yes. I do.”
“Would you like to dance this song?”
Being in his arms now was quite beautiful. He spun me around and held me and I used some of the tango moves I learned to improvise. I felt our cheeks almost touching and liked the warm feel of his embrace. It had been a while since I felt butterflies in my stomach when dancing with someone. I wished I could dance longer with him. At the end of the song he dipped me really far back and we both paused for a moment as the song ended, not really wanting to part. After a pause, in which we both quietly savored the moment, he gave me a gentle hug.
We wandered separate ways off the dance floor to collect our things and then met again while waiting in line to get our coats from the coat check. He told me,
“I will write you a note.”
And gave me his email and facebook name. Later, when I checked Facebook, we already had one friend in common — another swing dancer.
Once I changed out of my dance shoes and was getting ready to go, I asked those around me,
“Does someone have a cell phone I could use to call a taxi?”
Since my phone wasn’t activated for use in a foreign country.
Mattias checks his pockets looking for his cell phone and another two guys look to offer help. Fredrick who I had danced with earlier, wins the quick draw contest and starts to dial for me and give the address of the dance studio. Mattias continues to hover around and once the taxi is called he stands outside with me chatting in the crisp autumn air. And, as the taxi drives up, we wave goodbye.
I don’t remember what was said before we parted, but I do know that it was a night I will remember for the rest of my life.
A few months before this meeting, I became single after the 4-year pursuit of parenthood revealed the need to separate from my previous partner. 4 years later, I was tired of waiting around for the right partner to have a child with, so I planned to become a single mom by choice, with my friend as a known sperm donor. Through chat messages and Skype dates, Mattias expressed that he also had an interest in having a child and that started us down the path of dating. I moved to Stockholm in 2015, and when I was 43 years old and Mattias was 39, our son was born (11 years after I first tried to conceive) in 2016. Our son’s middle name of Peter was chosen because we each had a favorite balboa dance teacher named Peter (Peter Flahiff and Peter Loggins) and the Balboa dance is part of why we met. And in 2017, we had a grand dance celebration after we got married.