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Music and Dancing in Finland

Music and Dancing in Finland

12 February 2019

When we visit Finland, we find that there are two distinct groups of dances – Swedish-Finnish and Finnish-Finnish. After reading the history of the country it is easy to see why this has happened.

Swedish-Finnish, of course, is very closely related to Swedish dancing in style, and has the same upright carriage and ease of movement. Many of the dances are figure dances, with long ways sets, couple dances, and quadrilles. They are interesting to do, with many different steps. Rhythms are usually either 2/4 or 3/4 time. Although the costume and shoes are heavy, the movement is never heavy, but moves easily and rhythmically. The music is tuneful and easy to remember, and if you wish to join in and learn the dances you will find that they vary in difficulty from very simple couple dances to quite complex figure dances.

The Finnish-Finnish dances have a special quality of their own. Although some of them show the influence of both Sweden and Russia, they still retain their own individuality. They have a lightness, musicality, and an ease of movement in changing from one step to another. There are some special steps – for example, a very light polka jumping off two feet instead of one.

There are couple dances, longways and square sets, and also circles and figure dances. One of the most interesting dances reflects the movements of the seal, with the dancers holding their arms like the seal’s flippers. The dances from Karelia show some Russian influence, and the boys sometimes do the squatting step found in Russian dances. However, even here the movement is different. It never has the flamboyance of the Russian dance, but retains its gentle quality, and the movements are not as heavy and downward as the Russian. It should be remembered also, that not all Finnish footwear is heavy – the Karelians wear a flat shoe, rather like a soft leather moccasin with a turned-up toe, and this again gives lightness of movement.

As in the Swedish-Finnish, the music is light and tuneful, but here again there are some special features. Sometimes we hear a tune in the minor key, which sounds very like some of the sad Russian folk songs. But again Finnish folk songs have a special sound of their own, a quality that inspired great composers like Sibelius to write music, which could only be Finnish.

Dancing, for the most part is accompanied by the accordion (and by singing of course), but fiddles and clarinets are also popular. However, the Finns do possess their own national instrument – the kantele.

Music and dancing in Finland

White bonnet trimmed with white lace, white blouse and apron, red and white checked bodice laced with silver chain, red and black purse at waist, red skirt, white stockings and black shoes.

Tuuteri Karjala (Karelia)
Red headband with silver studs, white blouse with red and black embroidery, red upper bodice trimmed yellow/white/black, dark blue skirt and lower bodice, red belt embroidered yellow, white apron trimmed yellow/red/blue with red/ yellow/blue fringe, white stockings, and light beige shoes.

Häme (Festive costume early 19th century)
Black hat with gold braid, white shirt, blue cravat, red waistcoat with gold buttons, jacket with red, yellow, black and white stripes, cream knee breeches with silver buttons, white stockings and brown shoes.

White bonnet trimmed with white lace, white blouse, silver jewellery, skirt and bodice in black and red stripes, patterned with gold and white, bodice laced in red, purse piped in red, red stockings and black shoes with silver buckles.

Music and dancing in Finland

Viipuri Uusitto Karjala (from the part of Karlia now within the Soviet Union)
Black hat with embroidered flowers(red/yellow/white) and black ribbons, white blouse with gold brooch, black bodice with gold fasteners, skirt with red, yellow and green stripes, white stockings and black shoes with silver buckles.

White shirt, black or dark blue neck cloth, black silk waistcoat embroidered with multi-coloured flowers, black knee breeches with silver buttons, white stockings and black shoes.

Brown fur hat, dark blue neck cloth, brown jacket with red binding and black buttons, cream trousers with silver buttons, white stockings, brown shoes made of plaited birch bark and striped mittens (brown/ red/blue).

Head-dress, red with silver studs and long plaits of red, blue and white with red tassels, white blouse with silver brooch, dark blue bodice piped with red, with red and silver buckle, white apron with red and gold stripes, and red and white fringe, black skirt with red frill, white stockings and beige shoes.

 The kantele is a stringed instrument, varying in size from the small (and original) five stringed instrument, to those having as many as 36 strings. Made of wood, and basically related to the dulcimer and zither, the kantele is placed across the knees of the player, who plucks the strings. The larger instruments are placed on a table. Kanteles are usually made of spruce, pine or alder, birch being used to make the pegs used for tuning the strings. Surrounding the hole in the lid of instrument, there is often a decorative inlay design.

The kantele is described in the Kalevala as the instrument played by hero, Vainämöinen who, like Orpheus, could charm all Nature by his playing. When Elias Lönnrot travelled through Karelia collecting material for the Kalevala, he noted in his diary that he found, “Kanteles on the walls of every home”. The oldest kantele to be found dates from 1699. But there is every reason to believe that they have been played for over 2,000 years.


After the long dark nights of winter, everyone is glad to welcome the spring, and Easter is an important festival in Finland. Painted eggs are prepared to be eaten on Easter morning. The egg is a symbol of new life and resurrection, and the decorated eggs are often used as small gifts, exchanged between members of the family. A variety of designs are used: colourful stripes, rings, flowers, or any brightly coloured pattern.

Easter is also a time for witches, as the popular belief is that between Good Friday and the Resurrection evil spirits are abroad. People ring bells and shake rattles to frighten them away.

On Midsummer’s Eve, bonfires burn in every village, and people dance round them until morning. May poles are also erected at Midsummer, beautifully decorated with garlands of greenery and flowers, and people dance round them in circle or couple dances.

Halloween is a time for dressing up, and people put on funny clothes and disguises. Often, a table of food is left overnight for the spirits.

Christmas starts early in Finland with the first Sunday of Advent. One candle is lit and placed in a special candlestick which holds four candles. On each of the following Sundays before Christmas another candle is added. In some places the four candles are place on the Christmas tree, and with the lighting of the candles, the children receive their first Christmas present.

The appetising smell of gingerbread is the real beginning of the excitement, as all the family help to make pepparkakor – gingerbread in the shape of stars, moons, angels, hearts, and many other patterns. This custom dates back to the 15th century. The gingerbreads are hung on the Christmas tree, and eaten on Twelfth Night when the tree is taken down.

People visit friends, taking flowers and gifts, and then return home to gather round the tree and drink a Christmas toast in glogg – a drink made of red wine, raisins and spices.

At midnight on Christmas Eve the Mayor of Helsinki announces the official start of Christmas. He tells the people that everyone should pay their respects to the birth of Christ, and very early on Christmas morning everyone sets off through the deep snow to church, where each pew is lit by its own candle.

Music and dancing in Finland

Make your own Virpovipsa (Virpoi) Palm Branch

Virpoi is a dialectal word meaning a thin branch. On Palm Sunday, the children visit friends and neighbours carrying virpoi branches. They recite little verses wishing the receiver good fortune in the coming year, at the same time touching the person with the branch. For example, they would say, “Virvon, varvon, hale and healthy for the whole year; this branch to you, and a treat for me”. The children are rewarded for their good wishes with candy or fruit. On the morning of Palm Sunday they set out very early, each one trying to be the first well-wisher.

For your palm branch, you will need: A large branch of pussy willow about 1 metre long, with lots of fluffy buds on it. (Alternatively, a birch branch may be used. There are no leaves on the trees in Finland at this time of the year, and the pussy willow is the first living thing to appear); coloured tissue paper; narrow gift wrapping ribbon (use pretty spring-like colours such as pink, lemon and pale green).
Make the tissue paper into small rosettes or flowers, and attach them to the branch (like blossom). Tie on lengths of ribbon, leaving long ends, which can be curled by carefully running sharply over them with a knife or scissors. The flowers or rosettes could also be made out of fabric or ribbon.

Black hat with silver buckles, white shirt, black jacket and waistcoat piped with red with gold buttons, black trousers and beige shoes.
Women’s Kaukola
White head-dress, white blouse with silver brooch, white apron with red embroidery and fawn lace, dark blue bodice piped with red, with red and yellow embroidery and silver buttons, dark blue skirt edged in red. She is carrying a hairband with ribbons (red and blue), white stockings, beige shoes.

Article and images reproduced with kind permission of Nigel Jaffé, who was the original author along with his late wife Margaret Dixon-Phillip.

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