Thursday, March 24, 2016

Blues Garden.

Last weekend was one of the most wonderful, magical, and loving blues weekends I’ve attended in many years, called Blues Garden, which takes place in Gothenburg, Sweden. The organizing team, “the gardeners,” infuse their warm character into the event and sprinkle magic everywhere. Here were some highlights...

The Prelude.

Not part of the actual event, I arrived in Gothenburg a couple days early to help adjust to jet lag and not roll into the event super exhausted. On Friday, I joined a dear friend for a jaunt about a nearby wilderness park, where we had the pleasure of seeing all sorts of Nordic wildlife.



I've never seen a penguin in real life before.


Hipster goat.


On to the dancing!

The Musicians.

Listening to Christoffer Johansson perform. He’s without question my favorite living Blues musician. I turn to putty every time I hear him on stage. He captivates the audience, puts them under a spell, so that people can be at a dance event and spent part of his act just listening and swaying gently, transported to another dimension. I’ve never heard anyone quite like him. Part of his power is the genuine emotion with which he shares his music. Even when they’re classics from a century ago, he connects with him in a heartfelt manner and sings the songs as authentically as when they were probably first formed.


Photo credit: Joel Höglund. Link.

You can’t help but empathize with him and feel your own wellspring of emotion stir in response. It actually came to a point of comic climax during one of his songs. He just finished a long, sustained note/wail in the middle of a song, a note filled with such anguish the room was utterly silent in its aftermath. I, feeling a surge of feeling in response, couldn’t help but groan/growl/grunt (some weird mixture of the three, probably) in response, but it came out way louder than I anticipated, so that everyone in the entire ballroom heard me. In the microseconds that followed, which felt like minutes, I wanted desperately wished for the ability to retract my primal utterance, but it was too late, and I feared the worst. To my astonishment, the floor of over 200 dancers erupted into gales of laughter that lasted at least a minute, completely derailing everything; even Christoffer broke his stage character, cracked a smile, and laughed. Happily, my dancing partner took it in stride and found it equally amusing rather than mortifying. 

The attendees of Blues Garden were also treated to repeat performances of the exceptionally talented Gothenburgers Mattias and Hannah. Mattias is a freaking wizard on the piano, able to improvise the most incredible Blues songs with a musical deftness that rivals (in my opinion) Gordon Webster or Josh Fialkoff. Meanwhile, Hannah treated us to her dulcet singing voice that never failed to delight. She also sings a convincing muted trumpet, complete with a handy (hah!) pantomime. They put together a 30-minute set in roughly 10 minutes, and it was nothing short of fantastic. The attendees relentlessly tried to keep them on stage with ovations. 

The decorations.

Their venue was transformed into an enchanted wonderland at night. Flowers adorned all the staircases and door frames. There was a space for communally crafted poetry. All the fixtures were properly dressed to cast warm, diffuse light. Inside the main ballroom, the space was converted into the Enchanted Forest straight out of Narnia, complete with the lamppost in the middle of the dance floor. The brought in real trees from the forest and decorated them with flowers and fake birds. The only thing missing was a snow-dusted wardrobe. I’ve never seen decorations before in all the events I’ve attended; Blues Garden is simply unprecedented.




Note those are flowers that were manually affixed to the tree. 

The food.

My god, the food. It’s a Swedish tradition called “fika,” and I think it’s the best tradition ever. It involves making delicious food and serving it with coffee/tea at dances for a nominal fee. And by “delicious food,” I mean “hand-made just-cooked-in-the-kitchen” food. Salads with myriad toppings, all sorts of gourmet breads and cheeses, more desserts than I could bear to sample. It makes such a difference to maintain a steady blood sugar level, especially as the hours wear on. 

I didn't capture any photos of the fika, but as a case in point about Swedes and their food, here's a "simple breakfast" according to them.


The people.

No dance would be worth attending without the dancers. Blues Garden manages to attract like-minded people: warm, friendly, open-hearted. And so many of them are fantastic dancers. I had more quality dances than I can remember to count, on par with some of the largest Blues events in the world, except experienced in a quaint and homey regional event in Sweden. While at some events I find myself being placed on a pedestal as a teacher and everyone wants something from me, here I felt like one of the crowd, and people wanted nothing more than to connect with me as human beings, to share recognition of one another. 

This is something where I always wish I was taking more photos. When I reflect upon my travels, I often think of the people that were a part of it, yet so rarely I photograph them, or me with them. Mostly because it's awkward, it kind of takes me out of the moment. But then, I look back and see a woeful dearth of ways to remember all the lovely people I spent time with. Sometimes I quietly wish that I had a full-time photographer following me around at these events, surreptitiously candid photos of me so I can remember later. My memory is a sad thing, generally spotty and quick to log moments into archival storage, not indexed, and only retrievable when someone asks specifically for that memory. Photos serve as the way to jog my memory.

My words cannot capture the love and positive energy that coursed through this event. It felt like a huge family reunion, minus the uncomfortable family interactions. Nothing but smiles and laughter and heartful conversations. I cherish these kinds of events, the ones where everyone comes ready to participate, to give rather than consume. It creates an incredible atmosphere, a gift economy of love, where everyone is constantly giving and thus also constantly receiving, but in gratitude and humility rather than expectation. The Gardeners clearly set a pathos for the event, one that attracts like-minded people who want to grow together and celebrate this brief shining moment. I was so floored by the energy at Blues Garden, it is without question the most vulnerability-encouraging event I have ever attended in Europe.

The teachers.

Gas and Alba, Vicci and Adamo, and Annette. (And me.) I respect each of these teachers for myriad reasons, and I think we formed an excellent teaching team. We all brought something different to the table, but always presented with humility and love for dance and respect for the event. There were no egos here, nothing but eagerness to share and inspire.

The leggings.

Knowing about the enchanted theme of the weekend, I came prepared to dress up in a different way on Saturday night: leggings and a collared shirt reminiscent of a pirate’s costume. What I didn’t realize was that no one else would dress up in masquerade. Everyone dressed super nicely, but in the traditional sense. I was the only person to look fanciful. The moment I stepped into the dance space, eyes were falling upon me. I felt out of place, dressed garishly and vulnerably, form-fitted and with little to hide behind. I had gone all-in, dove head first, but as I jumped I realized I was diving into an empty pool. People would be overtaken with laughter upon seeing my leggings and teased that I looked like Peter Pan — not maliciously, but due to my rapidly developing insecurity it impacted me harshly. Immediately the waves of embarrassment began to crash over me.

You’re dressing outlandishly to get attention.

You couldn’t pull off those tights anyway, joker.

You’re being inappropriate.

You’re making people uncomfortable. 

You should change yourself. No, not just your clothes.

I knew there was a showcase that night that I was to do with Annette, and suddenly I felt terrible for dressing this way, thinking I would make us look bad. I had been irresponsible and unprofessional. There were multiple times that I wanted to run away, to go back to my host’s place to change into more traditional clothing. But it was too late, I had already committed, I might as well stick with it. So I swallowed my pride, tried to ignore the countless comments and stares received, and performed the showcase (a medley of seven different songs and styles).


Photo credit: Joel Höglund. Link.


Photo credit: Joel Höglund. Link.


Photo credit: Joel Höglund. Link.


Photo credit: Joel Höglund. Link.


Photo credit: Joel Höglund. Link.

Even though the night went off without a hitch, even though I slowly overcame my crushing embarrassment, even though people were on the whole very nice and a few genuinely complimented my costume, my physique, and my willingness to just go for it, my heart sank to my toes when I saw this photo for the first time. I look like an idiot, I thought to myself. 

Shakespearean fool or no, I left quite the impression. People were talking about it constantly. During a panel discussion on Blues dancing the following day, one person asked, “Are tights the new trousers?” The room exploded into raucous laughter and applause.


Photo credit: Joel Höglund. Link.

As part of the feedback form for the event, one question asks “What was your favorite part of the event?” A few people put down “Andrew’s leggings.”

At the end of the day, I am able to laugh about it, but I went through an unexpected range of emotions to get there. I have a curious relationship with being in the spotlight. All my life, I tend to exist on the outskirts. I’m not the life of the party, I’m not able to hold the attention of large groups of people, I don’t like to draw attention to myself. In fact, I can be a bit judgmental of those who I deem to be “acting out” for the sake of receiving attention. Dressing up in this way, I subjected myself to that same criticism.

The irony is not lost on me that I, a person who habitually avoids the limelight, fell into a profession where I exist in that light constantly.  Perhaps it has to do with the “teacher cap” I put on, the metaphysical costume I drape over myself when I step into the role of Teacher and beneath which I can hide. I, Andrew Smith, am not occupying the center of attention, this is Teacher Andrew. But that’s not entirely true anymore, that I protect myself in this way: over the course of the past several years I have learned to more often remove that guise and just be Andrew Smith, a person who is also a Teacher. Northwest Blues Recess in 2014 was a pivotal moment to that end, where I was unabashedly myself and also the recipient of a lot of focus and awareness. Still, it’s a learning process, and it can be downright scary to share in this way. (Yes, I realize I do the same through my blog, but for some reason it feels even more real when I do it among people in real life.)

There was one quote I recently encountered while reading The Art of Asking, by Amanda Palmer, which has given me valuable food for thought:

        There’s a difference between wanting to be looked at and wanting to be seen.

        When you are looked at, your eyes can stay blissfully closed. You suck energy, you steal the spotlight. When you are seen, your eyes must be open, as you are seeing and recognizing your witness. You accept energy and you generate energy. You create light.

        One is exhibitionism, the other is connection.

        Not everybody wants to be looked at.

        Everybody wants to be seen.

I think it has helped frame my thinking about people giving me the gift of their attention and awareness. I always feel undeserving of it, yet I am so humbled and grateful to receive it. It is simply being seen, but by a lot of people. And that can be quite unnerving. But I’m kind of a connection junkie.

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