A dress for dancing?—by Amy Brunvand
Last month my mother made me a dress to wear for the Living Traditions Festival. Maybe you saw me dancing with Salt Lake Scandinavian Music & Dance? We were that group of mostly middle-aged white people dancing to strange, droning fiddle music on the library stage during the last hour of the last day of the festival. It’s fair to say we were not exactly the main attraction.
But I love Living Traditions anyhow. Salt Lake City can seem kind of white-bread until you go to this annual festival and realize that, despite all those Andersons and Christiansens in the phone book, there are actually plenty of people in Utah without Scandinavian ancestry. The Salt Lake City Arts Council-sponsored event just celebrated its 30th anniversary as a showcase for our town’s “diverse authentic ethnic and folk arts and their respective communities and cultural traditions.”
Ancestry in the United States is kind of an odd thing. It has more to do with stories about where you came from than citizenship or where you were born. The U.S. Census Bureau only started asking about ancestry in 1980, and defines it this way: “Ancestry refers to a person’s ethnic origin or descent, ‘roots’ or heritage, or the place of birth of the person or the person’s parents or ancestors before their arrival in the United States.” In my case, those “roots” include my paternal grandparents who immigrated here from Norway.
In order to dance at the festival I needed a dancing dress, and I didn’t have one. Getting a Norwegian dancing dress is more complicated than you might think. In Norway (and I am not making this up) they have costume police who decide whether your traditional outfit is traditional enough.
An approved regional costume can run thousands of dollars for hand embroidery and silver buckles and such. And which regional costume should you wear if you are actually a hyphenated Norwegian-American?
My friend Gwen offered to lend me a dress that had been made for BYU folk dancers, but BYU co-ed jokes notwithstanding, it was sized for someone a lot less sturdy than I am. Luckily, Gwen had the sewing pattern so I asked my mom if she could help me make a dress. Mom grew up during the Great Depression and had an aunt who was a Home Ec teacher. She can sew anything.
I wanted to make my dancing dress to show off two pieces that I already owned. One is a distinctive Norwegian pin called a sølje that looks kind of like a shiny fishing lure and is supposed to scare away trolls; the other is an apron decorated with hardangersøm white-on-white embroidery that my parents brought back from a trip to Norway many years ago.
Mom and I went shopping for fabric and my new dancing dress took shape. When I tried it on for fit, I saw a tough old Norwegian mountain woman looking back out of the mirror. The dress tugged at some subliminal connection to the past. I told Mom that I wanted to add some tatted lace for the blouse to make it look prettier.
Tatting is a way of making lace out of a zillion tiny knots. My maternal grandmother taught me how to tat one summer when I was a teenager and I went around for months with a shuttle and a grubby ball of thread trying to get the tension just right. When I brought the tatted lace over to Mom’s house she showed me some pewter hooks that were left in my Norwegian grandmother’s sewing box after she died. “No one else wanted these, so I took them,” Mom said. She sewed them onto the bodice over sturdy hook-and-eyes so there would be no wardrobe failures.
So maybe my dancing dress is not authentically from Norway, but with three generations of women sewn into it, it has a kind of ancestry that feels right. Plus it has the power to scare away trolls, and who knows when that might come in handy?
While we were making the dress I read Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America (1977). He muses on romance and marriage as related to agriculture:
The energy that is most convivial and unifying loses its communal forms and becomes divisive. This dispersal was nowhere more poignantly exemplified than in the replacement of the old ring dances, in which all couples danced together, by the so-called ballroom dancing, in which each couple dances alone. A significant part of ballroom dancing etiquette is, or was that the exchange of partners was accomplished by a “trade.” It is no accident that this capitalization of love and marriage was followed by a divorce epidemic—and by fashions of dancing in which each one of the dancers moves alone.
Berry is more of a social conservative than I am but I think he’s not just being a fuddy-duddy. In my new dress, doing those old dances, I feel like I’m part of a community with all of my ancestors dancing along.
Amy Brunvand is a published poet, essayist and a librarian at the J. Willard Marriott Library where she specializes in government information.
Salt Lake Scandinavian Music & Dance: SaltLakeScandiDance.org