Herräng update #1

Herräng. Where to start….
Herräng is a tiny, sleepy town in Sweden that used to be a mining town and now has just 500 inhabitants and some holiday homes. It’s picturesque and quaint, with red-and-white houses, bicycles (ok, cars too), birch woods, tiny daisies and magpies. The locals put up with the dance camp craziness and are seen to enjoy the occasional game of boulle. It’s surprisingly warm so far, and the little lake behind the Folkets Hus (town hall) has a couple of boats that are itching to be rowed out. The beach, well, isn’t so impressive. But then Cape Town beaches are tough to beat…
Every year the town is transformed for the Herräng Dance Camp, which has been running annually for the last three decades. It started as a week long camp with a small group of dancers, and was a bit of a boot camp with exercise and training in addition to the dancing. Since then it has grown to a massive, 7-week operation (including set up and take down) with thousands of dancers from all over the world. The Folkets Hus (or town hall) is the main hub, with the upstairs hall being used as the main dance venue and the Daily Meetings, the Dans Baan below (another floor for social dancing), the Library (which contains no books but is a wonderful place where all kinds of things happen – last night there was a Honky Tonk evening, the night before a talk and demo on Bebop Swing). There are also Frankie Floats (vanilla ice cream with root beer) on sale between 11pm and 2am, and there’s a whole wall dedicated to Frankie’s memory. We eat lunch at the Blue Moon Café, just above Bar Bedlam (downstairs in Folkets Hus), which serves breakfast, dinner, snacks and expensive drinks (alcohol is insanely pricey in Sweden).

Outside the Folkets Hus, there’s the Reception, the Lindy Hop Shop (second hand vintage wear, lindy heels, Keds, Frankie Manning-branded merchandise, tie pins, pantyhose etc), Tingle Tangle the Event Tent (fuseball, chess, cards, boardgames) and the Prop Shop (bits and bobs for costumes). There’s also the bicycle shed.

The school area is also transformed into temporary accommodation, with rows of bunk beds for dancers. Heaven’s Kitchen (buffet breakfast and dinner, surprisingly good vegan options!), the Ice Cream Parlour (I kinda feel like ice cream is an essential Herräng experience, it’s tough being vegan sometimes!), and a bunch of semi-permanent tents (Savoy, Smalls, Alhambra, Palladium and Roseland ballrooms) with wooden dance floors and sound systems for classes. (Yes that’s 7 class venues in total, all running in parallel!)

This description doesn’t do Herräng justice, but maybe a sketch of the Daily Meetings will help to convey the atmosphere.

Every day at 9pm, after dinner and before the dance floors open, the upper hall in Folkets Hus fills up and the stage curtains open with dramatic music, as Lennart enters under a spot light, with a stool in one hand and notes and microphone in the other, to applause and whistles. The Meeting proceeds with impromptu teacher interviews, video clips from the archives, many jokes, sometimes a performance (on the first night we had a chorus line performance in the style of dancers from the 20s). Even the Daily News is a mini cabaret performance by a Swiss yodeller. 

Lennart is a central personality of Herräng Dance Camp. He was part of the original group in the 80s who started HDC, after discovering clips of dance scenes from movies shot in the 50s. The style they danced originally was more like boogie woogie (which is very popular in Germany and Sweden today, but is pretty similar to lindy actually, the music is just a bit different – more on this later). Later they tracked down Frankie Manning, one of the original African American lindy hoppers from the 40s, who was a key figure in the Harlem scene. They brought him to Herräng, and he started teaching Savoy style lindy hop. From then, HDC grew and grew, and Frankie was an integral part of the camp and the main influence on the swing revival of the 90s.

Every evening after the meeting (which is more of a talk show really), there are a bunch of activities to choose from. There are evening classes, held by anyone who feels like it and not necessarily swing related. Anything from “How to speak Australian” to “Killer Boogie in 2 minutes”. In the Library (that has no books), there are interviews with teachers, lectures on all things swing, music tasters and what not. There are games in the Event Tent and other happenings as they announce themselves, and of course, the dance floors are open each night with a live band and/or DJ. The Carling Family Band played twice this week. A remarkable group of talented musicians that had the dance floor packed! The music plays until breakfast the next morning, or when the last dancers leave the floor. Needless to say, sleeping patterns are weird at HDC. On Tuesday nights the dance floor opens at midnight with Slow Drag night. Everyone is dressed in their best, the lights are low, and dances are in close embrace. Fridays are the themed parties, where a dedicated team dresses up the hall accordingly and everyone goes crazy with costumes. This Friday is 4th of July (‘Murica!).

So far this week, we’ve had classes for about 3.5 hours a day. The audition process was interesting, worth describing perhaps. When you register for HDC, you select a level (beginner, beginner-intermediate, intermediate, intermediate-advanced or advanced). On day 1, you go to a peer audition: each person gets a slip of paper with their names in a series of blocks. You social dance for half a song with a random person, tear off a block, exchange blocks, rate your enjoyment of the dance from 1-6, and drop it in a box. Rotate to the next random person, and repeat 5 times. That night, a group of volunteers labours through the slips of paper, to divide the groups into streams.

The next day, we had more auditions. We danced in rotations while a few teachers watched, shifting people up (into advanced) or down (into intermediate) and the rest stay (intermediate-advanced).

The advanced class is pretty big, with about 25 couples. We’re still kinda stuck in old times here, with all-male leads and all-female follows, although we did swap roles in one class with Hasse and Marie (more on that later) – they’re my favorite teachers so far, we had three classes with them yesterday. We’ve also had two classes with Tatiana and JB (they’re amazing dancers, currently on the competitive scene), three with Kevin and Jo (full of jokes: “Balls!” and “Kevin’s a dancer…”), and one with Lennart and Alessandra.

So that’s a sweeping description of Herräng so far, we’ll write up some more descriptions of various aspects of the camp.

Today we’re chilling a bit after a late Slow Drag night. Humongous group picture in front of the Folkets Hus this afternoon, a couple of classes, dinner, Daily Meeting, taster class, dancing, then a “secret” blues party at 2am where the leads will be blindfolded 😝

This week has been intense so far, and a bit short on sleep, but an absolute blast.

Let’s talk about kids

In the past year or two, several of our friends have had kids and it’s got us thinking about starting a family of our own. Calm down! Not right now! But maybe in the next 2 or 3 or 10 years maybe.

[image credit: Reuters]In this regard there are two options: we do what you were thinking earlier… or we adopt. We have been considering the relative pros and cons, but we have discovered that this is not an easy conversation to have with many people. Especially when it comes to the ethical implications.

As with veganism*, people feel judged if we take a stance that is contrary to their lifestyle choices. So, I’m going to try and outline the issues as I see them, and do my best not to cause offence in the process.

Traditionally, people tend to think of having kids (by procreation) as simply the next step after marriage. Some people think of it as their gift to the world and others simply want to make sure that they are looked after in their old age. I think that for most people, it’s an experience that they are after. Bringing up kids, teaching them, playing with them, loving them. A strange mix of selfish (fulfilling a personal desire) and selfless (giving up sleep, time, freedom, finances etc.). Parenthood is certainly something held in high regard by most people in our society. How may people would respond negatively to hearing a friend’s happy announcement? And the positive impact I’ve seen it have on my parenting friends seems to support this notion. So what, then, are the reasons one might choose to forego procreation, in favour of adoption?

Overpopulation is an issue that amplifies most of the Big Global Challenges and yet it is a direct result of personal decisions. “But,” you might say, “if I have no more than 2.2 children I don’t actually grow the population in the long term”. That’s fair enough, but the accumulated environmental impacts of each extra person are quite staggering when you think about it. The fuel, the CO2, the land use, the waste. And if you factor in their children and the resulting future generations, things spiral rapidly.

On the flip side, we all imagine our kids bringing world peace, or at the very least having a positive impact on their communities.

So how do we weigh up these pros and cons? The most compelling argument for adoption that I have come across points out that almost all the pros for having kids apply equally to adopting. Surely, your adopted kid is no less likely to change the world than your biological one. And on top of that, you are providing a home for a kid who might otherwise grow up without parents.

From a more philosophical perspective, Prof David Benatar, in his anti-natalist book ‘Better Never To Have Been’, points out that you do no harm to a baby that does not exist by choosing not to create it. It doesn’t exist to be harmed or helped. On the contrary, you do do harm by bringing a child into the world that will, at least to some degree, suffer because of it. On the other hand, adopting a child that already exists, does a great deal of good. Now I’m not sure that I’m on board with anti-natalism in general (although perhaps I should reread that book) but maybe in the world as it is today, this is not such an extreme position.

So what are the remaining arguments for procreation, over adoption? The most common one that I come across, is that prospective parents are worried about not bonding with a child that does not share their genes. In my (admittedly limited) experience, I have not come across adoptive parents for whom this has a been a problem. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a real concern for people. The other common reason is the experience of pregnancy and birth. Not that these are necessarily as dreamy as we can imagine, but they are certainly life-changing experiences for many people. But are they enough to justify bringing a whole new person into existence? We’re weighing a few intense months and some really intense hours against a whole lifetime, which one would still have with an adopted child. And add to that the avoided harm of a parentless lifetime that that child might have had.

Perhaps one thing worth acknowledging in this debate is that we all make selfish decisions on a daily basis. So why single out procreation? This is a fair point. My perspective on it is that this is one of the most profound and impactful decisions that you will make in your life, so perhaps it’s worth some extra attention.

If you follow the arguments presented here to conclusion, you might think I’m suggesting that any procreation at all is wrong. On the contrary, in a perfect world I’d imagine that everyone should be able to choose to procreate or not. But in an overpopulated, resource-constrained world, with a huge excess of parentless children, I wonder whether we shouldn’t start by providing loving homes for those, before we create more cute little mouths to feed.

According to this report, roughly 40% of kids brought into the world are unintended. That’s a scary statistic, given that contraceptives (and, whether you like it or not, abortions*) have given most of us the tools to separate sex and childbirth. Surely this is the cause of overpopulation? We’re talking close to 140,000 of the 350,000 or so new babies born each day (take a moment to think about that number) that were not deliberately intended. Well yes, this is a big factor, but that doesn’t relieve each of us from the moral implications of our conscious choice to add to an overburdened planet.

The last line of defence most people offer at this point is : “Ok, so adoption is great, but you can do both!”. The reality is that kids are not cheap. There is a very real financial limit on the number of kids we could support. So each child we create means one less child adopted. One more child that grows up in an orphanage, or in a home where it is not wanted.

So do you have biological kids already? Does this make you a bad person? Am I saying you should regret having them? No, I’m not judging you or saying the world would be better off if you hadn’t had them. I’m just trying to get my head around this issue and concluding (so far) that I’m not sure that I can justify procreating. If you found anything I have written here offensive please let me know so that I can learn how to talk about this more sensitively.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on this. Whether you agree with me or not, please keep in mind that this is an emotionally charged topic for many people, so be gentle in expressing your opinion online. (In person, hit me with your views, I’m hard to offend.)

*blog post to come

Hello 2015

I started 2015 on a good footing: with a glass of water, a sun salutation to loosen up the hamstrings and wake up my back, followed by a good cup of strong Rwandan coffee. There’s something about January 1st that imbues me with positivity. It’s a nifty psychological trick, I’m sure it’s only a self-propelled mind game. Regardless, I think it’s harmless, in fact, pretty great. I’m super excited about 2015. There are some game-changing events on the horizon, and a positive attitude will help me make the most of them! So, here’s my (long?) list of New Year’s Resolutions. Perhaps it’s ambitious, but I might as well shoot high.

  • Personal growth:
    • smile more, and laugh more;
    • be more patient;
    • schedule my productive time;
    • improve my morning habit: make the bed, drink a glass of water, do a sun salutation, then have my coffee;
    • wean myself off sugar in coffee (I’m on a half-teaspoon now…);
    • do more for animals;
    • support the Big Issue more regularly;
    • write daily, even just a little, and blog regularly;
    • get back into the habit of reading a novel at bedtime and on weekends.
  • Family:
    • have more coffee/movie/dinner/hiking dates with my family
  • Friends:
    • stay in touch (or get back in touch) with the special people in my life that I don’t see enough (you know who you are, please hold me to this!)
  • Home:
    • keep the floor a no-clothes zone;
    • make dish-washing an obsessive habit;
    • do a monthly clean-out;
    • track my finances more diligently.
  • Lindy:
    • bounce more;
    • style more;
    • work on my responsiveness as a follow;
    • start learning to lead.
  •  Ballet:
    • work on my posture;
    • work on my feet for a better arch;
    • strengthen my core for better stability;
    • work on my feet and legs for better jumps;
    • work on my back and hamstrings for a higher and stronger arabesque;
    • do a bit of cross training.

The key to achieving these goals will be to keep them realistic and achievable, and measurable where possible, with regular check-ins. On the first of every month, I’ll refer back to this post to see where I’m at, and whether I need to re-evaluate anything.

Oh and one final resolution: I want to be more conscious about how I influence others. I want to make a positive impact on the world, and I think that’s best achieved with a positive attitude. My veganism has taken me through periods of frustration, despair and sadness, but it has also given me reason to hope for a better world, thanks to all the wonderful vegans I’ve met in the last few years. Here’s to a 2015 full of inspiration for others to join the path of compassion and justice for animals.



Goodbye 2014

So. Here we are, with a glass of wine (mu) and a cup of tea (B), overlooking the city, dogs barking and music drifting from parties all around. We decided to have a quiet one this year, to reflect on 2014 and set some goals for 2015, and start the new year fresh-faced and eager.

We ended our rather eventful year with War Horse at the Artscape. What an beautiful production: more on that later. But for now…

2014 was the year that:

  • Brendan and I had our first vegan New Year’s Eve at a special friend’s, chilling by the pool, drinks in hand, with a delicious paella, seitan and salad.
  • Vegilicious became officially recognised as a UCT society, AND the year that it (unofficially) expanded to the broader Cape Town! With the help of an awesome team, we managed to get one of the UCT food vendors, Purple Haze, to include a whole bunch of vegan options on the menu in their new outlet. Not only do they offer wraps with lots of vegan fillings, but all of their muffins are vegan and they are the only outlet to stock soy milk!
  • TEDxCapeTown made a massive contribution to the vegan movement in Cape Town by hosting their headline event with a 100% plant-based food ethos. I was on the food team, coordinating these efforts, with Plant as the caterers. We showed 800 people that they could enjoy vegan food for a day, and not feel in any way deprived! Oh yes. Mainstreaming veganism FTW.
  • I curated a panel debate (hosted as a TEDxCapeTownSalon event), addressing the question “Should Animals Be Off South African Menus?” With Jacques Rousseau, Prof David Benatar, Margot Janse, Nikki Botha, Brett Thompson and Angus McIntosh, it was highly thought-provoking—overall, a success! You can find the full debate (with Q&A) on YouTube here, or if you want the abridged version, here.
  • Brendan and I first traveled together, on honeymoon! We received a number of financial contributions towards this trip, as wedding gifts—for which we’re very grateful. Some highlights: meeting wonderfully generous and heartfelt people, including a whole bunch of vegans in Istanbul (!), journeys into history (Ani Ruins, Mt Nemrut, Antalya and of course the great Istanbul), a magnificent ballon ride in Capadoccia, a gulet cruise on the Med, and of course, the Orient Lindy Express! Our first ever Lindy Hop festival. Speaking of which…10353713_10152530687051884_287110355444190117_n
  • 2014 was the year we became obsessed with the Lindy Hop. More on this in future posts 🙂
  • The family’s beloved furry friends, Tarka and Flash, left us after many years. Mila is a newcomer to the household, and …
  • My second production with the Cape Ballet Centre. This time, a production called Cirque du Ballet: despite many hours of rehearsals and a few grumpy moments, it was a wonderful experience to be part of. Good friends became better friends, and I’m really looking forward to more ballet in 2015 with my fellow ballet nerds.
  • B surprised me with a little escape to the West Coast National Park, to celebrate our first wedding anniversary. Just what we needed after a hectic few months!
  • The annual visit of B’s brother, is always a highlight.
  • We had our first vegan Christmas. Yup, totally vegan, thanks to the generosity of both our families. We celebrated Christmas Eve with my in-laws, with nut loaf, seitan roast with stuffing, various festive salads, roast potatoes, Christmas pud with a cashew-based brandy sauce, brownies and ice-cream (it goes without saying that we had leftovers). Christmas Day was spent with my family, and we had a quiet lunch with mince pies, a tempeh meatloaf, salads and santa strawberries for dessert.

So to close the door on 2014, we’re feeling so much gratitude to all of the special people in our lives who contributed to making this year what it was for us. We love you, and we want to stay connected in 2015.