Finally, after a very long time of meaning to write something, here it comes, my first blog entry finished as a birthday present to myself!
March 30th, 2016. Notes from an extended blues holiday: Part I – The Blues Garden in Göteborg
Two weeks ago I took the liberty to embark on an extended blues holiday. On the one hand I doubted my decision, because there’s a thesis waiting to be written and in theory I should spend every waking minute working on it. On the other hand I knew how sometimes taking a radical break from everything can make you more efficient in the end. So the closer the day of my departure came, the more excited I got.
For this extended blues holiday I chose two events on weekends back to back. Number 1: The Blues Garden in Göteborg. There were two main reasons why I wanted to go there. Reason 1: Last year at Fair City Blues a very good friend of mine had just come back from the Blues Garden and went on and on about how great it was. His main selling point might appear a bit odd. He hyped it as “the least sexy event he had ever been to”. Wait, what? Why would anybody or anything not want to be sexy; sex sells, right? We’ll come back to that point later, because in retrospect I only fully understood it after I had been to the Blues Garden and then Fair City Blues the weekend after. For now let’s just say, the way he explained it to me made perfect sense and – as paradoxical as that may sound – made me want to check out this least sexy blues event in Europe. The other main reason was that I met one of the organisers at another blues event in Germany, we had a lovely conversation about organizing events and let’s say he strongly suggested I come visit the Blues Garden in March. On top of these two reasons, I’d never been to Sweden, I liked their teacher line-up and also several more people said nice things about the event.
So, on Friday, March 11th, after packing until 4 am and getting up at 6:30 am, and roughly 12 hours of journey I finally arrived at my destination at the club house of the West Coast Jitterbugs in Göteborg. I had been “warned” but the place still blew me away. Decorations everywhere, turning the big ballroom into an “Enchanted Forest” complete with trees made from real twigs, individually attached blossoms, a LOT of flowers spread out over the whole place and a real lamppost in the middle of the dance floor. And that description is brutally ignoring the real wealth of decorations.
The small ballroom was turned into “Wonderland” fashioning crazy colourful mushrooms, loads of fairy lights and many other shenanigans. The attention to detail was just incredible and is equalled by no other event I’ve ever been to. After giving you this first impression I want to fast-forward right to the end of the event. Why? You’ll see why, in a minute. On Sunday at around 9 pm the event ended way too early with the last party and no, not only standing but also bowed down low ovations for the organisers.
If your teachers get down on their knees take a deep bow and try to make as much noise as humanly possible, you know you have done something very right. So what makes the blues garden the outlandishly awesome event it is and what are the organisers doing so damn right? I’ve thought about it quite a bit and I’ve come up with these 5 points – the official manual on how to make your blues garden bloom in mid-March:
- The Gardeners:
Just like a real life garden is a reflection of the gardeners’ taste, talents, skills, dedication and hard work, an event becomes a reflection of the organisers’ taste, talents, skills, dedication and hard work. The gardener makes many many decisions f.e. which seeds to plant, how to arrange them, who to trust and invite into the garden, etc. etc. In our case: the venues, the teachers, scheduling, classes, food, live music, decorations, special creative ideas, all of that is decided by the organisers. This is one way how an event to a certain degree takes on the character of the organisers, the other big part is that on a personal level you’ll always attract like-minded people. Also in promoting your event you will highlight the things that are most important to you, therefore even if people don’t know you or other people attending and haven’t been exposed to word-of-mouth, the presentation of your event will attract people who share the same values and preferences on blues events. Through some extra added magic (hopefully) every organiser creates the event that they would love to attend (but then often can’t, because organising is an incredible amount of work).
So who are the gardeners who shaped this amazing event? From the brief impression I got they are an incredibly talented bunch, with a wide range of talents that balance each other out very well. Some of them are musical geniuses, others love playing around with language and enjoy public speaking, others love decorating, again others are great at organising in general. They all share a passion, attention to detail and willingness to improve and tweak every single little detail until it is perfect equalled by no other team I’ve met. The amount of work that went into planning and making the Blues Garden happen must have been insane and from an outsiders perspective it felt like it was a well-oiled machine, a team working together very well and smoothly, based on mutual respect and a shared passion. The atmosphere of the Garden they tended to and brought to full bloom in mid-March was incredibly friendly and welcoming, relaxed and open. There seemed to be time, space and acceptance for everybody to be themselves and in one conversation I had, we joked about how the Blues Garden doesn’t need to have a safe space policy, to the contrary, the entire Blues Garden felt like such a completely safe space that they had to specifically introduce the “kissing room” as a declared “unsafe space” for cosmic balance.*
(*there was no such thing as an unsafe space at the Blues Garden! That was just us joking around).
- The Garden
Due to an enormous financial effort of what must have been incredibly dedicated members of the West Coast Jitterbugs Club and the continued efforts to keep the whole thing going by all the current members, the blues gardeners are very blessed by being able to call an entire house with two beautiful dance floors their home. They have their own patch of land- to stay in the gardening metaphor- that they only have to share with the swing dancers. I’ve been told this sometimes makes things hard, because blues is still very far from being mainstream; therefore they often have to assert its existence as a dance in its own right that needs time and space within the house. However, all difficulties set aside, having an entire house at your disposal for a blues event opens up so many possibilities that other organisers can only dream of. You can fully control the space, you can set up, store and decorate things in advance. You can spread out the work over a longer period of time and you can provide your own food and drinks to keep the dancers going on healthy food for an affordable budget. Another not entirely obvious advantage is that you can have a really loose schedule (no hourly cost for the space!), which encourages and enables socialising, but also withdrawing and re-charging your precious energy resources to get you through the weekend well and happy.
- The Garden Paths
Something to my knowledge unique to the Blues Garden is the path system. Instead of a dance ability based level system or a “choose your own path” system where you get to choose individual classes, the Blues Garden offers a system of garden paths leading you through the garden. They are theme-based, so you get to choose what you want to work on: musicality, solo movement, creativiy, moves, etc. The paths would sometimes cross paths with another path, so you’d get the perfect mixture of building group cohesiveness with the people who chose to walk the same path, but also getting to know some of the other garden explorers along the way. It also made perfect sense contentwise, it “only” must have taken a lot of work an effort on the part of the gardeners to design this beautiful path system guiding us through the garden.
So overall the event felt like a leisurely stroll through the blooming garden that is the entirety of what the blues has to offer us. We did not have to take out our machetes to force our way through the jungle and make our own paths, which might be a fun and adventurous, but maybe also inefficient way to explore, because you would get lost and spend a lot of energy on finding a good path. No, at the blues garden, the gardeners together with the teachers who functioned a bit as the guides that lead you through botanical gardens, laid out the paths for us, they even put up nice guideposts, marking the paths that showcased the blues flowers and trees we wanted to focus on exploring on that weekend. Sometimes we were highly focused on learning and taking everything in, at other points we took extensive breaks and just sat in the beautiful garden in stunned admiration and shared appreciation.
- The Garden Guides
Hand-picked by the gardeners, Andrew, Annette, Gas, Alba, Vicci and Adamo were the garden veterans to walk parts of our chosen paths with us. I like to think of them exploring the garden on their own set of paths that sometimes crossed paths with ours. As our guides and fellow garden appreciaters they brought all their creativity, dedication, passion, knowledge, skills and wisdom to the table. Some of it they were gifted with by nature, a lot of it they gleaned from exploring the garden before us, sometimes on their own, with a machete making their own little paths, sometimes guided by other guides guiding them. They were there with us to share all of themselves, to point out the details of a blues plant we hadn’t noticed before, to help us classify the abundance and to give us an understanding of the underlying principles of how blues plants work.
- From Seeds to Fruit: Making Memorable Moments
After we have shone the limelight onto the gardeners, the garden and how it has been made accessible to the wide public with a series of intertwining paths and guides accompanying us on our journey, now let’s have a look at the actual plants that flourish in our beautiful garden. The blues gardeners provided and worked the land, they sowed the seeds, they watered them, they made sure they got the right amount of sunshine and sheltered them from too much wind and hail and frost, in short, they made sure to give the seeds the best environment they could possibly provide, but even with that much care, some seeds will sprout, some won’t and the plants still need to grow all by themselves. Much like that the blues gardeners provided the venue, the decorations, the guides, they built the paths, they fed and watered us and all of that yielded some amazing fruit. It created massive amounts of magical, hilarious and special moments that I will probably remember until the end of my times. It is these moments that make life worth living and it is these moments you’ll tell your friends and who knows, maybe one day your grandchildren, about. Some of them were planned meticulously, others happened spontaneously in the moment. Although a lot of them happened accidentally, it is no accident that they happened. All the ingredients and the perfect environment were carefully provided, and like with the seeds, you don’t know which ones will sprout and what exactly the flower will look like, but you can do a whole lot to have as many as possible bloom and bear fruit.
So here is a selection of my favourite fruit of the weekend:
- There was Christoffer Johansson’s grand entrance on Saturday night, with him starting to sing from behind the curtains, followed by the moment it took everybody on the dance floor to realize what was happening and everything culminating when he finally appeared. His whole set needs to be counted as a special moment, because it felt like he put a spell on us, like it was him who enchanted the forest and all of the creatures of the forest.
- The dance with Andrew to Christoffer’s music, when Andrew made that really loud sound of satisfaction at an especially quiet moment in the music and the whole dance floor turned to look at us and after a moment of intense silence we all started laughing.
- The dance with Annette where I made her laugh deeply and wholeheartedly by doing something really musical and then both of us occasionally broke into chuckles and laughter throughout the whole dance until the end.
- The time when Vicci got super-excited when a move I had been trying and failing to lead through most of the class, finally worked!
- When after two really cool dances and walking off the dance floor together the person I just danced with turned to my host and told him: “Man, this woman is full of crazy!” And me just grinning proudly, because clearly this couldn’t be meant as anything other than a compliment.
- That time when they served late night pizza.
- The question at the blues talk: “Are tights the new trousers?” followed first by stunned silence, then roaring laughter of the audience and the person who everybody in the room knew the question was targeted at, turning red as a tomato, getting up, pretending to leave, coming back and enlightening us that really he can only recommend every guy to try wearing leggings, because it is like your legs are being hugged from down there to up here.**
**When somebody wears something as noticeable and extravagant as Andrew did Saturday night, my first assumption is that the person is very brave and self-confident and just doesn’t care what others think, which I admire. So of course I noticed, but fully accepted his choice and admired his courage. I only learned afterwards from reading Andrew’s blog, what the perceived self-confidence felt like from the inside. So thank you, Andrew, for daring greatly to put yourself out there, for suffering through all of the mixed emotions, thank you for changing neither your clothes nor yourself and by doing all that playing your part in creating one of the many great moments of the weekend! <3
- The incredible privilege to be part of the teacher-organiser dinner, completely unearned other than by being hosted by one of the organisers and helping a tiny bit with the take-down and cleaning. What I loved most about it, was the fact that it felt exactly like I’d imagine the ideal family dinner. Everybody was so happy, respectful, humorous and we all got to share our favourite moments of the weekend. What impressed me most, was how grateful all of the teachers felt for the privilege (!) to be invited to teach at the Blues Garden. One of them even described the moment when they stepped inside the building, looked around and thought to themselves: “Damn, this is where I GET to teach.”
- One of the best parts, as always, wasn’t the actual time at the workshop, but the time you spend hanging out afterwards. That is how I met and spent an entire afternoon together with one of the gardeners and her guest, island hopping off the coast of Gothenburg. Usually I need to withdraw and be on my own for a while when I have too much social interaction. Not so after that day. We spent the day talking and laughing incredibly hard about a range of topics too delicate to be mentioned here.
Credit for all of the fabulous photos goes to Joel Höglund: