There was a time when dancing wasn’t even on Steen Skjellerup’s radar. In his small hometown in Denmark, there were two types of people: those who went to church and didn’t dance and drink, and those who went to the local inn and, well, danced and drank.
“I had opportunities, but it wasn’t a good thing to go dancing in my community. It was small with just 1,000 people,” the 73-year-old said. “At the graduation party of my high school equivalent, I was a country boy and all of the city girls wanted to dance with me. I stepped on their toes, but they didn’t mind. I was confused — I think I was really cute at that time.”
Now, the Fresno resident of more than 36 years is one of the leaders of the Fresno Danish Dancers — a group that has dedicated itself to preserving and performing Scandinavian folk dancing in the Central Valley since the early 1980s.
Skjellerup’s history with the longtime club dates back to 1984, and his beginning steps were shaky at best. After seeing a video playback of himself performing at the annual Solvang Danish Days celebration that year, he quit cold-turkey for a straight decade. But Skjellerup’s devotion to the Fresno Danish Dancers is undeniable if the red, personalized club polo that he’s proudly sporting illustrates anything.
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He credits Wilma Andersen and Hazel Larsen with establishing a strong foundation of material and music for the Fresno Danish Dancers to build upon, with Skjellerup converting Andersen’s wide collection of vinyl to CD for the latest group of dancers to practice to in today’s modern times.
“We have somewhere between 25 and 50 (dances),” he said of the club’s repertoire. “But our instructions with the music is way over 200. We have forgotten about some of them, or they’re not good for performance or for fun. That’s where our friend, Jorgen, helps us out.”
Jorgen Clausen is responsible for assisting the Fresno Danish Dancer’s eight couples with the more challenging Scandinavian choreography, which expands to include dances from Denmark, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Czechoslovakia and Greenland.
Most of the polka and folk-style dances require a partner but there are a few selections that don’t, making it easy for the club members who sit toward the back end of the 17 to 80-plus age range have an opportunity to take a break from time to time. Skjellerup said beginners are always welcome — all one needs is a little natural rhythm to pick it up.
The main trick to it all: knowing how to waltz.
“Otherwise it’s a little stiff,” Skjellerup explained. “It has to be fun for us dancers, too. We want lively dances — some of the Danish dances are a little formal and don’t vary much, so by collaborating with other groups, we learn some new dances.”
Fresno Danish Dancers regularly works with The Village Dancers of Modesto a few times a year for new material, and relies on the Folk Dance Federation of California and written Danish-English translations to keep the club’s cache of 3-minute routines stocked and interesting.
At the group’s weekly meetings as of late, the Fresno Danish Dancers have been steadily perfecting its program for Kingsburg’s annual Swedish Festival, which kicks off on Thursday, May 18. Along with Danish Days, the event is one of the highlights for the folk dance club each year, allowing its members to perform with live musical accompaniment and enjoy authentic cuisine and culture for a weekend.
The program’s nine featured dances take audiences to the lands of Sweden, Norway, Estonia, Finland, Denmark, Czechoslovakia and others, with Skjellerup taking a minute before each to explain its origin. After all, exposing others to Scandinavian folk dancing is what the Fresno Danish Dancers is all about.
“My favorite part is keeping it going and teaching beginners, so they’re part of our club,” he says. “You just have to show up.”
Fresno Danish Dancers meet from 7 to 9 p.m. every Tuesday at the Clovis Senior Activity Center.