Dancing is fundamental to Mikaela Hellsten. She can’t help it. According to science, her subcortical brain regions converse, bypass higher auditory areas, and make her shimmy whether she likes it or not. The reaction is not unique, it’s universal, but the joy and energy Mikaela injects into her dancing is specific to her.
cover photo: Tamara Pinco
The dance scene from Hellzapoppin’is arguably the most iconic Lindy hop clip in history. Certainly thousands of dancers have been inspired by this routine. One of the latest recreations was seen at the Savoy Cup in Montpellier in 2019, with Mikaela Hellsten in the mix. She was flying through the air, tossed by Nils Nygårdh (dancing the part of Al Minns), nailing that dare-devilish routine, originally choreographed by Frankie Manning. At this event she was performing under the lead of Chester Whitmore.
– I want to take every opportunity to learn from him. He’s a master choreographer and dancer! He also knows a whole lot about the dance; he studied with many of the older masters and is really passionate about passing it on. He’s a fountain of information and when it comes to applying it, he just goes for it! Chester is extra everything. “You got it” he says and encourages us to “just do it”, Mikaela tells me when we meet in Stockholm.
It’s the middle of April, the sun is shining and I recognize her immediately: big smile and colorful scarf, straight-backed posture and movements bursting with energy even when she simply walks through the door. She orders a vegetarian quiche and drinks coffee as she recounts growing up in Stockholm. Even as a young girl, Mikaela loved physical challenges: Standing on her father’s two lifted feet, climbing tall trees or running fast. Her mom and dad were members of the Swedish Dance Sport Federation and Mikaela and her sister Maja hung out in the wings, jumping on a trampoline or swinging on the gymnastics rings. Mikaela had an I-can-do-anything-attitude but didn’t like showing it off, or being in center of things. She was a shy kid. Being on stage nowadays, being an artist, is something she had not planned on, she says, but admits that she does love to perform.
As a freelance dancer and artist, she’s been putting on shows, touring in Sweden and teaching internationally for the past ten years. As part of Hanna and Mattias Lundmark’s dance company MandH, Mikaela has participated in shows at senior residences and in schools around Sweden.
– I often get the feeling that I make a difference in these people’s daily lives. I get to influence their day and it feels great. When performing for the older generations my work feels extra special. They always express such gratitude and I feel that our performance makes their day a little easier.
Mikaela took her first lesson in couple dancing when she was twelve, learning the Swedish Bugg. But this was not love at first sight. One thing led to another and a year later she was invited to try Lindy hop at the Swedish Swing Society, with Annika Lundmark as her first Lindy Hop teacher. This danced opened the door to her heart.
– The basics were so much fun and I didn’t have to wait for my partner to lead every step. I could improvise! I remember one of my early teachers showing me a step and I asked if I did it correctly. She answered: ”Yes, that’s how I do it, but you can do it any way you like.” That’s when I really knew this was the dance for me.
Mikaela became a regular at the Swedish Swing Society and the Chicago Dance Studio and swinging out defined her teenage social life. But making dancing into a full time job? No, that never occurred to her; she was on the route to becoming a civil engineer and after high school, Mikaela threw herself into studies at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. But fate (and Sakarias Larsson) had something else in store for her.
– Zacke called me to ask if I wanted to be a part of the show The Last Bounce in Stockholm Globe Arena (Scandinavia’s largest entertainment venue). I really could not do it without missing some of my courses almost completely, but hey, a show at the Globe! It was the chance of a lifetime. I’ll never get that opportunity again I thought, and I said yes.
A decision she doesn’t regret. The experience made her feel like she was flying.
– You know when you’re riding your bike and you hit an unexpected bump. For a short moment you’re flying with your bike in the air, holding your breath. It’s a thrill but you’re sure holding on tight, hoping you won’t land flat on your face. That’s what that whole performance felt like to me. This charged presence, no thinking, just one hundred percent being in the moment.
That feeling is addictive, but Mikaela didn’t realize just how addictive until later, when she moved to Switzerland for her studies. This was her attempt at creating a peaceful and quiet environment in which to finish her studies, and learn a new language. But it didn’t turn out that way. To not dance would show to have a bigger impact on her well being than what she could have imagined.
– Studying Physics is hard, but in a new language… well, I could barely understand a thing, she says and laughs.
But what turned out to be really hard was the lack of dancing. After some time without dancing, maybe a month, I really didn’t feel well. Eventually, I found a tap studio and managed to talk them into an exchange; I taught them Lindy hop and they let me attend tap classes for free. That’s when Mikaela understood that dance was fundamental to her being.
– I realized dancing had to be part of my life. It was a good insight and I still feel I cannot live without it.
Daily practice, like the one before our meeting, is essential. If she is not rehearsing for a show, she practices simply for the fun of it. Her only goal is to evolve relative to her own standards.
– It’s been a challenge, and still is. It has taken me many years to be able to watch myself on video and like what I see. I guess the more you learn the more you realize there is yet to learn. I still feel like I am at the beginning of my journey, but slowly I’m getting there. I am much more confident in my own expression now than before. I try to always be present, listen and feel the music. When I manage to do this, even when there’s an audience watching, that’s when I am the most proud of my work. – Al Minns was my first idol, I mean, his dancing just swings! If I had another lifetime I’d learn to dance like that. But there are so many great dancers. Another favorite is Consuela Harris, oh and Jeni LeGon of course! Wow, when she moves, it’s just effortless! It looks so simple and yet so powerful. It’s crazy! I also have great respect for the people I get to work with and I often get inspired just being on practice or during shows. I feel very lucky to get to work with talented people on a daily basis. That’s really amazing.
If you were to teach your students one thing, what would that be?
– Keep the bounce at all times, just like Al Minns. That’s all! No pressure folks!
ABOUT: Mikaela Hellsten
Age: 33 in 2019
Family: her sister Maja, mom, dad and a grandmother.
Work: as a performer and teacher