As a dancer, you know music is the key that opens a huge treasure chest, a sparkling space you can step into, and move around in. For Rikard Ekstrand, it ́s even more thanthat; it is a lifelong sixth sense. In an open-hearted interview he exposes his cognitive pathways, celebrates van Gogh and compares the Lindy hop to Coca Cola.
cover photo: Manne Wahlström
We meet in a café in Stockholm, Rikard orders black coffee and a coconut biscuit. He responds thoughtfully to my questions, yet it is no exaggeration to say that spontaneity and improvisation are his melodies. Just throwing a glance at the café’s artwork has him humming Blue Skies and moving his body.
– I connect everything with pictures. That’s how I remember things, Rikard says and revels that he has a lifelong history of the perceptual phenomenon called synesthesia. Stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic,involuntary experiences in a second cognitive pathway. Everything ́s got a melody to it and melodies create images: artwork in colors, there to interpret and explore.
Growing up, Rikard had difficulties expressing himself in words and kids in the Swedish town of Ulricehamn teased him about that. A speech therapist tried to help, but what really made a difference was dancing. His first day of dancing school was in September 1991. He started with the Swedish bugg and from that day forward, his life took on a new direction – and school dances became a highlight. Kids threw down their bags and jackets in the middle of the floor and danced around the pile. Rikard too, dressed in knee-length T-shirts he did the running man.
– We do have a dance culture in Sweden! Just think about how we danced at those school discos in the 1990s. I loved it!
The day Rikard fell in love with Lindy hop was at the Swedish Championships in 1994, where he watched dancers like Kenneth and Helena Norbelie, Mattias and Malin Caspersen hit the floor. It was the most fun he had ever seen: the clothes, the style and especially the music.
– Everything spoke to me right away. It was the coolest thing!
In addition to his favorite style, he studied tap, authentic jazz and Charleston, as well as funk styles such as lockin’ and poppin’. His career took off and Rikard moved to Stockholm in 2006. He started training with the Harlem Hot Shots and joined the troupe in 2008. The Hot Shots’s specialty is entertainment authentic to the Swing Era. Pure swing. No modernizing. No compromising. Instead, they pride themselves on finding inspiration directly from genuine sources, such as authentic material from old film clips as well as meetings and collaborations with dancers and musicians who were active during the heyday of swing. The origins of the dance are what drive the company’s dancing. Feeling is what drives Rikard. Every time he teaches, plays or performs, he wants the experience to be different.
– Jazz is about how we design our musical expressions to fit to the environmentwe’re in. How do the students feel, how do I feel and what ́s the weather like? Allthese parameters play a part since they all affect us, and hence our expression. Van Gogh did that too, not only depicting objects with paint but also expressing his own feelings in the paintings. That’s how to make art, in all forms. It is what makes art unpredictable and awesome.
The elegance of Rikard’s art lies in rhythm, music and partnering. He ́s a craftsman withexpressive grooves and deep sounds, complemented by a super friendly appearance, and hands that are always in motion, like a wizard ́s. An unmistakable style that has made his dreams come true: performing at the Apollo Theater in New York and at Globen in Stockholm, dancing on TV shows and meeting legends. He is also a successful pianist with the jazz band Hornsgatan Ramblers. To me, it adds up to a perfect career.
– Yes, rumor has it that a dance teacher’s life is a bed of roses. But, believe me, it is not. I’d been working two hundred percent in recent years. Nowadays, I’m trying to sort out new ways of living and working. My only goal is to continue expressing myself, doing what I love. And I am forever thankful to have been given the opportunity to do so.
In Herräng, Rikard and his partner Jenny Deurell teach the Teachers Track where they provide a variety of angles and approaches on how to pass on the Lindy hop. Their classes include both lectures and dancing.
– If we only teach figures, students will learn movement but not the dance. I would like to share the whole spectrum of Lindy hop, so that students can decide why it matters to them.
Rikard stress the importance of making jazz dancing available to everyone and as a teacher he tries to do his part by visiting schools and meeting kids, sharing knowledge and creating opportunities to learn for free.
– One main reason I started dancing was because dancers performed at my school. One of the dancers reminded me of me. I saw the grown up version of me. From that moment on, I dreamed of becoming a dancer, says Rikard and argues that the genius of the dance is found within each and every one of us, as we express our feelings together with a partner.
– Imagine holding the recipe for Coca Cola in your hand. You don’t want to get it wrong, right?! The same goes for Lindy hop. The origin has depth, a story that we need to understand in order to understand the culture.
He illustrates Lindy hop with ease, stresses that it’s neither a product, nor a technique nor anyone’s private fulfilment. It is a community dance and a common pleasure. In the 1930s and 40s, Lindy hop was an escape, a break from everyday life, and a joyous relief from tough times. Very few dancers ever took classes in how to swing dance.
– Norma Miller used to ask me after watching me dance, “Was it good or bad?” The question is not about whether I danced well or badly, but how satisfied I felt. “I don’t care if you suck,” she ́d say if I was not satisfied, meaning that the important thing is the experience, not what it looked like.
The contemporary Lindy scene is very different from its origins since it is, to a large extent, built on the presence of teachers and classes. That’s a pity, Rikard thinks.
– Creativity is easily killed. People dance and teach with fear as if they are scared of doing something wrong. I would like to change that.
Rikard has had the privilege of socializing, dancing and learning from several old timers, such as Norma Miller, who passed away in May, Frankie Manning and Dawn Hampton.
What did you learn from them?
– Everything. They showed me why dancing is important to me. And they made me understand the importance of dance in my life. They made me open and accepting of others and I am forever grateful.
Describe a good follow!
– Dawn Hampton. I like when we jointly create a now; a bubble about us for a few minutes. Everyone has their peculiarities but when it is really good you forget everything else. That ́s what dancing was like with Dawn.
Dawn with her smooth style, theatrical presence and wise words about the spirit of swing, had a great impact on Rikard’s view of the dance. The two were friends and during summers in Herräng they would eat princess cake together on Tuesdays.
– Dancing with Dawn was unforgettable, like pure music. She has shaped much of what the dance means to me, and she pushed me a lot in the direction of being in myself.
ABOUT: Rikard Ekstrand
Age: 35 on May 6, 2019
Home: Stockholm, Sweden
Family: Wonderful! I want a lot of love in my life, from many people. Then
I ́m at mybest.
Work: professional dancer, coach and choreographer. Hobby: photography, poetry and art.
Piece of advice: Find your strengths and use them! When I coach students, I advise them to make lists of their strengths as well as what they want to be better at. I call these “soon to be strengths.” That way you know what you’re good at and how to use it.
Instagram: Rikard Ekstrand Photography