When I first saw the horse dancing to a langeleike tune, it pranced its way into my inner-child's heart and I fell in love with Dansedokkene (dancing dolls). Who wouldn't fall for a jumping and cavorting miniature wooden horse, with hooves clicking along to a Nordic dance tune?
When you look at the Norwegian word, Dansedokkene, you can see it's simpler to English, dancing dolls. While one could also translate it as puppet, I'll stick to 'dancing dolls' for this article. But what, you may ask, on earth is a langeleik? I'll start with a photo, below. It sits on the table, as seen above, behind the horse.
The langeleik is positioned on the table with the little risers under the strings (frets) towards the player and the tuning pegs on the player's left. The melody is played by the left hand pushing down on the frets to make different tones while the right hand holds a pick to strum and play individual strings. (Photo of a historic Langeleik from Valdres Folk Museum)
What makes the dolls dance?
The figure sits on a tiny dance floor with a rectangular frame around it, or in the case of the horse, a pole through the horse, like a carousel horse. The strings attached the the arms/legs/head of the puppet run through a hole in the top of the frame and are tied to a ring. The langeleik player holds the ring and pick in their right hand. When they strum, they play the instrument and move the doll at the same time.
Easy right? Just move your right hand to make music and dance the doll. At the last Nordic Harp Meeting in Gjøvik, I learned it's a lot harder than it looks. When I attempted, the horse, which a moment earlier had performed a comical dance, turned into a bucking wild thing. Head one way, heels the other, front side throwing itself on the ground only to jump high and land on its flanks with legs bent backwards -- this horse would not be tamed. A downtempo strum only created a slower one-horse rebellion. All the while my left hand stood by and realized it didn't understand langeleik frets. I think I'll stick to the harp.
In 2019, I attended a langeleik concert, På Pynté, in Oslo at Riksscene. Four of Norway's most famous players, Gunvor & Oddrun Hegge and Ole & Knut Aastad Bråten, were joined by two dancers, Anita Vika Langødegård and Håkon Aasen.
They created a magical set of non-stop music. Cameras capturing the dolls dancing on the screen and microphones allowed the large hall to hear the tiny feet of dolls and miniature horse hooves resounding on their wooden dance floors. On the human-sized dance floor the dancers mixed traditional, modern dance and poetry to the rhythm of langeleik.
While the audience lacked children, the adults were young enough at heart to laugh at the funny men, women and horses tapping their feet on the floor and - in some cases - heads against the frame top.
Throughout the concert, the players switched out instruments, allowing them to play in different keys and offer a wider variety of tunes. For the grand finale, Ånon Sørneæs Bakken, slouched onto the stage in his hoodie and sunglasses to showcase the electric langeleik.
Unfortunately, På Pynté isn't planning any world tours. But if you ever get a chance to hear a langeleik, especially with the dancing dolls, take it.