I Feel Like I Win When I Lose
I Feel Like I Win When I Lose
A Q&A with Halina Ulatowski
Of Dancing Dream
By Geoff Gehman
Halina Ulatowski fell under the spell of ABBA the night that millions of fellow Europeans were spellbound by Agnetha, Anni-Frid, Benny and Bjorn. Then 11 and living in her native Poland, she was totally tuned into the Swedes’ performance of “Waterloo” on the televised Eurovision Song Contest, an annual extravaganza. She was captivated by pretty much everything: the Swedish-fish-sweet melody; the irresistibly bouncy beat; the funky face-off vocals; the gentle go-go dance moves; the astronaut/cowgirl/Mozart/disco costumes seemingly made for the psychedelic band in Elton John’s song “Benny and the Jets.” She was absolutely thrilled when ABBA won the competition and began its meteoric rise to global phenomenon.
Fast forward to 2012. Ulatowski is living in New Jersey, the mother of three and the founder, manager, booker, costume wrangler and co-lead vocalist of Dancing Dream, an ABBA tribute group. She’s hiding with her band mates under the desk of Stephen Colbert, the wickedly smart, wickedly witty host of the Comedy Central show “The Colbert Report.” After his monologue the Dancing Dreamers pop up to join him in a sparkling a cappella version of “Take a Chance,” the ABBA hit with the merry carousel whirl. For five-odd minutes they are secret agents for Operation Artificial Swedener, Colbert’s campaign to take control of the Twitter account of the humor-impaired Swedish government, which at the time let one citizen type one measly Tweet a week.
The “Colbert Report” appearance was Dancing Dream’s equivalent of winning Eurovision. The TV cameo triggered a gig for a packed house at B.B. King’s Blues Club & Grill in Times Square. Since then Ulatowski & Co. have been interpreting ABBA ear-candy classics—“Ring, Ring, “Fernando,” “Dancing Queen”—with bubbly authenticity and satiny flair during Scandinavian festivals across the U.S. and a Swedish Midsummer Festival party at the United Nations.
On Feb. 24 Dancing Dream will take control of the Mauch Chunk Opera House. Neither Ulatowski nor co-founder Agnes Jawlen will be there to perform their respective roles of Anni-Frid “Frida” Lyngstad and Agnetha Faltskog. As Ulatowski points out, she’s too busy coordinating the band’s schedule and Jawlen is singing elsewhere that night. Still, during a spirited conversation from her New Jersey home, Ulatowski had plenty to say about dreaming up her ABBA recreation after watching an ABBA recreation; scrambling to prepare to perform on “The Colbert Report” the day she received the invitation, and living a career she could never imagined while growing up in a Communist country with only eight hours of TV a day.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that just wormed its way into your ears, heart and soul?
A: The first song that stuck in my head was “Those Were the Days.” I first heard it when I was 7. It was sung by Halina Kunicka, a very popular Polish singer. My dad loved her; in fact, he picked my first name because of her. I loved the melody; I even learned it for a school event. Later in life I found out it was actually an American song performed by Mary Hopkins.
Q: Why did “Yesterday” captivate you enough to translate its lyrics?
A: I always loved the Beatles and the reason was my older sister loved them. There was a weekly Polish music magazine called Radar–it was something like Rolling Stone—and every week it had some English songs translated and “Yesterday” was the first song I saw printed in the magazine. I didn’t know English in high school and I was taking an English-Polish dictionary and translating every word. A song doesn’t really make any sense when you do it this way; you can’t translate every word and make a song of it.
I was always a huge fan of languages. I actually went to college to study German. I was going to be a German teacher but that didn’t happen because I got married soon after college.
Q: What was the first ABBA tune that made you think their music needed to be a central part of your life?
A: “Waterloo.” I first heard it when I was 11 on the Eurovision Song-Contest TV show. When you grow up in a Communist country, when the TV programs are basically on from 4 p.m. to midnight, you’re usually watching movies in Russian and Polish and sometimes Westerns in English. I loved the Polish music festivals and the international music festivals. We always watched the Eurovision contest; it seems everyone in Europe watched it. I remember ABBA performing “Waterloo” and I remember how captivated I was by their singing and their costumes and their hair and their dancing; everything was so different. I was rooting for them and I was thrilled when they won. That was in 1974. April 6.
Q: How big was ABBA when you were growing up in Poland?
A: Oh, they were huge. I remember their New Year’s Eve concert was shown twice on TV station Studio 2. The station even televised their arrival at the Polish International Airport in Warsaw. It was almost like they were welcoming the Beatles here in America; that’s how huge they were.
Q: Many foreigners learn English by watching cartoons. How did you get the hang of the language?
A: When we moved to America, I had three kids in elementary school taking English as a second language; helping them was motivation for me to learn English. I went for some classes and it came quickly to me. I was very familiar with the lyrics of ABBA, the Beatles and American artists. I have a natural affinity for picking up languages. I had studied German and I was good at it, and German and English are similar. Then I went to school to learn computerized accounting and that was all in English and I became more proficient.
Q: Why did you come to the States?
A: My husband’s family was here–mother, father, aunt, cousins—and they were resident aliens. In Poland we lived through a very unstable situation in the ’70s and ’80s In 1988 somebody broke into our house and burned it down. We lived in a closed neighborhood and people knew we had family in America because we were getting letters and packages from there. One time my husband’s brother surprised us with a visit from America. We lived near a not-so-great area and we think that someone from there broke into the house expecting they’d find a lot of American dollars and nice American goods. We didn’t really have a lot and I guess they were disappointed and that’s why they set fire to the house.
We rebuilt our house but we still didn’t feel safe. Things began improving after Lech Walesa [labor activist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient] became president [in 1990], the borders were opened and people could go to other countries. Still, even after Walesa became president, there was such uncertainty in Poland and Russia. We didn’t want to put our kids through the hardships we had as children; we wanted to provide for them a safer future. So we left everything behind, including our taxi business, and came to America. It was very difficult.
Q: Why did you and Agnes Jawlen decide to launch ABBA Girlz in 2009, 10 years after the opening of the mega-hit ABBA musical “Mama Mia!”?
A: It’s a long story, but a very good one. I first met Agnes in a dance band that performed at weddings and a Polish club in New Jersey. We first sang together 10 years ago, on Feb. 17, 2007. Agnes was born in Poland, too, and she came to America at 12. She doesn’t have the [Polish] accent while I’ll probably never lose it. In the band she sang in English and I sang in Polish, Russian and Italian. I even sang a couple of Selena’s songs in Spanish.
In 2008 we were asked to do something special for a huge Polish party at the club. At the time the band was about to break up; one of the guys was going back to Poland. Early that year my husband and I got tickets from our daughter for Abba: The Tour, a band from Europe. I had never seen ABBA songs performed live and I loved it. That gave me the idea to dress up and perform as ABBA for the party. It was a kind of joke: the guys had to wear the wigs; at the time I had long blonde hair [like Agnetha’s].
We performed at the Polish club on Nov. 30, 2008. We sang “Dancing Queen,” “Mama Mia,” “Waterloo,” “Hasta Manana” (which was huge in Poland), “One of Us” and “Take a Chance.” One of the boys sat at the piano like Benny [Andersson]; the other guy held a guitar like Bjorn [Ulvaeus]. We sang to backing tracks, but that was nothing new; after all, ABBA lip synched in videos many times. And the people went crazy, it was just unbelievable. That gave us the indication that, wow, this is a great idea, pretending to be ABBA. So we began collecting ABBA costumes and ordering ABBA stuff to prepare ourselves for the project, to make a break from only the Polish audiences.
In 2009 Agnes and I both lost our day jobs. I was working as an accounting assistant to support our three children; Agnes was working for a fashion company that makes hair styling products. We decided that singing together could be a hobby and an extra source of money We met twice a week to practice tracks. We had a photo shoot and made a short demo of us dressed as ABBA singing two tracks. We posted it on GigMasters, the online talent agency. We expected we’d get gigs here and there at small clubs and private parties; instead, we were overwhelmed by requests across the country. We decided to be serious about it and hire other musicians for the band.
Q: What was the biggest learning curve in nailing the ABBA vocals, the movements, the costumes, the authentically sincere, outlandish vibes of the ’70s and ’80s? I’m wondering if it was strange for a Polish native to sing English lyrics with Swedish inflections.
A: It was difficult learning the lyrics. But it wasn’t difficult pretending to be Frida. A lot of my vocals are almost like hers. I think we have a lot of similar traits: charisma, demeanor. I can relate to her.
When I sing my [Polish] accent is almost gone, although it comes back when I say something to the crowd here and there. There have been a couple of instances when people think I have spoken with a Swedish accent; a few reviewers have even mentioned that we sing with a Swedish accent. But, no, we don’t sound Swedish.
Q: How the hell did you get invited to perform on “The Colbert Report” and help Stephen Colbert’s Operation Artificial Swedener? Do you have any colorful behind-the-scenes stories of the gig? And how did the performance change your career?
A: It 12:15, 12:30 in the afternoon and I was sitting by the computer in my home office when I got an email from “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central. I knew the show because my daughter is a huge fan. I thought somebody was just playing a joke on me. The email was signed by Adam Wagner, the show’s producer, and I found out that, wow, he was actually the producer. I was checking him out on the Internet when I got a phone call from him. He asked us if we would sing “Take a Chance” with Stephen as a joke–that night. He wanted us to get there at 4:30 p.m., fill out papers at 5 or 5:30, and go on at 7:30.
One of my problems was that Matt, our keyboard player, was in California with Blondie; he has a steady gig with them. He was so mad he was going to miss the show because he loves Stephen Colbert. He told me: “Give me 10 minutes and I’ll contact a [keyboardist] I know in New York City who can perform one song with you.” Then I got a text message—boom!—from the [keyboardist] in New York, who said he could do the show with us. I told him “I need to see your photo”; I needed to see if he looked like he could be in an ABBA tribute group. He sent a photo to me and he looked like he was 15! I thought, well, at this point I have no choice but to go with him; either we do “The Colbert Report” or not.
Agnes took off from work early. It took me about an hour and a half to put on makeup and collect costumes; I hold costumes for everybody. But then I got stuck in traffic on the [New Jersey] Turnpike and I was almost crying because I was going to arrive late and lose this great chance. I called the show and they told me that everything would be okay as long as I got there at 7; I just wouldn’t have any rehearsal. I got there at quarter of 7. They wanted me to fill out papers but I told them, no, I have to get ready to perform.
Colbert came to our green room and introduced himself to me; the other people in the group had already practiced with him. He told us that the idea was to hide under his big desk and after his little monologue come out and sing “Take a Chance” a cappella. I almost fell when I popped out from under the desk because my foot fell asleep.
This all happened on June 21 2012. Two weeks later, on July 1, we performed for the first time at B.B. King’s [Blues Cub & Grill] in Times Square. Everywhere there were ads saying: That’s the group that performed with Stephen Colbert. Because of the ads we were packed.
It’s all a wonderful memory. Stephen was great and getting to sing with him was amazing. And the young guy, Mike, who subbed for our keyboard player that night ended up playing with us for two years until he decided to record his own CD and make his own career.
Q: How the hell did you get invited to perform last June for the Swedish Midsummer Festival at the United Nations? And what was that like?
A: We’re very well known in the Scandinavian community; we’ve performed at Scandinavian festivals in upstate New York, California and North Dakota. We just received an email invitation on our web site from a Swedish organization that was presenting a Midsummer party at the UN. We performed in the Delegates’ Dining Room there for over 500 guests. One of the Swedish ambassadors was on guitar and another was on drums and they played “Ring, Ring,” one of the first ABBA songs, with us. There’s a little clip on YouTube with everybody dancing. It was all amazing.
We’re still in touch with the two girls who hired us; one was promoted and has a very important position. Most likely we will perform [at the UN] again this year.
Q: So, Halina, what tops your Bucket List?
A: To be honest with you, I don’t have a Bucket List so to speak. I would like to visit Poland, which I haven’t visited in years, and other cities in Europe. My husband and I are going to Europe on vacation this year and we plan to visit two ABBA places in Stockholm: the ABBA museum [official name: ABBA: The Museum] and something called Mama Mia Party [official name: Mama Mia! The Party]. It’s actually a huge [Greek] restaurant/venue [created by ABBA co-founder Bjorn Ulvaeus] where they sing all the “Mama Mia!” songs in a very casual way. It’s a movie-scene type of place, almost like a Broadway experience.
Q: And what tops your Fuck It List?
A: At first I didn’t know what you meant [by Fuck It List]. Because I’m Polish sometimes I don’t get American jokes but, then, sometimes Americans don’t get Polish jokes [laughs]. There are two things on my list and both have to deal with tragic health situations. My older daughter had a brain aneurysm rupture last June. It would be hard for anybody ever to go through the possibility of losing your child, not even mentioning losing your child. She survived and she’s doing great with no major side effects. So my list would include preventing brain aneurysm ruptures,
The other thing on my list would be an end to cancer. My husband’s mother is dying from cancer and it’s very difficult. It’s terrible to watch her deteriorating, even though she’s 84, even though she’s had a great life, even though she’s fighting it and doesn’t accept it. I would love to live through the time when we can all say we finally have a cure for all kinds of cancer.
Q: On a much lighter note, would you ever consider wearing those ABBA white boas and white go-go boots offstage?
A: Maybe for some party [laughs]. I do, however, have a pair of over-the-knee boots; they’re very in style right now. I actually love the look. But they’re black.
Halina Ulatowski: The Scoop
She was seven years old in 1970 when the future members of ABBA performed an improvisational show for United Nations soldiers during a vacation on Cyprus. In 2016 she performed at UN headquarters in Manhattan with her ABBA tribute group, Dancing Dream.
She changed the name of her tribute group from ABBA Girlz at the request of the Universal Music Group, which administers the ABBA song catalog and which has announced the creation of a virtual ABBA project with Simon Fuller, the “American Idol” mogul.
She has performed nearly 300 times with Agnes Jawlen, her Dancing Dream co-founder.
She manages a pool of 12 musicians for Dancing Dream, including two Agnethas and three Fridas.
She says that Dancing Dream is the only American ABBA tribute group based on the East Coast. Other ABBA tribute bands that tour the U.S. include Arrival, which hails from Sweden, and Gabba, an English group that plays ABBA tunes with the punk moxie of the Ramones.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He never gets tired of hearing “Dancing Queen.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.