Mamma Mia! Putin says he didn't dance to Abba

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The Independent Online

During his time as a Russian political heavyweight, Vladimir Putin has earned a reputation as one of the world's most uncompromising leaders, a tough-talking former KGB spy with a piercing stare and a black belt in judo who seemed more than willing to enforce his promises personally if necessary. But, apparently, he likes nothing better than to boogie to Abba's "Dancing Queen".

Members of the British-based Abba tribute act Bjorn Again say they were flown to Moscow to sing a series of hits to a tiny audience which included the Russian Prime Minister, who reportedly danced and yelled "Bravo" during the performance.

Kremlin assistants were quick to deny that Mr Putin, who was the Russian president between 2000 and 2008, had attended the intimate concert, on 22 January at a tiny theatre on Lake Valdai, 200 miles north of Moscow.

But the Bjorn Again founder Rod Stephen said Mr Putin had definitely been there, sitting on a sofa beside a "glamorous" looking woman, and "had a great time" at the gig.

He said: "You can hardly have a machine gun in your arms with your top off one minute, then turn around and say you like Abba. I think that's why they've tried to keep it secret. We got the call to go out there about a year ago and I thought it was a prank. I remember someone on the line saying 'Hello, this is the Moscow Kremlin'. I told him to pull the other one."

Mr Stephen, 50, said the band was paid £20,000 for singing 15 Abba songs using equipment which appeared to have been bought especially for the occasion. They were also given strict instructions not to leave the stage, which was shielded from the audience of eight or nine by a gauze curtain.

The Russian Prime Minister, 56, was said to have particularly enjoyed Bjorn Again's versions of "Mamma Mia" and "Super Trouper", but did not introduce himself to the band after the performance.

Aileen McLaughlin, who performs as Abba's Agnetha Fältskog, said: "It was the smallest audience we have ever performed to, but Mr Putin was really enjoying it, shouting 'bravo' and clapping with the others. He was dancing along in his seat to 'Super Trouper' and raised his hands in the air during 'Mamma Mia' when we asked the audience to."

The group was flown to Moscow courtesy of the Kremlin, before being driven by bus to the location near Lake Valdai. They were accommodated at a military barracks, and were not told that Mr Putin would be in attendance until a few hours before the concert. "Everybody was dressed up. Mr Putin was in a bow tie and the woman was in a really pretty, long, cream dress," said Ms McLaughlin. "I assume it was his wife but I only got a glimpse of her because of the netting."

Security at the gig was tight, with a guard in the front row keeping a close eye on the band throughout. Mr Stephen said that he was advised not to go for a walk in the grounds afterwards, as snipers had been deployed on the rooftops around the theatre.

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