I’m often asked: what’s this Swing dancing thing about? Well, there’s less two-stepping to Glenn Miller records, sipping nice cups of tea* than you may think, and more hardcore late nights, international travel, and throwing down to live music.
*there are of course, nice cups tea available, and who doesn’t enjoy a Glenn Miller record, but you know what I’m getting at!
it’s a vibrant community and a lifestyle…
In a previous article, I shared some of my experiences within the Goth scene, and here I talk about the other side of my life (and wardrobe!) as a Swing dancer. While I teach, take classes, and regularly attend brilliant social dances at home in London, I’ll focus here on the super exciting part- travelling to dance festivals!
I’ve been lucky enough to participate in three Swing dance festivals in past few weeks: performing and partying at Drag the Blues in Barcelona, taking classes and yet more partying at Lindy Shock in Budapest, and performing, learning, competing, and, you guessed it, partying, at Blues Baby Blues in London. There was a *lot* of awesome times, but I’ll share just some of the highlights, which I hope will show you why I’m in love with what, to me, is more than a “hobby”- it’s a vibrant community and a lifestyle, which encourages me to travel the world and has brought me many moments of pure joy!
1. Learning dance and African American cultural histories
I am an unashamed Swing dance geek! Since being introduced to Swing dancing in 2011, I’ve been hooked, and I love attending festivals for various Swing styles (for me, mostly Lindy Hop and Blues) to tune up my technique and learn exciting rhythms and footwork variations. There really is so much to learn!
Lindy Shock in Budapest hosted many of the top international teachers, including world champions, Skye (USA) and Frida (Sweden), and the wonderful Matynas and Egle (pictured) from Lithuania.
To clarify for anyone who is new to “Swing dancing” as a concept, at a very high level I’m talking about improvised partner dancing, first developed in African American communities in the early 20th Century. Lindy Hop emerged in the 1920s and is traditionally danced to Swing music; the movement style reflecting the exaggerated swung rhythm, while also incorporating elements of Charleston and Jazz dance steps.
Equally, Blues dance is inspired by the many sub-genres of Blues music from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, with roots in African movement traditions and African American cultural histories. Blues is generally a bit less aerobically demanding than Lindy, and is very expressive. It is characterised by a gorgeous relaxed, grounded, and rhythmic look and feel.
local cultural geographies inspire unique music traditions and associated movement styles…
There is much complexity in all these dances, and it was a joy to dig deeper at these events. A highlight at Blues Baby Blues was exploring the meaning and histories of Blues dance aesthetics. I also loved learning about local idiom dances such as The Mooch, Belly Rubbin’, and Struttin’, all within the overarching “Blues” genre. I find it fascinating that local cultural geographies inspire unique music traditions and associated movement styles- just brilliant, and so true across other genres (including Goth!).
2. Social dancing and partying
Out of the classroom, social dancing to live music is an essential element of Swing dancing, and a big part of these packed weekends. So much so, that at Drag the Blues in Barcelona, I opted for a “party pass” so I could focus on attending the parties with live music (from a total of 10 bands!!) in the evenings.
Social dancing is a chance to connect with a fellow dancer and create something new- the movements are all improvised in conversation with your partner and the music (also other dancers when the floor is crowded!!). For me this is a feeling that can’t be beaten, as I’m very much “in the moment”. It’s difficult to think about your stresses and “to do” list when you’re concentrating on moving around the dancefloor- this is my kind of mindfulness practice!
In Budapest I was treated to one of my favourite bands- The Gordon Webster Band. What makes them special to me is that I really feel like they play along with the dancers. Their leader, Gordon (on piano and vocals), peeks over his shoulder at the dance floor, and he perfectly judges how to play for the mood – like when a jam circle opens up in the floor and couples break in to “shine” (pictured). They capture the feel of what it must have been like at the famous Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, when swing music and dance were developing together *gush*. There was always a crowd of people stood around the stage just watching the band and appreciating the music rather than dancing, and a finale song that brings everyone to their knees (quite literally!).
3. Dressing fancy!
Many Lindy Hop dancers enjoy referencing the history of the dance and dressing in vintage 1940s styles- I am certainly one of those! With Lindy Shock being one of the biggest events in the dancing calendar, my outfits and hairstyles were lovingly curated.
I want to move freely without worrying about flashing any “vital parts”…
In contrast, clothing worn at blues events is very mixed- something I really appreciate! As it doesn’t need to be vintage or particularly fancy (although some people do choose this), I take the opportunity to mix in an little alternative flavour, especially with darker makeup, and often wear something black and slinky (fun!). l want to move freely without worrying about flashing any “vital parts”, so trousers and stretchy jersey/lycra are my friends here.
4. Performing with The Down & Outs troupe
A big part of my dancing life since 2014 is training and performing with The Down & Outs Blues dance troupe . We’ve been lucky enough to be invited to perform at quite a few UK and European events over the years, and in Barcelona, we performed our solo routine called “She’s A Sweet One”. This was originally choreographed for just the male members of the troupe, so it was a fun challenge to learn this piece specially for the event.
As a London-based troupe, Blues Baby Blues is our big local festival of the year, and we have debuted new material at this event for the past three years. This year though, was significant- it was our first piece as a self-directed group, with members of the troupe choreographing the “Savoy Walk” style routine. Nerves and excitement were high, but we were pleased with the result (video here), plus our former beloved troupe leaders were in the front row, and gave us a big thumbs up, so we’ll take it as a win! Celebratory beers and the traditional whiskey were then consumed into the wee small hours…
5. Competing and Battling
Competition has long been a part of swing dancing history- from showing off in the Savoy Ballroom, to the formal, televised Lindy Hop competitions at the Harvest Moon Balls from 1935 (continuing through to 1984). I find competing terrifying and exhilarating and try to participate when I can to challenge myself and push boundaries.
The final “Mix and Match” competition (where partners are randomly assigned) at Blues Baby Blues was something special, as each round had an hilarious twist! One was to dress up and assume characters (one being Kermit the Frog!), while the final round was to dance with a pint of beer in your hand. Winners, Anna and Tobias (pictured), were brilliant at acting the part and telling a story, with Tobias chasing after the beer, as Anna artfully dodging and gracefully taking sips- brilliant dancing and expression!
I participated in the “Team Battle” event, involving improvised dance battles between two teams of 4-6 dancers, each taking alternate phrases of the song and responding to the other team’s movements. My favourite heat was when we danced to the track “Black Rattler” (really inspiring music from DJ Adamo- thanks!). We progressed to the final, but lost the overall war to a very worthy winning team- all extremely good fun!
6. Broadening my horizons
It’s impossible for me to travel to international events and not want to explore the city and experience the wider local culture. In Budapest, I went on an “Alternative Tour” looking at street art murals (many of which were huge in scale) and “ruin bars”, pitched up in abandoned buildings. It’s also traditional and beneficial for sore dancing muscles to visit one of the many thermal spas, and obligatory to take in the spectacular views from Castle Hill.
In Barcelona, I also went on a street art-focussed tour, visited some local vintage shops, and relaxed on the beach. It was pretty glorious to be in 23 degree centigrade sunshine watching people play volleyball on the beach in October!
7. Socialising on an international scale!
language barriers aren’t so much of an issue on the dancefloor…
For me, one the best things about Swing dancing, aside from the obvious fantastic dancing opportunities, is meeting fascinating and lovely people from all over the world. I danced, socialised and learned alongside people from the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Israel, Mexico, all the far flung corners of Europe, and even Newcastle…
I met a violinist training to be a composer at a top conservatory of music, a fashion designer specialising in bullet proof suits (!), and many, many PhD students (yes, wisdom was shared, dear reader). The non-verbal communication of dancing was handy at times- language barriers aren’t so much of an issue on the dancefloor!
I go to many dance events on my own, only in the sense that I catch a flight and book a room, but I’m immediately surrounded by people I either know from other events, or have common ground to begin to build connections. I love this element of the lifestyle and hope to continue for many years to come!On my dance calendar for early 2018 are trips to Valencia for Double Shot Blues and Fusion, and Hygge Blues in Copenhagen, plus I’m on the teaching team in London at Stompin’ the Blues (The Joker, Angel on Wednesdays 7-11pm) 🙂 If you’re interested in learning Swing dancing, there are classes and events all over the world. In London and Brighton, Swing Patrol alone host over 30 classes per week, so get those dancing shoes on! Thanks for reading! Hit