The Swing Thing


On the fourth day of my Advent writing, I find myself craving to lose control. …What a seasonally appropriate way to feel, I know. If what you’re thinking of includes sex and drugs, then I must disappoint you—that is not what I mean. My craving falls under the last of the trio, though not quite that late into the musical chronology. Nope, my condition certainly isn’t curable—this ain’t the kind of blues anyone could medicate away. Nor would I want it to go away, in fact. And so I try to hide the symptoms of curled lips and tapping feet until after the meeting, until after the next report, until after the car ride home.

The first time I really, truly heard swing music was at a dance festival outside of Boston during my first year of college. I was walking down a hallway and each of my limbs wanted to move to a different genre of music: in one room, a fast merengue shook dancers’ hips at mind-boggling frequencies, while on the other side of the hallway, a slow rumba pressed other dancers’ hips against one another in ways that had me close my eyes. Two doors down, old Irish fiddle music had men in flowing skirts and women with unshaven arm pits twirl around each other and onto the new couple down their line, and at the end of the hallway, older couples were waltzing around perfectly waxed floors. None of these music styles seemed to pull me in quite enough, and so I turned around to look for the bathrooms. Back where I’d started, I suddenly heard a saxophone solo and decided to look for its place and person of origin. …That day, I refreshed my memory of the basic six-count swing step that I had learned in standard lessons a few years prior, added a couple of turns, and got acquainted with the frog jump. With rosy cheeks and sweaty clothes, I went home eventually. And so I found it—or better yet, it found me—the music of an era that I seem to have been born for, just a couple of decades too late.

The next time I swing-danced, I had relocated from Northampton outside of Boston to Washington, DC, to attend Georgetown. Upon my arrival, I googled “Swing in DC” and promptly found two venues that looked and sounded promising! …What I didn’t know then was that I’d begin spending some serious amounts of time at both of these places—and meet people who’d later become my best friends!

My first night at Glen Echo, a deserted entertainment park from the 1920 just outside of DC, I danced so hard through the three sets of the most phenomenal live swing music that I ended up taking a massive Five Guys Burger, an entire Large Fries, as well as a large soda straight into my bath tub. When I finally left the tub, my hands looked as if they had aged by about the right amount of time for the music I had just absolutely fallen in love with.

…Ok, the next time you meet a swing dancer, ask him or her about the Shim Sham. Chances are a smile will appear and a few steps of the routine will follow! The Shim Sham is a group dance dating back to the origins of swing, and whenever the first couple of beats from Jimmy Lunceford’s legendary T’aint What You Do appear, there’ll be more and more and more feet joining the steps—imminently. The largest group of people I’ve ever had the pleasure of dancing this routine with were 400 other dancers in DC. That April, the Jive Aces from the UK were in town to play their phenomenal rendition of the song. Too good.

The other venue where I began truly refining my dancing was the Jam Cellar, a beautifully renovated villa with tall ceilings and perfect floors just off of 14th street. I used to work at a school just a couple of blocks up, and so on Tuesdays, I’d stay extra late just to not have to bike back and forth, up and down P Street, because that meant that I’d have to stop way too many times at THOMAS SWEETS on the corner of P and Wisconsin. TSweets… man, heaven can wait! …And so I learned the Charleston forwards, backwards, sideways, and just all around inside out—and met just the most wonderful people!

I just now realize that swing dancing, in fact, isn’t actually about losing control. While it can look absolutely wild and crazy, it took me a good while (and I am always working on it…) to refine and control the steps to the point where I could dance with any lead and stay proactively responsive in my own dance-style.

One of the dancers who helped me very much with my dancing style was a guy who asked me—the first time we danced, mind you—if I know the Lift from Dirty Dancing, and if I wanted to do it with him. Umm, what kind of question is that, mister?!! Alongside about one million other girls, I’d been losing sleep over wanting to do this lift with a semi-naked muscle man for the better half of a decade… Well, even though said partner was fully clothed when he lifted me up for the duration of magical ten seconds, I couldn’t help but want to get to know him better.

The spring after that fall, we were still dancing together and on one of the warmest days, he took me on a surprise adventure. We drove and drove and talked and talked and… eventually arrived on an army base! What?!! Why?!! Walking into the community center and a gathering of about seventy 13 to 18 year-olds, I realized that we had come here to teach swing dancing! We had an absolute blast with these kids and actually returned for their prom, but not without troubles, because I was running very late that day, ended up changing into my gown in the car, then realized that I had forgotten my passport and couldn’t get on the base without it, then waited in my gown by the roadside until a black van with shaded windows came to pick me up and drive me onto the base without any questions asked… All because of swing!

After my move (back, somewhat) to Boston for grad school, I, of course, googled again and realized that if I wanted to, I could go swing dancing pretty much every night of the week! Had the wings in swing taken me to heaven? During the first week of school then, I was out and about checking out the different venues—and just cannot tell you which one I loved more! There were old barns, chic hotels, anchored boats, and massively impressive bands playing everywhere! One night, someone tapped me on the shoulder—a regular occurrence during a dance night—but when I turned around to agree to dance with him, I recognized the guy! I couldn’t believe it – we had danced together at the dance festival four years prior! And recognized each other immediately! What a delightful surprise!

Now back in Europe and Germany and Bonn, I plan to improve my technical skills in swing and lindy hop as well as get more into teaching, perhaps. We will see what comes of it, but mostly, I just look forward to continuing being a part of a community that is diverse and very friendly – a community that is in it for the joy of music, movement, and relationship!

…So I guess my threshold is about three days of swing abstinence before the music just works its way from my belly to either mouth or feet or both at the very same time and then has me moving in less than a millisecond. Swing is one way in which I can express joy in partnership, one way I can be free, creative and connected at the very same time. If that isn’t an ideal deal then I don’t know what is!