Swing Dancing: a Taste of the Past

Alyssa Arter, smiling, with her male dance partner behind her. He is looking over her shoulder at her face, and she is reaching with her left hand to take his left hand.

If you have the swing down in your soul, but are struggling to get it from there to your feet, you have the opportunity of a lifetime at the 2019 Susquehanna Folk Festival. On Saturday at 12:30, Alyssa Arter, a swing dance instructor and co-owner of Victrola Dance Hall, in York, PA, will be offering workshops in Swing Dance and Cajun Dance, as well as performing with the Ladybirds during the Late Night Festival Club on Saturday.

If you are looking for a place to get started in the world of swing dance, Alyssa recommends the Lindy Hop. After retreating in popularity as music changed in the late 1960s and 1970s, swing dancing reemerged into popularity in the 1990s with the revival of interest in Big Band music, neoswing, and ska. Hollywood and Broadway helped, with movies like Swing Kids (1993) and the live show Swing! (1999) introducing the form to a new and unfamiliar audience. Today, when we talk about swing dance, Alyssa says that this is usually referring to the Lindy, though there are other forms of swing dancing.

Dancers of all abilities are welcome in swing dancing, which keeps with its origins as a form of popular expression rather than high art. Alyssa teaches classes ranging from beginner to advanced, but says that she most enjoys the mixture of different levels that she sees in workshops, like the ones hosted at the Susquehanna Folk Festival. Dancing, she emphasized, is always a community-building activity, and swing dancing is no exception. With its focus on partnered dancers working together to create a physical embodiment of the music, swing dancing is a natural way to bring together people of different ages, skills, and backgrounds. These student dancers learn the traditions of swing dancing, and through this shared expression and learning, create a community of their own.

Swing, today, is primarily a repertory dance — Alyssa defined this as a dance that is trying to emphasize the reproduction of moves and steps from the past, rather than push the boundaries further. Yet, she was quick to point out that this does not make swing a boring, dead thing. Though much has been preserved in swing dancing, there are modifications and changes that have been made to it over time, particularly with regard to etiquette on the dance floor. Alyssa was very careful to note that many of the high-flying, exciting, but potentially dangerous moves (often called “aerials”) are reserved for much more seasoned dancers, and usually restricted to special spaces and occasions, such as demonstrations or competitions. This keeps everyone on the dance floor safe.

She also emphasized that swing dancers, in particular lindy hoppers, are fusing their traditions in dance with new musical styles that would have been unimaginable to the dance’s creators. This is also seen in the clothing and costuming of the dancers, which can range from contemporary clothing, formal or informal, to period dress from decades ranging from the 1920s to the 1950s.

Preserving and sharing the culture of swing dancing is important for many reasons, not the least of which its clear analogs with the American experience. Swing dance originated from a cultural blending of African American and European traditions, and has adapted and changed as time has progressed. Now it stands as way to physically experience the past, and to explore the present and the future, together.

So take this opportunity to learn and experience this hot and exciting dance – join us for with Hot Club of Cowtown at 1:00pm on Saturday in the Dance Hall, and Sunday at 1pm with BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet!