I’ve always been a huge jazz fan. I was first hooked at the tender age of five when I saw Woody Allen’s Radio Days. Set during the ’30s and ’40s, I loved all the big band jazz the characters were constantly dancing to. Aside from Wallace Shawn shouting from a rooftop “Beware evildoers, wherever you are!” the film’s other standout moment for me was Barbara Hershey grooving in a kitchen to Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” while talking about all the eligible bachelors in her life. I probably danced along, unaware at the time of how embarrassed I should be.
Now, as a tall, lanky, and slightly shy 23-year-old, dancing to swing, especially in public, might seem like the last thing I would ever do. Recently, however, I decided to take the plunge and learned how to do the Charleston and the Lindy Hop at Swing Dance Toronto.
Every Saturday night at Dovercourt House at 805 Dovercourt Rd., Swing Dance Toronto hosts an event called “Saturday Night Swing,” where you can dance the night away to tunes performed by a live jazz band. Thankfully for novices like me, they host a couple of beginner classes before the main swing dance event. The first hour is dedicated to learning the Charleston, and the second hour is devoted to the Lindy Hop. Both dances feature a few basic steps that act as the foundation for a variety of moves that range in both style and complexity.
I arrive at Dovercourt House at 7:10 pm for the Charleston class. I breathe in deeply, hoping that I won’t step on too many feet during the lesson. Joanna, one of the instructors, asks “How many of you have done the Charleston before?” In a circle of about 30 people, only a couple of hands go up.
The group is then divided into “leaders” and “followers”. Conventionally, men lead and women follow, but we’re encouraged to switch up this dynamic if we want to. In our own separate groups, we learn the basic steps of the Charleston, which is done to a 5-6-7-8 count. The leader (which I chose to be) starts off every routine on their left foot. Followers begin every step on their right foot. One of the first moves is a “rock step,” where you go back on your left, tap with your right, and then go ahead with the rest of the dance.
For the Charleston, it’s a rock step, kick out with your left foot, kick out with your right foot, a little double kick as you move back, and then repeat. This is all done lightly, with a bounce in your step. Being the gangly, long-limbed person that I am, I find myself kicking out a little too far, sometimes messing up the rock step when we have to repeat it. Eventually I’m able to get into a comfortable rhythm.
We then start partnering up. This is where things begin to get a little tricky for me. Doing the basics with a partner is fine, but then a move called a jig step is introduced, and I begin having trouble. A jig step involves doing a little kick between your partner’s legs. I’m able to do the basic steps, but when it comes for the necessary kick, I find my legs going all over the place.
The Lindy Hop class at 8:10 pm goes much better for me. Instead of doing the traditional 5-6-7-8 count, for the Lindy Hop we do a 6 count, which makes it much faster. The basic steps for this Lindy Hop are a rock step, followed by moving forward twice and then moving back twice. When we partner up, the instructors decide to add a little flourish. After doing the basic steps, we then do a “rock forward” which is basically the rock step, except instead of going back on our left foot, we step forward and indicate to our partner to move in front of us.
“I’m sorry if I step on your feet a lot!” says my partner when we attempt it for the first time.
“Don’t worry about it,” I say. “I was born with two left feet.”
She laughs. “I’m going to totally fail!”
“Well, Faulkner once said that all art is about failure. It’s just about how well you fail.”
My moment of profundity is so distracting that we miss most of our steps when I bring her forward. We both laugh. Swing dancing and Faulkner don’t really mix.
The instructors then have us twirl our partners after we bring them forward. I get it right the first time.
“It feels so natural!” my partner says after a couple of successful twirls.
I’m able to loosen up with the Lindy as I successfully twirl several different partners forward and backwards.
By 9:00 pm, the lights are dimmed and the band starts playing. They’re called Up Jumped Swing! and they’re pretty amazing. Everyone at the dance is very friendly and supportive. Some of the regulars teach me some other basic steps and let me work on the moves I learned during the classes. I’m able to hop along with my fellow beginners, messing up the moves, but still enjoying myself. Eventually, I lose my self-consciousness and just go with flow. It feels great.
Near the end of the night, my partner from the Lindy Hop class says after a successful dance, “You’ve caught the swing dance bug! You’re not going to be able to stop now!”
Swing Dance Toronto has convinced me that I’m not hopeless when it comes to swing dancing. I’ll definitely be back. Hopefully, after a few more lessons I’ll be able to confidently declare: “You just can’t top the Lindy Hop!”