Decked out in everything from zoot suits and saddle shoes to T-shirts and jeans, more than 250 swing dancers jumped and jived Thursday night in the Marvin Center’s Columbian Square.
The event was sponsored by the GW Jitterbug Swing Club and featured a beginner’s lesson from professional instructors Tom Koerner and Debra Sternberg. The event started at 10 p.m. with an hour-long lesson. Dancers then hopped to the sounds of King James and the Serfs of Swing, GW’s 12-member jazz band, until 1 a.m.
Swing, a dance style that grew out of Harlem in the late 1920s, has been popularized in recent years by the movies such as Swing Kids and A League of Their Own, as well as by contemporary bands such as Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and the Brian Setzer Orchestra.
Even a commercial for the Gap features a group of khaki-clad twenty-somethings cutting a rug to Louis Prima’s big band classic “Jump, Jive and Wail.”
Many first-time GW swingers said these pop culture images sparked their interest in swing and attracted them to the event.
“I was glad there were so many people who were also learning for the first time. That made me less nervous to try it,” senior Stephanie Hallet said. “The Gap ad makes it look a lot easier than it really is.”
In its first year, the GW Jitterbug Swing Club has worked hard to get out the message that swing is something anyone can do, said Ann Amarga, club chair and founder.
The club holds weekly meetings, co-sponsor dance lessons at the Smith Center with the Ballroom Dance Society and hopes to plan more events such as Thursday’s, she said.
Koerner and Sternberg started out slow with the group composed mainly of GW students, teaching them the basic triple step and working their way up to the Charleston, a more advanced move.
The duo instructed the men to rotate partners every few minutes, partially to accommodate the overflow of female dancers on the floor, but also to accentuate the social nature of swing.
“Swing dancing encompasses a different sort of social context,” Sternberg said. “It requires a kind of physical contact not based on sex or romance.”
Sternberg said part of the appeal of swing is the decorum and the structure. She said the dance’s revival is in part a backlash against the open and relatively unstructured style of dance in vogue since the 1960s.
Freshman Huey Pham has been dancing for the past two years in his hometown of Santa Barbara, Calif. Like many local swingers, he frequents several D.C.-area swing clubs.
“The best thing about swing is you can touch a woman almost anywhere and she’ll say `thank you’ afterwards,” he said. “The people are very cool.”
“I like that it’s a partner dance where you don’t have to provide
your own partner,” freshman Tiffany Barbarash said. She said she fell for the distinctive style of swing dance fashion, modeled after the looks of the 1930s and 40s.
“This,” she said, pointing to her hair, coiled atop her head in a sleek twist, “requires tons of hairspray, but it’s worth it.”
Swing was a national craze in the two decades preceding World War II, and the dancers’ attire emulates the styles of those times. Many enthusiasts comb vintage and thrift stores to find the most authentic garb.
“It’s a very physical dance and you need clothes that don’t constrict motion,” said Sternberg, whose web site www.gottaswing.com offers tips on swing-related topics from dance dates to finding the perfect pair of two-tone spectator shoes.
After the war, the popularity of swing began to decline in America, which was embracing new non-partner dances such as the twist.
Sternberg suggested a variety of theories why swing went under.
“The government began to tax dance floor space,” she said. “For a dance that requires the space of huge ballrooms, it was very uneconomical to continue. The dances ended up shrinking along with the dance floors.”
Sternberg also said government efforts to impact the swing scene might have been an attempt to segregate the frequently integrated social events.
“Swing was something everyone was doing – blacks and whites together,” she said.
Freshman Andrew Reiter said he found this one of swing’s enduring attractions.
“Even if you’re white, you can do it,” he said. “And you won’t look bad at all, even if your rhythm’s not great.”
After one and a half months of lessons through the swing club, freshman Star Plaxton was eager Thursday night to apply what she learned.
“I’ve always wanted to learn to swing,” she said. “But I never really got my chance until I came to school, because there weren’t a lot of places to take lessons at home.”
Plaxton even talked her roommate Marisa Laureni into signing up with her.
“She’s already been out on the floor,” said Laureni of Plaxton. “She’s a little braver than I am, but I’m sure I’ll get out there soon.
First-time swinger Ricky Ally, a GW freshman, said he was impressed by the event’s large turnout. After the first hour, he estimated he had danced with about 20 women.
“I actually just sort of wandered in from J Street,” he said. “I was curious to see what was going on in here. I’m glad I did, because I really learned a lot. Now if I ever want to go to a swing club, I’ll have some idea of what to do.”
“The (swing) club didn’t have to spend a dime on anything because we received so much help from other student groups,” said Jayna Morgan, swing club co-chair. “They were great about helping us out and we hope to plan more events with their groups in the future.”
Since Morgan, a GW freshman, came to school in August she has devoted most of her week to swinging at area clubs.
“When it comes to swing, D.C. is really where it’s at,” she said of the roughly 10 area clubs that devote at least one night a week to swing.
She invited some of her friends from the clubs to come show off their moves Thursday night. The swing club also advertised the event online.
Of the non-GW attendants, Suzanne and David Joseph stole the show. The couple, age 50 and 65 respectively, said swing is fabulous.
“It keeps you young and in shape,” David said.
Though not everyone was a pro by the end of the night, they seemed to have fun trying.
Seniors Stacey Nolish and Andrew Askuvich said they have
attended dance nights together since freshman year.
“We don’t mind making fools of ourselves,” Nolish said. “It’s fun and everyone’s just having a good time with it.”
Amarga said that was always the intent of the club, which has about 200 members on its e-mail list.
“We thought it would be great to bring the fun of a swing dance to campus,” she said. “Hopefully, this gave people a taste of what it’s all about and they’ll be more likely to try it in the future.”