Early on this summer at a restaurant in Chinatown, a fellow dancer asked me, “Why is it that you like to swing dance?” I was surprised to find that I had no answer. That question haunted me for weeks and ever since that night in Philly I have been trying to understand just exactly what it is I love about this old fashioned era of movement or “that old timey dancy thing” as my brother refers to it.
It is hard to pinpoint how or when I became interested in the music and the moves. Swing dancing has been a part of my life since I was a child. Some of my oldest memories are my sister and I skipping about on warm summer evenings, splashing around in fountains at Penns Landing in Philadelphia while a fantastic big band played songs by Glenn Miller and Frank Sinatra. We gallivanted around the floor trying not to be stepped on, while our mother was out there dancing with her friends.
There were a few years in a row where my Mom threw these fantastic New Years Eve parties. She moved our big comfy couches and heavy wooden furniture into the garage then rented a dance floor for the living and dining room. Every inch of our little house would be packed with men in suspenders and women with flowing skirts. My sister and I would wonder through the sea of legs, the only kids around, sporting our footsie pajamas while music from the 30’s and 40’s made the whole house feel alive. We were in bed by 9 pm, but my Mother and her friends rung in the millennium by stepping back in time more than half a century.
Many years went by and I never danced a single step. When I arrived at uni I discovered there was a swing dance club. I went occasionally and learned the basic steps. And then I moved to Paris. I knew that the City of Love had a big dance scene so in my mind it was decided that I would dance every chance I had so that when I came home I would be much improved. I never could have imagined the love affair I would have with dancing in grande Paris, nor could I have understood the ways in which the standards for a night of swing would be set.
It took me a while to really get comfortable with going out on my own in the city, and even once I did I was still very intimidated by the short process of finding the venue and paying my entrance fee. It would start with me fussing over which one of three danceable outfits from my limited options, then failing to be satisfied with my hair. I would ride the elevator from my flat down seven flights and walk to the metro on the corner- nervous and excited with a short skip in my step. I would journey off to some new far corner of Paris all by myself. I sometimes could spend up to an hour underground riding trains, making transfers, and fretting over the French interaction I knew would be at the entrance of the destination. Reminding myself it would all be worth it. I would emerge in a new neighborhood to then navigate the winding streets with a physical map, hoping wherever I wound up was correct. If I was lucky I would spot men in hats, and women in pin curls, beautiful Parisians headed to some belle venue. I’d enter with a knot in my stomach, ask for one ticket in French, bravely approach the coat check, and be sweating with nerves before I’d even found the dance floor.
Then I would hear the music.
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The nerves would melt away, the fears would be forgotten, and the music would take over. My feet began to tap in time. The excitement, the romance, the jazz. It’s irrésistible. Sidney Bechet’s blues, Ella Fitzgeralds spark, Frank Sinatras charasma, No other music has so much personality. So much power. So much emotion.
I would scan the room for a handsome dancer, then approach him with a smile and an extended hand- the universal sign for, “Would you like to dance?” No French needed, no English even, Swing dancing was our common language. He would accept, return a smile, and glide me onto the dance floor. Connected to each other we would begin to let the music take over. Sway. Sway. Step. Step. Rock-step. Turns, spins, twists, smiles. I would hum along to Louis Armstrong’s lyrics, “Leave your worries on the doorstep, just direct your feet, to the sunny side of the street.” while I danced the night away.
And when I found someone whom I shared a great connection with I would dance with them as often as possible. Anyone who tells you Parisians are rude, has never danced with one. (Although the friendliest dancers I ever met were in Poland). I made quite a few friends while dancing in Paris. In fact, the only Parisian friends I made in Paris were those I first made a great connection with on the dance floor, talking came after the second or even third dance.
Seeing the same group of faces each weekend is what really made me feel at home in Paris. I wasn’t just another American study abroad kid on a whirlwind drinking tour of Europe’s biggest cities. No, I was part of a close knit Parisian community. I was the odd man out, but I was accepted. I think because of it my French actually improved, I got a lot of practice talking and I took a few lessons taught entirely in French, I quickly picked up the phrase, “there is not a lot of space on the dance floor.” (The dance floors in Paris are notoriously crowded no matter how large).
Being so immersed in French culture while they were immersed in mine was a fascinating swing-inception. Some dances were bad. Often times it was on my end, others it was the leads, and sometimes we just weren’t a good match for each other. Dancing works like every other relationship in life. That’s what I love about it. With some people you are counting down the seconds until the end of the song, with others it can be simple, fun, and casual. When you have a bad dance it can be as awkward as a bad date, and if you are lucky sometimes you get a dance that is like falling in love.
A few weeks ago I met up with a friend to dance. I am quite a bit taller than him and yet we have a great connection. It had been a while since we danced and I was nervous. I wondered, “What if it wasn’t as good as I remembered?” It was. During one dance we were side by side connected just barely by his arm on my back. When the music changed so did we. He didn’t lead me, I didn’t follow. Somehow we both just knew what to do next. Someone once told me, when you find a connection that good, it’s worth chasing for as long as you can. There is hardly a more true statement in the world of social dancing.
In Paris the dancing locations were always special. I danced just meters away from Notre Dame, in a circus tent inspired venue, and the beautiful Chalet du lac. Now that the weather is warm (and I am unfortunately State-side) my friends dance beside the river Seine, in the brand new commercial hub that is Les Halles, and many breezy afternoons outdoors. The community of people was extensive and there were the familiar regulars dancing three to four nights a week.
At home the venues aren’t quite as beautiful and the opportunities aren’t quite as frequent. The dance floors definitely are not as crowded and when leads reference how “little” space there is I laugh and assure them I’ve had much less. It took me a little while to adjust to the subtle differences in American and European styles when I first arrived back in the U.S. When I bump into a French dancer over here it always feels like finding a little piece of home and I step right into place (literally and figuratively). Overall though, it brings happiness to the heart. The music is just as good and the people are just as welcoming.
So what is it exactly that I love about dancing? The music ? The fashion? The venues? The people? The connection? Really, any and all of the above are good answers. The beautiful thing about dancing is you can fall in love over and over again night after night with each new song, partner, and dance. It never gets old.