On a recent Saturday night as I watched a crowd of mainly young adults dancing Swing to the strains of the Toronto Jazz Orchestra, I felt a surge of hope for the future. A regular Saturday night event, this dance is where the ‘nerds’ get to shine right along with the “cools” — it’s where the unpretentious rule.
Well into the evening, I commented to my Dance Partner, “Just look at the atmosphere. Everyone is smiling or laughing or twirling around, the voices are babbling. Where else do you see this much fun in one room?”
Not at ballroom dances. Not at tango dances. Not at salsa dances. Not at hip hop dances. Not at most bars or even at most parties. This is the ‘Saturday night reunion” of people who don’t necessarily wear the latest styles, and don’t seem to care what others think. A handful are in ‘vintage’ or ‘retro’ clothing – styles mainly from the 1940s and 50s popular in some circles.
The majority wear running shoes with their endless variety of skirts and jeans and shirts, with some men in suspenders and bow ties, women in anything from tights to crinolines and taffeta. And they’re all wearing smiles.
The dancing! Everyone gets to dance here. People with grey hair can be seen with young partners; fat people bouncing about with happy abandon – a small partner holding them; many who can barely dance, but no one cares.
I watched a young man with a scraggly beard and a too-tight belt on his plump waist holding up pants with a half-down zipper, chatting with a girl who probably spent all her daylight hours in a science lab. Their body language was so animated it was easy to see their enjoyment of each other.
And why should all of this move me at the pleasure of the memory? It must be the contrast to other dance “sub-cultures” I’ve experienced. You can walk into any dance and know which kind it is by the clothing, body language and sounds of the people. Each one is distinct – a mini-culture. They’re not all equally fun or easy for me to relate to.
At a ballroom dance there is order. Dancers circulate in a ‘proper’ way – counter clockwise around the room, careful not to get in each other’s way. No one does a swing dance to fox trot music. Women sit at tables or chairs around the edges, waiting to be invited to dance – some will wait the entire evening. They’ll be dressed conservatively – many men in jackets and ties. In a ‘swing’ dance, a woman would be likely to invite a man (or another woman) to dance, and if he were not enthusiastic, she might cajole him – or even pull him onto the dance floor. He’d probably laugh, and ‘go for it’.
A tango dance has a livelier, more sensuous feeling, with perhaps a sexier style of dress. The atmosphere is not as warm and friendly as swing, and many of the male dancers will only invite the best ‘followers’. This is a tough atmosphere for a feminist like myself – perhaps a reminder of the macho cultures in which the dance originated. I’ve heard many times that in Argentina, the men and women actually sit on opposite sides of the room, and that the women have to wait to be asked – often not dancing for the whole evening.
Salsa dances also have a predominantly macho culture, and a salsa dance often gets louder with each passing hour until it is impossible to talk with anyone. There is only one thing to do here – dance. And a salsa dance, which normally runs for seven minutes, is truly a good workout.
There are very few opportunities left to just “go dancing”. One must choose. To those who enjoy doing more than one type of dance, therefore the ‘swing’ sub-culture offers the best choice because swing dancers don’t care if you dance tango or cha cha next to them – as long as you’re having fun.
Dovercourt House in Toronto is “the” place to go for swing dancing, and sometimes there is a different kind of dance on each floor. There’s a bar and, as if the great atmosphere were not enough, their swing dances have “ambassadors” in red t-shirts to help you with your dancing skills, and make sure you get to dance. (Of course you probably attended the beginners’ dance class at 8 pm!)
What swing dancers add to my feeling of optimism too is that the ones I’ve met are smart and interesting, with a good chance of being part of running our world before long. That such clever, creative young people also accept differences and know how to have a good time bodes well for the future. Saturday nights don’t get much better than that.
* –Only my own personal opinions, perspective, experience, etc.