Its 7 pm and we’re arranging the chairs at the back of the big hall, upstairs at the King’s Community Centre in Wolverton, Milton Keynes. There’s a table with lessons sign-up information and flyers about other opportunities to dance plus the refreshments table with plenty of water and the all-important Jelly Babies.
Today is the first free taster session of the year run by Swing Dance MK – a dance community celebrating Lindy Hop, Charleston, Balboa and freestyle vintage jazz. Taster sessions are an important part of attracting new dancers and keeping the local swing dance scene healthy so there’s a great sense of anticipation (especially from the Showtime performers as they’re grabbing a last-minute rehearsal – they haven’t danced this routine since November last year). We don’t know how many people will be coming but there were over 70 people at the last taster session and a lot of emotion. So we’re ready for anything.
It’s going to be a good night
I started swing dancing in June 2017 when I joined a beginner’s Lindy Hop course taught by Sandy Bennett, the founder of Swing Dance MK, and I’ve been hooked ever since (the music, the moves, the style…) All the helpers here tonight are other addicts of ‘swing’ like me, busily getting the room ready (and yes, music is already playing and we can’t resist a boogie as well). My job will be to welcome people, get potential new members registered and be my chatty and friendly self.
Going to a new dance class can be an intimidating event whether you’ve danced before or not: Will I be good enough? What should I wear? Will my shoes be suitable? What if no one wants to dance with me? For many people, starting something new like dancing is exciting and refreshing so any concerns they have are minor and don’t hold them back. For others, just the idea of being in a room full of people is scary. Social dancing is an important outlet for people to make friends and be, well, social. This could be a huge step for someone who is otherwise disconnected from the community they live in. It’s very important that organisations like Swing Dance MK are open, friendly and inclusive.
So, as I said, we’re ready for anything
Seven-thirty and the dancers start arriving. The first people I speak to are a retired couple who are jive dancers: they love the 40’s scene and have a campervan which they tour the country in attending dance festivals. They want to learn some Lindy moves to be able to incorporate into their jive routine. Next, three friends in their 30’s without any dance experience and then a woman – a mum with young kids who has some ballroom and latin experience – who has come on her own. There are a mum and daughter, groups of friends, couples and individuals. Attending a partnered-dance session doesn’t mean you have to bring a partner.
Sandy is on the stage now with her radio mic (very Zumba) introducing herself and a little about Swing Dance and its history and how tonight will work.
First up is the Lindy Hop and the dancers are learning a move called the Flip Flop. Lindy Hop is a partner dance which means the dancers are in couples with a Lead and a Follow. Typically, this is a man and a woman but anyone can be the Lead and anyone can be the Follow (the Lead’s role is to decide the moves and then communicate that to their Follow). We have a good balance of Leads and Follows in tonight, which is great. The couples make three columns that stretch the length of the room from the stage at the front, where Sandy is demonstrating with Sarah as her Follow, all the way to the mirrors at the back where I am stood.
Speaking to people who haven’t tried a partner dance before, their biggest worry is about having to dance with another person – a complete stranger at that! Their concerns are laid to rest as every minute or so the Follows “rotate” on to the next Lead. This, in a room of 30+ couples, becomes a dance of logistics in itself (hence a bit of stewarding from me at the back). So each time you rotate you’re changing who you are dancing with. You might only dance four steps together before rotating or maybe it’s a full minute of the mini routine to music.
Basic pulse, then a couple of jockeys followed by two flip-flops.
My favourite part of a class like this is when the teacher adds another move on to the end of the routine – a new move – that she demonstrates first and there’s an audible half groan/half gasp from the throng. Disbelief that they can achieve this impressive move which involves a change of direction plus a swapping of hands. Minutes later everyone is now dancing this impossible move.
Lindy Hop complete and it’s time for a short break – with entertainment! The Showtime team perform a dance choreographed and taught by Swing Dance MK’s other teaching duo, the amazing Andy and Linz Flemming. It’s a fun routine to Casey McGill’s ‘Whadaya Want’. It’s got dancing with your partner, without your partner, solos, aerials, humour and above all high energy! They pull it out of the bag and receive much applause and whooping. Although I think some of that might be for Andy’s trousers…
People chat, spot a neighbour among their fellow dancers, grab a drink of water. Some of the more experienced dancers sneak in a quick boogie.
Next up, the Charleston!
I help arrange people back in the columns and find Leads for Follows. We’ve got a few extra ladies for this class so now I’m a Lead (complete noob). But it’s great. Taster sessions often move quite quickly. You need to sample enough of a dance style to know if you want to know more! Actual beginner classes have a more sedate pace.
At the back, it’s a little hard to see Sandy and Sarah’s feet but the small amount of Charleston I already know comes in handy. Rock step, kick, kick, kick, repeat. Big kick, pivot and everyone’s favourite move – the mess around (check out that YouTube clip purely for the overkill slow motion section). Like Lindy Hop, the Charleston isn’t a close hold dance. You associate lots of body contact with the Latin dances or the blues tango. The ‘connection’ between the two dancers in swing dance is only really hands and arms. It’s a fun dance full of character and humour. I think I should probably do the next Charleston Beginner’s Course when it comes around again…
And we’re done
Lots of applause. Comments about sweat and what an energetic thing dancing is. More water and the last of the Jelly Babies.
It’s good to see so many people happy. You can feel their excitement at being at the beginning of a new journey. Dancing with people you’ve only just met means talking to them comes more easily and then they’re longer strangers. That’s the magic of dance. You have that buzz from the adrenaline and the endorphins. Plus you put that new-found confidence to good use by making connections with other people. Whilst it is nice to attend a new dance class with a friend, I bet you make new friends more quickly when you start one on your own.
The next Lindy Hop beginner’s class has sold out and people have signed up for Balboa and the daytime vintage Jazz sessions. There’s hugs goodbye and the venue starts to empty. There aren’t too many things to tidy up other than the music equipment. We didn’t put out that many chairs really plus we have eaten all the jelly babies. The anticipation wasn’t misplaced and it’s been a great night for both the organiser and dancer.
So, if you’re thinking about trying a partner dance – go for it! Don’t let any worries hold you back.