Newcomers bring "lost art" of swing dancing to New College
It was during Orientation Week when first-years Janie Friedman and Marjorie “Margie” Sweeney decided to introduce their roommates to their favorite activity, swing dancing. They hadn’t gotten to know many people yet; the plan was to teach their roommates the basics of swing, head to St. Petersburg to a small event being held in a club, and to dance the night away. Within minutes of training, however, the plan went awry.
“We were teaching [our roommates] outside of Palm Court… then people kept walking up and asking what we were doing,” Friedman recounted. “Eventually, it got to the point where if we left, we actually would have missed the dance because so many people were coming up and asking questions.”
For Friedman and Sweeney, however, this was far from a night-killer. The group’s size had more than doubled, so they relocated into Hamilton “Ham” Center where newcomers mastered the basics and danced to a playlist that included the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Sidney Bechet. It was after this unexpected gathering that the idea of a New College Swing Troupe came to fruition.
The pair had thought about starting a swing dancing club previously. “It’s hard to swing dance if there’s no place to do it, so we figured if we started something here then we could get a lot of swing dancing in,” according to Sweeney.
They did not think they could rouse the interest, but it was that day during Orientation Week that Friedman decided it was worth a try. “[That day] was when we realized people actually wanted to try this, and we weren’t just freaks for considering it such a fun activity,” she explained.
Friedman came across swing dancing a year-and-a-half ago, “looking for something fun to do” that was totally separate from her high school academic life. She fell in love with the rich history, the vintage music, and the grace of old-fashioned social dancing.
A few months later, she asked Sweeney to join her, who remembers “I had a lot of fun, and I just decided to stick with it.” Sweeney has found swing dancing enjoyable for different reasons, enthusiastically proclaiming “it’s always a lot of fun to get dressed up,” and noting “the biggest thing that drew me to swing dancing was that it’s kind of a lost art.”
Both Friedman and Sweeney value the history of swing dancing and attribute it to what they find so enjoyable about it. For Sweeney specifically, however, she finds reviving a “lost art” especially refreshing.
“A lot of times nowadays, people our age will go to events where we’re supposed to be dancing, but it’s not real social dancing. I think it’s kind of gross,” Sweeney explained. “It’s just nice to have a rebirth of this aspect of holding hands, social dancing with people and meeting new people.”
Though not an official club, Friedman and Sweeney have quickly established swing dancing as a weekly activity on campus. Over the past few weeks, the pair has been working tirelessly to promote their events, putting up countless flyers and decorating the sidewalks of Pei Campus with chalk art. Having met the past few Tuesday evenings in the Black Box Theatre, the attendance has “varied greatly,” according to Friedman, but she adds that “whether two people show up or 25 other people show up, you can still have fun.”
Both Friedman and Sweeney acknowledge that it will take some time to really get swing dancing off the ground, and both hope that the activity becomes a core part of the New College culture in the coming years.
“The thing is, we can have new people forever. Even in three years, if there are people that start now and will have been dancing for three years, we can still have beginners because we can offer multiple levels of lessons,” Friedman said. Both are excited by the prospects that would come with the growth of swing dancing at New College.
When asked if they intended to make swing dancing an official club, Friedman quickly responded, “We definitely have that intention, especially in terms of the funding aspect because we know a lot of teachers […] that would be willing to come for very minimal reimbursement.”
Sweeney, meanwhile, would love to put funding towards entertainment.
“I think it’d be really cool to get some live bands to come to our events.”
No matter how big or small swing dancing is at New College, they do not have any intention of making the club competitive. “It’s strictly fun,” Friedman said.
For now, Friedman and Sweeney are instructing at a very basic level.
“Even though we are teaching the basic stuff, that’s still really exciting because that’s what everything builds off,” Friedman noted.
The group is operating very informally right now, so she wants to ensure that anyone feels comfortable walking in no matter how little experience they have.
“I think for our course of action, we’re intending to start every lesson with the very basic, and depending on how many people are there and who’s getting it, we’ll go as fast as people can go,” she said.
Also on Friedman’s mind is developing relationships and establishing levels of trust with those she is instructing.
“We’re hoping to establish trust to the point where if someone doesn’t get something, they realize we actually want to teach them,” she explained. “We’re here because we actually really like it, not just to put time into something… I know when I started I had so many questions, because it was just so foreign.”
Indeed, vintage social dancing is not the go-to activity for a generation that puts the likes of Nikki Minaj and Lil Wayne on a pedestal. Still, newcomers to swing dancing are finding great pleasure in the movements, music and dress that are so different from today’s style of dance for young people. First-year Lara Grauerholz-Fisher finds herself committed to becoming “a great swing dancer,” and characterized the music played as “fantastic and different.” Meanwhile, when asked to characterize Friedman and Sweeney’s instruction, she simply responded “awesome.”
Sweeney believes that while she and Friedman are open to new dancers anytime, anywhere, this is a great time to start.
“Right now it’s just kind of nice for people who are just starting out, just because everyone is learning together so everyone’s a beginner now.” Friedman added, “There’s not really any intimidation. If you only go to two lessons, you can pretty much dance with anyone.”
Reception both to their instruction and to swing dancing as a whole has been immensely positive from those that have tried it, but Friedman and Sweeney are already interested in doing more – among other things, they’d love to start holding advanced lessons.
“We just have to feel it out, and wait and see if people want more information. See who is coming back, who is getting it and all that,” Sweeney explained.
So far, Sweeney is cautiously optimistic about the progress she and Friedman are making. “I hope it’s going well! [Students] are laughing at our cheesy jokes, so that’s always a good thing,” she said. Nodding her head, Friedman added “we make a lot of cheesy jokes. We pride ourselves on those.”
For people who are interested in dressing up, swinging to Ella Fitzgerald’s greatest hits and cracking up at a few “cheesy jokes,” Friedman and Sweeney are holding swing events – lessons and dancing included – starting at 8.00 p.m. in the Black Box theatre every Tuesday night. Additionally, for any song requests or suggestions, email Janie Friedman at firstname.lastname@example.org or Margie Sweeney at email@example.com.