It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing

Dance Craze Revives Vintage Style and Jiving Jazz.

By Klein Aleardi

Swing 1

Men and women dress in vintage clothes to show off swing dance moves. Photo by Laura Zablit.

Sailor suits and bow ties are back in style as men and women pack into 1940s vintage rooms with big bands, swanky dance moves and a quick glimpse back in time. Swing dancing is a global craze, and Prague is not being left behind.

“It’s a fashion now, there is a retro wave,” says Janek Kabelka, teacher at Swing Busters, a dance school in Prague. “A long time ago there was just one spot where you could dance swing and now it’s so crowded, now the scene is so wide.”

From clubs to weekend-long events, swing dancers have several places to jive and spin on the dance floor. They execute their moves without pause and it’s hard to believe each step is improvised.

Swing dancing began in the United States in the 1920s when big bands brought jazz to the music scene. The dance came in a variety of styles, each modification belonging to a city or region. The fast-paced dance features quick, short spins, hops and intricate footwork as partners shimmy and jive across the dance floor, mirroring each other’s steps hand in hand.

Fast forward to Prague today and swing fans will observe that one popular style is Lindy Hop, a partner dance that originated in New York’s Harlem.

Each partner in the Lindy Hop style a job, and a name: leader and follower. The leader silently communicates the next step to the follower, who does just that. It’s important as a follower to stay relaxed and let the partner lead.

“When you see couples dance really nicely, that’s because the leads know how to transmit what they want and the follower is receptive and well connected,” says Clara Allende, a swing dancer from Buenos Aires, as she takes a break from the Lindy Hop Exchange weekend event held at the Royal Theater Cinema Cafe in Prague in early September. “She just feels an intention and does it,” she added.

Quickly, Allende corrects herself, saying “she or he,” because in the swing community, gender doesn’t matter. Followers are not exclusively women, and men do not always take the role as leader.

This particular exchange is set in a theater restored to its 1920s design. With large arm chairs that swallow you as you sit, the seating area provides a perfect view of the dance floor situated in front of the stage. Allende and her partner are just one of the dozens of couples jumping and swinging to the music of the live band playing the songs of Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington on the stage.

It is not uncommon for these experienced dancers to attempt to teach a newcomer at any swing event. The impromptu teachers start with the basic step. Hands clasped with your partner, you step front, lean back then step back with that same foot. That’s the foundation of swing dancing. From there, dancers add kicks, spins and shimmying to create a scene of intricate movements, taking each addition one step at a time, slowly paced, so even a beginner can keep up.

Pump Up the Jam

The top spot for swinging in Prague, and a great place to see these experienced moves, is Jam Cafe, located in Old Town. It’s packed with men and women jumping and jiving. Beyond the old school dance floor, the club features a modern bar and a variety of enlarged photos on the wall such as an extreme close up of a man and woman kissing.

Photo by Laura Zablit

Swingers dance to an array of music from Louis Armstrong to Leona Lewis. Photo by Laura Zablit.

The music, played from a Mac computer, is a mix of recordings of big band tunes from the 1920s, including “Down by the Riverside” sang by Louis Armstrong, as well as covers modern pop songs given a vintage sound, like The Baseballs’ version of Leona Lewis’ 2007 hit “Bleeding Love”.

A frequent cover artist blasted over the sound system is Michael Buble. As you sit at one of the small tables crammed into the tiny room or try to coordinate steps with your partner on the dance floor, you’ll have to listen carefully to figure out if the voice belongs to the current big band singer or one of the greats from back in the day.

Night clubs of Prague did not always jump at the chance to hold a swing event, but the trend eventually caught on. “When I started, it was just classes in gyms and not many clubs would host because people would show up and dance. They wouldn’t eat or drink, so clubs weren’t interested,” says Petr Matlas, a frequent patron of the club.

Today, the swing community of Prague is well connected, large and still growing. Two prominent swing dance studios, Swing Busters and Groovy Cats Swing Dance Club, use Facebook to keep dancers informed. The pages, each with close to 1,000 likes, stay updated with swing parties and information on classes for swing dancers.

Odds are, while attending one of these swing events, you will get to watch the only choreographed, solo dance in swing, called the shim sham. The shim sham is to swing what line dancing is to country music, a coordinated routine that everyone knows. Jimmy Lunceford’s 1939 record, “‘Tain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That Cha Do It),” is usually chosen for this dance, but other songs can be used if they fit the 8-beat of the choreography. But especially when “‘Tain’t What You Do” comes on, the entire crowd jumps up with enthusiasm.

“It’s a thing that everyone knows and gets excited about,” said American university student Mckenzie Krochmalny, who began to swing dance in New York and plans to continue dancing while studying abroad in Prague. “It’s because swing is more about social dancing so it’s not played often, but it’s fun,” she explained.

“I concentrate myself just on the music and my partner and try to have fun.”

Jack and Jill

The social side of swing really shows during what are known as “Jack and Jill” competitions. These are just like any dance contest, but with a twist: everyone gets a random partner. Couples are paired seconds before the first dance, so there’s no time for rehearsal.

“While it is a competition, it is not that serious,” says Krochmalny. “It is basically a reflection of the swing dance community, which as a whole is welcoming and friendly, and of the dance itself, which is supposed to be fun.”

The welcoming spirit means newcomers with absolutely no experience can easily jump into the trend. Just listen to your partner and with time, and some practice, the improvised steps won’t seem so challenging.

“When you start, you concentrate on the steps and, especially when you lead, you think about the music, your partner, about what will be next,” said Kabelka, the teacher at Swing Busters. “But at a certain level, you don’t think about these things anymore. I concentrate myself just on the music and my partner and try to have fun.”

If you don’t want your first attempt at swinging to be in front of a talented crowd, introductory swing courses are sometimes held at the club before the night starts. Another option is to take a class at a dance studio.

Once you make it to a club or party, however, you better dress the part. Although parties are more authentic to the ‘20s period, there is a slight time travel feel among the dancers. Polka dots and news caps are scattered around the room among the jeans and converse sneakers worn by attendees.

“More and more people come to the dance floor dressed dapper.” says Anastasia Feoktistova of Groovy Cats Swing Dance Club. “You can find vintage clothing and restored fashions of the previous years in Prague and there are even special communities on Facebook to order clothes.” One option for style ideas is Queens of Vintage, a lifestyle blog about ‘all things vintage’.

As the night at Jam Cafe nears an end, couples slowly disappear from the dance floor until there are only about three, expert-level dancers left, one is the DJ. Dressed in suspenders, khakis or a flowing spotted dress, they switch partners with each song and continue their improvised moves, traveling forward and back, their quick footwork carrying them all over the dance floor, until the club is closed.

Swing Busters
Rokycanova 33
Prague 3
kurzy@swingbusters.cz
Classes for different levels offered

Groovy Cats Swing Dance Club
Vitkova 21
Prague 8
420 774 323 576
Classes for different levels offered

Cream Swing
Opatovicka 18
Prague 1
420 732 723 771
Classes for different levels offered

Jam Cafe
Narodni 25
Prague 1
420 602 375 173
Swing nights held every Monday and Wednesday

Dance Studio 7
Vlkova 7
Prague 3
420 773 615 842
Classes for different levels offered and social parties held

Dance Union Club
Vinohradska 25
Prague 2
420 608 622 200
Swing nights held every Sunday

Klein Aleardi is in the NYU College of Arts and Science Class of 2016. Her hometown is Moorestown, New Jersey.

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Categories: Culture, Fall 2014 Issue Number 1

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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