Performance » Dance

Just a SwingIN

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For Collyn Justus, it starts with her love of old black-and-white musicals from the 1940s.

She can spend hours watching the fast-paced swing dance numbers performed to live bands playing foot-stomping, vintage jazz tunes.

"I always wanted to learn swing dancing, and I started about seven years ago when I lived in California," says Justus, a first-grade teacher's assistant who now lives in Lexington, Kentucky. "I missed the whole resurgence of swing dance in the 1990s."

She's making up for lost time.

Collyn Justus dances during a Saturday evening social at last year's SwingIN in Indianapolis. Justus is participating in SwingIN 2014 as a dancer and a vendor, selling hair flowers and swing-inspired jewelry.  - JOHN JAY LI PHOTOGRAPHY
  • John Jay Li Photography
  • Collyn Justus dances during a Saturday evening social at last year's SwingIN in Indianapolis. Justus is participating in SwingIN 2014 as a dancer and a vendor, selling hair flowers and swing-inspired jewelry.

This Labor Day weekend, instead of packing a swimsuit for an end-of-summer trip to the beach or lake house, Justus is taking her dancing shoes, dresses and several flowers for her hair and driving about three hours north to Indianapolis for SwingIN 2014.

The annual swing dance extravaganza will host hundreds of dancers -- from both near and far -- for three days of classes, socials (or parties) and competitions, complete with live bands and deejays at five venues throughout the city.

SwingIN is hosted by Naptown Stomp, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit vintage swing dance organization that started the event in 2008.

Brittany Radke, a swing dance enthusiast, instructor and one of the organizers, says just like swing dance communities in general, SwingIN is open to all levels of dancers -- not just professionals.

"We have instructors and events for beginning, intermediate and advanced dancers," says Radke, who started swing dancing in 2010 while a student at Purdue University in West Lafayette. She says she fell in love with the dance style "during the first 10 minutes" into her first class.

Radke says one of the major appeals of swing dancing is the open atmosphere of its community of dancers.

"The community is really welcoming," says Radke, a member of Naptown Stomp. "The biggest draw for me was the community, because everyone was so friendly and the people come from all walks of life -- from lawyers to social workers."

Dillion Grandinette and Dee Daniels Locke perform during a Saturday evening event at SwingIN 2013.  - JOHN JAY LI PHOTOGRAPHY
  • John Jay Li Photography
  • Dillion Grandinette and Dee Daniels Locke perform during a Saturday evening event at SwingIN 2013.

Swing dancing, which derived its name from "swing jazz" or "swing music" during the 1920s to the 1950s, is really a group of dance styles created to those syncopated tunes made popular by musicians such as Louis Armstrong. The best known of the swing dance styles is the Lindy Hop, a partner dance that originated in the late 1920s in Harlem, and is a fusion of several dances (including jazz, tap and the Charleston).

Although swing's popularity started to wane around the end of World War II, it made a resurgence during the 1990s within hipster communities and with musicians such as the Brian Setzer (of the Stray Cats fame) Orchestra.

These days, swing dancing is primarily kept alive among smaller scenes and college campuses, "so when you can go to a weekend event, you find a way to get there," says Justus, who's traveling to Indianapolis with one of the deejays who will be spinning tunes at this year's SwingIN. "You're willing to travel basically because swing dancing is an addiction. I'm addicted to swing dancing."

It's not just dancers who travel throughout the country to participate in swing dance events.

Joe Smith and The Spicy Pickles, a six-piece band based in Denver, will serve as the house band for SwingIN during the Saturday and Sunday night dance parties called socials.

By year's end, bandleader Smith says they will have played at least 60 gigs.

Having live music at swing dancing events does more than just replicate the authentic feel of the original era.

"A lot of the festivals are alike, but there's a completely different vibe when there's live music," says Smith, who studied classical music in college but fell in love with "vintage" jazz music. "We really do feed off of the dancers. I always encourage the musicians to play to what the dancers are doing and to interact with them -- sort of like a call and response."

Musicians and deejays admit that playing for swing dancers isn't an easy task, but having a background as a swing dancer does help.

Before 28-year-old Smith started The Spicy Pickles in 2013, he was a swing dancer for five years.

DJ Mark Calkins will be one of several DJs at SwingIN 2014. Also a swing dancer, Calkins, who is from Ohio, says being a dancer helps him know which songs will go over well at these events.  - COURTESY OF DJ MARK CALKINS
  • Courtesy of DJ Mark Calkins
  • DJ Mark Calkins will be one of several DJs at SwingIN 2014. Also a swing dancer, Calkins, who is from Ohio, says being a dancer helps him know which songs will go over well at these events.

Deejay Mark Calkins, who's traveling to Indianapolis from Ohio, also started out as a swing dancer (when he was 18). Now, the 31-year-old spins vintage tunes from the late 1920s, '30s, '40s and sometimes the 1950s from his laptop at about four regional swing events a year.

During SwingIN 2014, Calkins will serve as one of several disc jockeys and also show his skills on the dance floor. Having his feet still firmly planted as a swing dancer helps Calkins know what dancers want to move to.

"Swing dancers have their own cup of tea of what they want to dance to, and as a DJ you have to know what they like," says Calkins. "I try to bring something that has significant value (to dancers), nothing tabu or cliche."

Unlike club deejays, Calkins can't mix and mash songs together to create one long, continuous dance groove. "Swing DJs usually play one song (anywhere from 3 to 4 minutes long) and let it play."

Justus will be one of the expected hundreds of SwingIN 2014 participants moving her feet to the tunes. She's already signed up for classes during the day, evening dances and even a competition on Friday night.

At 44 years old, Justus is fully aware that she will probably be one of the oldest participants, and she's fine with that. Most swing dancers fall into their early to late 20s, with some into their early 30s.

"Biologically, I can be the mother to most of the participants at these events," says Justus, with a chuckle. "But in true swing dance fashion, age doesn't matter."

"Swing music connects with people no matter the generation. The music has a melody, it's approachable and it's about celebrating life," says Smith. "There's something really special about playing this music. It speaks to me and speaks to my heart."

Justus, who usually attends these events alone, appreciates that although you're dancing with random partners, "there's no immediate sexuality to it. It's not like going to the club. It's fun and it's safe. I love the feel of the music, it makes me want to move. It's a conversation that you get to have on the dance floor with another person, and we're exploring it together."

Though this will only be Justus' second time attending SwingIN, she expects to feel right at home.

"SwingIN has great venues with great dance floors, great music with really good bands and deejays, and great people with a great variety of dancers," she says. "For newcomers, these swing dancing events are like a big party.

"But if you've been doing it awhile, like I have, it's like a big family reunion."

Joe Smith and The Spicy Pickles will serve as the house band on Saturday and Sunday during SwingIN 2014. The band hails from Denver, Colo., and plays several swing dance events throughout the year. - COURTESY OF JOE SMITH AND THE SPICY PICKLES
  • Courtesy of Joe Smith and The Spicy Pickles
  • Joe Smith and The Spicy Pickles will serve as the house band on Saturday and Sunday during SwingIN 2014. The band hails from Denver, Colo., and plays several swing dance events throughout the year.

The Scoop on SwingIN

What: An annual three-day vintage swing dance event featuring classes, socials (parties), competitions and live music. The event is open to beginning, intermediate and advanced swing dancers. Spectators are also welcome.

When: Aug. 29-Sept. 1.

Where: The event is held at five locations throughout Indianapolis (Knights of Columbus, The Harrison Center, Joy of All Who Sorrow Orthodox Church, Madame Walker Theatre, and Riolo Dance Studio).

Cost: A full weekend pass is $79 to $145 (depending on experience level). Ala carte pricing (beginning at $10) is available for dances, classes and competitions.

Info: www.swingin.org.

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