Every swing dancer and lindy hopper I know has their version of The Story — the unique tale of how they got started (and eventually addicted) to swing. Etched permanetly in memory, we are only too eager to recount it as soon as anyone asks, “So, what got you started swing dancing?”
For me, it was plain and simple. Girls. I’m not even going to bother sugar-coating it. I’m convinced that 75-100% of the swing dancers out there originally started dancing to meet members of opposite sex, so I have nothing to be embarrassed about. Creativity? Exercise? To learn a new hobby? Give me a break! Dance is one-part mating ritual after all.
In my case it was actually two girls in particular who introduced me to the dance. Nina and Cate were two lovely ladies on my high school rowing team. One day after a Saturday morning practice , I happened to catch a ride home with them, and we got into a conversation something like this:
Them: Hey Nathan, wanna come swing dancing with us tonight?!
Me: Swing dancing? (eyebrows perplexedly scrunched) what’s that?
Them: Swing dancing. You know, like from the 40s and 50s…it’s oldies kind of dancing.
Me: (incredulously) Umm…uhh…I don’t know. I’ve got homework.
Them: Homework?!? It’s Saturday! (their turn to be incredulous)
Me: Yeah, I should probably stay home and study. But maybe next time. (I was extremely nerdy back in high school).
I never actually went dancing that evening, but the girls had piqued my curiosity and planted the seed. It was not until months later that the seed began to sprout.
I was aboard a ferry boat from Vancouver to Seattle along with the whole rest of my crew team. We were returning from an away competition in Brentwood Canada, most of us tired from an intense weekend of racing. We had a few hours to wait, not much to do, and I happened to once again be hanging out with Nina and Cate.
There was a tiny, run-down wooden dance floor on the ferry’s second level. I’m not sure who suggested it, but one of the girls got the idea that they were going to teach me how to swing dance. With a bit of skepticism and secretly a whole lot of interest, I allowed them to “drag” me onto the floor, where they proceeded to demonstrate the now infamous basic step:
“Step, step, rock-step…step, step, rock-step…”
It didn’t make much sense to me; it was my first dance lesson. One of my teammates Alex, who had done a bit of this so-called swing dancing himself, tried to show me the leader’s part. It still didn’t make sense.
Duh. We didn’t have any music!
I had my personal CD player with me, but only two artists to choose from…Led Zeppelin and Queen. The triumverate of Nina, Cate & Alex listened to song after song, almost to no avail, until they finally found one song that worked:
Crazy Little Thing Called Love
Alas, I only had headphones for one person, so there was no way for all four of us to hear the music at the same time! At this point, however, this little lesson had turned into a quest of sorts, and so, taking a bit of initiative, I made my way with CD player and music up to the captain’s deck and started talking to one of the ship’s pilots. I explained what we were trying to do: “we’re learning how to swing dance, and umm…we need music. Is there anyway we can play this CD downstairs near the dance floor?” The captain turned it over in his mind for a second, and then said, actually, yes they should be able to plug the CD player into their system. Woo-hoo! So we asked them to put our song in repeat mode, and we rushed downstairs to the dance floor.
That was my first lesson in swing dancing. Learning the basic step with two girls, Nina and Cate, plus a guy, Alex, aboard a ferryboat, to the infinitely repeating, but wonderfully swinging tune of Queen’s Crazy Little Thing Called Love.
Coincidence? Or just plain weird?
I have two interesting coincidences to relate regarding this first swing dance story.
For the first one, you have to understand a little about the sport of rowing. The pinacle of competitive rowing is 8 people racing across the water in a sleek shell, pulling oars in perfect synchronicity. There is usually a ninth person in the boat, the coxswain, whose sole purpose is to shout out the rhythm and motivate the crew. Rowing requires a lot of muscle and brute strength, but beyond that there is actually a holy grail that the crew strives for, and that is to get into such a perfect resonance together that the boat begins to glide between release and catch of their strokes…as if the boat is moving on its own, at a speed and power that is beyond the simple summation of each individual rower’s strength. It’s quite a magical experience when that happens.
You know what the coxswains chant to their crew to get them in sync? No, it’s not “pull, pull, pull.” Actually the mantra I’d been hearing for over 4 years on the Pacific Rowing Club was:
“Swing -2-3-4, SWING-2-3-4, Harder!-2-3-4, Swing!”
Makes me wonder if that has anything to do with why I stuck with swing for so long.
Okay, coincidence #2. It’s late 2006, and I’ve moved into a new flat in the Inner Sunset, having taken up brief residence with at my parents home while I sorted out my changing career path. By this time, I had been stepping up my efforts at teaching dancing, something that had been a secret dream since about 2001 when I started lindy hopping, but I was also bumping up against symptoms of burnout. The questions on my mind were: Is this was the right path for me? Could I sustain myself on dance income alone? Was I right to pursue my passion, or did I need to be practical? Am I still as interested in dancing as when I started? Am I burning out? Will I get through this plateau to the next steep hill in my dance story? As if in answer to these questions, while walking down the hill one afternoon, I spotted a short, brown-haired girl crossing the street who looked eerily familiar.
“Oh my God! Nathan?! Is that you?!”
I had come full circle to run into one of the angels who had set me walking this very path. Turns out that she had been living just around the block from me for the past few months. It was 1997 when we first danced aboard the ferry boat and now it was nine years later, 2006. I know, I know, you’re reading this thinking, “interesting coincidence,” but it was much more than that to me. Vex desperately about any one question, and sooner or later the Universe pipes in to guide you. Needless to say, I’m still dancing these days.
Okay, last but not least, Crazy Little Thing Called Love. It’s still one of my all time favorite songs, and whenever they play it (and thankfully they do quite often at Lindy in the Park), I always feel compelled to grab a favorite dance partner and rock out, memories of my first fateful dance lessons swinging and singing pleasantly through my head.
I’ve gotta be cool. Relax. Get in and get on my tracks.
Take a back seat. Hitchhike. Take a long ride on my motorbike,
‘Til I’m ready. Crazy little thing called love.
Happy New Year everyone!