In a large community room beneath Church Street United Methodist Church, one hears music from a different hymnal. Dinah Shore pipes, "Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy, makes your eyes light up, and your tummy say ‘Howdy.'"
Above the dance music, volunteer dance instructor Andi Comfort cautions, "Don't pop too soon!"
Comfort and her instructing partner, Joe Laskowski, have just equipped a dozen or so self-described "intermediate" couples with the rudiments of three basic swing dance steps. The Swing-Out, the Sugar-Push, and the Texas Tommy have been covered separately and slowly. (It's during the Sugar-Push that the "follow," probably but not necessarily a woman, "pops" or hops backward away from the "lead.") Now the couples are combining those three steps in delightful, mostly graceful, dance floor anarchy. The flubbed tricks are as visually interesting as those that are perfectly executed; in some ways more so, as you watch to see how the flubbers recover and get back to their groove. Even the dancers who seem a little self-conscious while standing and listening to the coaches lose themselves in the dance and seem ecstatic in motion.
This, my friends, is swing dancing. The genome of this organism is the Lindy Hop, a free-form dance that evolved from the Charleston during the early 20th century. Given enough time, one or both members of a dancing couple eventually become airborne, and the lore has it that at one point, probably in New York, it was observed that, "we was flyin' just like Lindy!" The name stuck and so has the dance. There are ebbs and floes in swing dancing's popularity and the culture's awareness of it. But whether it's presented as novelty, exercise, art, or the simple athletic socializing that gave birth to the dance and brings Knoxville's swing dancers together nearly a century later, swing dancing remains alive and well in America.
Swing dancing has had its faddish moments, to be sure. The Squirrel Nut Zippers, the Cherry Poppin' Daddies, Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys, and many others charted swing dance hits in the early '90s. Mikhail Baryshnikov and Michael Jackson have incorporated swing dance into their acts at different times. Currently, the culture appears to be fairly thriving, albeit on the down-low. The Knoxville Swing Dance Association just hosted the eighth annual Knoxville Lindy Exchange, a four-night spree of dusk-to-dawn dances that attracts growing numbers of dancers from all over the country. And if you know where to look, you can find a Lindy Exchange or something similar almost any weekend within a day's drive. If so inclined, you can exchange Lindys in the next few weeks in Austin, Texas, Asheville, N.C., Atlanta, Pittsburgh, or Lexington, Ky. (Lexington calls its event the Tranky Doo.) Like speakeasies, the events are more rumored than advertised.
"Every town does their own thing, and every exchange is different," says Laskowski, who is also a swing dance DJ. "I've been to the Asheville Exchange a couple times. I've gone to the one in Atlanta. I've gone to the Hawaii Exchange."
Laskowski was organizer for this year's KLX, and has "helped a lot" with most of the others. He's a bit tired from a long weekend of swinging, and hasn't jumped into the numbers yet. But he says there were about 150 registered participants, plus folks who just showed up.
"People come mostly from the Southeast," he says. "We saw a lot of dancers from Nashville, Asheville. But I did see that some folks came from D.C., and we had a couple from Hawaii."
Good attendance is a good thing, because the Lindy Exchange basically funds KSDA for the year, and makes possible the free twice-weekly dances and lessons. (The group also hosts a monthly dance, where dance attire is encouraged and there is usually live music. There's a cover charge for those events.)
Both Comfort and Laskowski were introduced to swing dance by college classes.
"When I moved to Knoxville six years ago I found that there were free swing dance lessons," says Comfort. "After my first lesson, I was hooked and started dancing three or four nights a week. I loved learning something new and it was such a thrill and a rush to be dancing. It was also a great way to meet people in a new city for me."
Dancing now appears to be second nature to Comfort and Laskowski. It's been said that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in heels. During demos, Comfort does everything Laskowski does, plus a little extra, backwards, in sneakers, while watching and advising the student dancers over her shoulder. After attempting the Texas Tommy, a couple of the intermediate students have re-assessed their skills and migrated to the church's gymnasium. Here, more than 100 dancers coupled around the perimeter absorb "beginner" instruction. Attire ranges from athletic to almost formal. Shoes are mostly casual, though there is one pair of scuffed white Capizio dance shoes making the rounds, and they're easy to follow around the room in the dim pseudo-ballroom light.
It could be said that the original Lindy Exchanges were the dance marathons held in big cities before and during World War II. USOs and dance halls held all-night events, sometimes to raise money, other times to promote a band or a song. Often they were organized by adults wishing to keep young people off the streets. During the disco era, the dance floor took on a kind of "the hunter and the hunted" vibe. Dancing, like drinks and maybe drugs, was often a prelude to something else, let's say, more private. In swing dancing, the dance is the deal. By and large, the beverages of choice are bottled water and energy drinks. Dancers arrive stag and as couples, but partners are constantly changing in the interest of socializing and exchanging dance expertise.
Comfort says she doesn't drink and dance, and doesn't like to dance with others who've had a lot to drink. It's dangerous to make sweeping generalizations about such a large and diverse group of people. Still, most parents would probably rather be texted by their kids from a swing dance than from a rave.
"A marathon is a great analogy to a Lindy Exchange," says Comfort, who has experienced them here and in Atlanta and Fort Lauderdale. "I've run a half-marathon and can relate to doing an activity for an extended period of time. The longest I have danced was from 8 p.m. until about 5 a.m. You really do need to hydrate and eat food throughout the night to keep dancing strong. I will usually have a down time over the course of the night and then get a second, third, or fourth wind and get going again.
"I also will stretch throughout the night and especially afterward. The Monday after exchanges, I am usually very sore and tired, but it is well worth it!"
Two of this year's KLX dances had music by DJs, but Friday and Saturday nights featured live music, by the Streamliners and Christabel and the Jons, respectively. Alas, newsprint is not the medium to do justice to the sounds of a big band or the wondrous spectacle of a bunch of happy human bodies in constant creative motion. Almost everyone asked how best to explain the attraction of swing dancing to skeptical readers gives a variant of the same answer: "It's really fun." And they make it seem believable.
To learn more about KSDA or upcoming classes and dances, visit swingknoxville.org.