Swing dancing is making a comeback in Baltimore


November 25, 1990|By Pat van den Beemt

The joint was jumpin' on a recent Saturday night as 200 people twirled, spun, jitterbugged and did the Lindy hop at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Baltimore.

The dancers, who switched partners as often as the band changed big band tunes, were breathless and exhilarated.

Swing dancing is back and drawing in people too young to remember the dances' beginnings.

"There's a lot of theories, but I think swing dancing is popular now because there's been a cultural revolution," says Leslie Coombs, founder of Swing Baltimore, a group that holds dances the second Saturday of each month. "Since the '60s, we've been dancing with someone, but not touching them. People started to say, 'Wouldn't it be nice if we could do this together as partners?' "

This American dance phenomenon was in its heyday in the 1930s and '40s when folks danced to the music of Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Tommy Dorsey.

Although a partner is a necessity, many singles are attracted to swing dancing, where asking a stranger to dance is the norm. Merey Vaeth talked her sister into accompanying her to a recent Swing Baltimore dance and the two of them had more than

enough requests to dance.

"It's not like going into a bar where asking someone to dance can have sexual overtones," says Jim Pettit, 45, an architect who has been swing dancing for a year. "I've developed many good friendships here."

Todd Tenenholz, a 25-year old biochemist, agrees. "This isn't a pick-up market. That's not what this is all about. The people who come here, come here to dance."

And dance they do. The couples spend most of the night on the floor, putting so much into their moves that many look like they've run a marathon by the end of the evening.

Chairs ring the dance hall for those who haven't built up their stamina, but there are no tables for group get-togethers. The strongest drink served during the night is orange juice, and smoking is only allowed in the lobby.

"Dancers are notoriously non-smokers, just like athletes," says Ms. Coombs, who took up running as a way to build up her endurance for dancing when she first began several years ago.

She now teaches beginners the basics of swing dancing for an hour before each month's dance. About 40 people attended dance lessons recently, where Ms. Coombs teaches an eight-count dance step.

Swing dancing is a general term for dances with names such as the West Coast swing, the Houston whip, the Dallas push and the Lindy hop.

The Lindy hop, named for American aviator Charles Lindbergh, was the scandal of the nation when it first appeared at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem during the 1920s. Ms. Coombs says it was called "the road to sin and degradation," because the dance featured hip and groin movements that were considered too erotic for mainstream America.

Today, the Lindy hop has been cleaned up and is one of the more popular forms of swing dancing. Norma Pinette, co-founder of the Baltimore Bop Shop, which offers weekly swing dance workshops at the First English Lutheran Church in Guilford, says learning new moves such as the Lindy hop is one way to maintain interest in swing dancing after graduating from beginning dancer status.

"There is always room for new dances," she says. "We swap moves each week because we want to encourage people to dance beyond the basic moves. Our real goal is to have more dance partners for ourselves."

"Watching good dancers is worth the price of admission," says Sam Hopkins, as he and his wife, Genya, sip ice water during a break at a Swing Baltimore dance. "We thought we were good dancers before we came here and saw some of these people. We still have a way to go."

Mike Winings, 32, says he struggled with lessons for two years before he became comfortable with swing dancing. "You have to learn the moves in your brain before your feet can respond," he claims. "But once you reach the point where you can throw away the brain part and operate from your feet and your heart, you're gonna have a great time."

Although dance is the main magnet for the predominantly 30s to 40s crowd at Swing Baltimore's dances, music is an essential ingredient to a successful evening.

Bands ranging from the 17-piece Tom Cunningham orchestra to Hot Jazz, a swing-era jazz ensemble, keep the crowd on their feet. Brooks Teglers, Hot Jazz's leader, says he enjoys playing for the Baltimore crowd because "they know and love music. There is an incredible dearth of this type of music on the radio today. It's fun to play for people who appreciate it. We try to play with the same energy and precision as the originals."

With a grin and a shrug, he says, "Basically, the band swings."

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