Swing your partner Catching an eight-count beat's easy for these dancing couples

April 17, 1993|By Lisa Wiseman | Lisa Wiseman,Contributing Writer

Benny Goodman is playing "One O'Clock High" and the dancers move in the style of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. The men lead the women through moves like the "crazy legs," "rock step," "cuddle up" and "jockey." A woman dressed in black is toe-tapping and finger-snapping to the 4/4 beat as she sings out dance steps and leads four couples through their routine.

". . . 5, 6, ready, and we rock, 2, 3, 4 and . . . outside leg . . . and back . . . kick and out, out . . . and snap!"

It's Monday night in a Mount Vernon dance studio, and these four couples -- none of them professionals -- are members of Swing Baltimore, a local swing dancing club. The woman in black is Leslie Coombs, their instructor and founder of the club.

Swing dancing, a partner dance that looks a lot like the jitterbug, has undergone a resurgence in popularity in the last few years. Die-hard fans say that in Baltimore, you can go swing dancing almost every night of the week.

There are as many variations to the dance as there are people who go dancing: the six-count swing, the eight-count swing, the East-Coast and the West-Coast swing, the Dallas Push and the Houston Whip.

The members of Swing Baltimore do the Lindy, an eight-count swing that originated in Harlem in the '30s. Dancers held each other tightly, bodies moving closely together in rhythm. Ms. Coombs said at that time the dance was considered scandalous.

"It was considered a street dance," she said. "It was a little wilder than what people were used to -- more sensual and sexual.

"It has a lot of improvisation to it," she said. "That's not taught in ballroom dancing. . . . Swing dancing is something that is passed around. It was something you did, not something you learned. . . . it evolved on the dance floor."

Besides being a sensual and improvisational dance, members of Swing Baltimore say, the main attraction of swing dancing is simply that it's a lot of fun.

The group holds dances about once a month. There will be one tonight at St. John's United Methodist Church, 27th and St. Paul streets from 9 p.m. to midnight. Get there an hour early and take a free lesson to get you started. The people at the dances are mostly in their late 30s and early 40s.

Taking a partner is optional. "People can just show up," said Alice McKenzie, 41. "There are a lot of unspoken rules. You get to dance with a lot of different people. It's not like when you go to a nightclub. . . . Here you get to interact with a lot of people in a safe environment. It's a good way to meet people."

Switching partners is definitely encouraged with swing dancing.

"The thing that people are there for is the dancing," said Ms. Coombs. "People ask strangers to dance. Men ask women, women ask men. It's a crowd that mingles a lot."

Ms. McKenzie's regular partner in class, 50-year-old Ed Hopkins, says that he likes swing dancing because he likes to dance and he doesn't have to "go to smoke-filled bars" to have fun.

Mr. Hopkins started going to dances when some of his friends in dance class encouraged him to join them. From that point on, he was hooked. "The music is really great," he said.

It's the music that got Ms. Coombs into swing dancing as well. "I started dancing in '83," she said. "I was living in West Virginia, separated from my husband. I wanted a way to reconnect with the rest of the world socially." Some friends of Ms. Coombs took her contra dancing, a type of folk dance. It was fun, but there was something missing.

"When I went swing dancing, it was more of my thing. . . . My father was a jazz musician. That music was in my blood. I grew up listening to my father and his friends jam in the living room, and I would jump around. So, I've been moving to that music all my life. It was like I was coming home," she said.

Ms. Coombs prefers an eight-count swing to a six-count swing. A jitterbug is usually a six-count; most steps are in a 1-2-3, 1-2-3 pattern. "When I ran into an eight-count swing, I knew this is what I wanted," she said. "The dance worked with the phrasing. The music is 4/4. The dance came from that music, so it's more syncopated."

And, according to Swing Baltimore, swing dancing is easy to learn. "After one set of lessons, I was able to do it," Mr. Hopkins said. "I didn't have trouble at all."

Barbara Strati, 41, agrees. "The basic steps are easy to pick up." But, Mr. Hopkins adds, "There's always room for polishing."

And polishing was what the four couples were doing Monday night at the dance studio. The group is getting ready for Swing Baltimore's big fifth anniversary dance on May 14, also at St. John's Church. They will put on a dance demonstration that they say will dazzle.

When Ted Elser dances with Ms. Strati, his regular partner, they dress the part. However, the dress code at dances is very relaxed. "Anything goes," Ms. Coombs said. "You see T-shirts and jeans. Some people like to wear vintage clothing. There are some women who really like to slink it up, and guys who like to show up in the baggy-pants style."

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