Baltimore swings A growing number of people are discovering or returning to an earlier style of dancing. 'The '90s bore us,' says one.

June 25, 1998|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

This young lady has got the swing-era look down pat. From the tips of her black-and-white shoes to the top of her black pompadour hairdo, she seems turned out for an evening in the 1930s or '40s. Her deep-blue dress has padded shoulders to give her body more body.

For colorful contrast, the dress has big red buttons. For that matter, this dame also has big red lips. And her husband is no slouch. He looks natty in his fedora, vest and vibrantly patterned tie.

"We're into vintage things," Samanta Sargeant, 23, says before embarking on another retro spin around a Catonsville dance floor.

"The '90s bore us. We used to be into the '60s, but now we're more into the '40s," adds her husband and dance partner, John, also 23, and a Fort Meade resident when he isn't following the local swing-dance circuit.

Just as the dance hall they're in -- the Avalon Studio of Movement and Dance on Frederick Road in downtown Catonsville -- is located in a building that has housed everything from a bank to a karate studio to a ceramics studio over the years, dance trends can go off in some pretty unpredictable directions. Otherwise, how else to account for folks in their 20s trading in the anarchistic dance moves of contemporary grunge rock for the fast-paced but tightly controlled partnering of swing music?

This couple is especially enamored of the Lindy Hop, which is considered the original swing dance. Coming out of Harlem in the 1930s, the Lindy Hop has an eight-count basic step that incorporates the six-count patterns common to various forms of swing dancing.

Besides the Saturday night dances at Avalon Studio sponsored by a group called Swing Baltimore, there is a second swing organization in the area, the Friday Night Swing Dance Club, which divides its dances between the Tall Cedars of LebanonHall in Parkville and the Boumi Temple in North Baltimore.

Although the Saturday night dances typically draw several dozen people and tend to be purist in nature, the Friday night dances are larger and musically a bit more eclectic. At a recent dance at the Tall Cedars hall, where photographs of Tall Cedars' potentates flank the stage like perpetually vigilant chaperons, a crowd numbering in the hundreds has been pulled together by its love of swing.

The dancing and socializing bring together Baltimoreans of varying ages and ZIP codes.

"I grew up in the '60s, when people danced by themselves. I like swing, where a couple can dance together," says Ronnie Green, 44, of Owings Mills. She laughingly adds that "most men can't lead. It's rare to find somebody that can lead and knows what he's doing."

She's chatting at the moment with a friend she knows through the Friday night dances, Darren Ashley, 29, also of Owings Mills, and he soon proves on the dance floor that he can lead just fine, thank you. In fact, he partners a number of women in the course of the evening. "I've been studying different forms of swing dancing and am really dedicated," says Ashley of his busy night on the dance floor.

Such partner-switching is normal etiquette in swing dancing. During the dance lessons offered for an hour before the band starts playing in Parkville, the instructor is constantly telling couples to change partners and introduce themselves to other people. It's a low-pressure way to meet and mingle.

Another attraction of both these Friday and Saturday night swing dances is that they're both smoke- and alcohol-free.

"The dancers are there to dance, not to smoke or drink," observes Charles Bangert of White Marsh, who came to the Friday night dance with Cathy Keller of Kingsville. Both widowed and 55, they appreciate a well-mannered night out.

Swing dancing also pulls a family crowd, which can't be said for many forms of dance.

"This is our first time here. My 15-year-old daughter just wanted ,, to try it," says Barb Feirtag, 41, of Lutherville, as she looked around the Tall Cedars hall. "I like it that swing is coming back and you can dance with a guy again."

However, her husband, Dan, 45, hangs his head as he says: "I had hoped to watch the NBA playoff game tonight. I have no dance ability at all." Their daughter, Jess, smiles as she volunteers stories illustrating her dad's inability to swing-dance.

While the Feirtags are curious newcomers, there are some impressive swing veterans moving around the dance floor. Positively bursting with energy are David Joseph, 65, and his wife, Suzanne, 50, who regularly make the trek to this Parkville venue from their home in northern Virginia. They met at a swing dance in the Washington suburbs and wed a few years ago in what was the second marriage for both.

"From the first time we danced together, I knew," he says, and she adds without missing a beat: "The first time he asked me to dance, it was as if we'd been partners forever."

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