Swing and roundabouts: Dancing away the lockdown cobwebs with some slick moves and lindy hop

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Dance night at Cape Town Swing.
Dance night at Cape Town Swing.
PHOTO: Supplied
  • Lindy hop, the joyful swing dance, is making a comeback at social dances in Cape Town.
  • With its origins in the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, the dance popularised by African American New Yorkers in the 1920s is placing its happy feet firmly in the Mother City.
  • Cape Town Swing offers classes and socials for those fantasising about a glamorous night of dancing away the state capture blues.

Do you ever fantasise about a glamorous night of proper dancing, where you move across a dance floor perfectly in tune to a swing band for a few hours of escape from the state capture and petrol price blues?

Well, a swing dance and lindy hop revival has taken off in Cape Town, with young people dancing the Covid-19 cobwebs off with fancy footwork and happy grins on their faces.

Happy-hour swing social dance sessions are being held around the city. The monthly Thursday dance at the famous Truth Coffee shop in the city centre between 17:00 and 19:00 sets the tone for the shim sham into the weekend.

This Tuesday, there is a swing night, with the Alvin Dyers Trio providing the soundtrack to dances first made famous by African Americans living in Harlem, New York.

"It's an inherently joyful dance," says Muriel Gravenor, manager and dance teacher at Cape Town Swing.

She started doing the lindy hop in 2013, when Texan dance teacher Jeannie Elliott began classes in the city because people wanted to learn the steps.

"I very quickly got obsessed," laughs Gravenor.

Back in the 1920s in the US, the lindy hop was born at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. The Savoy was one of only a few venues in New York which hosted racially integrated dance nights.

The flips, hops, rock steps, legs kicking out to the side, arms windmilling, back rollovers, foot twists, and jazz hands in the dances caught on quickly at social dance nights, with animated moves accompanying dramatic bursts of brass in the music, or dipping to jump up as a beat passed. Dancers even hopped to the scatting of Ella Fitzgerald.

Swing music and later dancing became popular in South African jazz clubs like those in Sophiatown, Langa and Alexandra, with musicians learning the new songs off the radio, then composing their own with a jaunty South African flavour.

Google also created a doodle for it, honouring its place in social history, with famous lindy hopper Sugar Sullivan explaining that at times the dance floor was so big, that there were two bands playing at the same time because of the huge popularity.

Cape Town Swing also launched the annual Mother City Hop (MCH) international social dance event with the help of the late great lindy hop star Frankie Manning. The guests at the MCH included dancers from Mozambique, who showcased African swing.

It turns out that knowing how to do the dances is an excellent way to socialise when on international travel, with swing dance clubs dotted around the globe, from Reykjavík, to Ankara, to London.

"People dress up for it," says Gravenor. "There is a whole fashion that comes along with it – high-waisted skirts and suits. In Italy, they dress vintage for it – proper vintage!"

People doing the lindy hop at dance class
Cape Town Swing's social dance nights are helping to dust off the Covid-19 cobwebs.
Supplied PHOTO: Supplied

Cape Town Swing also offers classes, but the clumsy and awkward need not worry about getting their steps perfect immediately. They can move their bodies and find the playfulness in the big band sounds.

"It's not about being perfect. It's about learning how to move your body to complement the music."

Cape Town Swing is also running another project – to recover lost swing songs by South African artists.

According to Gravenor, many of the black musicians of the 1920s and 1930s struggled to have their songs recorded because of the severe racist hurdles around who could get into a recording studio. As a result, great songs are at risk of being lost forever.

The project finds old recordings and transcribes them into sheet music to preserve the legacy, through the Echoes of Sophiatown transcription project. Covers of the music are played by the Pebble Shakers.

If your grandpa has some recordings of rare swing gems, they would love to hear from you.

In the meantime, a Women's Day Swing Night will be held on 9 August, for a taste of the dance putting a smile on everyone's faces.

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