Swing Memories: The Sewanee Swing Society

Fall, 1998.
Sewanee University, Monteagle, Tennessee

Before I had fallen in love with swing dancing, I had accepted my application to a college on a mountain in the middle of nowhere, Tennessee.

Sewanne, originally known as the University of the South (but, for obvious reasons, we tended just to call it the much more pastoral and less Confederate-y “Sewanee”), is a small liberal arts college with about 1400 people, best known for its writing programs and, in conjunction with such programs, its heavy drinking. (One year, when a publication listed the top ten drinking schools, Sewanee wasn’t on the list. There was a note at the bottom, however, that said: “Sorry Sewanee, list doesn’t include professionals.”)

One of the reasons for the heavy drinking is the fact that Sewanee is the only thing of interest for many, many miles, unless you don’t get tired of watching the locals yell at each other in the local Walmart. (Though, I should note, this is an activity that’s just as easily done drunk. And, slightly less depressing that way. At least, at the time.) The nearest cities are Chattanooga, which is 50 minutes from Sewanee, and Nashville, which is an hour and a half in the other direction.

In almost all aspects, this school was a great fit for me. It’s like someone had mysteriously stolen a few buildings from Oxford and hid them in a forest. It’s literature program was off the hook, and it’s theater program was funded by the royalties of Tennessee Williams. The mountain was almost always foggy and slightly chilly, giving me a chance to wear sweaters and walk around with books, the only way I looked at all attractive as a scrawny 18-year-old blindingly white guy.

The only problem was that I quickly found out that I was the person there who knew the most about swing dancing, out of the three people who knew any at all. And I had only recently discovered Lindy Hop, and had no idea how I was going to be able to learn it.

I first became a swing dance teacher out of necessity. In order for there to be a place to dance, I had to make dancers. In order to get better, I had to get some followers that I could single-handedly break down Lindy hop from A Day at the Races with. (Apparently I was confident I would have the time and ability to do this). Within two weeks, I had put up fliers for a free class I would teach with Leah, a girl who also knew some swing dancing and had the added bonus of being charming as hell. Someone told me we should charge $5 or $10 a head. I thought they were insane until around 200 people showed up. (This was still Gap commercial times, remember.)

With roughly a seventh of the campus in front of a freshman who had never taught a group class before, I proceeded to teach them almost every single thing I knew. Anyone who has ever taught a college class to people who have only seen the Gap commercial knows what happened next; they stopped me soon after learning the basic because they really REALLY wanted to learn an aerial.

I imagine colleges already have pretty hefty insurance bills, particularly colleges known for heavy drinking. Perhaps when they offered me the space to teach in, they didn’t consider that 200 students would be throwing around each other based on instructions given to them from a person who had absolutely zero professional training and was often described as “spacey; a day dreamer.”

Somehow, amazingly, everything turned out fine and no one got hurt. Based on the success of the class, I decided to hold a series of lessons, a four-week thing. The first week had about a hundred people in it, the second week, about half that, and the final weeks left about a dozen or so people in the class. This is when I learned a very valuable lesson about college: holding onto a college student is like holding onto a Ferrel cat covered in bacon lard.

If you’re in college, you’ve got tons of homework, tons of things you are already passionate about like sports or recreational drug use taking up your time, and tons of fraternities, sororities, clubs, rehearsals and whatnot on your schedule–so why should you add to that yet another thing that requires a lot of hard work and time and commitment, especially when the major college dancing song seems to be “Brickhouse”?

What’s also rough for college clubs is they come with a built-in turnover. Every year you lose a forth of your scene, and it’s hard work to keep reinvigorating it.

Though I learned the lesson, it took awhile to sink in (four years, to be exact). I soon started the Sewanee Swing Society, which is the good thing to know about a school known for heavy drinking: The dean of student activities is willing to put small fortunes into any innocent sources of campus entertainment they can tell parents about: “Don’t worry, Mrs. Prescott, there’s plenty of things to do on the mountain. Why, one seventh of the campus regularly swing dances.”

Thinking first and foremost of education, I took a small portion of the money and supplied the library with almost EVERY SINGLE video instruction tape known to man. One of the library managers complained to me, “No-one will rent these tapes. Trust me.” But he didn’t understand what it was like for me. A new lover of Lindy Hop knowing he was going to spend four years in a place that didn’t know what it was. Sure, they might only get rented once or twice in the years ahead. But I took consolation in the fact that if there did ever come after me someone in my same position, all they’d have to do is go to the library, and they’d be able to learn from Frankie Manning himself.

Looking back, I actually worked a great deal on my dancing during my times at college. I went to Nashville dance nights many times a semester, I created group choreographies each year with lots of aerials that also somehow amazingly went alright (I’ll try to digitalize some and put it up here someday), and I held monthly dances with only the finest neo-swing music. Over the years, I worked with five or six girls that loved to learn Lindy, Bal, and Shag and allowed me to do amazingly stupid things and kept me from hurting myself or them.

However, I think it’s important to note that by the end of the fourth year, I think I had given up on trying to get others involved as passionately as I was, and was pretty much just doing a lot of it for my own happiness. I taught classes because I loved to teach, and found that I got better as a dancer when I taught. I held dances because I wanted to swing dance. I still put up fliers, and was always willing to teach anyone anything, but looking back, perhaps the lack of interest became a big chicken and the egg situation–by the end, did people see that I was doing it for myself, and so they didn’t feel there was a place for anyone else? I’d like to think not. But maybe I’m wrong.

By my senior year, a few people approached me about continuing the Sewanee Swing Society after I left. The Bobby they knew was a cynical, abrasive man with the light out of his eyes. I might have thrown a Jack Daniels bottle at them, I can’t recall much about that time.

By that point, the society mainly only gave occasional one-hour lessons based solely on making sure leaders lead girls comfortably when they were drunk. (Which was actually a great service for the campus.) But, the freshmen seemed really passionate about swing dancing, and seeing the look in their eyes, I remembered a time when I must have looked just like that, a stranger in a new world, preparing for that very first class, nervous and at the same time, giddy.

I happily allowed them to take over the club, and a few years later, when I was strutting around campus with some old friends I was visiting, I happened to hear swing music coming out of the same place I taught that first lesson. I went in, and saw the people who had taken over the club. They had a live swing band, a few dozen people, and I had some dances. People gathered around and watched. Noticing this and hoping to inspire, I began to try, desperately, to show them everything I knew.

15 responses to “Swing Memories: The Sewanee Swing Society”

  1. It looks like I’m gonna’ be part of arranging dance nights this fall. I’ll propose this tagline if you don’t mind; “monthly dances with only the finest neo-swing music”. Awesome! :D

  2. Our university’s swing society is how I found swing! I’d always wanted to try it, and my brother had done a little when he was in college in the early 00’s, and I finally took a class my Sophomore year (2008). After that, I was hooked.

    I loved reading the account of your experiences! Sooo true about the intricacies of a college scene. A constantly changing population, but to balance that out, lots of funding from the University for events… Your stories about getting videos for the library intrigued me! Nowadays, we’re watching you guys on youtube. :)

  3. I freaking love this story. As a ‘teacher born from necessity’ I am inspired and reminded why I made it through The Dark Times, as I like to call them.
    How nice to know there are such phenomenal dancers out there who did not grow as a dancer by the ease of being in a ‘scene’.
    * applause *

  4. Wow, if you replace “Tennessee” with “Iowa”, this entire post could have been my experience verbatim. I was really excited to go away to college in the fall of ’99, but I was incredibly unhappy about leaving behind the swing scene in LA. In the couple months leading up to going away I learned how to lead the basics so that I could find other people and rope them into dancing with me, and I started swing classes, bought videos with campus funds, and organized dance trips to “nearby” Iowa City and Omaha. Ha! This took me back.

    I really really miss that nervous & excited feeling of learning how to dance that you mention at the end. Swing dancing was something I wanted to do ever since I was a little kid (that posting about Swing Kids from a while back also hit home), and getting to do it always seemed a little magical. But lately, the last couple years, the spark has started to disappear a little. I hope I don’t have to find a new hobby to get it again.

    • Hmmm..I think it’s perfectly natural to feel this way. I think many things we love are like Pulsar stars in our lives…it’s shine waxes and wanes, though is usually to some degree always there.

      The other thing is that everything has a honeymoon period: a time when the newness, freshness and discovery of something adds a considerable amount to the emotional enjoyment of something. But, I think when you have those great dances that remind you why you got into dancing, those are the things that bring back that spark.

      Or, maybe sky diving?

      • I think you said it very well: “…many things we love are like Pulsar stars in our lives… its shine waxes and wanes, thou is usually to some degree always there.”

        I’ve experienced that many times with Lindy and, to a much lesser extent, Bal.

        After a waning period, I usually find that I’m a better dancer and a more thoughtful student.

  5. Reading this story, especially right before I go back to my last year of college, seems as if it couldn’t have been timed any better. I entered my small liberal arts college of Oberlin knowing little more than East Coast Swing and jazz music from playing jazz trumpet in high school.

    Yet because of the Swing Society that had been started years before I was able to go from learning the basics to performing choreography in a 8 person group to teaching my own class in the last three years.

    I love how you see dancing and I feel lucky to have the chance to learn from you the two times I’ve been in DC. You have no idea how much it means to see someone who understands the real reason to swing dance – to have fun.


  6. As someone who is about to graduate from grad school and leave behind the swing club I’ve been a part of for the last 5 years, I can absolutely relate to the terror of what will happen once you’re gone! Trying to keep a swing club going with the revolving door of busy students is so challenging and I’m glad your post reminded me the world will not implode when the eager youngsters take over the scene.

    We’ve somehow managed to survive in Indiana even though most people in our club quit after we run out of new material to teach. You know, it does take a while to go through those youtube clips and find level appropriate material. I always get distracted while lesson planning because there is so much to choose from!

    The only part left to talk about is what to do when you’re supposed to get a job and join the real world when all you can think about it is moving to a city with a good swing scene. Any suggestions?

  7. I’m currently the second president in the third reincarnation of my university’s swing dance club. I have one more year and I see a lot of what you described (luckily our scene has persisted despite our discouragement of all aerials). I just recently found your blog and will continue to read articles as they show up. I hope I find more entries about your college days! I’m always asking about and trying to learn from other scenes to continue build mine own. Thank you for an awesome story!

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