Love & Swing (1): “To Meet Boys”

Being a six-part series concerning the complex love triangle of romance, swing, and our love for swing.

Part 1: “To Meet Boys”

This is the answer Nina Gilkenson gives whenever people ask her why she started swing dancing in the first place.

“Actually, I got into dancing because I liked it, but I did go out to a ‘real’ swing dance for the first few times with a boy I liked. Actually, two boys — twins.” Nina said. “I was home schooled, and as a 13-year-old without a real social outlet or school environment, I thought it would be a good place to meet people in general. Boys were just the icing. Oh, sweet icing.”

“To meet girls” is also one of the main reasons I would give as to why my bony 18-year-old-self started swing dancing. Like Nina, that wasn’t all of it. I was drawn to almost everything about it. But it was a large bonus that it would allow me to spend time with well-dressed girls and give me little chance to destroy it all by quoting entire Monty Python films.

Some might argue that this is why partnership dancing exist in modern cultures in the first place: so that people can touch members of the opposite sex.* You only need to mention how English country dances, Viennese waltzes, and German polkas offered a great excuse for young adults to meet other young adults. And anyone who has read Anna Karenina or any Jane Austen novel knows that, at least in their cultures, a dance was never just a dance. Of course, the act of dancing implies expressing the emotions music produces, but to do so while holding onto another human being implies at least some form of human connection, of intimacy. And Lindy Hop is no different.

In a recent panel discussion, when asked what the best dancing nights were at the Savoy, Norma Miller didn’t tell the story of when Chick Webb battled Benny Goodman or Count Basie, nor anything about the nights all the Whiteys Lindy Hoppers were in town from their gigs and dancing fierce. Instead, she talked about the Savoy’s Ladies Get-In-Free Nights on Thursdays. And how those nights brought in all the men in Harlem, dressed up in their finest suits. Norma couldn’t count how many marriages — and consummated affairs— were brought about because of the Savoy Ballroom. We also know that the Savoy Ballroom was a meeting place for people of almost any sexual persuasion to meet, as well as those who desired to date above or in spite of the color barrier.

And, when Frankie Manning was asked about his fondest memories of being a Lindy Hopper, on several occasions he gave a surprising answer. He didn’t mention the payoff of seeing Hellzapoppin’ come to life, or tell the story of the contest where he threw down the first air step. Instead, he mentioned the time, as a servicemen in WWII, when he had the opportunity to dance with Betty Grable in a USO show. “Her Lindy wasn’t all that great, but what did I care? I was dancing with Betty Grable,” Frankie said in his autobiography (pg. 200). “She was so soft, and she wore this perfume that was intoxicating. I was in heaven, heaven-n-n…I had to take a cold shower that night.” It might sound a bit anticlimactic if you haven’t been in a war or recently watched The Pacific. After all, Frankie had been through hell in the Pacific, and hadn’t had many chances to see a woman, and for almost every man who saw the kind of combat Frankie did, every day could easily be his last. Frankie dancing with Betty Grable was a memory of being a young man who got to live a little bit of an intimate dream at a time when it probably mattered the most.

Though partnership dancing has a lot of history in allowing people to meet others and connect with them, many partnership dances have evolved to the state of an art form — and Lindy Hop and the other original swing dances are at this level. With dances as sophisticated as Lindy Hop, Balboa, and Collegiate Shag, and with music as upbeat and “light hearted” as swing music, a person needs no other motive to go out dancing than simply to dance. [A question to the Blues community, for I am ignorant: Does Blues philosophically require this intimacy as part of it’s expression? Is a blues dance without human intimacy in some way missing the point and not really blues? Anyway…] The result is that now there are swing dancers who are at it just to use their artistic voices, or to play with physics, or merely get some exercise, both physical and spiritual.

Because of this, there are now two kinds of people you will now find in a ballroom: those who are mainly there to connect with other people, and those who are mainly there to express themselves through dance. (And of course the third, that one creepy guy.**) In reality, most people desire at least a little bit of both these forces. And sometimes the stars align and the two become one. But often the two — expression as a dance artist, and human connection — can be very different forces, as any person married to their dance partner can tell you.

In this series, we’ll discuss the interesting ways in which love, swing, and the love of swing can interact with each other, whether it be the romantic couple struggling to be dance partners, the traveling instructor attempting to hold down a long-distance relationship, or the conflict of those who have to choose either love or swing.

Next: Part 2, Non-Dancing vs Dancing Significant Others

[Dear Readers: Though I have interviewed a lot of great people for this series, I invite anyone who’s interested to send me their stories of love and swing if they feel like sharing. For instance, for the next installment, the basic question will be the pros/cons of non-dancing significant others versus dancing significant others. Do you have any interesting stories or experiences that have lead you to choose one or the other? People will not be quoted directly unless I discuss it with them and get their approval beforehand. If you’d like, simply send me a message on Facebook at

[Unedited simply for the sake of getting this out on Valentines’ Day, which was the originally planned day. Will be edited soon.]

* — Unfortunately, I imagine it has yet to be *100%* comfortable for same-sex people to publicly partner dance with each other in most cultures.

** — But we won’t talk about him anymore, though he may be very tied to the subject matter of love and swing.)

39 responses to “Love & Swing (1): “To Meet Boys””

  1. “…a large bonus [is] that it would allow me to spend time with well-dressed girls and give me little chance to destroy it all by quoting entire Monty Python films.” Little did you realize at the time that some of the follows in the room were trying to make use of the same opportunity, a few of us failing miserably… (One, two, five. Three, sir!)

  2. I haven’t been dancing blues for very long, so take this anecdote for what it’s worth. I was at a blues workshop and there was a class where one of the instructors, Dexter Santos, challenged us to dance with a feeling that wasn’t your typical steamy, sexy blues. It was eye-opening trying to dance with feelings of openness, lightheartedness, and other emotions that (new) blues dancers don’t typically roll with. So I’d hazard a guess that no, intimacy isn’t required in blues dancing.

    As a dance photographer, the pictures that always end up as my favorites are the ones where there’s some sort of connection between the lead and follow — emotional, whimsical, whatever. I hate it when I have an awesome action shot would have been a favorite but one (or both) dancers have blank expressions (or worse), or are looking at the floor or the ceiling and generally not paying attention to their partner. While there may be a contingent of swing dancers in it purely for the artistic expression, even they have to have some sort of connection with whom they’re dancing with, or it wouldn’t be partner dancing, just solo dancing, right?

    Is it even possible to be at one extreme or the other? Does there exist people who are in it solely for the social aspect and not the artistic expression that aren’t creepers?

    • The whole “not making eye contact” problem is endemic to swing in general for some reason. When you’re new/newish, I think it has to do with concentrating so hard on the skill aspect of dancing that you don’t have any mental space/energy left to be social as you social dance. :) Later on, perhaps it’s just habit, or the desire not to be “that creepy guy” by staring.

      • I do think that can be the case when you’re new/newish…However, I’ve also danced with people who have been at it for years who just stare blankly off to the side, with their head in a fixed position, expressionless, who later tell me it was an AWESOME dance, and they want to do it again some time!

        I’m sitting here like,

  3. Blues dancing can cover any emotion a human can feel, and through the dance you can express all of them. Just as blues as a musical form does the same. (Blues is not all about loss, heartache or pain).

    However, take any one of the range of human emotions and banish it from the dance, and the dance loses something.

    Blues does not required intimacy in its dancing… but force its removal, or fail to acknowledge that in certain circumstances it has its place, and you hobble the dance.
    If you cannot or are not allowed to express what the dance moves you to express, are you dancing? This question applies regardless of the dance style.

  4. I heard the phrase “dance should be the picture of sound” from Ramona Staffeld last year, and that really stuck in my head as something to really strive towards. Looking around the average social floor (whether Lindyhop or Blues) in Melbourne, I would say about 70% of the dancers are not the picture of the sound that is playing, or even a picture relating to the sound that is playing. They’re mostly dancing around a basic rhythm, and that’s it.

    So, given that phrase, I’m with Michael Varney – “intimacy” is not a requirement in Blues… But I think that is because it would be extremely hard to point to anything as a requirement in Blues. Blues music is such a huge and continuously living genre, spanning well over a century now, and forking off in so many different directions, that I defy anyone to point to any single factor and say that that factor absolutely must be present in order to validly call something Blues, whether that’s in relation to music or dance.

    That’s not to say that there are not commonalities and traditions within Blues, and “intimacy” is certainly one of the things that crops up a lot in both the music and dance.

    For me personally, a regular counterexample is that down here in .au we sometimes have fast (150bpm!) “party” blues music played, and I tend to dance those songs almost entirely in open position with heaps of barely connected and often unconnected call-response stuff going on. I wouldn’t call that “intimate” at all – loads of fun, certainly. :-) Is it Blues? Absolutely yes.

    • As with the eye contact, new/newish dancers are often concentrating so hard on their form or technique that the music is kind of secondary. I know that sounds weird if you’re a natural dancer who came to swing through the music, but trust me, when you’re grinding through that intermediate plateau, sometimes you don’t even *hear* the music , except as a series of beats. It’s only in the last year or so that I started being aware of the music as part of the dance. It’s improved my dancing immensely, and makes me wonder if there’s some way to impart that to new dancers early on, rather than concentrating so fiercely on swingout physics and footwork patterns.

      • Hard question, I think! When new dancers come in that don’t have musical experience or training, they expect a dance class, not a music class… and with the thing we do, the dance and music are so integral to each other, I suspect it would be hard to teach to non-musicians without at least starting with numbers and simple beats.

        I came in to swing with a classical music (choral) background, and even with that starting advantage it took me a good couple of years to really be able to ditch the numbers and beats and really get to grips with jazz music and dancing to it…

        Around here in Melbourne most venues start with dancing to music from the first class though, and quite often will do a musicality specific class now and again, usually in the intermediate class level. A lot of teachers also count in the entry for practicing and then stop counting for the move itself. Some of them will specifically teach moves that fit a particular musical sequence, then tell the class to listen to that particular instrument or line to get the timing, or teach a sequence that has variable timing, then say “lead/follow the sequence according to the music that’s playing”.

        • I can tell you that as a beginner, “lead/follow the sequence according to the music that’s playing” would have pissed me the hell off. I *needed* my counts the way a druggie needs their next hit. Ok, maybe not quite like that, but yeah. And for the record, I did come into it as a musician–but from a musical tradition that required a lot of counting! (High school marching band, choir, and Renaissance ensemble.)

          The best thing I’ve seen to address this problem is to teach the moves with a sort of descriptive scatting instead of counts: “step-step-cross-behind, triple-step-BOP!” something like that. Gets students thinking about rhythm patterns and pulse instead of numbers.

          • Yeah, I’m with you on needing the counts as a beginner. :-)

            Coming in from classical is just as bad – I was all used to tracking the stick and prepping in time to be on the stick, not picking an instrument to follow or musical line. I can still pick newbies with classical training because they all prep early and land on beat-dead-centre instead of tracking the tail of the beat.

            And yes, I agree on the solution – most of our teachers locally call using scatted rhythms. :-) They’ll explain counts if asked or needed, but mostly not.

  5. It is easier to date dancers, as they understand your underground cultural nuances and never feel jealousy of the dance itself (an ex of mine hated Lindy exchanges like some men hate being a cuckold), but it is easier to part ways with a non-dancer (watching an especially lovely ex of mine seeking love again in my scene is still hard). So the question is, are you an optimist or a cynic? A lover or a leaver? A party animal or a peacemaker? The choice is not easy if you cannot see the future….

  6. “We also know that the Savoy Ballroom was a meeting place for people of almost any sexual persuasion to meet…”

    People hint at this, but I need some good, solid data on the queer-friendliness (or lack thereof) of the Savoy. Dood, are you bringing some of that action to your later pieces, or is this straightsville? I’m figuring you’re in a position to actually find out about this stuff – step up! Your adoring fans request!


    • Well, I certainly have some info on homosexual and bisexuals in the dance, which will come out (chuckles and fiddles with glasses) in later writings. However this series is for *all lovers* …for anyone who has a crush on someone and swing dancing is a part of their life. So, not straightsville…allsville.

      • I’ve been disturbed recently by the hetero-normativity of the dance scene, and wondering how we could make it more queer-friendly. A good start would be not to assume that all women will follow and all men will lead; it would be nice to start the beginner classes with “decide if you want to learn to lead or follow,” rather than, “all the guys go over there and all the girls go over here.” Not that we don’t have girl leads and guy follows–but it’s always regarded as something out of the ordinary and even a bit risqué.

        I recently ran into a gay couple at a Lindy exchange, and they were concerned bc the follow in the couple kept getting girls asking him to dance, expecting him to know how to lead. He was hesitant to ask other guys to dance, not only bc he was new, but bc it so obviously bucked the normative trend; thus he ended up only dancing with his boyfriend all night. I don’t think they came back. :-(

        • What a gay couple or single has to face in the swing dance scene would be perfect for this series. However, one of the reasons I didn’t plan for it at the beginning is that I don’t know who I could talk to and interview about it. Anyone know of a gay person in the scene I could ask or someone who would be willing to talk about the issue? [Please message your answer to me at Facebook at; I, and them, might prefer you not post names here.]

          • I’d be pretty sure you’d know some queer folk already, Bobby. They’s just not out to you yet :D But I’m not sure it’s ok to encourage people to out their gay friends (unless they know for sure that they’d be ok with it).
            And it’s kind of weird to ask that one gay in the village to speak on behalf of queer folk in lindy hop everywhere. :D

            I also wonder about the the implication that who we dance with predicates our sexual preferences (which I guess is the point of your posts – does it? should it? can it? do we care?). You can totally dance with someone of the same sex and not be gay. For real! And you can totally _avoid_ dancing with someone _because_ you’d like to be all over them like a rash… wait. poor word choice.

            _Finally_, I think it’d be super sweet to broaden your scope with some trans dancing folk. There are quite a few drag king and queen and transgendered musicians (and dancers) in jazz history, particularly during the 20s in some of the more liberal subcultural scenes. It’d be really really nice to look at historical figures, because there’s this persistent bullshit myth that lindy hop is great because it’s all about ‘traditional’ gender roles and the idea that ‘women are women’ and ‘men are men’ and that’s why it’s good wholesome fun. When, just as now, lindy hoppers in The Day were shagging whoever and however they could get away with, playing with gender roles and generally doing their best to have a Good Time. Even if it meant people of the same sex! *GASP* OMG TEH GAYZ!!!11!

            • Hey Dogpossum,

              Thank you for your responses.

              (1) You are right in that I know some gay people int he scene, and looking back, I see how the request was slightly awkward.

              (2) I currently am doing interviews with people who might have interesting viewpoints on this issue, including a drag queen, several gay men and woman, and a few people who have been involved with “queer-friendly” dance nights. So I hope to be covering a lot of the bases you were discussing in your responses.


              • I’m happy to post publicly, been out since forever…

                Bobby if you are looking to gather viewpoints from a few more queer folk, feel free to contact me. I’m gay, I’m a chick. I dance both as a follower and leader, with preference for following — including most of my teaching is as a follower; so I spend a lot of time dancing the classic-gendered dance role while being in the sexual preference minority, so to speak. If you have these bases covered, don’t worry I don’t feel the need to be included just for the sake of inclusion; but if you’re interested then go for it (I just sent you a friend request on facebook to that end).

                – Kris (from Germany)

                And P.S., for me the request was not awkward at all :)

        • Not to toot my own horn, but I’ve been working on my hetero-normative assumptions for a while, in general but especially in dance. In fact, I taught a novice class last week and started it with asking the students to raise their hands if they wanted to lead. When all the men raised their hands and the women kept theirs down, I said something about that’s what I expected, but wanted to be sure, and I moved on. Interestingly enough, when we actually got to separating the class into leaders and follows to talk about the difference in footwork, there was one woman on the leader side and one man on the follow side. Neither of them were entirely new to the dance, though; nobody that time spent their very first class not in their normal gender dance role.

  7. When I dance blues in close embrace, I am sharing with my partner the emotions that I pick up from the music. For me that’s inevitably an intimate connection. If instead we’re in an open hold or even no hold at all, moving to some high-energy blues music that makes you want to stomp and leap, well we’re still sharing our emotional responses to the music, but I suppose now we have more of a choice about whether that’s an intimate connection. For me, it often still is intimate, because we are both daring to be crazy together, and to respond to one another’s craziness.

  8. That my partner doesn’t share my obsession with dance breaks my heart. He has tried, but it doesn’t work. We just end up arguing when we dance together. On the flip side, that leaves me free to attend any dance event I like without my partner and enjoy a connection with other dancers.

    • My husband doesn’t dance either, and while sometimes I wish he did, I know he’d never be as into it as I am, and we’d end up frustrated with each other. Luckily he hasn’t an ounce of jealousy in his psychology, and has no problem with me going out to dances on my own. As a bonus, he stays home with our son while I’m out dancing. :)

  9. I’m really happy to see this series. As a fairly new dancer who has been bitten by the bug, this has been a fun problem to navigate, and I’m still undecided. As of yet I have not dated another dancer, so the following is speculation- I can see both the pluses of dating a dancer; sharing the love of the dance, music and community; attending events together and not spending all of that time away from each other (could be a lot!); not having the jealousy of the dance and the various dance partners; not having to miss out on dances because you need to spend time with your partner.

    Also the minuses – less “freedom” on the dance floor (to quote the writer above- “leaves me free to attend any dance event I like without my partner and enjoy a connection with other dancers”. Does this mean to freely flirt? I won’t hold it against you if it does :) . And . . . I thought that I could come up with more minuses but I really can’t. I’m sure that some of you in these relationships will be happy to fill me in . . .

    • I wouldn’t say flirt, that’s perhaps too strong a word, but to be playful with your dance partner in the context of the dance? Sure!

      You raise a good point about spending a bit of time away from your partner due to dancing – I do. I dance a few nights a week so a week night in with him is a bit of a rarity. In fact my poor boy was a bit sad on Tuesday when I chose to spend my Valentine’s night dancing instead of with him. He’s completely understanding and supportive of my dance obsession, so I am very lucky.

  10. I started swing dancing classes (initially in secret!) because my girlfriend is a swing dancer, and I had the misconception that I’d be able to easily pick up the (8-beat) basics in a month, and sweep her off her feet!

    Now it’s almost two years later… and having a dancing partner is hard, because there’s the hope / expectation that your romantic partner will be the person with whom you dance best with. And then there’s the guilt when you start enjoying dances with other people than when you dance with your primary partner… it begins to sound akin to the potential perils of polyamory!

    • ive been dancing a while. ive dated dancers, non dancers (most whom ive taught a little dancing), ive let go of the expectation of being able to dance well with a significant other.

      there if some great about being able to dance with your lover though. for me itś about being able to share your intimacy in a different context. just being able to do simple steps, look into your partners eyes and share that space. love isnt a judgement, why should the dance you share be.

  11. Dancing for the purpose of socially-sanctioned courtship goes way, way, WAY back. In “Orchesography,” published in 1485, the author brings up this idea, and specifically mentions that it’s a good way for ladies to determine whether their partner’s “breath smells of rotten meat.”

  12. I was just thinking about how it might be possible to get statistics on the number of matches made in Lindy hop. A couple who met in my classes just got engaged, my partner and I met swing dancing, and there are many others. There are also, of course, many exes who met on the dance floor or in a class. That should also, I guess, be included in any statistics.

  13. A girl formerly of our scene dropped some jaws when she did a powerpoint presentation of all the dancers who had slept with dancers in our scene. There was a chart. Most people I know that are dating, date swing dancers. It doesn’t always work out, but it certainly seems to with some frequency.

    I can imagine how wonderful it would be to share a passion like swing/blues dancing with your partner in life. I myself am married to a nondancer. He started swing dancing classes to spend more time with me. He doesn’t love it though, and it shows. Joyous is right, it leads to some frustration. Still and all, though he may not be the partner I’d wish him to be, he knows that when I’ve had a hard day he can make me smile by dancing with me in the kitchen.

    Contrariwise I would guess that many couples who might otherwise give it a go do not *because* they’re fantastic dance partners and don’t wan’t to ruin the friendship.

    • Oh, and if follows don’t find the “man of their dreams” on the first night, please come back. Not all of us are there to stalk you for your number after one dance–although, gee, I wonder why they don’t often come back and it’s usually the same people, week after week–dreadfully single.

  14. My husband inadvertently introduced me to the swing scene when neither of us realized the lindy hop scene existed. He took me to hear some live music for our anniversary about 9 or 10 years ago. I saw the dancers and thought, “what is that? I want to learn how to do it!” I did talk him into a few swing dance lessons that were a complete flop for both of us. We ended up getting really frustrated with each other in the lessons. As a mom and busy professional, I temporarily gave up the dream of ever learning to social dance. We told our daughters, then ages 14 and 12 that they should check it out. They just rolled their eyes at us.

    However, a couple of years later, my youngest daughter was invited by a friend to go to a swing dance at our church. Her words upon returning: “ok, Mom–take me for lessons!” The rest is history. . .it only took us about 4 months to talk my older daughter into coming with us. We’ve all been dancing now 6+ years.

    I would say learning the dance was definitely like falling in love–for all three of us women. We were completely obsessed. My poor husband was a bit lonely in the first few years that we started doing lindy. . and bal, and shag. . .charleston. . . He gave it a try, but it has become clear it won’t be his thing. He does love the music, but doesn’t like coming with me to dances, because it feels “weird” to sort of be with me at a gathering, but not really have me there. It works out nice, because we each have our interests together, and we also have our own things we enjoy. It makes us better people when we are together.

    Lindyhop blew a fresh breath of air into my life. The joy it has brought me spills over into other areas of my life. I find myself with more creative problem abilities at work. I am a “better me” because of how the dance has changed me. I see it filling all kinds of needs for people–friendship, physical activity, human touch, joy of music and art . . . I was almost 40 when I started dancing. I’ve been married to my husband since I was 20. It has been nice not to worry about the dating aspects of the social dance scene. I just enjoy the dance, music, and friendships. This is the fabric of society I thought we were losing. Social swing dancing is giving us the human connection we all need, and so much more.

  15. Intimacy in connection is a tricky thing. There’s no denying that close embrace is a physically intimate connection, but I sometimes think that maybe it’s actually more intimate in balboa than blues because the movements of my lead are often smaller and more subtle. In terms of “emotional intimacy” with your partner…the answer’s a bit more complicated. The goal in dancing to music is to be true to what you hear, and part of the joy of social partnership dancing is sharing a thought about music without words. Blues music (like most genres) is very emotion centric, and a good partnership will recognize that, but often the emotion expressed is along the lines of an angry/snarky “f*ck you,” which is a far cry from the emotion most dancers seem to mean when they talk about emotional connection in blues. So yeah…lon story short, partnership required for partner blues, intimacy sometimes happens.

  16. When I started dancing last summer, I had a very hard time understanding how someone could be in a relationship and have a great dance connection with someone else. It seemed like cheating somehow. (I am uber-monogamous). Now just 8 months later I completely get it. My favorite people to dance with are the ones I have no physical or romantic interest in. (I am infinitely relieved when my crush feelings disappear and I can just have fun with someone.) For me, the most interesting relationship is my own relationship to dancing and its evolution, and part of that is trying new dancers, revisiting the challenging ones, and enjoying old favorites. I can be thrilled to see someone arrive, have a blast dancing with him/her, and feel a great connection, but have no other motives or feelings. I never would have understood the (possible) innocence of social dancing before I experienced it. It must be hard trying to explain that to a non-dancing partner.

    (In addition to that, the last person I dated was not only not a social dancer, but actively terrified of moving in front of other people. We couldn’t even bounce around to a live band at a wine festival. I don’t think I want to date the non-dance inclined ever again.)

  17. I’ve dated fellow swing/ballroom dancers before, and I have to admit I much prefer someone who’s a non-dancer. It’s far less complicated. The non-dancers have tended to admire my hobby; support me unconditionally; and see the separate interests as a healthy thing.

    The fellow dancers have often involved much more drama, be it them comparing me to better followers they enjoy dancing with (…), them being hurt (and not saying so) if I wanted to try strictlys without them, us struggling to stay connected when one person’s dancing started to really take off, etc.

    In the end, I’ve found I’d much learn new things from a partner (and introduce them to new things, too) than take on the baggage that seems to come from dating within.

  18. Intimacy is not always “required” for Blues dance, but it makes the difference between dancing at someone and dancing with someone. I feel that being fully expressive, being ready to be open to possibility in the dance with your partner and being responsive and communicative with your partner requires a large amount of trust (note, this doesn’t mean the same thing as knowing someone for a long time- I’ve had some beautiful dances with people I’ve never met in a very dark room!)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: