Interview With Paul Overton of Paul & Sharon

Paul & Sharon were one of the most important international couples in Lindy Hop in the early 2000s. I interviewed Paul for the Love & Swing series, and found the interview so enjoyable I wanted to share the entire thing with you. I publish it this week as a precursor to the next post: Love & Swing (3): Partnership.

“Paul Overton and Sharon Ashe began Lindy Hopping in 1994 under the tutelage of Steven Mitchell and Frankie Manning. In their seventeen year partnership they have traveled the world dancing, teaching, and meeting some of the best people, ever. They are co-founders of the San Francisco Swing Dance Festival, The Oakland Swing Dance Festival and the 9:20 Special weekly dance.

Although they are mostly retired from dancing, their partnership has moved happily on to other projects including music, yard work, and dog wrangling. They live happily in Durham, North Carolina…the finest city on earth.”

How did you get into swing dancing? And how did you meet your partner?

I got into ballroom first. I had done some dancing for recreation in grad school and started again in San Francisco in 1993.

Sharon and I were both completing the teacher training course at the Metronome Ballroom in Potrero Hill and we taught a beginning Latin class together, so we were more or less selected by our boss to begin teaching together.

We weren’t romantically involved until about six months later (it took me that long to get her to go out with me).

Soon after we got together, we signed up for a workshop with some dude named Steven Mitchell and from that day forward, we were all about Lindy Hop. Not that Steven isn’t always inspiring, but he was absolutely on fire in that workshop. I don’t think I’ve ever been more inspired than when I walked out of his class that Sunday…exhausted, happy, and unbelievably frustrated that I couldn’t do any of the stuff he could without looking like a clown.

Steven quickly became our mentor and the rest is history.

When did you realize you were becoming international swing dance instructors?

After we taught in our first year in Herrang, we started to get offers to work abroad. Also, teaching at some other high profile camps like Catalina, Beantown, Dallas, and Swing Out New Hampshire started to garner us domestic attention. Soon, we were working 4 days a week in San Francisco and traveling the other three.

In what ways, good & bad, did the professional dancing affect your romantic partnership?

As for the effect that professional dancing has had on our relationship, I can honestly say: it’s all good. Sharon and I have always had the unique ability to spend 24-7 together and also manage to keep any homicidal thoughts at bay.

Dancing taught me as much about what a true partnership is “off the floor” as it ever did “on”. You have to be very patient, you know? You have to be able to quickly come up with and, just as quickly, discard ideas, no matter their merit, in the interest of compromise and flow.

Did we drive each other bonkers sometimes? No doubt. But the underlying respect that we have for each other always kept the wheels from coming off. I honestly think that Sharon is the best teacher I have ever met. She has virtually no ego and that allows her to always put the development of our students ahead of any personal concerns, including money. Even if I disagreed with her at times, her track record of making smart, compassionate decisions, always made me stop and reconsider my point of view. She’s special like that.

What lead to your decision to stop teaching … or, at least, doing it professionally?

Well, things were changing. We were changing too. We never started dancing to become famous or even well known. We started because we loved the dance and we were good at breaking it down into bite-sized chunks. All the while, I think we did a pretty good job of staying true to ourselves and just being “Paul and Sharon” instead of following trends that were happening around us.

In the end though, we found that not as many people were interested in “Paul and Sharon” as they used to be, which made it difficult to make a living without compromising some of the things we held dear about the dance and the community. So, rather than sacrifice our integrity, we decided to reinvent ourselves (again) and retire from the dance world.

We would both, I think, prefer to have a “downstream” attitude about changes in life. Being that experience is forever in flux, it’s much easier for people like us to find a way to go with the flow rather than try and fight to keep things the same. That takes a whole lot of energy and is, for the most part, a fruitless enterprise (at least for folks like us).

What advice do you have for those who are trying to juggle both a romantic relationship and a dance relationship?

First, I want to speak to the phrasing of the question…For us there is no difference between the two. It’s all partnership. We are business partners, romantic partners, dance partners, etc. There is no “juggling” to be done. We treat each facet with equal importance and are constantly aware of how they all work together to create a “life”.

But that’s not very concrete, is it?

I think that, in both worlds, you are doomed to failure if you don’t actively cultivate patience and a willingness to compromise. We all have ideas about how things “should” be done, and that’s fine. That’s called creativity, right? But if you can’t change gears and let go of some of those ideas in service to the health of your relationship/partnership, you’re sunk.

I think that we should all think about what “partnership” means to us. A clear definition of that is like a road map for navigating the tough stretches that we all have. If you take, say, the teaching aspect of your life and figure out what your priorities are in that area, you have much less of a chance of getting bogged down in whatever distracting minutae is arising in the moment.

For instance, we’ve always been very clear that the reason we teach is to empower people…to gently guide them on a trip outside of their comfort zone and to let them know that our class (their life, really) is a safe place to experiment and make mistakes in service to becoming a better dancer and a better person.

If I know that is the endgame, everything else falls in line to support that goal. I know that, in order to be successful at the prime directive, I need to put aside whatever ego I may have about dancing, and just be present so I can be supportive in the way that I need to. Same with our romantic relationship.

It’s all about listening, in the end. We listen for what’s needed and then we support that with our actions. Anything else is extraneous and can easily lead to dischord. Whether we are teaching dance or working on our taxes, we know that if something is bothering us, it’s usually temporary and the best way to get through it is to have a deep well of compassion and respect for the other person and to support one another in regaining our equilibrium.

How much do you keep up with the national Lindy Hop scene today?

I don’t keep up with it much. I’m very happy that the dance continues to be popular, but it has taken a bit of a turn away from the tempo and feeling I prefer. Mind you, that is purely a preference. Nothing wrong with where it is or where it’s going.

Is there any general advice you have for those starting off as professional swing dance instructors today?

As dance teachers, we experience a lot of change. The scene is an undulating mass of trends with a chorus of competing voices, wishing to be heard. Some people have very specific ideas about how one should dance, dress, and relate to music, and those ideas will forever be present in the dance scene, just as they are in any other “hobby”.

In order to keep your sanity and remain an ambassador of the dance as a whole, I think it’s important to cultivate an attitude of acceptance around all hoo-ha that one has to deal with as a professional dance instructor. The truth is…none of that stuff matters. 99.9999% of the population isn’t paying any attention, nor do they care.

Beginners especially could give a hoot about difference in styles, swing history, fashion, etc. Most folks, I have found, would simply like to hold another person and move in time to some music…and that’s a beautiful thing. When we lose sight of the central idea of partner dance which, at it’s core, is to simply be able to rhythmically express yourself with another human being, we have lost what is most important.

Those who remain humble and understand that using their gift to facilitate the success of others is the main objective, tend to be those who get hired the most and experience the greatest longevity in the business.

It’s not about me, or you, or anyone who teaches. It’s about the students. It’s about giving people permission to live outside of their comfort zone. It’s about showing folks possibilities that they, formerly, had no idea even existed. It’s about giving them access to a whole new group of friends and membership in a worldwide community. For me, that’s where the magic is. That’s why I continued to get on airplanes every week and travel to different gymnasiums all over the planet.

If that’s what you’re in it for, you’re in good shape, I think. If you’re in it for recognition or fame or just validation, I don’t think you’re positioning yourself to be of the greatest service to the most people. You may well get “Lindy Hop famous” (like internet famous, but even less so), you might get recognition and even a little money, but in the end, it’s an empty victory. I think that most of the old guard would agree that the most important thing, and the thing we have always cared most about, is giving people a lasting and indelible, positive experience, whether they are with us for an hour or several years.

Special thanks to Jerry Almonte for his help in in this interview.

47 responses to “Interview With Paul Overton of Paul & Sharon”

  1. Wow. What a great interview. It makes it that much sadder to me that Paul & Sharon are no longer on the scene. Who couldn’t use insight and compassion like this in anything they are trying to do?

  2. Great interview. I’d be really curious to hear more about what Paul thinks the tempo and feeling of the dance today is, compared with what he’d prefer. I wonder whether it’s about the ‘academisation’ or ‘historicisation’ of the dance over the last 7-8 years, which is a trend that I’ve noticed, though it’s not one I have a view on the validity of.

    • Looks like you’ve identified your next interviewee (Peter S.). I would be interested in a conversation around the way dancers have experienced the evolution of the Lindy scene. Especially from those who have hung in there so long like you and Peter.

      Great interview!

  3. What a wonderful post! Sharon Ashe inspired me to enter the swing dance community with her wonderful beginner classes… Just last year. :) Although Paul and Sharon are retired from dancing, they still make small and meaningful impacts on our local scene.

  4. Great interview! I’m really sorry I got into lindy hop too late to take a class with Paul and Sharon.

  5. i met my now husband in paul & sharon’s lindy 1 class in 1997… :) 15 years together, 12 years married (in oct) & we’re both still dancing… and have two children who are budding djs & shim sham afficionados… i owe paul & sharon a LOT… so immensely thankful for their patience, mentoring & friendship…. love love love from chicago, pablo & sharona…

  6. Thank you for the great interview! I hope that the many instructors that are holding classes around the country read this article and remember what they just read. I especially like the phrase, “Beginners especially could give a hoot about difference in styles, swing history, fashion, etc. Most folks, I have found, would simply like to hold another person and move in time to some music…and that’s a beautiful thing.”

    I, like Peter S., would like to know what you mean about the changes in tempo and feeling, because I have also noticed a new trend in the last 4 or 5 years.

    For Paul and Sharon, here’s to many years of love, happiness, and dancing.

  7. I cannot express how much I’ve gotten from Paul and Sharon in my traveling years with lindy hop. Their approach to the dance was evidently informed by their approach to life which added a resonance that is rarely seen. I’m so happy to have been taught by them while in my earliest years learning the dance. The lessons learned have stayed with me and I find I reference them mentally when dancing to this day. I have to admit, I’ve also enjoyed watching them dance socially when not teaching or performing, enjoying their connection from the heart and center which was so lovely to see.

    • Okey doke, since there seems to be a general interest in my comment about tempo and feeling, I will endeavor to answer in the most concise way I can…with one caveat. I’m not really interested in debating the subject (not at all, actually), so subsequent comments on this topic will go unanswered (I have a life to lead, people!:-).

      I’m not going to define swing here. Others have done it better.

      But my feeling is that, over the years, the music of preference to the dancers, at large, has morphed into a faster, straighter feel. Which is fine, it just doesn’t make me want to dance like it does for so many others. This is not to say that the music isn’t good or exciting, I just don’t have the same, visceral response to it as I do to a slower, more heavily swung feeling.

      Technically, I think you can still swing something that is fast but, as the quote below describes, it takes a certain amount of finesse when tempo flattens out the eigth notes.

      “the faster the tempo gets, the more the rhythm moves towards even eigths. In faster tempos, the swing comes more from your articulation and phrasing (example: where you place accents and emphasis). It definitely takes a different technical approach from even eighth note rock and also classical music.”

      It is my opinion (and mine only) that your average musician (hobbyist, untrained in jazz, maybe not as sensitive ear-wise as they could be) is, for the most part, incapable of the requisite skills to keep the swing feeling alive at faster tempos. It’s a tricky business and I have met few who can do it. I have a whole new appreciation for this as a bass player. It’s a life-long study. No doubt.

      My preference, accordingly, is for music that sits at a tempo where the space between notes can be more easily nudged, hither and thither.

      So, that’s part one. Part two has less to do about the music, but more about how some scenes relate to it.

      The unwillingness to consider that what we all experience is simply a preference and instead, to talk about the whole thing with a religious zeal, unrivaled by the crusades is a disservice to the form. So often, what I read is directed, not toward an eagerness to understand each other, but toward the same old human interest in being “right”.

      Debates have begun, and continue to rage over what “authentic” swing music and dancing should sound or look like. To me, this is one of the most time wasting, unfocused debates I have ever witnessed. Nobody is going to be winning this battle anytime soon, but somehow, soldiers keep showing up to fight another day. Irony: It doesn’t matter.

      Being that we’re all humans, and that humans love to categorize and label things (and that we also LOVE our opinions), folks have effectively splintered a rich history of music into pieces, and in doing so, they have isolated themselves from a variety of styles and feelings that could afford them a chance to grow (as a dancer, listener, appreciator, and human being) in their understanding of the continuum of jazz music (or, just music) as a whole. Not to mention that they may be missing a lot of fun.

      It’s okay to not like things. There are many things that I don’t like, but when it comes to music, I will often give those things a second, third, or fourth chance, just to see if my ears have developed to a point where I can appreciate them for what they are. I listen to Giant Steps every year for this very reason. I have also developed a deep appreciation for country music in recent years, something I never thought would have happened had you asked me about it ten years ago.

      Still, I am not immune…

      So often, I find myself making ridiculous aesthetic snap judgements. It’s easy. It’s cheap. And it can be temporarily fun. But what I’ve tried to do in recent years is to step back and consider a piece of music or art from a different perspective. So much relies on context, you know? And if I am ignorant to its place amongst other pieces, historically or otherwise, I am at a disadvantage and often unable to enjoy the piece for what it is. So I make an effort to dig a little more now.

      While it is true that “everyone is a critic”, I try to be a better one than I was yesterday.

      Failing that, I sing this little ditty to myself:

      There, now wasn’t that concise? :-)

      • Oh, and by the way, thanks for all the nice comments. Sharon would like me to say “hi” to everyone for her and tell you that she misses you all. She’s nice like that.

          • Oh, the Sharon!!!!!!!!!!!!! She is so nice.

            Paul, you two changed so many lives…then and now. Your collective impact is imbedded deep in my muscle memory. Certain tunes make my body move in ways they wouldn’t were it not for you amazing human beings and some awesome dj’ing.

      • well said (as always). miss you guys! i would probably go out dancing more if you were still here. :) (and i often wish i could get my non-dancer husband some lessons with you…)

      • I’m not sure how it is in San Francisco these days, but the days of the fast tempos dominating seem to have largely passed, in my experience at least. Even in SoCal, where the whole fad presumably started, there is far more variety in tempos these days (not even counting Lindy Groove). In my home scene, in any given 90 minute set, there are MAYBE six songs above 200 bpm. Playing more would clear the floor in this beginner heavy scene. And nationally, when I travel, I hear a variety of styles and tempos.

        Lindy NEEDS people like Paul and Sharon. Having myself been married a few years back to a fellow dancer, I totally understand how life moves you in different directions away from dancing. But when I dance these days the overall level is much lower than I remember it being 5 or 10 years ago. And it has to do with advanced dancers and instructors who are exiting and not being replaced. Granted this impression is formed mostly from my local scene but also when I watch national competitions and see some people at the highest divisions who have a swing out that looks just proficient enough to tack some flash and trash onto in order to place. Their basics need work. As tempos increase, things get ugly fast.

        Yes, these are all opinions. No, I don’t expect or need a response. Just offering an alternate perspective. Theres a lot of variety out there in music that didn’t exist years ago. It’d be nice to see some of the older faces, with all their beautiful lines connoting experience, return when possible.

      • Hey Paul, this is fun to finally find you here. I lost track of you guys when you left the Bay Area in the late 90s… I would love to reestablish contact. If you get this, can you drop me a line how I can get in touch with you guys?

        Uli (the aerial specialist from Germany)

  8. Oh my god. THANK YOU so much for this interview, for sharing your perspectives on partnership, dancing, teaching, and…everything. I am so sad that I only started dancing in 2005 and missed the opportunity to learn from you two in person, but I’m grateful to be able to learn from your perspective via this interview.

    I have taught beginning swing dance lessons in Seattle and the bay area for 3 years, and I used to say that I “just” taught beginners, although deep down I felt a huge sense of pride and responsibility in that role. Recently I started more explicitly “owning” the role of teaching beginning dancers for reasons you mentioned…it is such an honor to be present when people are just learning how to connect/communicate with a partner on a totally new level, and making them feel comfortable to try new things, be creative, listen, develop patience, etc is so important and such a worthy challenge. I often joke to my classes that I’m teaching a “non-verbal communications course,” but in earnest that is what I believe!

    Anyway, thanks for sharing your perspective, I will continue to revisit this interview for inspiration it in the future I’m sure!

  9. Paul, This is so incredibly beautiful, heartfelt, right on, personal, and wise. The attitude you and Sharon had was always welcoming. The classes were fun. (After being in the professional ballet/modern world- I was not impressed by teachers or dancers full of themselves, nor interested). The magic of social dance is about connections, with the music, with oneself, with your partner, with the community! Lindy affords opportunities for improvisation, so there is an added level of connecting with the many possibilities of the moment. I am so so glad to have met you and the other ‘old timers’ way back in the 90s when I was already not such a young timer myself. You expressed many of the sentiments I have held. Best to you and Sharon.

  10. Thank you Paul for doing this interview. You and Sharon were my favorite instructors and I loved what you both brought to me, The 9:20 & the scene a-ways back when. Doing my best to keep that spirit alive & The 9:20 Special … well, ever-so special. I miss having you here, but am very happy and pleased you are enjoying life.

    Thank you for obtaining this interview. It is way overdue and I am happy to see it.

  11. What a delight to see your names! I was another (and still am) big fan of both of you. I love teaching dance to those who think they can’t dance and I LOVED taking classes from you both at Ashokan many years ago.. I even learned a little tap dance from Sharon! (not well- but I did it!) Love your insights on partnership, dancing, changes and the flow of life. Waiting for the next words of wisdom and wishing the very best of life to you both.

  12. Great interview! I had the wonderful opportunity to learn a little from Paul & Sharon as I was just getting started in the Lindy Hop world. I was really inspired by their teaching approach and I would say that they are some of the main teachers who inspired me towards the realm of teaching dance. Thanks for posting this Bobby! And thanks Paul and Sharon for sharing with us!

  13. Great interview! Thank you Paul and Sharon. You’re on a different journey now, and I was happy to intersect paths with you when you were spreading Lindy Hop love to SF and beyond. I really appreciated you holding those Oakland classes. It probably wasn’t profitable because of the class size, but I felt so energized after getting so much Paul & Sharon time. My skills are stuck back in that era, but thank you for teaching me skills I can use for instant joy into my old age. :)

  14. Paul and Sharon gave me my first teaching job with Chad Cubo. We had to take over their weekly classes while they were in Herrang. It must have been in 1999 right? or 98?
    I was scared to death but when it was all done, I learned that I liked teaching.
    Thank you both for the opprotunity you gave me.
    Also, thank you for the rug cutter routine, I learn so much from that but most of all I learned how amazingly talented you both were.

    I love you guys and miss you all the time.

  15. Thank you Bobby White for publishing the interview with Paul and Sharon–easily two of our most favorite people ever in Lindy Hop.

    Allen Hall, the lessor dancer of Allen and Rudy

  16. In more than ten years of dance classes–in tango, salsa, swing, and a dozen other styles–THE best dance class I ever had was with Paul and Sharon at the Durham Music and Dance Festival in 2006. It changed my dancing and my life. They taught me the real meaning of musicality, taught me dare to make mistakes, taught me that dancing was about expressing the feelings that music gives you and not about walking patterns. This is a great interview, and shows the sensibility that made that class so great.

  17. Bobby, thanks for the awesome interview! I had my first ever “Master’s” class with Paul and Sharon back in 2004 at the Durham Armory. Their workshop absolutely blew my mind (and my woefully simple dance skills) right out of the water. I learned so much from their sincere and accepting teaching style and felt I was able to at least try anything. Thank you for staying true to what you believe, it did then and still does inspire me to be the same kind of dancer.

  18. I’ve only taken one class with Paul and many with Sharon, but I absolutely love them. All the elitist bull went out the window, and it was purely about the joy of dancing. This came at a time in my life when I really needed a dose of joy. Thank you for all the fun and laughs! And, the dancing too. ;)

  19. My ex and I were fortunate enough to take Lindy Hop from Paul and Sharon in the late 90’s/early 2000’s in SF. We met in their Metronome class. Their selfless enthusiasm for teaching and the dance were so obvious and a large part of what made it so much fun. I agree with Paul that Sharon is a great teacher, having taken private lessons with her I learned leading in a way I hadn’t in a class or on the floor.

    Special folks, glad to hear they are doing well. My ex Katherine and I still Lindy Hop together and our daughter gets to see our joy as we dance. Thanks, Paul and Sharon!

  20. They opened up my life in wonderful ways providing a wonderful Lindy Hop Community in SF. Sharon was the Matriarch of SF Lindy.

  21. Wow…very inspiring words! Thank you very much Paul.
    Have been in the local lindy scene for over 4 years. Having attended 10 workshops locally, interstate and overseas, I still consider myself a toddler and a little bit lost. I have noticed a lot of teachers (unfortunately most international teachers I so admire) lacks the spirit to keep the fundamentals of Lindy hop alive. Sad but does encourage me to always seek a positive experience.
    My baby steps and baptism to the lindy community was all inspired by Mr. Steven Mitchell through CampOz! Thank you Mr Mitchell and I wish you all the best!
    “Move with the music. Feel the music..AH AHH Ah. Feel the connection. Be in the moment!”i

    SwingDance NT

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