Swinging the blues away
Dance, twirl, and spin to the beat with MIT’s Lindy Hop Society
To the jazzy sound of the clarinet, pairs twirl and spin across the floor of Lobdell, switching styles from improvisational blues to fast-paced swing in tune to the music. But this wasn’t a dance competition, or an exclusive party — it was just one of the weekly dances run by the MIT Lindy Hop Society.
According to Ken T. Takusagawa SM ’03, one of the club organizers, the society was started by a group of graduate students who were passionate about swing dancing. They met informally in random classrooms until becoming an official organization in 2001. Currently, there are more graduate student members than undergraduates, in addition to the alums and outside visitors from Boston’s nationally renowned swing dancing scene. Compared to other Boston swing clubs, the MIT Lindy Hop Society is larger, with a greater proportion of beginners. It’s free too, which is good for college students.
Even if you’ve never stepped foot on a dance floor, you can still have fun learning how to dance. The club is very beginner-friendly, with free lessons taught by volunteer instructors before each dance. And if you’re a beginner, you won’t be alone, because other beginners often come to dances. “It’s not too difficult to pick up on your first try,” Takusagawa said. “There’s not so many strict rules about what is right or what is wrong.”
For swing dancing, there’s less emphasis on fixed steps than a more European style like waltz. Once you know the basic step, you can add flair and variations on a theme. If you’re already an expert in another style of dance, then you can incorporate those moves into swing, which is a remarkably plastic form.
“I’ve done many forms of dance, [but] this one I like because … there aren’t that many fixed moves and patterns. It unleashes the freedom and the artistry of the music,” Takusagawa said.
With blues, the gestures are even more fluid, with variable steps and tempo. The movements of the body are as improvisational as the music itself. Once you have the flow of the music down, you can mix it up by adding dips and spins. If you love blues music, this is a good way to experience it in a whole new dimension. Being familiar with the music can inspire dance variations, like hearing lyrical “sentences” punctuated with pauses being the perfect opportunity for a “call and response” type dance.
But mastering the dance is still a challenge; it’s a different way of thinking than integration or vector calculus. Swing is full of high-energy action, with the leader and the follower counterbalancing each other’s weight as they fling each other around, like a carnival ride for two. For the truly advanced, there are even aerial moves that flip the follower over the back of the leader. “The faster you spin, the more fun,” said Aaron L. Scheinberg G, one of the dancers.
Dancing is all about reading your partner’s signals and moving in sync with them, although at my neophyte level, I mostly concentrate on avoiding people’s feet. However, an expert dancer showed me moves I had previously thought to be in the realm of professionals, like a double-person spin. Confidence makes the moves. But the most important thing to remember is that there’s no pressure and it’s all for fun, just like being on freshman pass/no record again.
Many find the Lindy Hop Society to be a great way to meet new people. Undergraduates, graduate students, MIT employees and alums, and the non-MIT-affiliated are all brought together out of a common love of swing. Don’t worry if you don’t have a partner coming in, because you’re sure to find one on the dance floor. Julia Wagner (a Tufts University ’11), one of the dance teachers, says that a lot of dancers are working engineers, and she was even able to find professional contacts in the society. “When you’re a student, a lot of times you end up in your student bubble, but it’s really very nice to have friends in other age groups,” she said.
Swing dancing, energetic music, and fun people — what more could you ask for? The next time you’re free on a Wednesday night, come to Lobdell, grab a partner, and swing the night away.