Photo by Lee Woolcock
Wingtip shoes glide under the Arc de Triomf. Shin-length, thrift-shop skirts whirl through Parc Ciutadella. The sounds of Louis Armstrong pump out, filling Plaça Virreina with joyous glee. What year is this? Is Woody Allen shooting a period piece? Is that la sardana? Salsa? Samba? None of these. It is the Barcelona swing movement.
The term ‘swing dance’ covers an array of styles including the charleston, shag, balboa and jitterbug. But the granddaddy of these partner dances is the addictive lindy hop, which evolved from the charleston in the late Twenties at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, New York City. Legend has it that the term was coined after comparing the aviator Charles ‘Lindy’ Lindbergh’s flight that hopped the Atlantic to the syncopated feet of the dancers, which seemed to be flying.
Since its inception, lindy hop has been a darling of the mass media appearing in newsreels, Hollywood films, such as the Marx Brothers’ hilarious Day at the Races (1937) and Hellzapoppin (1941), and classic TV programmes such as I Love Lucy (1953). Despite a few dormant decades, a swing revival, starting in the bars and dancehalls of California in the early Nineties, swept east engulfing New York, London, Paris, and eventually landing in Barcelona in 1998.
“When we started here in the civic centres, it was very difficult, no one knew what we were doing,” said Lluis Vila, 44, the Catalan who is generally acknowledged to be responsible for introducing swing dancing to Spain. “People didn’t even know the words ‘swing’, ‘lindy hop’, ‘jive’. We were in the desert.”
Vila, a dapper, charming man, began folk dancing as a child in the village festivals around Olot. When he moved to Barcelona to study Information Technology, he discovered salsa and ballroom. Upon graduation, he won a fellowship to the University of California, where he discovered big band music and swing dancing. “It was love at first sight. I was in an Italian restaurant, and this big band kicked off, everyone started dancing. I jumped up and never stopped.”
Vila balanced his study of the sliding steps and hopping moves with his academic work for the next three years, and when he returned to Barcelona he brought his love of swing with him. “We started with four devoted couples, now we have over 500 regular dancers with at least 11 certified teachers. You can find a class or a jam every night of the week.”
In 2000, Lluis and friends opened BallaSwing, a studio in Sants where they focus on teaching swing, but also offer rock, tap, African and hip hop classes. When asked why he chose swing among all the other dances, he became serious for a split second. “Every song is different, every dance is new, the freedom and improvisation is what really keeps me hooked,” he said, gliding onto the school’s dance floor as an Oscar Peterson tune began to play, flipping and twisting another smiling partner.
In 1998, the Barcelona Swing Association was established. They have a threefold mission: to promote swing dance and music; to provide a meeting place for dancers and finally to maintain contact with the international swing dance scene. Modelled after a similar group in San Francisco, they run outdoor dances, weather permitting, through the city on Sunday afternoons. These sessions are free, fun and attended by people from all over the world.
One recent Sunday afternoon, one of them was Piper Weiss, a college student from San Diego who was backpacking through Europe. “Every city I go to, I look up the swing clubs. The people are super-nice, the music is awesome and I need the exercise after so many buses and trains. In Berlin, they even had a flophouse for swing-travellers. It is the best way to meet like-minded people and have fun.”
Catalan Josep Torres had sweat dripping down his forehead as he took a long drink of water and spoke in English. “Look at their faces, everyone is smiling. It is impossible to dance to this music without smiling. Another thing, there are always many more women than men, so we get to dance all the time, it feels good to be in demand for once.”
Torres started dancing six months ago after recovering from a motorcycle accident. “I couldn’t play football anymore. I was feeling down. A friend invited me to come to a class and, well, here I am.
“The steps are not difficult to learn, but to be good is difficult. Like learning English, the basics are easy; the problem is improvising and becoming fluid. One thing I have learned is that a girl prefers a good leader, rather than a good dancer.”
Lluis Vila estimated that 15 percent of his students are from abroad, which, he noted, makes for a good environment to meet people. “We get people from everywhere, everyone gets along, there is a good vibe. When I went to New York last summer I met some great people. They invited me up to New Hampshire, we stayed at a farm and danced every night. Swing can help make a holiday cheaper. Our doors are open to everyone.”
Marion Lefleur agreed. A Parisian, she visits her friends in Barcelona as much as possible. “The outdoor jams are the best. At our club in Paris there are not enough men, I mean leaders, so I have learned to dance both lead and follow. Now I can dance with both men and women and never have to sit out a song.”
As well as breaking down cultural and linguistic barriers, swing dancing can also claim responsibility for taking a significant step against racial segregation in the US. When Benny Goodman toured with a racially mixed band in the Thirties, it was a major breakthrough, allowing some Depression-era dance floors to forget racial tensions for at least the length of a song.
Economic desperation and racial exclusion have not disappeared from the urban scene. Nor have the benefits of swing dancing. The more difficult daily city life becomes, the easier and more necessary it is to throw caution to the wind and go dance. The images of yesteryear—zoot-suited dancers with fedoras swinging to Louis Jordan, or long polka-dotted dresses flowing under tight-knit sweaters while Ella Fitzgerald croons—may have given way to denim and T-shirts, but there is one thing that has stayed the same and that is the perma-grins that lindy hoppers just cannot wipe off their glistening faces.
Swing dancing is back, and it is here to stay.
Everything about swing in Barcelona—www.bcnswing.org
Online dance instructions—www.idance.net
Dancing of all types in Barcelona—www.barcelona-dance.com
First published April 2009.
August 2010 update:
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