Oberlin Blogs

Just (Swing) Dance

December 7, 2009

Aries Indenbaum ’09

I love dancing. Now, I am not a particularly good dancer. Until Oberlin, I never took any dance classes. I don't have a dancer's body. I don't move with grace, or have great balance. I'm incredibly clumsy -- as a freshman, I actually fell on my face hard enough to give myself a black eye. But regardless, I love it. Especially swing.

I'd forgotten how much I loved swing until Oberlin Jazz Dance Festival. While I love dancing at shows, both rocking out by myself or moshing with a crowd, there's something incredible about partner dances. For three minutes, you belong to each other. Unlike contra, there are no interruptions, no set things -- just you, your partner, and the music, in this cozy trio.

The only iffy thing about swing is that it's kinda... skill-dependent. As much as I love the style, it certainly makes me feel deeply incompetent on a regular basis. Over the summer, I went with some friends to a Big Bad Voodoo Daddy concert in Youngstown. It was fantastic (and free!), but I haven't felt quite so body-awful since middle school.

Picture Aries in Middle School: Braces. Glasses. Bookworm. Volleyball/soccer jock. Awkward. Chubby. Bad hair. Growth spurt. Tomboy. Nerd. Insecure. Big fan of Gundam Wing.

Swing forces me to be acutely aware of all of the things I am terrible with -- negotiating conversations with new people, asking a person who is probably (in comparison to me)...
A) Older
B) Smarter
C) More successful
D) Very attractive
E) A far, far better dancer
F) (A + C + E) or (B + D + E)
... to spend 3 intimate minutes with me, during which I will certainly disappoint or annoy them.

Yet... anything that perks up my heart rate to a certain speed makes me very happy. As I dance, I get more happy and my paralyzing insecurity dwindles, so I can ask more folks to dance... but I also get more tired and my meager abilities dwindle. It's a vicious catch-22. Back to Middle School.

This semester, I'm taking the Continuing Swing ExCo class, which has helped my dancing a hundred-fold. Though I know some people can learn really well on the dance floor, or from videos, I really do like to feel out moves in class. Each class covers a lot of ground; the course as a whole feels like a survivor's guide to swing. John, Sam, and Cree, the fantastic teachers, covered everything from lindy hop, musicality blues, aerials, connection, to solo Charleston. Each class ran a little bit over, time-wise, as we just wanted to learn more and more.

I also really love ExCos. While student teachers obviously aren't professors, they're incredibly passionate about their material. I'm confident that if John, Cree, and Sam could dance every single night, they would. And they make that passion contagious. After a 90-minute class, everyone wants more.

I'm going to write a whole 'nother post about the Swing ExCo. Cause it's that good.

John and Sam, Swing ExCo teachers in action, cultivating Dance-Dance-Addiction! Photo Credit: Fenna Blue

Thankfully, when we ask for more, OSwing provides. In addition to weekly small jams on Sunday nights, and Experimental Swing Workgroups (students teaching others their specialties), the Oberlin Swing Society puts on two giant dance weekends a year, bringing teachers and dancers from across the country.

The workshop this semester, the Hooverville Stomp, swallowed my life.

Monica, the main organizer of the Stomp, taking time out to dance. Photo Credit: Fenna Blue.

Monica dancing with Brett, one of the co-chairs of OSwing. Photo Credit: Fenna Blue.

I wrote this snazzy article on it for the alumni newsletter:

The first dance of a swing workshop is awkward. The folks from out of town chat on the sidelines, while the local crowd hits the dance floor the instant they arrive. When asked to dance, everyone apologizes with a variation on, "Please don't get excited -- I'm not really a great dancer." But as the night progresses, and everyone dances with one another, any awkwardness dissipates.

Oberlin's Hooverville Stomp last weekend was no different. Organized by OSwing, the 1930s-themed workshop brought in teachers and students from across the United States -- from Seattle to D.C., L.A. to Ann Arbor. Each day's schedule went from 10 a.m. to 3 a.m., with classes offered all day and dances going all night.

"The Hooverville Stomp is our chance to share something we really love," says senior Brandi Ferrebee, cochair of OSwing.

The workshop's centerpiece was the Saturday night dance, with a live band featuring Jim Dapogny, one of the foremost jazz players in the country. The quartet played brilliantly, facilitating jam circles and a birthday dance. For the latter, lucky birthday boys and girls dance continuously through a song, with different partners cutting in. "Generally, as many people cut in as the person is years old -- or until the song ends," explains junior Brett Foreman, OSwing's other cochair.

Besides the opportunities to socialize and dance, the workshop also offered lessons. Instructors Adam Boehmer, Erin Morris, Mike Faltesek, and Ramona Staffeld taught two tracks of lessons, helping beginners and long-time dancers alike. Boehmer and Morris taught playfully, poking fun at each other while leading complex sequences. Rather than requiring blind trust, they explained the components of a move, showing how certain positions are vital for sharing information and increasing connection.

Faltesek and Staffeld stressed the feeling of the dance and the union between music and partners. They shared an awesome patter, dancing and teaching with incredible passion for both the music and the motion. "I got into this because of the music," Faltesek said. "Everyone I listen to is dead."

Given the huge amount of work required to run a workshop -- including writing contracts, bringing in a band, and handling all the nuts and bolts of housing -- the Hooverville Stomp ran astoundingly smoothly.

"I checked my e-mail every 30 seconds," says junior Monica Volk, the workshop coordinator. She attended every event, or ran around in the background troubleshooting.

"At the beginning of the year, I proposed that OSwing have a workshop coordinator position. I didn't intend it to be me," she says ruefully.

While Monica took on a lion's share of responsibilities, OSwing members helped support the event. From co-chairs Brandi and Brett, who handled last-minute details, to new members like Anna Read, who helped with set up for each event.

Though short, the weekend was incredibly comfortable: the Farewell Dance on Sunday was filled with hugs. "After you dance with a person, it's pretty easy to talk to them," says Brandi. Oberlin dancers connected with folks from all over, broadening communities and deepening friendships.

Pertinent Facts (not addressed by snazzy article)

The teachers were so good! They were amazing dancers, but really good at articulating what they wanted us to do. And they called us on it if we didn't do what they wanted. Adam and Erin were hilarious, teasing the other; Mike kept saying really profane, hilarious things and apologizing, "I'm on a college campus!" Ramona brought an incredible wealth of energy.

I went to every event: 4 classes each day; a formal dance each day, and a late night for two nights.... After about 6 hours of dance a day, I could feel new, fascinatingly painful parts of my calves and thighs. Which, as a huge gym rat, I totally enjoyed.

I also sweated through each garment I wore. By Sunday night, I generated an impressive pile of putrid shirts and socks. For one block of classes, I wore jeans. Terrible choice. It felt like wearing wool leggings in July.

Brandi dancing with Adam Boehmer, one of the instructors. Photo Credit: Fenna Blue.


Mike and Ramona teaching a hardcore tandem Charleston class. Photo Credit: Dale R!

Part of the great parts of a workshop weekend are the visitors, and the chance to dance with new people. It's an incredible, dynamic way to learn. Other people whip out partner Charleston variations I haven't ever seen outside of YouTube.

You also relearn your own habits. For instance, I laugh uncontrollably when something surprises me, even if I totally botch whatever the lead wanted me to do. Out-of-town leads were confused by my occasional giggles.

I hosted 4 guests from Michigan. They were awesome! And I danced with alumni visiting from NYC! (Though I technically am an alum myself, I self-identify as staff, or student, much more. I get excited and awed by "real" alums who have real lives.)

Brandi's totally right: I feel much closer to people after we dance. Sometimes, around new folks, I can be a bit awkward, but it ain't hard to talk to someone after you've danced with them cheek-to-cheek.

And by now, I've gotten better at asking people to dance. Early in the summer, I had a good conversation with a friend of mine, Nick, who's a great dancer:

I just have a huge inferiority complex as far as swing is concerned.

If you keep dancing, you'll get rid of the complex, even if the inferiority is still there.

The complex is fading now, Nick. Bit by bit.


Harris and I at the Farewell Dance. Harris, in addition to being a math whiz, is also a fantastic dancer. Life is unfair. Photo Credit: Fenna Blue.

PS: Thanks to Fenna Blue, who took awesome photos. Go see them!

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