Saturday, 11 January 2020

Swingtime with the Ulster Orchestra

Two weeks tonight, Saturday 25th January, the Ulster Orchestra will be playing a host of swingin' tunes in the Waterfront Hall, Belfast, ranging from 1920s Big Band through to the 1960s Rat Pack eras... and I have two tickets to give away!

The winner will be announced the evening of Monday 20th and all you have to do is like and share this post on the Swing Slate's Facebook page or comment below.

And if you don't want to risk missing out, you can buy tickets from the following link:!

Good Luck!

Monday, 4 November 2019

Event Report: Oslo Lindy Exchange 2019

Four years ago I went to OLX and had a brilliant weekend in a beautiful city with wonderful dancers and people, and I can happily share that OLX 2019 did not disappoint on any of those fronts.

The difference, however, was that whilst my 2015 OLX trip took me to Oxford, for OLX 2019 I went to Oslo!

But unlike a few unfortunate supporters of my beloved Liverpool FC, who recently confused the Belgian cities of Genk and Gent, I arrived precisely where I meant to. And paraphrasing Gandalf also provides a convenient segue to the weekend’s first social venue: Moria!

I’ve learnt that (Soria) Moria is the name of Norway’s most cherished mythical castle, and it can be found on a variety of buildings around Oslo, but seeing it in neon atop an impressive portico excited the Tolkien fan within.

And so, once my opinion of Norwegian cuisine had recovered from the shock of finding "kitten in coconut milk" on a local restaurant menu (Google mistranslated the word 'kylling' - chicken), it was time to head into Soria Moria for the first social of the weekend.

some of the famous sculptures in Frogner Park looked familiar...

Friday’s venue, which also hosted Saturday night’s social, was a brilliant setting with a great floor, ample space for the excellent live acts, and plenty of room if you wanted to catch a breather and chat with some of the other dancers.

And the live acts truly were excellent.

On Friday we had the Birkelunden Big Band, while on Saturday the Jazzombies and the Shoeshine Boys traded short sets for a few hours, and I cannot tell you how jealous I was of this amazing music line up. As well as the talented instrumentalists and charismatic band leaders there were also some immensely gifted vocalists channelling Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday for another layer of halcyon charm. Credit must also go to the DJs who ensured that the weekend’s stellar soundtrack continued throughout.

Also, at sign-up on Friday, everyone was offered the opportunity to join the weekend’s ‘amateur band’ who performed at Sunday’s farewell tea dance in Bygdelagssamskipnaden (non-Scandis can rejoice that it is just referred to as ‘BLS’), and considering the very brief amount of rehearsal time squeezed in over the weekend, they too put on a cracking performance.

One of the highlights of any exchange is the opportunity to stay with a generous local host (especially considering the expense of a Nordic city like Oslo), and on this front I definitely lucked out as Erik proved to be a top host and a top bloke.

Although work commitments kept him from getting to Friday’s social, Erik made sure that the directions and keys to his apartment made their way to me (thanks, Liv Julie!) – and that in and of itself is another example of why I love the Lindy hop community: I’d never previously met Erik and knew very few people in the Oslo scene, but yet I was still entrusted with the keys to his home without question.

Add in the fact that he cooked me a fry each morning and you can see why we got on, plus: a special mention must be made of Erik’s home-baked bread. Oh yes indeed.

On Saturday, we met in Kulturhuset, a quirky bar and cultural hub to begin a jazzy tour of Oslo which saw us split into teams and take off around the city, following clues to various locations where we were to perform a variety of jazz steps. Aside from the frankly horrendous weather, it was great craic and a great opportunity to chat away with other dancers whilst getting to know the host city a little better before another great night of dancing in Soria Moria.

Sunday’s social activity was a uniquely Nordic affair as we all headed to SALT - a “nomadic art project… that brings together art, music, food and architecture”… and saunas! Now, truth be told, I am not a sauna fan, but I just did not want to miss out, and considering the setting on Oslofjord faced the iconic Opera House, and the weather finally decided to play nice, I was very glad I went.

As well as having your choice of sauna, depending on whether you wanted to be steam boiled, medium-cooked, or just lightly blanched, there was also a traditional Sámi sauna ritual which, despite my struggles (whilst everyone else sat serenely on the top benches, I was practically lying on the floor trying to get cool and adamantly refusing to be the first to quit) I actually enjoyed. Getting repeatedly hit with a cold water-soaked bush was an unexpected highlight, and the additional opportunity to dash out of the sauna and jump into the ball-shrinkingly cold fjord was an exhilarating one.

SALT also had a number of food huts and a suitable space for dancing, plus the saunas themselves are a famously social activity, and I must thank everyone for very kindly speaking in English as much as they did. Despite nearly everybody else being Norwegian or Swedish and therefore very capable of conversing in a homely tongue, they more often than not switched to English to ensure I wasn’t left out. Thank you!

The farewell tea dance was a relaxed affair and featured cake (result!) but as I was staying for longer than just the weekend I thankfully didn’t have to say farewell to Norway just yet!

Additional bit of background info: I have wanted to visit Norway since I did a school project on Vikings and the fjords when I was eight (which my mum remarkably still has), and above all else I have wanted to see the fully preserved 9th century Oseberg ship. I was rather excited.

the Oseberg ship!
not vertigo friendly
I was also very lucky to have had a local tour-guide for the day so I must say a huge thank you to Hildegunn for offering to show me around (and translating)! After visiting the Viking Ship Museum, the Museum of Cultural History and the beautiful Huk park on Bygdøy, we then went up to the 1952 Winter Olympic venue of Holmenkollbakken, where we may or may not have disregarded a series of barriers and stern looking warnings to climb to the very top of the famous ski jump via a fairly precarious stairway (above) for a spectacular view of Oslo (below).

a stunning view of a stunning city [side note: ski jumpers aren't wise in the head]

On the Monday night I went for a solo saunter around the city and then (sorry Erik) decided to try out the electric scooters that I had seen scattered about the city; also doing my very best to avoid scattering myself across the tarmac.

In the day or two I used these things, the novelty never subsided. They take off at a fair pace and considering my penchant for accidents on two wheels it is a wonder I didn’t do myself a mischief. Though I must also say, that despite their speed the scooters were not the most efficient for a tourist in an unfamiliar city as I was often having so much fun that I kept forgetting where I was going.

And so, for the purposes of Tuesday's busy tourist itinerary, bike hire provided a more direct and leisurely mode of transport.

Tuesday night, however, brought a final hurrah with the Birkelunden Big Band casually playing for a midweek social at Kulturhuset (have I mentioned how jealous I am of the live music in Oslo?!), more amazing dances, some great conversation, many goodbyes and one last electric scooter odyssey.

All in all, I had a truly wonderful weekend in a phenomenal city. A huge congratulations to the organisers for putting on a stonker of an event and a particular thanks once again to Erik and Hildegunn and the many, many wonderful people I met. As well as swinging out with the experienced campaigners it is always so invigorating to dance with those at the start of their Lindy journey. I met a handful of folk who had been to only one or two classes but were completely at ease at an event of this size, and it says much about the community that that kind of confidence has been imbued in its beginners.

Tusen takk for nå!

Friday, 29 March 2019

Concerns about 'gatekeeping'

I love Lindy hop and I love the Lindy hop community.

Both have brought me so much joy since I first discovered this amazing dance a few years ago, but I have become increasingly saddened by some of the comments I read online and occasionally hear.

Every so often someone shares a video or something else that brought joy to them and they want to share it with everyone else. Or maybe they just bought their first vintage outfit and tonight is its social debut. Perhaps they asked someone else after class “…who is Frankie Manning?” Or maybe they requested that the DJ play Elvis or Sinatra.

If someone is not yet versed in all of the intricacies of Lindy hop or swing dancing history, or Swing Era music, or the fashion trends of the 1920s-50s, it is possible that they may overlook a detail or two. One of the benefits of a community is that is offers the opportunity to educate and to be educated - I have learnt a lot from reading things written or shared by others better versed than I am, and by listening to more experienced dancers share a little about the history of the dance I love.

But there is a way to inform and share opinions that does not involve scoffing, being patronising or just being rude. A current McDonald’s advert illustrates this perfectly.

I came to Lindy hop through listening to Buddy Holly, Frank Sinatra and electroswing; by watching the dancing in Grease; and, though not directly related, by thinking I should have been a greaser. I know now that none of those things shares much (if anything) with the Swing Era or the birth of Lindy hop, but that is the path I took and I imagine there may be others who were not born into Count Basie, Frankie Manning and swing outs.

I know that I am going in hard on the Lindy hop community, here. I have commented before that self-styled ‘purists’ exist in all dances and walks of life, but sadly the greater something's provenance the louder the snobs. Within Lindy hop I am very grateful that the people I am aiming this post at are very much in the minority. But as they are often some of the more experienced and vocal within our community, they stand to do it the biggest damage due to the status they are afforded.

Frankie stated that he and his fellow Lindy hop pioneers were subjected to dismissive and pejorative statements from event organisers, agents, and other dancers who all viewed Lindy hop with utter disdain throughout its early years. Frankie’s goal was to elevate Lindy hop into the global dance pantheon alongside ballroom and ballet, and he and others had to fight against all forms of discrimination to achieve that.

Furthermore, and based upon the hard work of Frankie and others, the Lindy hop community has developed a reputation for its inclusivity and progressive stance on a number of important (social) issues. So, to hear or read sanctimonious comments from within our community mocking the authenticity in someone’s outfit or music choices, the accuracy of their terminology or historical knowledge, or even just their dancing aesthetic – especially if that someone is at a much earlier stage of their Lindy hop adventure – saddens and sometimes enrages me.

It is antithetical to inclusivity.

I understand that in order for Lindy hop to be recognisably preserved then a curriculum of sorts must extend beyond teaching footwork and technique. There is much to learn about swing dancing, the Swing Era, and the many figures who feature prominently, and much of it is objective, historical fact that is not subject to differences of opinion.

Everyone could do with learning a little more, and some more than others. But, as with all learning, I have always found that positive feedback keeps me hungrier than negative feedback. I know that my students agree, and I am fairly certain that others would too. 

Nearly everyone I have met in the Lindy hop community has been kind, warm, and overflowing with a passion for their dance and for those who share it with them. Do not be the exception.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Guest Review: Bristol New Year Swing Celebration 2017

In Belfast, there are few people (if any!) more enraptured by swing dancing and all related things than Curtis McAuley. Curtis is now starting to clock up some serious mileage attending events so I thought I would ask him to review his recently attended New Year Swing Celebration; hosted by Swing Dance Bristol.

C: I should start by saying I am relatively new to lindy hop! My swing story only started in November 2016 so at the time of the Bristol event I was 13 months into what I hope will be many years to follow (but mostly lead!). This was my fifth event outside of my native Belfast scene and if you’ve never been to Belfast what are you waiting for?! We are small but we’ve a big heart, a bigger than expected scene and we love opening our arms to newbies and visitors alike.

Now down to business, how was Bristol? In short - spectacular! I attended the event alone but ran into a few familiar faces from previous events. As with other events I've attended by myself I began the festival with my ‘shy syndrome’ firmly in evidence… not sure where to place myself, anxious about my level of ability and where I would fit in, but thankfully it didn’t last too long.

In short: four days, four socials, many tasters and too many classes for me to count.

Day One

I arrived in Bristol on Thursday the 28th having never been before. The festival wasn’t officially starting until the Friday but there was a special screening of Alive and Kicking which I had not seen before and was keen to view.

It documents the origins of Lindy Hop and was an absolutely sensational way to kick off the festival!! Full of so many inspiring stories and personal journeys illustrating how swing dance has inspired others: no better way to start the festival for me. I managed to stay on my feet long enough to squeeze in a tiny hour of social dancing but all the travel and post-Christmas sleep deprivation took its toll and sent me off to find my bed.

Day Two

On Friday it began…three taster classes followed by a mammoth social which went on until 4am.

The first taster was entitled ‘baby aerials’ and it taught me that aerials don’t need to be big to be effective, I must admit I don’t tend to use them at all but this class introduced some nice and easy (but most importantly safe aerials).

It was taught by Andy Fleming and Lindsay Weight who I’d not heard of before but oh boy - they are at the top end of my favourite teachers now! Although I only managed that one session with them (they were committed to teaching the aerials track throughout the festival) that one session really gave me an appetite to learn more aerials and how to incorporate them into my dancing and find those little breaks in the songs where they really have an impact!

Andy was also one of my favourite dancers to watch, to me he simply glided across the floor as if on ice, he had such a hypnotic pulse – it just hooked me in and I would watch him dance every time I got the opportunity.

The rest of the day comprised of:

· A collegiate shag taster with Jim and Nicky from SwingBytes. This was fantastic for me, as I love the dance but don’t get many opportunities to dance it at home.

· An African dance class with a man called Louis, sadly didn’t catch his full name (feel free to message if you know) but the man had serious talent and had everyone dancing, singing and stomping out rhythms simultaneously.

· And of course the social: packed full of dancers and really put my floor-craft skills to the test.

All of this set in a fantastic venue with great caterers who provided lots of homemade deliciousness to enjoy! I retired around midnight, the socials go on way later than that but I’m such a keen bean and wanted to be fresh for classes next day.
The man himself!

Day Three

Classes were organised as a drop in format, applicable to all levels, but don’t allow yourself to be fooled into translating that as dance speak for ‘easy or simple’. These classes really challenged me to analyse my normal dance methods and to employ the strategies being taught, as opposed to defaulting to the methods I had previously been taught or used. This concept was really highlighted by the extraordinary teaching of Benjamin Cook and Michaela Delmonte who ran a fantastic Swingout clinic.

Day or Should I Say Big Night Four

There were of course more classes on New Year’s Eve – format as above, all I attended fantastic! But by now I was totally psyched for the social that evening being held in Kings Weston House.

The organisers really made it as easy as possible for dancers and lucky for me there was transport arranged to the venue, with a pickup location just a measly 5 minute walk from my hostel. But hold on a minute, of course very little in life is that straight forward. The catch… after taking some time to get ‘all dappered up’, I ran into a torrential rainstorm on the short walk! In the words of Forrest Gump, it was that “big old fat rain” and within minutes my hair was wrecked and clothes soaked through. I will never forget that relentless rain, only ever seen rain like it in the tropics! Luckily for me I am always over prepared but this time it turned out that I was properly prepared. I had packed a couple of spare shirts so I was quickly able to change and be dry. Well dry before the inevitable back sweat waterfall that I get at every social. (Hope that wasn’t too graphic)

Kings Weston House was built in 1719 and can only be described as colossal. Recently bought over by a group of friends it serves as a residency for local artists. They inhabit the upper floors of the building and the ground floor seems to be left open for events. The ground floor held three separate dance rooms, each organised for the night for a different dance style; a Lindy room, a Blues room and a room dedicated to Balboa and Shag. I unfortunately don’t have those dances in my repertoire yet (not enough to be brave and social dance anyway) but I loved the idea of being able to move between different areas based on what you wanted to dance. It was fascinating to watch it all and it’s such a great format that I hope events I attend in the future think about incorporating this idea into their socials if space allows.

Around 8pm Benjamin Cooke kicked off the Lindy room with a little 20s Charleston taster class. He is an excellent teacher, incredible dancer and a phenomenal entertainer. He was always smiling and making jokes which just put me in a great mood. I do hope to get to some more classes with him in the future and would recommend that everyone try and get a class with him at some point.

Later on in the evening, as we got close to the big countdown David Zilkha was doing some announcements in the lindy room and please don’t judge me for loving this! He turned to me and asked me to pick a number between 5 and 20. The first thought in my head was why would he want a number but I responded instantly with 12, then he said “11 ...” (I still didn’t get it – slightly slow on the uptake!) “10 ... 9 ...” (my brain finally clicked). Without doubt the most memorable New Year’s countdown I will have for years to come for being in complete dunce mode. Fireworks exploded outside, the New Year and the dancing commenced. I only had about an hour left in me and I loved it, I mean it’s not every weekend that you get the opportunity to dance in a mansion and in the company of people who share your passion.

I got back to the hostel around 2.30 am and you know how it is, you’ve been dancing all night and you’ve completely depleted your energy levels without it even crossing your mind and all you really want now is for someone to pass you something tasty. So I crossed everything worth crossing and hoped they were still serving food. Not a mission I was going back out into tropical rain storm - I was hungry but not nearly hungry enough to brave that. Fortunately when I asked if they were serving food, I heard the heavenly response “Just pizza”…what a flippin’ glorious thing to hear when the rain’s pounding down outside.

The Last Day – Day Five – all together: AWWWWWW!

So it turns out, one year and five dance festivals in that I have a favourite social and it’s the last one. Classes are finished, there’s tons of dance space, teachers and students alike are trying to absorb every last opportunity to dance and everyone is just so relaxed! After a weekend of extended dancing and classes we feel like we’ve known each other forever (at least that’s how I feel at any events I attend alone.)

This event was simply spectacular and I am very grateful I was able to participate in it. For me one of the best things was how welcomed I felt as an outsider in the scene, they made me feel at ease in a brand new place and I got comfortable very quickly.

With so much to choose from the whole weekend was a total delight for all dancers. So what else could my word for the festival be but ‘Choice’, really the variety of classes was something else! I haven’t come across this level of variety at other events and I must say it’s a marvellous way to do it!

The next Bristol Swing Festival is happening from the 30th March - 2nd April. I would thoroughly recommend giving it a go if you are able! Great scene, lovely people and a fantastic community of musicians that seem to mingle spectacularly well with the dance crowd. Let’s not forget the local pub, The Old Duke, which had live music every night and had such great jazz vibes.

Hopefully in the next few years we will see our local Belfast scene continue to grow into something similar – I know we have the passion for it!

Teaching Staff:
· David Zilkha
· Michaela Delmonte
· Benjamin Cooke
· Kira Emslie
· Robyn Larsen
· Ron & Sharon Dubrovinsky
· Maxime Pampluma & Frankie Jaffey
· Andy and Lindsay Fleming
· Jim & Nicky of Swingbytes

Friday, 26 January 2018

Swingterfell: swing is coming!!

In just a few weeks, Belfast will be hosting Northern Ireland's first ever west coast swing weekender: Swingterfell, and to say I'm excited would be a gross understatement.

In order to temper said excitement, I thought I'd ask the organisers and hosts, Sharon Matchett and Andrew Shellard from West Coast Swing NI, a few questions in the wild hope that a little bit more info about this event would somehow satisfy my impatience.

It didn't, but here are their answers anyway.

Sharon & Andrew, tell us more about Swingterfell! To start with (and for anyone who somehow doesn't know) - where has the name come from? 

A: The idea for the name came from Northern Ireland’s association with ‘Game Of Thrones’ as Northern Ireland is the principal filming location for the show and Sharon and I are big fans! So we just combined ‘swing’ and ‘Winterfell’ (the name of the most iconic castle in Westeros)! And as part of our event we have arranged a Game of Thrones tour that visits many of the shows settings located across Northern Ireland.

Well the swing community does seem to love a good pun when it names events! What about the pros and DJs – who are they? 

A: As well as myself, the other pros are Kevin & Aggie Town from London, England, and Estelle Bonnaire from Montpellier, France. Kevin will also be DJing alongside Sharon and I.

If not just for the dancing, why should people visit Belfast?

A: I'd say, the weather obviously is the best all the time (not) haha. More seriously, Belfast has a lot of istory to offer, both recent and older, as well as great food and scenery. The Titanic museum is definitely worth a visit.

And Lonely Planet just rated Belfast as the world’s Number 1 place to visit in 2018 so there's that! 

Swingterfell's hosts: Andrew Shellard & Sharon Matchett

What about who or what has influenced your dancing?

A: I have been influenced by all sorts of dances. I love watching the creativity of hip-hop, so I watch groups like the Jabbawockees or "Les Twins". I also watch Lindy hop (William & Maeva) and Carolina Shag (Brennar Goree) for some more different flavours. In WCS a lot of people inspire me, but if I had to give a top 5 I would say: Kyle Redd, Benji Schwimmer, Maxence Martin, Virginie Grondin, and Ben Morris. Although I’d also like to add Michael Kielbasa and Maxime Zzaoui to this list. As well as Sarah Van Drake.
Andrew, your dancing suggests you know how to count but that is more than five.

And what about your dance background and influences, Sharon? How did you end up in WCS? 

S: Well I actually don't have that much of a dance background. I didn't start partner dancing until I was in my 30's. As a kid I was a figure skater until about 14. I was a national champion and I started training for the Olympics, but alas that was not to be. I may have had a very long gap between but I would but my balance and spin technique firmly down to my skating days.

I had started to learn modern jive as something to do with my husband, you know, like a date night. I however never do things half-heartedly and so began to search YouTube for dance videos, this is when I saw Jordan Frisbee and Tatiana Mollman! I eventually after a couple of years looking in NI found a class and the rest is way too long to go into here!

Jordan and Tatiana continue to inspire and influence me, but I would also add people like Jennifer DeLuca and Sarah Van Drake.

Kevin & Aggie Town and Estelle Bonnaire

And you, Andrew, came to WCS from quite different styles – has this helped or hindered your dancing? 

A: Yes, I have a background in Boogie Woogie and Rock n' Roll and that helped me in many different aspects. As I was competing at a high level in these dances, it taught me how to work, how to be organised and disciplined to get to where I wanted to go in terms of "dance level", but more precisely it helped me with a lot of different aspects within the dance such as frame, musicality, footwork and creativity.

You have come to us from Lyon, which has arguably the biggest WCS scene in Europe - why did you leave?! 

A: Yes Lyon has the biggest in Europe by far. I left to experience more than just ‘teaching’, I wanted to contribute to the growth of WCS somewhere in the world that didn't have the access to so many influences. And I can tell you now, that growing a community is way harder than trying to teach or inspire people to dance! It is a different job entirely but it is definitely worth it!

Sharon, were you the one who convinced Andrew to move here?! 

S: Ha ha! I don't think he needed convincing. Andrew had come to NI for a weekend event that I had organised and our friendliness and charm clearly won him over! He certainly didn't come for the weather. On a more serious note though, I was really shocked when he told me he was going to move here, I couldn't really believe it was happening until he showed me his one way flight to NI. I am incredibly grateful that he did.

So, Andrew, why was it you chose our beloved Belfast?! 

A: I came to Belfast for different reasons, but I would say that the main ones were the people and their incredible sense of welcome, and also because I wanted to get to live in an environment that feels relaxed and easy going, and NI offers all of that and more.

Dawhh...we love you too...

Clockwise from top left: The Dark Hedges (a.k.a. 'The Kingsroad'), the Titanic Museum, Belfast City Hall, the Giant's Causeway

This all said, the scene obviously existed before Andrew arrived so, Sharon, what have been some of the biggest challenges in establishing a scene in a small country and in preparing for this event? 

S: WOW, that's a biggy. The West Coast Swing scene has been a labour of love and I would emphasise the word LABOUR. No one knew what WCS was, I myself came by it by accident and spent 2 years searching for a class.

We had a young teacher for a while from the line dance scene, but after a few months he moved on and I didn't want it to end so along with the original teacher Richard Turner we took the classes ourselves. I was under qualified and honestly that probably had a huge impact too, but I spent every penny I could to go away to workshops and learn from the best.

West Coast Swing is also perceived as a really difficult dance so people come along and after a 6 week course of learning the basics, they can either feel like they know it now and move on to something else or feel frustrated that they aren't dancing it at the level they maybe dance salsa or Lindy hop, so they give up! My biggest frustration is the amount of people who have come to classes, made huge progress and with a few more months of classes would begin to really "get it" but they give up before they reach that stage. Fledgling scenes take time, dedication, money and consistency. We would have a social and 5 people would show up! So trying to then have a social the following month would be a bigger challenge as people would say "well there are only five going, so I won't bother". Trying to turn that attitude into "well there were only five at the last one, if I go this time there might be six" is by far the hardest part.

You've plenty of local events under your belt but how does this one compare? 

S: Well it's really not that different from an organisational point, there was just more fear of the unknown. Will people register? Will students who have been dancing for six months understand that we are bringing world-class teachers to Northern Ireland for their benefit, to give them a flavour of an international event and that hopefully afterwards they will not only have gained lots more skills, practice and love for WCS, but also feel what it's like to belong to this amazing world-wide community.

And how proud are you that NI is finally hosting its first ever swing event?!  

S: I think I will wait until after the event to see if I can say I'm proud, but I am certainly very excited! Oh and nervous!

Finally, Andrew, Belfast has a strong Lindy hop scene, what tips do you have for dancers with a Lindy background who are considering giving WCS a go?

A: Well WCS and Lindy hop are so close as dances and have the same kind of mechanics in terms of patterns and musicality ‘builds’. It is not hard for a good Lindy dancer to be decent at WCS after only a few classes. The major tip I would give, is just relax, come along and enjoy dancing to different kinds of music!

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Frankie Manning Foundation Ambassador Scholarships 2018

The aim of the Frankie Manning Foundation is to fulfil Frankie's dream of spreading the joy of Lindy hop around the globe.

The tireless passion of the FMF to realise this dream is occasionally underappreciated (and I hope to soon write an article specifically about them!) but one of the key ways in which the FMF have ensured that their labours bear fruit is by awarding scholarships to dancers from across the world.

These dancers are not only people who the FMF believe share Frankie's vision but they are also dancers who represent communities the FMF believe would benefit from extra support and who can serve as ambassadors for Lindy hop within their own local communities as well as within the global swing family.

As such, the FMF plays a crucial role by ensuring that anyone can be reached by Lindy hop and also by ensuring that Lindy hop is kept within reach of its roots.

Accordingly, these scholarships especially target those from African-American communities throughout the USA (who are chronically under-represented despite the celebrated origins of Lindy hop), those from geographical areas outside the USA where Lindy hop is in its early stages, and dancers who have participated in FMF youth programs.

As well as the honour of receiving such an accolade, ambassadors are awarded fully-paid scholarships to attend one of the world's leading dance camps (Herräng Dance CampLindyFestBeantown Camp, ILHCSwing Out New Hampshire) and are welcomed into a supportive community of alumni that offers as much help and wisdom as the dance camp itself.

But something that is often overlooked is that anyone can apply to be considered!

Applications for the 2018 Scholarship Programme opened last month and shall close on the 31st December 2017 so there is plenty of time to apply, and as someone who feels incredibly chuffed to have been awarded an Ambassador Scholarship in 2015 I cannot emphasise enough what an incredible experience it was and continues to be.

As I have mentioned, the FMF are keen to support dancers from some communities in particular but they welcome all applications and will consider each on its own merit, so for further information visit the Frankie Manning Foundation website.

A one, and a two, and you know what to do...

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Sophiatown: the revival of South Africa's 'Little Harlem'

Sophiatown's history is steeped in jazz music and dance

Earlier this year I spoke with Brendan Argent, one of the flag-bearers for Cape Town Swing and Mother City Hop, on the growth of their local swing community and its establishment as a global Lindy hop destination.

It's incredibly encouraging to hear about the success stories of nascent scenes, and especially in Africa where the rhythm roots of Lindy hop and jazz run deepest. But another South African community that is undergoing a swing revival is that of Sophiatown: a Johannesburg suburb that was once the nation's beating cultural heart. 

To get a feel for Sophiatown's former glory you need only discover its former nickname of 'Little Harlem', but its proudly held reputation for multiculturalism also attracted the attention of the apartheid regime which set about Sophiatown's systematic destruction in the early 1950s.

Off the back of my article with Brendan I was contacted by Kristina Kreul who, along with Mtsembeni Masina, is championing Sophiatown's jazz renaissance and is understandably keen to raise the profile of the project they hold dear.

left to right: Mtsembeni Masina, Kristna Kreul and Sakhile Gumbi

Kristina, I understand you're not from Sophiatown, or even from South Africa - how did you come to be involved?
I'm from Germany (currently living in Berlin) and originally I went to Swaziland with a friend from Sweden, Mia Bergdahl, to help build an amphitheatre for a rural community. Sadly, that project didn't get off the ground for a few reasons so we decided to leave Swaziland and travel around South Africa. As I like travelling and discovering different dances I wanted to find out a bit more about pantsula - a dance from South African townships that I'd seen featured in a short TV documentary. The documentary connected pantsula with the Jitterbug dances of Harlem, New York and as a Lindy hopper that really caught my attention.

How did you meet Mtsembeni and what is his connection to Sophiatown?
On my penultimate evening in Swaziland I went to a show where Swati artists were showcasing their music and poetry - so much talent there! And that´s where I met Mtsembeni - he was from Johannesburg and we soon started talking about jazz music and dance. I'd just visited Herräng for the first time in the summer of 2016 and I told him about Herräng and the history of Lindy hop, and then asked Mtsembeni if he knew anything about pantsula - as it happened he was just the right person.

He loves jazz, studied jazz music for a while himself and is deeply into South African jazz music, and on top of that he had worked as a tour guide in Johannesburg so he offered to show me around Johannesburg if I ever visited. And one week later I did just that so I got to see pantsula first hand and learned that it was born in Sophiatown.

I also got to start learning the dance itself and I have Eugene Maliboho to thank for that! He taught me pantsula and is associated with Move into Dance Mophatong in Johannesburg, whose contacts have been really helpful in getting this campaign going!

I was intrigued about this place that had been called Little Harlem due to the obvious reference to the Harlem that holds such a dear place in the hearts of the swing community and shares a similar history. And just as in the Savoy ballroom, in Sophiatown people of different skin colours would dance together, discuss politics and enjoy music. But as the Apartheid was on the rise the South African government levelled Sophiatown to the ground in 1955 as they pushed forward their racial segregation.

Mtsembeni leant me a lot of books, music, photographs and so much more to get a better understanding of this place. Soon I realised that, with its destruction, most of Sophiatown's culture had gone, and the dances that formerly had a home there no longer had a home anywhere anymore, and I then immediately thought of Lindy hop and its comeback in the 1980s after being forgotten for decades.

And though the reasons are very different I thought, well, if Lindy hop could make a comeback, why should that not be possible for the dances and culture of Sophiatown?

What do you most love about Sophiatown's past and present and what do you see for its future?
Its past is just so full of art and political energy, and there was insanely good music and dance. Hugh Masekela, South Africa´s most famous trumpet player got his first trumpet from Louis Armstrong! Trevor Huddleston, a priest in Sophiatown, recognised Masekela´s talent and wrote to Louis Armstrong and he was sent a trumpet in return! And Miriam Makeba, an icon of South African music, also started her career here. 

There was fashion, a special way to dress, that is slowly returning now. There was literature, photography and so much more - all of great importance to today's South African identity. And it was also a very political environment. Nelson Mandela held his first memorable speech there, and it was where people would meet and discuss how to overcome the racial discrimination.

I think I am still very much intrigued by how music and dance were used as a form of protest, as an expression of injustice.
Who else has been involved besides yourself and Mstembeni?
My friend Mia Bergdahl helped us with the development of the project as she is very experienced in cultural development. Sadly she had to leave the project though.

Sakhile Gumbi, a visual artist and dear friend of Mtsembeni, helped out with the graphic design and designed prints that are some of the 'perks' available to those who contribute to our crowdfunding campaign, and as part of our crowdfunding promotional video we were able to get a few big names on board to help us!

McCoy Mrubata is a multi award winning composer and saxophonist who has attained national legend status, and Sibusiso Lerole, 'Big Voice Jack Junior', continues to play the same penny whistle that his dad 'Big Voice Jack'  famously played back in the day in Sophiatown and across the world - both are internationally renown South African musicians who have celebrated their connection to Sophiatown and both have featured in our video!

"The Pennywhistlers" by Sakhile Gumbi

The nickname 'Little Harlem' certainly evokes a sense for how lively Sophiatown must have been in its heyday - what similarities were there between the home of Lindy hop?
Yes, it must have been a very vibrant place. People dressed in a special way, spoke their own language created from the different influences of African Languages and Afrikaans, and there were different gangs called the Berliners or the Americans, dressed in funky clothes.

The most obvious link to Harlem was music. Sophiatown was very much influenced by jazz music from the US. Which in the end is music from Africa, so that is kind of a back and forth. And the atmosphere must have been similar, exuberantly showcasing a different kind of lifestyle.

Harlem's Savoy Ballroom was the home of Lindy hop that has now sadly passed into legend - where was Sophiatown's old epicentre and where is becoming the new hub?
Sophiatown´s epicentre was Good Street. That´s where its cinema The Odin stood, which served as a kind of public gathering space and it's something you could compare to the Savoy Ballroom.

There were illegal drinking spots and shebeens that brimmed with life as, at that time, it was illegal for African natives to drink and shebeens were the meeting places - more or less the living rooms of different people transformed into bars, and that’s where everything happened - where jazz musicians performed and people drank and danced and discussed social ills. The most famous shebeen was called '39 Steps' and was located on Good Street.

"Inside Shebeen" by Sakhile Gumbi

And can you tell me about the dancing? Was Lindy hop or jazz dancing popular before apartheid?
The Apartheid regime was officially introduced in 1947 but the racial discrimination had already started well before that. Dance and music had always been a form of protest in South Africa, and I guess that is very understandable as a dancer. Dance and music go beyond words. They deliver a message that can neither be read or heard but be very much felt and understood in the heart. 

Even before Apartheid, Sophiatown was already called Little Harlem, and people were already hooked on jazz music and its blend, or should I say its re-blend, with African music and its dances.

Frankie Manning went to see Sophiatown sometime around 2004 but we couldn´t find out any more about it. It still seems that he also wanted to discover the link to the big Harlem in the US.

What about now - I've read a little about the fusion of swing and jazz with African dances, what are pantsula, township jive and marabi like and what are their origins? Do you have any videos to share?
All origins of those dances are in Sophiatown: Township jive and marabi relate a lot to Jitterbug and swing dances from the US but they have their own African dance influenced elements to it. They are not practised any more in the sense of a social dance community but you can see them on stages where people try to reconstruct them from the rare footage that is left of them. We could only find a few people that actually still remember some moves but the footage is mostly lost.

Pantsula is also rooted in jazz dance moves but kept on evolving until now and is still very much practised in South Africa. You can find some videos online but they are not original footage, rather, they are adaptations of what it used to look like. Unlike in the USA, in Africa at that time the same techniques and technology were not widely available to the African people so less footage was taken and most of it has been lost.

Dancing is impossible without good music - is there a Sophiatown 'sound' and who were/are the most iconic past and present artists and bands who provided it?
There definitely is such a sound. It´s very unique music and has recently been getting more attention. It´s mostly called Kwela and it has a very intriguing sound where you just can't stop tapping your feet! Back in the day, the most famous musicians were Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Dolly Rathebe, The Manhattan Brothers, Todd Matshikiza, Kippie Moeketsi, and Dollar Brand amongst others and today´s artists are reconnecting with that music.

Tell me a bit more about the festival itself - what else is it celebrating? Other art forms, famous former and current residents, food?
The festival is meant to celebrate Sophiatown´s cultural heritage as a whole, meaning its music, dance, literature, fashion, photography and atmosphere, and we want to bring the celebration to the place where it all started: the streets of Sophiatown. Today theses streets are mostly inhabited by white settlers but you can still fell the vibe when you walk around. It's still a very special place.

On the day of the festival, people will be able to experience Sophiatown through the arts that once made it famous. There will be dance workshops where people can learn some Township dance move and there will be literature readings that will give people an insight into what life used to be like. There will be a guided tour through the Sophiatown of today by Mbali Zwane, who was one of the first people to teach about Sophiatown´s cultural heritage and she will take visitors to the places that once played such an important role in Sophiatown, like the place where the Odin stood or where famous shebeens were standing. Her tours are very much alive and full of theatre and singing performances.

We will serve authentic food and the day will end with a big concert featuring famous South African jazz artists showcasing the music of bygone days with photos in the background illustrating how things were. Aaaaand hopefully people will feel inspired enough by their experiences that they will practise the moves they will have just learnt!

And perhaps most importantly, can anyone help make this happen?
Sure, we still have our crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo going on, where people can support us in any way that they can - either by making a donation or by purchasing 'perks' such as art prints, bags or CDs from McCoy Mrubata - and all of these contribute directly to our campaign.

Filming the crowdfunding video: Mtsembeni chatting to McCoy Mrubata, who is sat beside the statue of Sophiatown legend Kippie Moetketsi
Even if people could share and like our Facebook page it would help us get greater recognition and if they know anyone who is funding these kind of projects please help us get in touch! We feel that Sophiatown holds so much cultural heritage that we think it is more than worthy of getting the title of cultural world heritage by UNESCO. So if anybody has contacts leading there please let us know!

We also hope to get attention for the dances and also for Lindy hop. Murial and Brendan from Cape Town are trying to build a Lindy hop scene in Johannesburg but as yet, even in Africa, most of the dancers are white so we hope to attract more people of different backgrounds with the powerful interracial history of Sophiatown.

We want to celebrate the life and legacy that Sophiatown and its people left for us: to keep the spirit of Sophiatown alive for generations and generations to come; to discover and acknowledge.

Mayibuye iSophiatown!

Kristina with Vuyiswa Ntombela from Fruitcake Vintage and Eugene Maliboho.

I'm extremely grateful that Kristina not only got in touch to tell me about this amazing project but also that she took the time to share so much about its backstory and future direction. I shall be paying close attention to the resurgence of Little Harlem! Best of luck!

Monday, 3 July 2017

the Swing Slate refresh

A few folk had noticed that the look of my blog had changed but a few more were briefly confused if they had ended up on a completely different page altogether, so this is just a quick public service announcement to confirm those suspicions: the Swing Slate has been redesigned.

As to why - that is due to one reason in particular.

For my previous background I had made a montage of photos of the dancers who have had an influence on me and how I (hope I) dance. Some had influenced me directly through classes and workshops, some indirectly via videos online, and in the case of a few significant others it was my way of paying homage to historical figures who have played such a key role in establishing the dances that I love.

But recently, a couple of dancers on my background were identified as the subjects of a string of allegations and I certainly do not wish to lionise any such individuals so I thought it best to change things up. And I'd also like to apologise to anyone who may have been offended by the presence of those individuals on my background while it was up.

For my redesign I also thought I would give a bit of a nod to the music genre and era that I love above all else: Rock & Roll and the 1950s.

Adroitly this also allows me to side-step the issue of picking sides between a 1930-40s aesthetic that might be more reminiscent of the original Lindy hop generation, and a more contemporary theme to celebrate my other love of west coast swing.

So before any swing-era purists or WCS aficionados point fingers querying my blog allegiances, know that I am sitting squarely on the fence!

Interestingly, when I was doing a bit of research on period-authenticity I disappeared off down the wikipedia rabbit hole and found articles on gramophones/phonographs, microphones and all sorts of things that I may share later (e.g. the gramophone logo I had been using previously, had been modelled on the iconic Victor V and, like many gramophones, would have been extinct long before the swing era!).

Finally, if anyone finds any bugs or issues with my new site please let me know and I shall try to fix them as soon as I can!


Thursday, 8 June 2017

speaking swing with an accent

I refuse to apologise for puns.
As Belfast continues to blossom, and more and more new people come to classes and socials each month, it's always worthwhile asking a newbie for a dance or two.

For me, having a chat after (or during!) a dance is also largely unavoidable, and one of the things I usually end up asking is whether these newfound recruits have done any dancing before, often with my inquisitiveness driven by how rapidly the new dancers seem to pick things up.

Whether they are entirely new to dancing or have come from another style makes their nascent prowess no less impressive, but in the case of the latter, there are usually little giveaways as to their dancing background.

Salsa dancers have their hip sway, ballroom dancers are upright, ballet dancers are always on their toes, Irish dancers are upright and on their toes and have their arms straightened by their sides, and street/breakdancers have exaggerated rock-steps.

And I am sure that there must nuances of other dance styles that would seep into how someone swing dances (I don't know how to recognise them yet!) but nearly every time I ask if my hunch is correct it is misinterpreted as criticism. That couldn't be further from the truth.

I think of it in the same manner as having a chat with someone whose accent suggests they aren't speaking in their mother tongue - it's out of a genuine fascination that I'm curious to hear where they grew up, rather than any form of antipathy. And just as a slightly different cadence in someone's speech adds a little extra colour to their words, the unique colourful timbre of an individual's dancing adds to the myriad hues of a dancefloor.

In fact, speaking with an 'exotic' inflection doesn't even have to mean having origins in a different country - Northern Ireland has enough heterogeneity in its accents that you can tell when someone is from further than 20 miles away; and then it's considered polite to express amazement at how far they've travelled.

On top of that, accents not only reflect a dancer's background but can also reflect the background and culture of an entire community, country or continent, and the more I travel or watch videos online the more I start to recognise different aesthetics within our global swing family.

As a related historical note, two flavours of Lindy hop were considered to have developed in the USA in the late 1930s and early 1940s and were labelled as 'Savoy'-style and 'Hollywood'-style, as per their origins.

'Savoy'-style was so named for the Savoy Ballroom - the vaunted Harlem home of 'Shorty' George Snowden, Frankie Manning, Norma Miller and others, whilst 'Hollywood'-style became synonymous with Dean Collins: an erstwhile Savoy dancer who left New York in 1936 for the silver screens of Southern California and took his own brand of Lindy hop with him. (And depending on who you talk to, Collins is also considered the progenitor of west coast swing.)

The perceived differences between 'Savoy' and 'Hollywood'-style (and why the use of such labels has been abandoned by contemporary Lindy hop) have been thoroughly considered in an excellent article by Bobby White, but whilst these particular labels no longer hold water, I do not think I'm alone in recognising nuanced differences in the vernacular of current European, Asian and American dancers with regards to technique, styling and even demeanour.

What I', trying to emphasise, and especially to the new dancers, is that none of these differences has more merit than another: variety exists, and the global swing dancing community is all the healthier for it. So whether it's between or within scenes, on an international level or on an individual one, in all circumstances these differences celebrate the motley provenance of what is your own style.

We all speak the same swing language, we just do so with different accents.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Birmingham Bounce 2017

After waiting for what seemed like an age for it to arrive, the inaugural Birmingham Bounce has already come and gone.

For me it very nearly didn't happen at all, courtesy of delayed flights and lost, then found but damaged luggage, so I eventually arrived on the Saturday afternoon a tad knackered but raring to go.

Sadly, however, that meant I missed two highlights - the classes by Tatiana Udry, and seeing Swing Belfast's own Anna kicking ass in Friday night's competitions: coming second in the strictly finals with James, and third in the jack & jill.

I'm sorry not to have been there cheering Anna and James on but, just as I had mentioned before, anyone representing Belfast was not shy of support as I think we ended up taking about 35 people to Birmingham, and to say I am not also immensely proud of that in and of itself would be an understatement.

I don't think I've ever been to an event with more than three others from Belfast, so to more than decuple* that number (*yes, it's a new word to me also) was a glorious thing. But quantity isn't much without quality and from the many accounts I heard it sounded like everyone represented Swing Belfast with distinction.

In fact, when I got chatting to Paul on the Sunday afternoon, he told me that a number of people had even described the Belfast dancers as being "aggressively friendly", so it's clear to me that the enthusiasm and warmth that I fell in love with in our nascent scene is also an exportable quality!

Having such safety in numbers I think also proved to be a brilliant way for some of our newer dancers to experience their first ever big event and as I'm sure all of them would agree, the weekend itself was a lot of fun and a fantastic introduction to Lindy hop outside Belfast.

The weekend's teachers were Swing Express' own Paul & Sarah Neary and Scott Cupit & Jenny Thomas with Felix Berghäll rather enviably teaming up with both Tatiana Udry and Katja Završnik (probably my two favourite follows on the planet) for their partnered workshops, and between what I experienced and what I heard, it seems that the classes all went down a treat.

As I said, I missed Tatiana's classes with Felix but I was determined to make up for it somehow and decided that the Saturday night social was where to do it. Not only was I going to try to make up for the dancing I had missed that morning, and indeed the night before, but I was also going to attempt to compensate for missing out on a class with Tatiana by asking her for a dance.

I've commented before how my confidence escapes me when approaching my favourite top tier dancers and as the Birmingham Bounce was my first weekender in over a year, it's safe to say that I was feeling distinctly chutzpah-lite. But the second I rediscovered some testicular fortitude and actually approached Tatiana it turned out, unsurprisingly, that she was absolutely lovely and every bit as spectacular to dance with as to watch.

My erstwhile reticence was then completely shown up by some of the newer Belfast leads (some with less than a year of classes under their belts) who walked straight up to Tatiana and the rest weekend's pros and asked one or all of them for a dance: Brett, Curtis, Luke and Mark and a probably a few more didn't even blink, and I believe a few of our follows did the same!

And then when the inevitable jam circle kicked off, the Belfast crowd once again showed up and made us proud with about a third of the dancers who took the floor hailing from our scene.

Furthermore, a special mention must also go to Mark and Kristina who, despite being one of our newer couples, waited out the regular jam cool as you like and then bounced into the middle of the action as the fabulous Basin Street Brawlers really started to crank up the BPM.

All in all, it was a really fun weekend of dancing that I hope whetted the collective appetites of the 30-odd Belfast dancers for whom this was their first big event. A big thanks must go to Paul & Sarah and Swing Express for putting on a brilliant inaugural Birmingham Bounce (as well as an apology for taking so long to finally write this up but I'm using wedding prep as my excuse!) and I'm sure we're all looking forward to our next trip to Brum!