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A Beginner's Guide to Swing Dancing in Tampa Bay
Swing dancing in the Tampa Bay area is alive and well, almost like an underground movement co-habitated by teenagers as well as old people who danced the moves when they were created, as well as people of all ages in between.
Swing dancing can be found in many cities throughout the United States, as well as the world. It's like an on-going underground movement. It might not be as high-profile as it once was in the late ï¿½90s, but if you know where to find it, there's a goldmine of culture just waiting to be claimed. Across the nation, many people fill dance halls, restaurants and bars dancing to the beats of DJs and local bands playing popular, danceable music every night of the week.ï¿½ This is especially true in Florida.ï¿½ But whereï¿½can one go to swing dance in Tampa Bay?ï¿½ I will describe the dance sceneï¿½through a beginner's perspective; approaching the moves, music and culture asï¿½a person experiences it for theï¿½very first time.ï¿½
The term "swing music" can be easily identified, although sometimes difficult to define. A combination of jazz and blues music, it can either have a fast-paced rock ï¿½n roll beat or it can be slow, slinky and sexy (sometimes all of the above, simultaneously). Swing dancing can be done to a variety of musical styles, ranging from the big band music of the ï¿½30s and ï¿½40s, all the way up the musical chronology to today's songs of rock ï¿½n roll… all it takes is learning the basic moves. The three main forms of swing dance are Lindy Hop, East Coast swing and West Coast swing, but there are many other types of swing dance, such as Balboa and Charleston.ï¿½
Tampa: The Swing Sceneï¿½
The dance scene in the Tampa Bay area is thriving. Florida, in general, is a melting pot of different cultures and styles. People move here to enjoy the year-round heat and humidity from different locations all across the world. Similarly, the dance floor reflects the different cultures. On any given night you may find people with different backgrounds or speaking different languages, but they all have one common goal: having fun on the dance floor. Whether people are visiting for the weekend or they're locals, there's always a variety of dance styles mixing together. Until recently, one could find a regularly scheduled swing dance six nights a week in the greater Tampa Bay area, with varying numbers of people on the dance floor. Today, the number of weekly swing nights has been reduced to four nights a week. The Swing Gang hosts Tampa's biggest weekly swing dance since 1998 at the Zendah Grotto building every Sunday evening. The Grotto hosts a floating hardwood dance floor of 2,300 square feet and the dance is sanctioned by the Shriners, a mason fraternal organization.ï¿½ While Florida, in general, has earned the reputation as being the top destination for senior citizens to go before they die, swing dancing isn't only for old folks.ï¿½ Almost like an underground movement co-habitated by teenagers as well as older people who danced the moves when they were originally created, swing dancing is the onlyï¿½activity where people of all ages can enjoy themselves, in spite of the age gap.ï¿½ Pre-teens, teenagers,ï¿½the college crowd as well asï¿½thirty-somethings can all be found mingling with older people and having a goodï¿½time.ï¿½
The Zendah Grotto is a smoke-free environment that sells snacks and drinks at a very affordable price, while allowing patrons to bring their own food and alcohol products. The charge is $6 for children and students, $7 for adults, which includes two free dance lessons with admission. The environment is purely fun and social, with no need to worry about getting "hit on" or being "picked up" by members of the opposite sex.
Each week, two swing lessons are taught that precede the main dance, including basic East Coast and intermediate Lindy Hop lessons. Women, as well as men, are encouraged to ask prospective partners to dance. There is no other commitment other than having a good time on the dance floor. You never know what kind of surprises to expect at the Grotto. One week there may be a birthday or graduation party for all to share in the festivities, while at other times groups of people will be visiting from Gainesville or Ft. Lauderdale with the sole purpose to dance.
Every Sunday two new dance lessons are taught and provided at no additional charge with the price of admission. The beginning dancer's Jitterbug / East Coast class is taught from 7 to 8 P.M. by Fran Johns and a monthly rotating partner. Within the one-hour time frame, Fran teaches the basic moves everyone should know, a few intermediate moves, as well as the Swing Gang Switch social dance. Fran Johns is an experienced dance instructor, having danced her entire life and taught for 16 years, she breaks down individual moves, explaining them in detail so everyone on the floor, male and female, can easily understand. Initially, some dancers might be overwhelmed with all the moves being taught, but after learning the basics, challenging yourself to learn intermediate moves can be fun. Johns encourages people to return week after week - beginner and intermediate -- looking to build onto existing dance moves, while making friends in the process.
The intermediate Lindy Hop class is taught from 6 to 7 P.M. by rotating instructors. Each week's class can range from self-contained basic lessons to intermediate, combination moves built on classes taught the previous week. Classes range from the Swing Rueda (a social Lindy Hop dance that involves a leader calling out the moves to be performed) that is taught every third Sunday of the month, to expert styling and techniques. The Lindy Hop lesson is the newest class offered, already filling half of the 2,200 square foot dance floor, while the East Coast lesson completely fills the giant dance floor and is growing weekly.
After dance lessons are taught, local DJs Abdel Presume and Paul Mallet play non-stop music from 8 P.M. to midnight. Occasionally, a special occasion will warrant a circle jam, such as a Birthday Dance. This happens when the person celebrating a birthday is taken to the middle of the dance floor with a partner to dance, surrounded by everyone in attendance in a large circle. Throughout the song, while the birthday person is dancing, members of the opposite sex "cut in" to steal the celebratory person and alternate dancing with the birthday boy or girl for a short amount of time until someone else jumps "steals" the person. The birthday dance is done purely for fun, and done to give the birthday person a little bit of attention.
There are many different dance styles that can be found on any given night, but the main swing dance styles to be found in Tampa are East Coast swing, West Coast swing and the Lindy Hop.
East Coast is a dance style that is the easiest form of swing dancing for beginners to learn. It is a collective title from the 1940s that includes jittering, jive and boogie-woogie dance moves that were performed during the days of big band concerts. Also known as the Jitterbug, it is the most basic swing style, consisting of only six steps and simple structure and footwork. Originally, the East Coast style was created by the ballroom community, looking to create a simple form of dancing. Once these easy six-count movements are memorized, the lead dancer may insert spins, turns, dips rolls and even jumps at will, into any combination imaginable. The possibilities are endless. This type of swing can be danced to the slow, medium, and fast musical tempos of jazz, blues, or rock and roll. These are the moves your parents learned when they were children and the same moves that gained popularity during the neo-swing of the late ï¿½90s. This is the easiest swing style and the most prolific on the Tampa dance floor.ï¿½
West Coast swing was developed in the 1940s and 1950s as a stylistic variation of the Lindy Hop. It is the collective title of push, whip and shag dances that are tighter and are a more linear dance style that can be danced to both six-count and eight-count patterns. The leaders pretty much stay in the same spot, while the followers' moves are accentuated. Followers dance in a slot, which means the woman travels forward and back along a single straight line on the floor, which reduces their ability to move left and right. Dancing along the slot improves their ability to spin left and right. West Coast swing can be danced to slower blues, country and even rock ï¿½n roll music. This style was popularized in California, where the West Coast swing was voted the official state dance in 1988. West Coast swing can be found on dance floors within the Tampa Bay area, although it is not the most prevalent style.
The Lindy Hop style is more advanced than the East Coast style. Widely considered the original swing dance style, it is an eight-count dance originating from the early 1930s. Unlike the East Coast style, Lindy Hop can easily adapt to include steps from other eight-count and six-count styles. If you have seen the khaki pants commercial from The Gap in late ï¿½90s, these dancers were performing all sorts of Lindy Hop techniques. "Shorty George" Snowden named the dance at the Savoy Ballroom in New York after reading a newspaper article that was titled "Lindy Hops the Atlantic," referring to Charles Lindberg's transatlantic flight from New York to Paris. Lindy Hop is a smoother-looking dance style that is generally danced to slower songs in Tampa, but a six-count form of Lindy can be danced to faster songs. As a partner dance, the Lindy Hop allows for improvisation from both dancers, as well as individual solos. This is one of the few dances that allow the lead and follow to stylize their movements to the music, something that attracts dancers to this style once they have perfected the basic movements. The Lindy Hop is the second-most popular swing style in the Tampa Bay area, attracting more dancers each month. In the Tampa area, the Lindy Hoppers usually arrive at the Grotto mid-way through the night and stay past closing time.
Each week, there are several social dances performed at the Zendah Grotto. The dances are The Big Apple, the Steal Dance, Swing Gang Switch, The Shim Sham and Swing Rueda.
The main purpose of the Steal Dance is to alternate among dance partners until the dancer is "stolen" by another dancer; for dancers to meet new people. At the beginning, couples dance together until Fran Johns gets onto the microphone and instructs individuals to find another dance partner. Sometimes she will instruct the women on the dance floor to find another man, sometimes she will tell the women to stand still until a different man approaches them to dance, and sometimes she instructs the men who are sitting away from the dance floor to steal a woman currently on the dance floor for a short amount of time. This dance can be tons of fun, if dancers are in the right frame of mind. This dance is performed weekly.
Swing Gang Switchï¿½
The Swing Gang Switch is relatively new to the Tampa dance scene. It is a choreographed social line dance that is exclusive to the Swing Gang. Introduced to the Tampa Bay area by Fran Johns at the end of her weekly dance lessons, it also inspires dancers to meet others on the dance floor. Originally, the Swing Gang Switch was a country line dance performed weekly on the TNN cable network TV show "Club Dance." Johns was a spotlight dancer on the dancing show and would drive to Tennessee Friday through Sunday to perform, returning to Tampa after the show was over. Because the movements of the dance are choreographed and easy to learn, Johns successfully transferred the dance to be performed to swing music. She is the only swing dance instructor who teaches this dance, not only in the Tampa Bay Area, but within the entire state. This dance is tailored for beginning dancers who have a limited knowledge of dance moves and might be a little hesitant in asking strangers to dance, but is enjoyed by dancers of all skill levels. In the dance, women start with a partner and rotate among different partners until the Swing Gang Switch song has concluded. During the song, if any dancer may have gotten off beat or possibly forgot a move or two, all one has to do is look at the couple dancing next to them to pick up where they left off. Without worrying about the next move to perform, dancers can freely enjoy themselves, since the moves are easy to memorize. This dance is performed weekly.ï¿½
The Big Appleï¿½
Once in a while, usually upon request, the Tampa Lindy Hoppers perform an impromptu Big Apple dance. Named after the "Big Apple Night Club," the location where it came to prominence in 1936 at South Carolina, it is a choreographed group participation dance. Aligned in a circle, couples dance together and move to the music. The Big Apple can be performed to basically any song, with moves that can be interchanged with the Lindy Hop style, including Spank the Baby, Truckin and Suzy Q. There are several breaks in the music that allow for a few solo performances, and then return to choreographed dance moves. This dance is not performed weekly, although whenever there are Lindy Hoppers around the dance floor, there's always the possibility of the dance breaking out.
The Swing Ruedaï¿½
The Swing Rueda is another Lindy Hop social dance. Based in part on the Cuban dance, Casino (Salsa) Rueda, lead and follow dancers move in opposite directions along the circle. One dancer is the caller and tells the other dancers which moves to perform. Depending on the number of dancers on any given night, each dancer should dance with everyone within the circle at least once, but usually a couple of times, depending on the length of the song. Just a few of the called moves include: the Swing Out, Texas Tommy, Dame Dos, Sushi, Mini-Dip and Amoeba.
Once a month, every third Sunday, the Swing Gang teaches the Swing Rueda basics and encourages beginners to give the dance a chance. Taking a beginning class or two is highly recommended before attempting this dance in public, because some moves are more advanced than others. Once a dancer learns the basics for the Swing Rueda, that dancer knows the basics to dance the Lindy Hop style to any song with a partner. This dance is performed weekly.ï¿½
The Shim Shamï¿½
The Shim Sham is a choreographed Lindy Hop dance that is performed solo, no partner needed. Originating in 1932, this line dance can help you learn individual moves that you can add to your Lindy Hop repertoire. Frankie Manning helped popularize the Shim Sham, originally a member of Whitey's Lindy Hoppers dance troupe and trailblazing dancer at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, New York. The dance usually begins with two or more leaders at the front of the dance floor, with everyone else copying their moves, behind them. After dancing a couple of times, it is easy to perform the Shim Sham flawlessly by memory. The Shim Sham can be performed to basically any song, but in Tampa, it's normally danced to the song "Tuxedo Junction." There are two different styles that can be danced to the Shim Sham: Swing and Tap. Swing is the style that's more prominently practiced in Tampa, but the dance was actually created for tap dancers to shine in the spotlight. Occasionally, the Swing Gang will offer Shim Sham classes taught at workshops to learn the basic movements. This dance is performed weekly.
What to Wearï¿½
When going to swing dance for the very first time, make sure to wear comfortable clothing, preferably something a little large and loose. Granted, different people have different fashion tastes, but wearing loose-fitting clothes helps prevent confining clothing that may alter low-reaching dips, large spins or general jumping around the dance floor. Regarding dance shoes, anything can be worn, but it's frowned upon to wear anything with a rubber sole, since that leaves dark streaks on the dance floor. Shoes with smooth, leather soles (or at least well-worn, smooth rubber soles) are recommended. Fran Johns doesn't recommend anyone dancing with tennis shoes, except for extremely good dancers. The best bet is to wear a shoe that won't come off the foot, ones that can be tied or fastened. Dancers should be able to move their feet on the floor.
If purchasing new shoes for dancing is out of the question, some people prefer to buy suede soles and glue them onto their favorite broken-in shoes (usually sneakers) for dancing. It is not unusual to find teenagers wearing T-shirts and blue jeans with sneakers or shorts and flip-flops (although it's usually hard to do the more complex moves while wearing these). The older crowd usually dresses to impress, gentlemen wearing khakis or chinos with button-down shirts, women wearing skirts and full dresses are the norm, but it is not unusual to find the older crowd wearing blue jeans and tropical, Hawaiian shirts, either. For women, wearing high-heeled shoes is very attractive, but on the dance floor, it's impractical and dangerous to wear. Low-heeled pairs of shoes are recommended for dance purposes. The more serious dancers tend to only wear their dance shoes on the dance floor, keeping them pristine and free of residue, changing them whenever coming and going from the dance floor.
Besides offering two free weekly dance lessons on Sunday, the Swing Gang occasionally sponsors a day-long Lindy Hop Workshop at the Grotto, usually taking place during the daytime hours leading up to the regular dance lessons. At the workshops, dance instructors from all over the world come to instruct Lindy Hop style and techniques.
There is also a weekly Lindy Hop Plus workshop held on Thursday Nights at nearby studio, Rix. Taught by instructors Cindy and Jimmy, the teachers look to improve dancers' techniques in hopes of improving beginning dancers to intermediate Lindy Hop styling levels. There is also dance time after the lesson, hosted by a DJ afterwards. Dance lesson lasts from 7:30 to 9 pm with dance time 9 to 11 pm.ï¿½
Another upcoming event the Swing Gang is proud to sponsor is the Swing Dance USA Dance Convention and Competition from Friday, September 30th to Sunday, October 2nd, 2005. This event boasts 33 hours of swing dance workshops and events. With dancers from around the world to be showcased during live band performances, as well as Lindy Hop and West Coast dance workshops, dance competitions and an awards and trophy presentation, the Tampa dance scene will definitely be swinging! This is possibly the biggest swing dance-related weekend of activities ever held within the Tampa Bay area.ï¿½
Dance in Progressï¿½
Every Sunday night, starting at 8 PM EST, the Swing Gang fires up its live Webcam, for everyone around the world (with Internet access) to see the Tampa locals dancing and having a great time. The Webcam streams live to the Swing Gang's Webpage from 8 PM ï¿½till Midnight.ï¿½
The Swing Gang has accumulated more than 3,000 unique e-mail subscribers to its Swing Notes weekly e-newsletter, which details upcoming events as well as links to its Webpage for more dance information. In addition, the Swing Gang's Webpage also displays pictures from the previous week's attendees. Each week, hundreds of people come out to dance and enjoy the music.
To sign up for the Swing Gang's newsletter, please send an e-mail to:
For more Tampa swing-related information, including directions, please go to:
And for information covering the upcoming 3-Day Dance-Workshop-Convention-Competition held on Friday, September 30th - Sunday October 2nd, 2005: