On Sunday night, when others are busy studying and getting ready for the week ahead, I walk over to 211 Park St. to dance. This is not classical ballet, nor is it Wednesday night Toad’s — I’m here for the Yale Swing and Blues weekly practicum, an informal, DJed space where I can practice my latest obsession: swing and blues dancing.
At any given YS&B practicum, held from 8-11 p.m. every Sunday in the Afro-American Cultural Center, one can see everything from lindy hop — a dynamic, flashy, jazzy dance popularized in the ’20s and ’30s in places like the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem — to blues, a slower, purely improvised style. In the cavernous hall of the Af-Am house, aspiring DJs as well as dancers can hone their skills, and people will frequently pull each other aside to share newly acquired moves.
At practicum one can also see something relatively rare in swing and blues communities: gender-neutral social dancing. YS&B works hard to foster a safe environment, in which everyone feels comfortable dancing with everyone — and dancing in either role. In most social dances, the gender stereotype is that men lead, or guide their partner and determine the feel of the dance, and women follow, listening to their partners, and interpreting the lead’s signals. At Yale Swing and Blues, everyone learns to lead and follow. Being “ambidancetrous” is, to some, a badge of honor. To others, it’s simply another way of spicing up a dance, switching back and forth in a single song. Either way, it encourages new dance students to think about communication between lead and follow from both perspectives, giving them a better understanding of the dance and more versatility on the dance floor.
My first exposure to swing and blues came last September, at a beginner boot camp. Imagine a team of instructors, all members of the YS&B community, cramming as much dancing into your head as they can while making you feel welcome, loved and super excited about dancing. It was the first time I had danced, or even seen for that matter, swing, Charleston or blues. It was the first time I had followed. It was also the first time I had danced with another man.
In addition to each person having the opportunity to learn both dance roles, the rotation is also random: at boot camp, the instructors said, “Turn to the person next to you. That’s your partner!” I was standing face-to-face with another man. We touched our fingertips together as instructed, I closed my eyes, and I felt him guide my weight from one foot to the other. Dancing with guys is surprisingly, well, normal. Generally, they’re bigger than girls. Other than that, I was somewhat startled to learn it’s not that different. He shifted his weight, and I knew exactly what his fingertips were telling me. I was following.
I asked a friend of mine, a fellow swing and blues addict, to describe his own boot camp experience:
“The YS&B instructors taught not just a sequence of steps, but the logic behind the dance … Everyone learned both parts, and I felt that I better understood what the dance was supposed to look like by seeing it from both sides … By the end of the weekend, I had spent 11 hours dancing, and it was — as I had always hoped it would be — great fun. YS&B is perhaps the only community I have found so far at Yale where there is no pressure to do anything but to have a fabulous time. I immediately felt welcome, and at intro swing classes and practica I’ve attended in the past month the only expectation [I’ve felt] was to want to dance more. It’s an expectation I’ve had no trouble fulfilling.”
All I want is to dance more, and YS&B lets me. Between a monthly dance, workshops this weekend and regular practicum, I danced a total of about 15 hours this week. My feet hurt, but I want more.
Fortunately for me (but not for my feet) YS&B may run more events than any other undergraduate organization: four lesson series running simultaneously, a dance every month with late night and workshops, practicum every Sunday, occasional workshop weekends and outreach lessons.
Yale Swing and Blues draws members from the undergraduate, graduate and greater New Haven communities, and our monthly dances draw participants from all around the state, and from as far away as Boston, New York and Philadelphia.
The community has changed my experience here at Yale. Seeing so many friendly and welcoming students, faculty and New-Havenites dance together is a heartwarming experience. So please, come to a practicum, or monthly dance, or — if you’re brave — a boot camp, and ask us to dance. Just be prepared when I ask: “lead or follow?”
Dan Rathbone is a freshman in Pierson College and organizer for Yale Swing and Blues.