Courtesy of Jesse Newman
As the lead vocalist sang “Fly Me to the Moon,” over 100 people danced among the golden lamps to inviting jazz music. Some flaunted flashy 1920s attire, and others donned a T-shirt and jeans. Some had been swing dancing for decades, while several were attempting the dance style for the first time.
“The energy in the room was just incredible,” said Renee Wasko GRD ’21, who is the student president of Yale’s Swing, Blues and Fusion dance organization. “Everyone, at some point, made it to the dance floor, and it was a really joyous and inclusive atmosphere.”
On Saturday, Feb. 1, the Swing, Blues and Fusion club and the Ad Hoc Jazz Band hosted an event called “Swingin’ into the 2020s” at The Sitting Room on 285 Nicoll St. — a cafe and social space connected to the gym mActivity.
“The band was great — everyone was dancing and having a good time,” said Jasmine Stone ’20, who has been swing dancing since high school. “There were people of all levels there, and everyone seemed to be having fun.”
The event co-organizers, Raj Basak GRD ’21 and Wasko, met as graduate students in their Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry and Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology departments, respectively. Basak is a passionate jazz musician, and Wasko said that she “fell in love” with swing dancing as an undergraduate and has enjoyed it ever since. Swing dance refers to a group of dances that grew out of the swing style of 1920s jazz, the most popular of which is the “Lindy Hop,” which formed in Harlem in the 1930s. Both art forms rely on improvisation and spontaneity; little is choreographed or notated.
Basak and Wasko realized that their interests were complementary and decided to organize “Swingin’ into the 2020s.”
“I like the idea of trying to engage more people in our community,” Wasko said. She spoke to The Sitting Room’s owner to ask about collaborating on an event. They realized that they both sought to create a space for local artists, musicians and dancers.
After Wasko and Joy secured a space, Basak reached out to jazz musicians he knew “would be really good together.” He formed an enthusiastic nine-piece band — which included Jarron Long ’23, Nicholas Serrambana ’21, Charlie Romano ’19, Peter Berrill GRD ’22, Ryan Petersburg GRD ’21, Hersh Gupta ’20, Ethan Dodd ’22, Wes Lewis GRD ’25, Nadeem Ahmad and Basak — to perform at the event.
“The jazz we played was very dance-able, quite upbeat and easy to listen to,” Basak said. He noted a contrast between the music they played and the more avant-garde modern jazz of today.
The event attracted Yale students, New Haven community members and swing dancers from as far as Hartford. Participants ranged in age from undergraduates to some who said they had been swing dancing for almost 50 years. Tickets sold out well before the event’s start.
The event began at 7:30 p.m. with an hour-long swing dancing lesson to teach first-timers the basic six-beat steps. Then, the band began to play. Even after the initial lesson, more experienced dancers taught newcomers how to swing through the language of social dancing.
“When you think of swing dancing and the event title, you think of an anachronistic old style,” Basak said. “But a lot of people talked about how refreshing it was to step away from the electronic-oriented music of today and have a modern take on old classics.”
The event blurred traditional lines between audience and performer. The musicians watched the dancers perform, and the dancers watched the musicians.
Basak emphasized the reactive nature of jazz and swing, calling it a “perfect symbiotic relationship between musicians and dancers. When the audience is jumping and tossing and turning, you interact with them differently.”
Basak and Wasko said they hope to plan additional swing dancing and jazz events aimed at fostering local community in the future.
Phoebe Liu | firstname.lastname@example.org