Dancing My Troubles Away

Mary-Anne SlezacekContributors

I’m not exaggerating when I say that swing dance has saved me. It’s changed my life completely, and I’m so thankful. I won’t bore you with the details, but last year was a struggle. I moved continents and had my heart broken to a million pieces. My only source of income was the online business I’d started so that I could move out here, so I had to keep slogging, during the turmoil.

Probably my greatest concern though was how on earth I was going to make friends. Capetonians are notoriously “cliquey”: impenetrable friendship groups that date back to primary school hold strong, even if their members don’t really like each other any more. Capetonians also seem to partner for life. Lovely, I suppose, but it means the joining together of two cliques and a shortage of singles to befriend. Without a “clique”, it seemed I would need to produce at least one child in order to infiltrate social groups through mums’ groups, playschool, etc. That being quite an extreme measure, my only remaining option was socialising through work. Oh but wait, I spend my entire working day at home, talking through a webcam to Spain and Italy. 

So there I was, recently dumped and pretty lonely. I’d moved to South Africa to be with my family, after years of living on the other side of the world to them. But there comes a point where spending Friday nights watching Netflix in your parent’s granny flat is unacceptable.

A whole new world.

One day I was looking for dance classes that would fit my unsociable work schedule and stumbled across swing dance just down the road in the Muizenberg Methodist church. I was hesitant; swing didn’t seem like the coolest of dances. Really, I wanted to continue with the salsa and bachata that Covid had put a stop to a couple of years previous. Also, any kind of event in a church hall reminds me of my rural English teenage years (Suffolk, in case anyone out there can empathise). But I thought, “Why not?” after all, I’m hardly the voice of authority on “cool”. 

I’m so glad I didn’t let my prejudices stand in the way, because that evening changed everything for me. I began halfway through a Charleston block, but Brendan made it so easy to follow that I was able to let go and really enjoy the class. I got a great workout while having so much fun and challenging my stagnating brain. The energy, the music, the sheer joy in the room made me feel more alive than I had in a long time. That was three months ago, and I just keep on falling more and more for swing dance and its community. I’ve made some great friends, I attend as many classes, workshops and socials as I can, and I’m now delighted to be the editor of the Cape Town Swing blog.

Once bitten by the dance bug, I had to get back into SBK (salsa, bachata, kizomba). Now my life is filled with movement, music and incredibly fun people.

Warning: Dancing is addictive.

I always had a bit of a strained relationship with salsa. I started learning when I was living in the south of Spain, where the level is pretty high due to its large Latino expat population as well as the fact that Andalucians are dancing flamenco in the womb. They have rhythm, and far too much passion. This meant that as much as I dreamt of swirling gracefully on the dancefloor, I was always too shy and insecure to attend socials. I tried a couple of times, but hated feeling frustrated and inadequate, standing awkwardly on the sidelines, both waiting for, and dreading, being asked to dance. Clearly I was putting out some severe “don’t come near me” vibes, because nobody asked me to dance, and I was simultaneously relieved and devastated. My confidence was rock bottom. One night, fuelled by a fish-bowl of gin and tonic, I actually did dance, but was panicked the whole time that the leads immediately regretted asking me and couldn’t wait to finish the dance and move on.

So I was surprised by my eagerness to attend a swing social at the Waterfront after only a few classes. I think it was due to a combination of the friendliness of my Muizenberg class, now in the hands of Muriel, the instant love I felt for swing dance, and the “I don’t give a f**k stage of my life I was in (still am). I surprised myself even more by not waiting to be asked to dance and actually propositioning the leads. And I’m not just talking about my fellow beginners: no, I was bold, I went for the experienced dancers too. They were so nice and patient, and even if they were counting the seconds till the end of the song, they didn’t show it. I had so much fun that night, despite the ridiculous wind, and just wanted more. Social dancing should actually come with the warning severely addictive

After that, with my newfound confidence, I decided to give SBK socials another go and loved them. In fact, there was a live salsa band at the Waterfront recently, which was a huge treat. It’s true that I found the SBK scene harder to break into: it often seemed that most of the experienced dancers didn’t want to dance with novices and unknowns (for fear of discovering a bar into the song that they are novices). However, I’ve been brave and asked people to dance, rather than lurking around unattractively. I figure, ok, it’s not going to be the dance of his life, but he can give me two minutes of his precious dancing time, surely? And like I said, I’m in a “don’t give a f**k phase of my life, where my needs come first! 

I’ve realised that it was never “them”, it was me. I put up the barriers. I decided that I wasn’t good enough, not them. I’ve enjoyed long nights of SBK dancing, and as I get to know more and more people, through classes and workshops, I get to have more and more wonderful dances and so much fun. It was just a matter of mindset. I know regrets are pointless, but when I think of all the dancing I missed out on in Spain due to my crappy mindset…

You just can’t get it wrong!

Largely, I have swing dance to thank for my increased confidence on the SBK floor. Swing is just so incredibly joyous, lighthearted and creative that social dancing is like playtime for grownups. Its bounce, high energy and songs about big feet and milkshakes make it impossible to take yourself too seriously. Plus, originally the moves were entirely improvised on the social dancefloor. Nobody went to classes to learn how to dance, they were all just messing around, having fun and rebelling against the structured, rigid dances of their time. So you can’t really get it wrong: technically there are no right and wrong moves.

To illustrate my point, in the 1944 short instructional film, Groovie Movie, we’re told that the Boogie Woogie was born when a couple got off the beat and the follower fell over. So as to laugh it off, the lead walked back to his partner in a “groovy” way. After that, other couples came up with funky ways to break apart and reconnect, and a host of new moves were born.

In the documentary The History of Swing, Lindy hop legend Frankie Manning reveals that the dance is also pretty much based on plagiarism: 

Every Saturday night on the floor of the Savoy Ballroom Holland’s best dancers competed against each other for a $10 top prize so everyone was always on the lookout for a new wrinkle;  a different step. If somebody stand on  the side watching you intently, he gonna say, ‘Yeah I see that. Yeah I’m gonna get that’. You know, like that. If it’s good, great. Maybe you change it around a little bit, maybe you do it backwards, no? And then that person see that step again he say ‘hey man that’s a great step, where’d you get it from?’ and I say, ‘Oh, I got it from you!’”

Frankie Manning

The art of letting go.

So, swing is all about improvisation and inspiration; mistakes are never mistakes as long as you can style them out! Footage from those early jive days shows some pretty crazy moves, which we don’t see today. People really did go wild on the dance floor! I think today we are more concerned with aesthetics and “getting the moves right”, but there’s still so much room for creativity and fun. Self-expression through movement is incredibly liberating; it shakes off all those niggling, stifling inhibitions. When I read Brendan’s definition of swing, my body tingled and I couldn’t help but smile and think “Yessss!”

“Swing is the laugh shared between two strangers holding hands. Swing is the thread that brings people together.” 

Brendan Argent

The improvisational nature of swing dance trains you to tune in with your partner. Because there are no set patterns, as a follower, you have to be ready for anything. Frequent practice allows you to read the subtle cues, and if you mess it up this time, there’s always next time to get it right (or the next). This applies to SBK too, and there is a lot of crossover between all the dances. But the playfulness of swing has encouraged me to loosen up and simply enjoy tuning in to my partner and enjoying the dance, no matter the style.

I’m still at the beginning of my dance journey. I have so much to learn, but instead of feeling daunted, I’m excited. Having something so positive in my life is changing its trajectory; I’m sure of it. I can’t feel down for too long when I know that I’m going to dance soon, and have a laugh with my friends. And when you’re feeling positive, you attract only positive. Thank you, CTS for showing me how to swing!   

About the Author

Mary-Anne Slezacek