Learning to Swing Again

Phil RendelContributors

Strangely, it’s hard to recall when, or even why, certain pivotal moments of one’s life began. This could be said of my late wife’s and my relationship with Lindy hop – how we got started has been lost in what for me has been an on-and-off relationship with swing dance that’s lasted over twenty years.

When I met Liz, I had no idea that she was such an accomplished dancer. I thought my schooling in ballet from age three would make me the dancer of the couple (my mother had a dance school and I was the first and most reluctant member of it). What I didn’t realise is that a background in ballet teaches as much about leading and following as a degree in mechanical engineering teaches you about driving a car – great for theory, but in practice, one has nothing to do with the other.

I can’t recall the first class but I can recall Liz’s enthusiasm for it and (again) my reluctance. Having spent most weekday evenings in ballet classes succumbing to my mother’s desire to have a professional ballet dancer for a son (I had neither the volition nor the talent but she was undeterred), I had a phobia for village halls and community centres and whatever took place within them, particularly if it was a dance class. Having duly arrived at some community centre or hall in Oxford, UK, I instantly felt the horror of returning to a dance class and witnessed Liz’s infectious enthusiasm for this light-hearted and outrageous dance called Lindy hop (which until that point I’d never seen danced, live or otherwise).

I needn’t have worried: my father had bought me various compilation tapes for my birthdays over the years, one of which I think was called Swinging Big Band Hits. I’d been listening to the likes of Count Basie and the Glen Miller Band for years before Liz introduced me to swing, and I loved the music already.  To discover that there was a dance which had structure, like ballet, but also no structure and “go with the flow” that complimented this music was like discovering a whole new side to life. When I watched the sequences from Hellzapoppin’ around that time, I realised what Lindy was going to be for Liz and me: something that we just had to keep doing until we could be as smooth and as fluid as those amazing dancers in the film.

I met Liz’s parents in what was then called Grahamstown for the first time in the early noughties. They were then a sprightly 70-something couple and to my amazement, could and did clear a dancefloor to any music that happened to be playing. They didn’t talk much about their dancing but I did find out via Liz that in their youth, they’d entered and won many ballroom dancing competitions. It was only at this point, when Liz and I were already living in South Africa, that I realised that Liz’s seemingly innate ability to “watch and do” any dance step had come from copying her parents. I can even recall showing Liz a dance sequence from The Prodigy’s Everybody In The Place and after one viewing, she was doing it, saying “It’s just a take on Charleston”. 

Liz and I continued going to the classes and the socials in the UK and got to a point where we were learning some air steps (way before we were ready for them). Not having Liz’s “watch and do” ability, I had to learn very strict sequences of about five or six steps at a time which we got through private classes from an amazing (aptly named) couple called Peskett and Plunket. We gave these sequences names like “Step and Stop” or “Pump it Up” and nearly always finished with a basic air step. In this way, despite finding the dancing itself really hard, I didn’t have to think too hard about leading and following (Liz knew what was coming next in the sequence!) But at the same time, I didn’t learn to social dance at all. My repertoire for social dancing was limited to a few basic turns so I could get through a tune, which was all that was required to be polite at social dances.

My return to Lindy has had a gap of nearly ten years. We stopped dancing when Liz became ill around 2014 and our life as a dancing couple took a back seat. I can recall some amazing nights before that, dancing with Liz, doing our sequences in front of a live UCT Big Band at Pigalle restaurant in Greenpoint and a friend’s wedding at the V&A. It’s hard now to come back down to earth and realise that I need to learn to dance socially, not just with one partner. I miss Liz every time swing music plays, every time I come to class, every time I’m trying to learn a new step. I’m still a little way off from being able to come to social dances and not have to leave after one dance but with the help of my new-found CTS friends, I’m sure I’ll get there.

About the Author

Phil Rendel