Women Who Lead. A Brief History of Love in Cape Town Swing

Alexander PenningtonContributors

Dear Reader,

While I was preparing this piece about the women who lead the Swing community, I was reminded of two things. The first thing I’ll mention at the end, but the second thing was an insight of a much older person during my early years of studying: “When you have any doubts, when you feel lost, and you turn to philosophy, trust the walkers and question the sitters”. Honestly, I had no idea what they meant, but genuine wisdom stays with you. Years later, I understood what they were saying, and they were right, but, and the point is crucial: what about the dancers? For when Sylvia Wynter – who worked for Boscoe Holder’s dance troupe – became a philosopher, she went on to revise the entire way that sitters and walkers think about what it means to be human. Wynter’s rule is love.

I work as a counsellor, so I keep an ear out for schools of love other than the family. You can guess why. I believe that Swing could be another, but, when I started working on this piece, I only had a hunch. I’m the new kid in town, barely a first-year student. I don’t know any of the seniors in Swing. And asking a stranger about their love life is awkward. After all, the word “love” generally evokes our private life, so, to answer the question, we have to open up, and we can only share what we want to give. I asked the women who lead about the joy of Swing instead.

Joy and love go together, so said Baruch Spinoza, a famous philosopher of the 17th Century. He said we come to love something once we can appreciate how it brings more joy into our lives (we could say the same about someone). When I listened to the women who lead Swing, it was clear that Spinoza got something right. When we talk about what gives us joy, if it’s genuine, then the rule is love.

Over a voice note barely more than a minute long, Ruby Paton – who was the first to respond to my questions – said the words “love”, “warmth”, and “held” fifteen times when speaking about this community. She also said that Swing has become something she can’t imagine living without, a practice that has given her people who became some of her best friends. If that isn’t wonderful, then what is? Ruby echoes the experiences of other women leaders and, in this echo chamber, I believe that the Swing community is in good hands. It also made me wonder: if we are to understand what women have given to the history of the Swing scene, what Swing can give to us, I think it has something to do with love.

Jeannie Elliott (2012)

The origins of the Swing scene in Cape Town owe to Jeannie Elliot’s love story. Jeannie came from Austin in Texas as a student for an exchange program in 2006, and she had planned to stay for six months. Her plans changed when she met and fell in love with a local jazz drummer, André. For love, Jeannie stayed in Cape Town long enough to meet some local Swing enthusiasts six years later (yes, love can have staying power). At the time — this is now around 2012 — Jeannie, with a decade of teaching Lindy Hop in the US under her belt, was far more experienced than the amateurs at the party (as a sidenote: amateur is derived from the Latin word amare which means “to love”). Realising she could help, Jeannie started a dance company called Boogie Back Dance Co. and began to offer classes in the same year.

Jeannie talks about Swing as a defining thread that weaves together the different parts of her life – as a teen, student, executive, life partner, and mother (yes, she and Andre got married and had a baby). I think, imagine if everyone had something this reliable, that, when their life unravelled – through loss, natural disaster, pandemic, or breakdown – they could return to, which held the memory of their life together? This is the aspiration of the Church, the family, even therapy, but the history of dance is much older than the institutions of the Church, the nuclear family, and mental healthcare.

When you ask Jeannie about what she gives to Swing, you’ll have to hear from others about her high degree of professionalism, astonishing creativity, her clear-eyed and courageous recognition of South Africa’s troubled history (so Swing has echoes with the history of Jazz in South Africa). It means someone could feel like they were there to learn and, whoever they are, were welcomed. The atmosphere of Swing classes retains this quality, and I can attest to this.

While Jeannie taught people how to dance, she also wanted to make, in her words, “a space where [people] can be openly, profoundly in love—with the music and history of the dance, the caring community of dancers, and the movement of the dance itself.” It was in this space, a year after she started Boogie Back, that three pillars of the Swing community would soon become part of the scene: Muriel Gravenor, Brendan Argent, and Sarah Boyd.

Sarah Boyd (2017)

Sarah, like Jeannie, moved to South Africa from the US in 2013, and met the love of her life, now her husband, Nic, through Lindy Hop. Around September of the same year, she started small group classes in Stellenbosch before her beloved Lindy Hop teacher told her about Boogie Back, where she would meet Jeannie’s promising new students: Muriel and Brendan Argent (who was my first dance teacher, and gave me such sound advice that I will not share it here. It’s that good).

It would be fair to say that creating or nourishing things that a future generation can enjoy and value, though the giver will not live to receive praise or recognition, is a kind of love. Then we can thank Sarah for her love for the Swing community. Her energy has been directed less to organising and more to teaching and coordinating the fabulous project Echoes of Sophiatown. She also helped train several dancers who’ve since joined the teaching team, including Sam Ssweranga and Jes Ferguson.

Jes Ferguson (2019)

Jes is currently on a long hiatus because of health-related issues, so I couldn’t get her input, but, true to ethos, Sarah insisted that I mention her. Jes models how we can keep good company with ourselves on the dance floor, is the 2019 Fast Feet Competition Winner, and, during COVID, ran “Move Your Body” classes alongside Sarah. In Sarah’s own words, unprompted by me and which I hope Jes finds, she is “a dear friend, a special person, and an incredibly sensitive and caring teacher and community member. We
miss her.”

I will be honest, dear reader: cross-continental affection is sweet.

Now we get to mention the visionary, the glue, the woman who refused to resign in the face of a historically unprecedented pandemic, who would not leave this community and let it die, whose dreams are big and heart as large. Enter: Muriel.

Muriel Gravenor (2019)

It is not always the case that a dreamer and a do-er go together. Muriel not only manages both, but her organisational capacity, I’ve come to appreciate, is immense. There is always something happening because of Muriel. She heads up multiple teams alongside her deputies (like Ruby, Grace Newton, Gabriela Ventapane, Meritxell Cilliers, and Kim Synders); coordinates the junior teachers (Nicole Uys, Anna James, Daniela Hammond, Liza Gabry, and Rochele Le Roux); and has a life. She is the foundation on which the hands that keep the community together grow. Recently, too, she gives community shout-outs to folks who have done good things for Swing, and though she never mentions herself, even if she did, we’d all agree it’s deserved.

Again, I barely know anyone who I have mentioned here, and there are more I should mention besides (shoutout to others whom I haven’t mentioned). To make sense of these leaders, this group, and what they do, I’ve had to rely on what they say about each other. And, with a nod to Ursula le Guin, words do something to what they describe.

For instance, based on how Nicole describes Sarah – as the embodiment of “fun” and “acceptance” – I am sad to have never met Sarah. Or, as another example, Lise-Mari Rowan. Both Sarah and Muriel describe her as “the secret pillar of Swing”; for Sarah, the embodiment of boundless generosity, and, for Muriel, as her advisor, even a mother figure, who also, in Muriel’s words, “has a deep, deep love for the people of Swing”, I think, we all need a wise woman in our life. Did I mention she is a vinyl DJ? In a time when it’s much easier just to click a playlist on? Why do we do such lovely things when we don’t need to?

Lise-Mari Rowan (2022)

I am struck by what a wonderful gift these words are, words I have been lucky to assemble, for the way they can inspire a stranger like me to want to offer the best of themselves – to be open, trusting, and generous – for the time of meeting. 

This is part of how we make one of the most elusive and mysterious phenomena of the 21st Century – community – and maintain it. “Maintenance” is not a sexy word, but, David Graeber, the late but great anthropologist, writes that it is what we spend most of our time doing. Swing is no exception. As part of community maintenance, there are conversations about consent, discussions about both sexual and financial abuses, work on a collective ethos which offers an abundance of touch on a dance floor that is also platonic, and dialogue about creating safer spaces. The result? In a Golden Age for Assholes, the women of Swing feel safe, and the culture is wholesome. Hallelujah. Naturally, a community like this grows. In post-pandemic life, this is something amazing.

Julia Glenday, Antonia Cronje, Liza Gabry, Gabriela Ventapane (2019)

On our way to the closing, I mentioned in the beginning that I had a hunch about what the women of Swing are doing, and that it has something to do with love. The word “love” might be one of the most degraded words in the English language, but when we really get down to the meaning of life we tend to get close to the word. Yet the forms of love that we’re familiar with, which tend to enjoy the most cultural significance, are shared between partners, friends, and family. While English has one word for love, which lumps the various kinds of love together with Romance at the top of the heap, the Greeks had words to distinguish them: Eros (love between romantic partners), Philia (love between friends), and Storge (love between family). If we are to truly speak about the history of Swing in Cape Town and the role of women who’ve led this community, past and present, then what name would we give the kind of love that fills a life with connection, music, dance, art, expression, skill, giving, belonging, and meaning? What kind of love is this? 

Whatever the name for it is, we need it. In the wake of the social collapse brought on by the pandemic, we need warmth for another, we need spaces where we can connect without using language, where people whose lives unravelled can begin anew or sew them back, to find freedom from our relentless internal dialogue, and to be enveloped by a sense of feeling that is strong enough to lift a thick blanket of despair that has been laid on our shoulders. We need an ethics of care to scale up, for schools of love to exist beyond the family. Swing creates joyful encounters. Swing is possible because of the women who lead. For the rest of us, the rule is love. 

Warm regards, 

P.S. The first thing I was reminded of, when I sent through an early draft, was a concern about the absence of other leaders who deserve recognition and gratitude, that is, the men, which I read as saying: remember, we’re in this together.

About the Author

Alexander Pennington