Swing into spring on the dance floor at Dewey Hall
SHEFFIELD — Hands together, elbows forward, swing dancers are often face-to-face with their partners as they step and swirl across the dance floor. And though they must bear steely looks of concentration on occasion as they navigate the Lindy Hop and other forms of swing, these tandems are also frequently exchanging smiles.
"It's a super-happy music style," Oldtone Productions' Beth Carlson said.
Carlson is the primary organizer of Dewey Hall's Third Friday Swing series, an exuberant monthly gathering at the Sheffield institution that has drawn dancers of all levels and ages from the Berkshires, Albany, Hartford, Northampton and Greenfield. Each event opens with a one-hour lesson and continues with live music. On Friday, the Capital Region-based Useless Cans will play a mix of original and classic jazz tunes after an instructional session led by Jason Fenton of Albany Swing Dancing. For the instructor, swing dancing is more than just an opportunity to express joy on the dance floor; it's a chance to support live music with more vigor than a head bob.
"It's kind of a lost thing that we don't do anymore," Fenton said of dancing to live music. "We go and listen to music, and it's static. We just sit there. But if you go back to the '30s, '40s and '50s, social dancing was a prominent part of what people did."
Rising with jazz in the late 1920s, the Lindy Hop took off in Harlem, N.Y., drawing from the Charleston, tap and other forms. In Fenton's lesson, participants won't start with the Lindy; they will begin with six-count East Coast swing, or triple-step swing. It's one of the dance's most popular variations and among the easiest to learn.
"It's kind of a threshold dance to get people involved," Fenton said.
That participation is crucial to society, according to the instructor, because swing has historically fostered individual creativity and respect among dancers.
"You learned how to be cordial and courteous and all these things that people don't really understand today. It's a reconnection with that," Fenton said.
At Dewey Hall, partners regularly change.
"If you come with a date or if you don't come with a date, people really switch up," Carlson said, adding that same-sex dancing is very common.
The series' roots can be traced to another Sheffield institution, Race Brook Lodge, where swing lessons and events were held starting in 2015. In 2016, the series shifted to Dewey Hall, though Race Brook Lodge remains a sponsor and also hosts swing music of its own. Oldtone Productions, responsible for the Oldtone Roots Music Festival, runs the events, booking bands such as The Lucky 5, Chops, Sauerkraut, and Krewtons and One Straw Revolution to play their own music as well as swing staples. The Lucky 5's Kip Beacco mentioned that when his band stops at the venue, which will happen next on May 17, dancers can usually expect to hear some Count Basie and Benny Goodman. Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing" and some Parisian-influenced tunes are also common complements to The Lucky 5's own fare. While the group has played gigs in a variety of environments, the dancers of all ages and skill levels occupying Dewey Hall are rewarding for Beacco to see.
"It's a really non-intimidating environment," said Beacco, who is also an Oldtone producer.
Dress is casual, but fancy is fine, too. One thing is for sure: Swing is in style at the 132-year-old venue.
"There's a little bit of a retro thing [going on]," Carlson said.
During breaks in the action, participants can use beer from Sheffield-based sponsor Big Elm Brewing and wine to sustain their spirit.
"It's just a really feel-good evening," Carlson said.
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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