To say swing dancing is cool is like announcing Mom’s apple pie as just “OK”—a colossal understatement. Everything about swing dancing, from the dazzling music with its orchestral finesse, to the smooth steps executed, with panache screams, “This is the pinnacle of awesomeness!” The problem is, as much as I’ve wanted this “nostalgic coolness” in my life, the mere thought of getting out on the dance floor with people I’ve never met to learn a new groove brings up memories of my many embarrassing stumbles—yes, I have two left feet.
And so my legs trembled with both excitement and trepidation as I approached the entrance to the Hannah Block Historic USO/Community Arts Center last Saturday evening. The Cape Fear Swing Dance Society was hosting their “Back 2 School” swing dancing social. I decided it was high time I tried something new that forced me out of my comfort zone. I gathered my courage, second guessing everything from my choice of shoes (black and white flats) to my ability to appear composed with every step, took a deep breath, and pushed open the doors.
The effervescent Candi Johnson Terry, professional dancer and founder of the Cape Fear Swing Dance Society, immediately and warmly greeted me. Donning a bright green dress and bows in her hair, the woman looked as though she had been transported through time and was ready to guide me through my dancing experience.
Terry first began swing dancing it 2006. “I always loved old movies and big-band music,” she expressed, “and swing dancing felt like stepping back in time. The first time I saw people swing dance, I knew I had to learn!” Before I could even fill in my name tag, Terry enthusiastically was giving me the back history of the organization. It officially started in the summer of 2015.
“A group of friends just wanted to learn how to swing dance for their wedding,” she revealed, “and my husband and I taught them in their garage.”
Now, the Cape Fear Swing Dance Society officially is a North Carolina nonprofit, which promotes swing dancing and swing-era music in the Cape Fear region. They host both lessons (Thursdays at the community center) and various dance socials each week—every Tuesday at Foxes Boxes on Fourth Street, to be exact.
“We feel like a club, but there’s no membership,” Terry remarked. “It’s open to anyone. You just kind of show up, have a good time and go home. The majority of our age range is college through young professionals, but we’ve got everyone in between, too.”
I was feeling more at ease by the time the beginners lesson started. Many folks before me—almost a century before me, in fact—had managed to learn, so why couldn’t I?
The dance actually reached its zenith between the 1920s and 1950s, and has taken on many forms throughout the year. Its origins are deeply rooted in the African-American community and jazz clubs (juke joints) of the time (although, one would never guess by looking around the room of predominately white young adults at the event).
Lindy Hop, perhaps the most famous type of swing dancing to date, originated in Harlem. It is generally danced to at a faster pace.
West Coast swing, though not as popular on the East Coast, according to Terry, is generally a slower, forward-and-backward style of swing, usually performed to blues or smooth jazz tracks.
Carolina shag, a derivative of swing, has its roots traced back to our own coastal Carolina region and originated in the ‘40s. Generally, it’s performed to “beach music” or blues.
Throughout the evening, the Cape Fear Swing Dance Society played a wide range of music to accommodate different tempos and styles of the East Coast swing. At the beginner’s lesson, I learned the basic six-count variation of the Lindy Hop. Although the basic left-to-right footwork proved to be simple with slower blues tracks and a little help from my partners, the dance took an entirely new form when paired with a faster, up-beat jazz tune. I couldn’t help but stand on the sidelines, hypnotized by the energy the room consumed. It bubbled over like a pot of boiling water during each explosive performance. Ladies’ skirts bloomed like vibrant flowers on the dance floor, while men created miniature earthquakes by stomping to the beat. The occasional cheer and burst of laughter could be heard over the music as partners twirled one another seamlessly, joyful grins plastered across their faces. Looking around the dance hall, I was almost certain I’d been transported back in time.
Despite my initial jitters, I found myself feeling right at home with the dancers surrounding me. They were a supportive and friendly community—one of the most welcoming I’ve encountered since living in Wilmington. Any time I would sit down to catch my breath (because let me just say, swing dancing is cardio endurance at its finest), someone would readily offer me their hand and lead me back to the floor. Any time I found myself off beat, my partners encouraged me to keep trying. Every dancer taught me something a little different (my favorite being the shoulder-slide move Shane Benson instructed me to do).
So what if we were all a little bit sweaty, with our hair matted to our flushed faces by the end of the night? Nobody cared. With the Cape Fear Swing Dance Society, the only agenda in place was to ensure a swingin’ good time was had by all.
As the evening came to a close I found a sense of joy and lightness—a new energy I had yet experienced. The dancing and hospitality through some alchemy was generating happiness. “For a lot of people [the appeal] is the community,” Terry confirmed. “Swing dancing is very social, and people want to connect with each other in a fun, safe environment. Plus, dancing has a way of lifting peoples’ spirits and allowing them to forget their worries for a while—everyone needs that.”
Terry promises, with enough practice, anyone can catch on and learn. “They might be dancing to their own beat, but as long as they’re having fun it doesn’t bother me,” she noted. “You come as you are. Don’t take it too seriously. A lot of people will get stressed out over the steps. I’ve always said , ‘When it stops being fun, it’s time to go home.’ Fun is our number one rule.”