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One of the most difficult jobs Debra and I have is scheduling the numerous live music events. Other swing dance promoters around the world are amazed at the sheer volume of live music dances available in the DC metro area. Sadly, I've gotten emails from former Gottaswing dancers who have moved away to find live music non-existent in their new home. Even worse, they've moved to places where live music could be available, but the promoters prefer DJ music (!). I'm pretty sure (and our success supports) that without live music, Gottaswing would not have become the biggest swing dance network in the country.
I was fortunate to have started swing dancing when there was a vibrant live music club scene in DC, and most clubs had dance floors. Granted, most bands were blues or rock and roll based, but there were multiple venues each night. Sadly, this situation has changed. Debra and I were, and remain, determined to keep the energy and nightclub "vibe" that comes from having a live band as often as possible.
Our good friends from the swing era, Frankie Manning, Jean Veloz, Norma Miller, Dawn Hampton, and our own Arnold Taylor never speak about their dancing days without talking about the great live bands that made it possible. In the 1980's and 90's Debra and I danced to Daryl Davis, Deanna Bogart, Tom Cunningham, Doc Scantlin, Eric Felton and The Nighthawks on a regular basis and were often the only swing dancers on the floor!
There is much music which is swing dance"able" without necessarily being from the Swing Era. Jazz, big band, small combo, boogie woogie, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, Motown, are all fine for swing dancing. I understand that folks have preferences, but like with food, you cannot eat the same dish every night without getting bored. The only way that I can remain interested in swing dancing is to keep live music as varied as possible. Nevertheless, when hiring bands we are constrained by schedules of other promoters, band costs, holidays and touring schedules from out-of-the area bands.
However, regardless of how good a band is (or isn't) the truth is that the success of an evening (if measured in the number of dancers who show up) is dependent upon YOU. Because, the first thing people want to know is who's going to be there to dance with, not who's the band. And if they do ask about the band, they are really asking if it is a POPULAR band that will draw in PEOPLE TO DANCE WITH. So, as I've written before, in order for the swing dance scene to remain alive and vibrant, each dancer has to take some responsibility in supporting it. No one wants to show up for a great band when there are few folks to dance with.
Some folks sit on the sideline watching Gottaswing's performance group, The Eight Week Wonders, and think that they're not good enough to participate, or that they'd like to but don't have a partner to take the class. Our group has been performing for well over 10 years and our premise has always been to provide an opportunity for folks to learn a performance routine with formation changes. Once learned, you can either participate in the competitions and/or performances we attend. The routines are designed with our students in mind and can be done with as few as 2 couples. When competing we understand that we may be competing against some pretty professional teams, so victory is not our main priority. We work together as a team to do the best job possible and, after everything is over, to remain friends. Too often I've seen teams disintegrate due to personality and ego conflicts. Our group has survived and thrived while others have faded away.
Our primary focus is to spread the joy of swing. We do regular performances at Glen Echo Park, the Smithsonian, Kennedy Center and for Honor Flights where vets come to DC to visit the WWII memorial. Sometimes (because we're having fun, too) we forget about the impact of these performances. One of our dancers, Sheri Ratliff, sent us this recent email:
Yesterday, while dancing at an Honor Flight, a gentleman was just walking by the gate, saw us dancing and stopped. He walked up to me with tears in his eyes and said "my father was here at year or two ago on a flight from Ft Collins. He now has Alzheimers (dementia) and his only memory of that trip is the swing dancers that were there and the music." The man just wanted people that participate in these activities to know how much it meant to his dad and how how much it means to his family that he has this one good memory of the trip. I'm sure you have heard similiar stories, but I wanted folks to know if they are looking for something to do to make a difference to consider these type of activities when the opportunities arise. Needless to say, by the time the guy finished talking to me, I had tears in my eyes, too.
A MONDAY NIGHT AT CHEVY CHASE BALLROOM, 9:36pm
It's the weekly after-class DJ dance at CCB, and I'm looking around a full and happy room. Soon I'll announce the monthly birthday dance and then we’ll have cake. Coincidently, this is the first night of a new series of lessons, so the newbies are looking a little overwhelmed. We're happy to see a large intermediate class who have returned, mainly regulars but also a few who have just graduated from the beginner class and are excited about the challenge of the intermediate series. Some of the best dancers in the city are here, enjoying the beautiful dance floor and great music. There are a couple of college kids in the corner who have never danced before and are having a great time bouncing around. We're happy to see some returning college kids back with us again, too. And visitors--a guy from Okinawa Japan, here to visit family. Another guy from California on a business trip. There's a fella from Sweden who's in town to give a lecture at the Smithsonian. And of course, our darling Reverend Arnold Taylor.
This is what I love about dancing more than anything. People of ALL walks of life, all ages, levels of experience, mixing it up, sharing some laughs, having some fun. To me, this is what it's all about. I just can't stop smiling. This is why I dance.
What makes the Gottaswing world the largest in the world, as far as we know, is that it is based upon the premise that we want the ENTIRE WORLD to swing dance and that we all work hard to provide a welcoming place (like the bar in Cheers, where everyone knows your name). People of all ages, abilities and styles are welcome, and it is the atmosphere of friendship and acceptance that brings folks back to Gottaswing classes and dances again and again.
Not every dancer will ever get beyond a few steps, nor will all dancers ever acquire rhythm. They may not be the prettiest or most handsome, but they all come to the dance looking for a good time. If you are unable to bring yourself to give at least one dance to everyone who asks (unless you have some physical, emotional, religious reason that prevents this) then you should probably go elsewhere.
My guiding philosophy has always been, “What would Frankie (Manning) do?" Not a day goes by that I don't appreciate the time and effort he put into inspiring ALL folks to dance. He didn't care how well you did it (fortunately for me) but just that you did it strong>.