Swinging Into Action
It was a scene out of a 1940s movie.
Benny Goodman's "Time on My Hands" was playing, men and women were twirling around to swing tunes, and the chandeliers were hung in the fashion of many a fancy dance hall.
But this Wednesday night scenario was hardly a sophisticated nightclub, with neither low lights nor continuous music.
Nor were Ginger Rogers or Fred Astaire among the dancers in the brightly lit Lowell House dining hall. In fact, the dancers were far from the tap greats of the silver screen, but students swinging for the first time. The students had put on their dancing feet to prepare for the annual Swing Dance Lowell House will host tomorrow night.
The 30 students attending the course shared one thing in common: a genuine desire to learn how to swing dance. But there the similarity stopped. Motives varied, skill varied as did personal style.
Some students were future Lowell House residents seeking to mask foolish freshman ignorance at this weekend's soiree.
"I'm so glad I know how to do the swing now," said Louisa Oliver '90. "Otherwise I'd make such a fool out of myself on Saturday--I took dance lessons in seventh grade, but we never learned the swing."
"Thank God for the lessons," said Linda Rottenberg '90. "Otherwise we'd make fools out of ourselves at the dance, and they'd all point at us and say, 'Freshmen!'"
Current Lowell House residents attested, however, that knowing how to do the swing is not a prerequisite for entering the house. In fact, many also confessed to complete ignorance of the dance.
"I have no sense of rhythm," said Diane Ahmann '89, "I came because I know absolutely nothing about this and want to do it right on Saturday."
And, Dick Listeraud '87, a member of the Lowell House music committee, which is sponsoring the dance, said that many house residents come to the lessons each year to "learn the steps and to just have fun."
But some of those in attendance were not concerned with perfecting their swing ability so much as perfecting the moves of a swinger.
"I just came to meet girls," said Matt Brown '90. "I already know I have a budding natural ability to swing. It's genetic--my grandfather was good at it, so I should be too."
Other students at Wednesday's crash course agreed that they had come in part to pay homage to their grandparents' way of life.
"This kind of thing went out of style with our grandparents, so it's traditional and kind of fun to do," said Nina Castro '90. "And, the music, well, that's a blast from the past, which makes it kind of interesting."
While everyone said they found the trumpet blaring music of Benny Goodman and other Big Band directors to be interesting, not everyone preferred it to jazz or rock and roll. Although some more intrepid dancers confessed to their partners "Oh, I love this song, this is really cool," more confided with somewhat disappointed expressions, "This is O.K., but I can't get too enthused about it."
But even if students were not overly excited about the swing music itself, the majority of those in attendance said they enjoyed learning the new skill. Wook Lee '83, a former Leverett House resident, taught the students the fancy steps and twirls.
"Learning to do the swing is really awkward at first," Lee said. "But you'll be surprised. If you isolate each part and teach the men and women separately, then there should be no problem."
The only problems that Lee could foresee impeding a student's progress would be medical ones. "You should always wear comfortable shoes--not heels," he told his students. "The way I look at it is if you ladies step on the guys' feet at this tempo, then they just won't be there any more."
To prevent the students from "initially killing each other," Lee separated the men and women, sending each sex to opposite sides of the room. He taught the men the basic steps, and then repeated the demonstration for the women using a brave volunteer.
"Now try it with a partner--someone you don't know," he urged. "The more people you dance with the better you'll learn." Lee told everyone to introduce themselves, cautioning "but no last names, phone numbers, or partners' addresses--save that for afterwards."
Some students found themselves dancing with partners they will probably not dance with on Saturday. Because more women than men attended the class--"the only time you'll ever experience this phenomenon at Harvard," Lee said--several all female couples graced the dance floor.
After Lee assured himself that each couple knew "the basic step," he had them move on to "the close position." "Now this position is called 'the close position' because that's what you are--close to your partner. Just don't get too close to your partner," he warned.
Lee told the women to place their hands lightly on the men's shoulders and the men to put their hands on the women's backs. And, while he emphasized "lightly" to the women--saying that in this day of equality they could hold their own arm's weight--he had stricter advice on "close position" etiquette for the men.
"Men, I said backs, not butts, not anywhere lower on the body. You keep your hands on their backs," he cautioned.
One advantage to learning the swing, Lee said, was cultivating the art of leadership. "Men, this is your chance to learn how to lead," he said. "Many of you will have to plan ahead for the first time in your lives."
To teach the concept of leadership, Lee relied on the ancient rule of chance. "Now, pick a number between one and five. Got it? O.K., guys, that's how many basic steps you're going to do before you change to the open position again," he said.
Lee apologized to the women for the swing's inherent male chauvinism. "Well, you know, this is an old time thing. When they made this up, including leading, it was a male world. It's harder to lead, though, so you women should actually be glad," he said.
After the students perfected some of the basic swing steps, Lee increased the dance's tempo, to make the situation "more realistic." But faster did not mean better for the majority of the dancing neophytes.
"This is way too hard and complicated," complained a biochemistry concentrator who said she has no trouble handing in lengthy problem sets but just couldn't get the steps right.
"I just can't do this," said a second, as the tempo increased.
And others gave up, preferring to watch their fellow swingers make mistakes. Some groups decided against the "old time stuff" and tried to slam dance instead. A few even attempted the Virginia Reel and began skipping and "do-si-doing" around the room.
But others quickly picked up the swinging moves. Some couples, in fact, even added twirls and loops to their "one--two--three, back/forward" routine.
By the end of the two-hour session, in fact, even those who were inclined to just stand and laugh were showing improvement, although some were still confusing the swing with the tango or the rhumba.
"I don't know why we can't have a sexier dance," complained one Lowell House man to his partner. "This is hard and not that great." His partner, however, who was picking up the swinging moves faster than he, returned, "Well, you just have to fake it, you know."
To spice up the swing for those looking for fancy moves, Lee taught the group "the Pretzel." "It was so hard," Oliver said. "You were with your partner and had to twist up and turn around about ten million times--well maybe only a few, but it was very complicated. Fun, though."
"I'm definitely glad I went," Oliver said. "Now, at least I'll know what to do. The dance will be fun, because swinging is so funny, but I don't like it all that much."
Lee, however, had a word of encouragement for all those who were somewhat disappointed with the swing. "Just remember," he said. "Even if you don't like it, it's always good aerobic exercise."