Swing scene stomps on in Toronto

In Arts & Life /

By Jill Koskitalo

Brian Setzer may be off the charts and that Gap commercial has seen enough air time, but like the second wave of an attack, swing music soldiers on.

While the hype is dying down, swing dance has enjoyed a boost in popularity and spawned a number of clubs dedicated to the rhythms our grandparents adored.

Wednesday nights at the Berlin Nightclub at 2335 Yonge St. usually find the dance floor packed with swing enthusiasts from all over the city. That’s where City Nights Dance Club runs lessons and a big dance for die-hard swing disciples.

“We usually have several hundred people come through the door,” says Ross Clyde, the operator of the club. “We get all kinds of people, the club is just booming.”

Anyone looking around the club would understand where Clyde is coming from. Diverse is probably the best word to describe the group on the main dance floor. A man in his 80s with a sailor’s hat is dancing with an Asian girl in her early 20s. A middle-aged woman dances with a man decked out in wing-tips and suspenders. The two instructors move through the crowd of dancers checking hand position and footwork. When they’re satisfied, the instructor wearing a microphone calls out a word they’ve been hearing all evening.

“Rotate!”

The couples change partners and a new set of steps is given for them to follow.

“You don’t have to have a partner,” Clyde explains. “The instructors switch everyone up during the lessons to everyone has a chance to dance. In fact there are a lot of single people who come to these dances. It’s a great way to meet other people who want to dance.”

City Nights offers lessons for three different kinds of swing dance: Lindy Hop, East Coast Swing and West Coast Swing.

Instructor Zuzana Hahn is quick to soothe any fears of the steps being too hard to learn. She says the basic steps are simple to learn for anyone.

“The instructors demonstrate and go over the basics for each class, everything is broken down. I have had groups of students who want to learn to do things like lifts, but that’s the flashy stuff. It comes later, after you learn the basics.”

Hahn says that while the hype may be faltering, there will always be a core group who will help clubs like City Nights stay in business even if the ‘90s swing fad dies.

Ryerson theatre grad Melissa Stylianou is doing her part to keep Torontonians groovin’ to a swingin’ beat. She is the lead singer of a four piece swing band called Slim’s Lucky Number and one of three vocalists in another band, 8 to the Bar. Stylianou says she finds swing music a great way to interact with an audience.

“This music is fun. People really respond to it and get into it. When you see people dancing while you’re performing it’s very rewarding.”

Stylianou says she always like the music but really got into swing when she started dancing at various clubs.

“The dance is such a thrill,” she says. “You feel like you’re working with the band.”

The members of 8 to the Bar met through friends. The group performs tunes from the war era and sings in three-part harmony like the girl groups of that period.

“We try to pick popular tunes — tunes that have a beat you can feel,” she says.

Sylianou is pleased that swing music has enjoyed a surge of popular interest but thinks that the media interest is falling away.

“I think the popularity is starting to wane and clubs will stop booking as many acts as they are now. But swing was very strong in L.A. for eight years before the media picked up on it. I don’t think it’s going to die.”

Ross Clyde agrees that swing will still be around with or without TV commercials or top 10 hits.

“We’ve been expanding to include university students,” he says. “We’ve had students from the University of Waterloo and McMaster come in for lessons and the dance. There are plenty of people who are totally committed to swing dancing. It’s definitely going to continue.”

Leave a Comment