Swing Dance Culture in Pittsburgh

 

Chicago native and swing instructor, Tom Ricci, has traveled all across the country for swing dance events.

The social event in which people meet from across the country is how Nick Flajnik found his future fiancé and career.

This type of dance also breaks from its past romantic roots. Eric Sze, student at the University of Pittsburgh, said that he liked that women could play the lead role in a swing partnership.

Many swing dancers agree that the scene is welcoming to all types, including new dancers. Because of this, there is a distinct age range among swing dancers.

“You have this interesting age range where people are in their 60s, 70s, 80s, doing this dance with people who are like 22, and their all communicating on the same dance floor,” said Ricci.

 

Swing dancing started in the early 20th century in America with the rise of big bands and jazz styles of music. The dance style took off, branching in several different directions to create different variation of swing dance, such as Lindy Hop, Charleston, Balboa, and more.

The scene saw its peak and tapered off in popularity in the 1950s and 60s when partner dancing as a whole saw decline

However, in the early 1990s, it was revitalized by a group in California. It swept the nation and reached the east coast by the start of the millennium.

“Pittsburgh has one of the oldest and largest swing scenes in the country. It’s been around since the swing revival,” stated Ricci.

The 90s Swing Revival changed some crucial aspects to the dance. These changes did not alter the styles, but instead made the dance more culturally progressive.

When swing dancing first began in the 20s, it was a social standard for men to ask women to dance, and for men to stand in the lead role while dancing. However, times have changed, and so has swing dancing.

It is now acceptable and even common for women to initiate the dance and to lead. It is also common for people of the same gender to dance with one another.

“In the 1920s, it was very strict; these were more conservative times. The woman was always the follow and the man was always the lead,” said Ricci. “But in the 90s Revival, everyone was doing every part. It’s not the old conservative way anymore.”

 

Dance Scene Brings A Welcoming Community

Ricci started into the swing dance scene after he moved to Pennsylvania.

“I started at Edinboro University in a prominent swing program that a lot of people came from called Swingboro,” he said. “I was just walking through the student union one day and there were some kids Lindy Hopping on the side, and one of them did a swing – out into me.”

Ricci has been a swing instructor for the last year, alongside Flajnik.

Flajnik has been swing dancing for about six years. He first got into swing for a romantic interest.

“There was this girl I liked. We were friends and she went swing dancing, so I thought, ‘she not going to like me unless I go dancing with her, because she’s dancing with all of these other guys,’ So I went,” Flajnik stated.

Though the relationship did not last, he continued to dance, falling in love with the art and later his swing-dancing fiancé.

He now teaches private lessons and also at one of the weekly events called Tartan Swing, held at Carnegie Mellon University.

Ryan Lonergan grew up playing the saxophone and fell in love with swing music. He has been dancing for the last year, on and off.

“I went on meetup.com and ended up just showing up to a random event at a VFW,” he said. “I was terrified, I did awful. And then I showed up again and did less terrible and awful, and I’ve been doing slightly less terrible and awful ever since. Everyone seems to want to improve and help you improve.”

Programmer and systems analyst, Chase Ettinger, used swing dancing to break out of his shell. He was first invited by his roommate and has made several other friend during his three weeks of attendance.

“It’s very friendly. Open and welcome, I’d say,” Ettinger said.  “It’s opened me up to a few more people.”

Stephen Pappas, Philadelphia native, is also fairly new to the swing dance scene. He, too, discovered the scene through a friendly invite.

His first experience swing dancing was in Beaver Falls. Pappas said he enjoyed it so much, he immediately searched for places to swing dance in Pittsburgh.

“I have been very impressed by the community. They are welcoming and understanding,” he stated. “I’m new, I’m making a lot of mistakes, and in the process of learning a lot of things.”

 

Swing Dance Creates A Relaxed Atmosphere

Christine Bolton, a student at Butler County Community College, performs hip-hop and Latin dance styles as well.

“I have been dancing almost my whole life, but I have been only swing dancing for about three weeks,” she said.

Swing dancing is a duet, but dancers switch partners almost every dance, allowing dancers to meet new people, expand their skills, and for those who come alone a chance to dance.

“Even if you were to come as a single guy or a single girl, you could come and have somebody to dance with,” she said. “It’s a very accepting group.”

Bolton is not the only swing dancer to have started in other styles before finding the swing community.

Nicole Levy, neuroscience student, has been performing in swing, jazz, and ballroom. She discovered the swing scene through her ballroom class about a year ago.

“I feel like it’s a mix of jazz and ballroom, in the sense that it still has structure, but you’re very loose with it,” Levy stated. “Swing dance is very loose, very free, so you get to express yourself.”

John Dzikiy, a hardware engineer in Pittsburgh, is also an instructor in the swing dance community. He has been dancing for the last seven years, and has been teaching for two.

Dzikiy delved into the scene during his years at Pennsylvania State University.

“The first time I went to that dance, I didn’t know what was going on, I was trying to follow, trying to figure out what was happening, and then I remember asking someone to dance, and they were like “no” and I was just crushed.”

However, that did not stop him from coming back. Dzikiy started to really enjoy his time swing dancing, and continued to go to weekly swing events.

“It’s pretty forgiving,” he said. He also said that swing dancing is more about having fun than following rules and competing.

 

90s Revival Added Social Progression to the Swing Dance Culture

The swing dance scene fluctuates. There are many new people who come and go, college students graduating, dancers moving away. Eric Sze is a new dancer who says he is staying.

“Initially, I was very nervous. Once you really get into it, you kind of just throw your moves out there,” Sze stated.

He said that he likes the community, that everyone is “light hearted,” and open to people of different backgrounds. Sze also appreciates the gender equity within the dance.

“Dance shouldn’t be catered to a certain gender. It’s an art form and art isn’t really something that is gender specific.”

 

Swing dancers meet up on Thursdays and Saturdays. Tartan Swing starts at 7:30 on Thursday evenings at CMU with lessons. Swing City is hosted by the Wightman School Community Building in Squirrel Hill on Saturdays night at 8.

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