Coming up swinging: The rise of Mersey Swing and why you should be a part of it

Mersey Swing

Mersey Swing in full swing (photo by Ruth Hornby)

Having danced away his scepticism, Getintothis’ Jamie Carragher reports on the Mersey Swing Winter Ball – and reckons it’s just the ticket to beat the Winter Blues.

Look at you. We’re not even done with January and you’ve already abandoned your New Year’s resolutions. Well, here’s one and I bet you won’t want to break it: Go to Mersey Swing and take some classes. Here’s why you should:

Light and music spill out onto Great George Street. Punters on their way to Concert Square take a detour to look inside. Up the winding stone stairs of the Black-E, through the open double doors, the 3rd annual Mersey Swing Winter Ball unfurls. Once in the hall, the energy of the live band and a dance floor in motion rushes around you. It lifts your feet an inch from the ground and sets your spine a little bit straighter. Now you know why the doors are open. It’s hard to contain this kind of energy.

But it’s Saturday January 9 2016. Isn’t swing dancing the musical equivalent of medieval warfare reconstruction? Worthy of preservation but tedious and, frankly, a bit irrelevant? Looking out on the dance floor, I can safely say I’ve never seen something so alive. It’s controlled chaos. Couples manoeuvre about the hall, triple stepping and tuck turning into any gap that presents itself. In a room this packed, leads chart ever-changing courses for their follows, aware that one overambitious swing-out can lead to a clattering. Follows listen to the signals transmitted by their leads, a slight raise of the hand or the omission of a step. That’s the skill of dancing in a place like this: applying energetic moves within the parameters of a bustling dance floor, listening to the music and listening to your partner.

Go and see some modern dance as The Capstone Theatre unveils its Spring Programme

Take a closer look and it’s clear that this panorama is made up of many different stories. There’s a range of skill on display; professionals share the floor with newcomers and there’s no segregation between the two. In fact, experienced dancers usually jump at the chance to guide a newbie through recently acquired moves. You can divide the crowd in other ways too. Some people are dressed in meticulous vintage outfits while others don’t bother. A fair number here tonight were born in an era when said vintage outfits were simply considered ‘clothes.’ Age, gender, race, sexual orientation, where you live, who ya dad was. Honestly, nobody cares. They just want to dance with you.

Depending on your disposition, this kind of event might sound like an anxiety inducing nightmare. Asking strangers to dance? Risking the embarrassment of messing up in front of everybody? No thanks, article imploring me to change my life. And I hear you. The first time I went to a night like this, I was shaking more than Little Richard if he downed five cups of coffee and then sat on an EpiPen. But the atmosphere at the Mersey Swing Winter Ball is incredibly inclusive. Before you have time to run away, somebody’s already asked you to give it a whirl and you’ve just said, ‘Yeah!’ And of course, scary as it is, you’re just putting into practice what you’ve been learning in class.

Every Wednesday, starting from seven, Mersey Swing put on classes for an hour and a half. There’s a class solely for beginners where you learn the basic steps of Lindy Hop and the Charleston, the main tipples of Mersey Swing, until you’re confident enough to join up with the main class. From there, thanks to clear teaching and a welcoming atmosphere, improvement comes quickly. After class, there’s an hour of social dancing. It’s here you get the chance to put into practice what you’ve learnt in class and often with the scene’s more experienced dancers- the surest way to get better quick.

After a series of fits and flailing starts, Mersey Swing was formed in earnest February 2012. Liverpool’s own Cat Foley, who competes regularly at international Lindy competitions, says that her main motivation in founding Mersey Swing was, ‘wanting more mates to dance with.’ The importance placed on friendship and fun is what keeps Mersey Swing from becoming a dance academy. It’s apt too as in the early days, Mersey Swing depended on the community support offered by venues such as Heebie Jeebies, The Jacaranda, Maguire’s and the recently closed, Kazimier. Now based primarily in the Merseyside Dance and Drama Centre on Camden Road, this sense of community still runs strong. That’s why you don’t need to come with a partner; everybody rotates around the room, everybody dances with everybody.

Look back at the last night of the Kazimier and the Escape to Planet Kronos

Lindy Hop is one of the most progressive dance forms ever. Bursting out of the stiff mores of ballroom, Lindy Hop encapsulated the pioneering spirit of the 1930s Harlem Renaissance, where white and black New Yorkers would head to The Savoy to swing it with whoever, regardless of creed, colour and background. Different times have different barriers. Speaking to those at the Winter Ball, it’s clear that as well as loving dance, a lot of people are here for the social interaction that comes with the swing scene, something decidedly lacking in the internet era.

Turns out, it’s not just Cat who wants more mates to dance with; the rise of swing dancing is a national trend and if anything, Liverpool is playing catch up with the likes of Manchester and Leeds, homes to more established swing scenes. The great thing is that no scene is an island. Plenty of dancers dabble in different groups, with new lessons enthusiastically passed on from city to city. This cross-pollination occurs most obviously when swing scenes host an event like the Winter Ball, often spanning a whole weekend. The big ones like Hullzapoppin’ (Hull) and DJam (Durham) draw dancers from all over the country and even abroad. As well as attending events like these, this year, Mersey Swing is planning its first international dance trip. Clearly, the desire for more mates is insatiable.

There’s no better reason for going to a swing class than having the desire to connect with people. Connection is the heart of swing dancing- connection with the music and connection between partners. Without it, any dance will fall apart, regardless of individual ability. Each time you step out onto the floor those connections must be made anew and with many variables at play: you, your partner, the song, the band. You quickly realise that no dance can ever be repeated, it’s ephemeral. That’s the joy of it actually, searching for the best experience that you and your partner can craft together in that moment. For the space of a song, a dance can flare and then it’s over and gone.

Where is the good news going to come from? 2016 has, so far, offered little in the way of hopeful tidings. We’re now living in a Bowie-less universe. With dark mornings and early nights, this time of year can be a cold and lonely place. So, be proactive in finding your own joy. Go to gigs. Make music. Do whatever it takes to bring back good times. And if you’re stuck for ideas on how to do it, let’s dance and we’ll talk about it later.

Get down to your local swing group: (Chester)