Lindy Hop swings back into the spotlight in Edmonton

A swing dance style born in Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom in the 1920s and ’30s is finding new footing with young Canadian dancers.

The Lindy hop “is like playtime,” said Birkley Wisniewski, director of Sugar Swing Ballroom in Edmonton, one of Canada’s largest swing dance schools. “It just makes you want to move.”

More than 200 dancers from across Western Canada and the U.S. gathered in September at Sugar Swing’s Lindy Harvest Festival, an annual workshop and festival for lovers of the style.

Old-school dance, new students

Wisniewki opened Sugar Swing in 2005. He’d been introduced to swing at the University of Alberta, and did choreography on the side of an engineering job before moving to dance full-time.

Now, Sugar Swing’s location on Edmonton’s south side is one of the few facilities in the country dedicated to swing dancing. The community has grown “by leaps and bounds,” Wisniewski said. 

Swing had its first revival across North America in the ’90s, complete with big-band musical acts and movies like 1993’s Swing Kids. You can hear the style’s influence in rockabilly, ska and even electronic music.

Dancers at Sugar Swing Ballroom in Edmonton polish up the hardwood with their swing moves. (Submitted by Birkley Wiesniewski)

It was in the 2010s that Wisniewski started to see Edmonton’s dance community grow. More people were willing to try and fall in love with the moves and music from the 1920s and ’30s.

Today, Sugar Swing offers 15 classes a week, including flamenco, jazz, tap and blues. The studio has a semi-pro performance team called the Mad Cat Swing and junior team the Mad Kittens.

According to Wisniewski, the studio has recovered their attendance numbers from the pandemic and then some. It gives him hope for the future of swing dance. 

“It’s important to preserve these dance styles,” he said. “It inspires me to see it grow, and for people to know where it came from.”

Passing on their dancing shoes

The Lindy Hop originated in the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, New York City. The space was home to a community of talented Black dancers and Ruth “Sugar” Sullivan fit right in.

Sullivan began her dance career at the age of nine and joined the Savoy Lindy Hoppers — the group that created and popularized the high-energy swing dance sub-genre. She won the highly competitive Harvest Moon Ball in 1955 with her then-husband George, and launched her professional career on The Ed Sullivan Show.

WATCH | Ruth Sullivan and George Sullivan in 1955:

Now 93, Sullivan and fellow Lindy Hopper Barbara Billups, 87, travel the world for workshops. This summer they taught 800 people in Sweden at the Herräng Dance Camp, the world’s largest and longest-running annual gathering of its kind.

“Who would have thought that in 2023 that I’d still be dancing,” Sullivan told CBC’s Radio Active. “And that people would be asking us to come and talk about our favourite thing? It’s very exciting.”

The pair were on hand for the 2023 Lindy Harvest, a trip north that meant a lot to Billups. She travelled across Canada extensively in the ’60s with the cabaret show Sonny Allen and The Rockets.

“It’s made us feel good to be as young as we are, and still people want to see us come and talk about it,” said Billups. “We hope it’ll keep other people who are younger than us to keep this thing going.”

Radio Active7:33Edmonton celebrates swing dancing at Lindy Harvest this weekend

Featured VideoWe introduce you to some Lindy Hop history with two famous New York dancers.

Rylee Chalifoux, 14, is Sugar Swing Ballroom’s youngest dancer. She joined when she was nine. At first shy, she soon found her footing.

“It makes me feel good and not think about the troubles and worries that I have, and it’s just a place where I can go and have fun,” she said. “It makes me so happy.”

Chalifoux gets a thrill out of dancing to music that’s nearly 100 years older than her. Meeting instructors like Sullivan and Billups has been a highlight.

A man stands with his arms around two older Black women, wearing matching varsity jackets and red hats. They smile at the camera. Birkley Wiesnewski, centre, with Sugar Sullivan, left, and Barbara Billups. (Clare Bonnyman/CBC)

“I’m so in awe of them,” she said. “Every time I see them they tell me I have to keep dancing, and they’re so proud of me.”

The intergenerational aspect means a lot to Wisniewski, who at 42 has been dancing more than half of his life. Every now and then he says he has to take a step back and take in the community he’s built. 

“We’re dancing this dance style that is 100 years old, dancing to music that is also that old,” he said. “I almost wonder if people are thinking to themselves, ‘What are these people doing?'”

But to answer that question you have to give it a try, he says.

“At the end of the day, it is infectious.”

Originally Appeared Here

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