As a ballroom dancer, I know how to swing dance, but I’ve never tried lindy hop before. I was completely surprised to learn that there is an entire Swing Dance Society of Lindy Hoppers here in Champaign-Urbana which hosts free monthly events at Hamilton Walker’s. I found the event by chance: through a Facebook event search while looking for upcoming events to feature. After reaching out, I learned the Illini Swing Society was established more than a decade ago, does not have member dues or formal registration, and is made up of students and community members. Yvonne Schleife said of the group: “We care about creating a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere that can connect attendees with the dance and music we love. We appreciate and respect the African American roots of the lindy hop swing dance and enjoy coming together to meet new people and catch up.”
I decided to check out one of their Sunday events, but I wasn’t really sure what to expect. When I arrived, there were a few couples already dancing on the floor space in front of the bar that had been cleared out for the event. Chairs lined the black and white dance floor. A DJ was off to the side. Attendees were all ages; some dressed up and in dance shoes, some were in sneakers and shorts. As the night went on, more and more people arrived. After talking with the organizer Michelle Morrison, I learned this was a medium-sized crowd for the event, which has been taking place monthly for the past year.
Morrison originally wanted to host events at Hamilton Walker’s because it was one of her favorite local spots, and because “they always had such great jazz music playing, not to mention their 1930’s/1940’s vibe, which is just perfect for the era of music and dance that we do.” The plans for the events were finalized in March of 2020, and then…you know.
When the group started cautiously meeting again in 2022, they had a new member: an established swing dancer, instructor, and DJ named Ann Sychterz. They decided to re-visit the Hamilton Walker’s idea, now with Sychterz DJing, and Lindy Hoppers at Hamilton Walker’s finally took shape. Morrison said of the event, “One thing I really like about this event is that it brings out a different mix of local dancers than our weekly lessons and dances do. We really wanted to engage the local dance community, other local swing dancers, and the local community generally with this event and I think we’ve done just that!” One of the other positives of Hamilton Walker’s, as Sychterz pointed out to me, is that the space invites community engagement even from the outside. As people pass by on the street, they can see the dancers. Often, people stop and watch. Right after I arrived, one woman who was watching outside enthusiastically clapped with her hands above her head for the dancers inside.
Although I intended to be a quiet observer, I was quickly asked to dance. When I explained I don’t dance lindy hop, but do know how to east coast swing, my partner Taylor told me we could probably meet in the middle—he was right. As the night wore on, I stopped explaining my lindy hop deficiencies. For non-dancers, the easiest way to explain this is that in swing, you take three steps to the right, then to the left, then rock back. In lindy hop, it’s basically the same, but with a single step instead of triple. The two dances share many of the same moves as well, but in general, it’s easy to fake it if you know swing.
Schleife helpfully provided more context for the history of the dance:
Lindy hop is a dance which comes from the African American community and first began in Harlem in the 1920s, from dancers in the Savoy Ballroom, one of the first integrated ballrooms in the country. The Savoy ballroom could hold thousands of people and was where famous bands, including Chick Webb, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington would play.
No matter how your day starts, after going to a swing class or dance, you simply have an extra bounce in your step from the music, from the people, and from the dancing. Whether someone has just started yesterday or has been dancing for years, you can dance to a full song with just a few movements and make it fun and there is always something new to learn and try!
While I have dance experience, I noticed there were plenty of people attending who were new to the dance. Several times, people were helpfully teaching newcomers a few moves on the side of the dance floor.
Sometimes at social dances, people come in pairs and mostly dance with their respective partner the whole night. This was not the case here; I’m actually not sure how many “pairs” arrived together; but for the most part, everyone was dancing with everyone. As far as social dancing goes, if salsa is high energy and a bit sexy, and tango is sensual and intimate, lindy hop is a relaxing good time. Truly, everyone just seemed to be having a ton of fun and really enjoying the dance and environment.
I asked Schleife what advice would she give to someone who is interested in social-partner dancing, but is intimidated or nervous to try it out:
Every single person on the dance floor knows what it is like to try something new and start playing with this dance. We love to see beginners come out! We are often asked if you need dance experience or if they need to find a partner …but no experience is needed and, in our classes, we rotate partners so that you get to meet and dance with other students in the class. We strive to facilitate an inclusive, open atmosphere.
During our social dances we ask each other to dance, we chat, and you learn as you go! In our classes we like to remind our students that this isn’t choreographed, it’s a conversation between two people on the dance floor and if something doesn’t work out…no problem, you restart and it’s all part of the fun experience. We love this dance and music and seeing someone new connect to a song or have fun in a dance is the best.
I found Schleife’s description to be spot-on. I only intended to check out the event out for a short time while sitting in the corner, but I ended up staying for the entire two hours and danced a decent portion of that time (and I enjoyed a Paloma from the conveniently-located bar at the same time). Everyone was incredibly welcoming, and it was a really a great way to relax and have fun before the start of a new week.
The Illini Swing Society hosts weekly Thursday events with swing classes and social swing dances along with our once-a-month free Sunday swing dances at Hamilton Walker’s. They will also be hosting their Fall Kickoff Swing Event on Saturday, September 2nd, which includes a free Beginning Swing Class from 8 to 9 p.m. followed by a free social swing dance starting at 9 p.m. in the Ballroom (second floor) of the Illini Union. No partner and no pre-registration are needed.
Lindy Hoppers at Hamilton Walker’s
201 N Neil Street
7 to 9 p.m.
Free, but you can buy food and drinks