Friday, May 24, 8:02 p.m.
Are you the instructor??” Ten pairs of eyes blink expectantly in my direction as I—the two-left-footed interloper—barge into the Aruba Hotel’s darkened Thunderbird Lounge for the Friday night swing-dance class with a rather telling lack of grace.
Oh boy. “Uh, no, I’m not the instructor.” The five couples turn back to one another and assume the open position, side by side, hands gently clasped. I join them, an 11th wheel of sorts. What have I just gotten myself into?
“What we’re gonna do is a West Coast Swing,” announces Bob, a tall silver gent, as he takes control of us quickly wandering sheep. He demonstrates with his partner Frances what they learned at last week’s class. “Rock step, triple step, triple step, rock step,” we chant together, mimicking the little baby steps on the Aruba’s damp concrete floor.
“Wait till you see them dance at 9 p.m.,” says Frances, referring to the Aruba’s vibrant following of learned swing dancers who fall upon the lounge every Friday (except First Friday) to East Coast, West Coast, Charleston and Balboa themselves silly until the wee hours. Except they’re all in Seattle (including the instructor Mark) for Camp Jitterbug, a huge swing convention. What we do have is Greg, the one among us who actually seems to know what the hell he’s doing. “I’ve been dancing for two years,” he informs us. At this Frances instantly promotes him. “We need a partner over here,” she says. I step forward. “Someone who knows how to dance,” he adds. I step back.
So our five couples—now six, as Frances is the “Baby” to Greg’s Patrick Swayze, and I have borrowed her Bob—rock-step our little hearts out. The ladies round-robin, passing from guy to guy like a game of human Telephone. I leave Bob for Aaron. Then to Daniel and Ron before Shawn and Kent—I feel rather like a swing slut. Along the way we learn some tricks, or as Greg puts it, “swing-jitsu,” like the “Hey look at my watch!” method of transitioning from a closed position to an open one, called a “cuddle.”
With just seven minutes to spare before the official party starts, we learn that the Charleston, that happy, swaggering dance we associate with flappers and the Roaring ’20s, has its origins in the Cakewalk, a dance that Greg says came from African-American slaves mimicking the way a smug master might strut with a lady on his arm.
At 9 p.m. DJ Brandy starts in with classics like “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön,” and couples take the floor to show off or try out new moves, but always with the sense that if an inside turn doesn’t work out quite right, another song is just around the corner. I try asking my many and various partners (everyone dances with everyone) about footwork and beats, but really I’m spinning around so much it just doesn’t matter.
It’s a thrilling alternative to clubs, and as it turns out, there’s no shortage of opportunities to swing. “This is the center of the Lindy Hop scene,” says Dean, an instructor at Step By Step dance studio. I don’t know if he means Vegas or the Aruba, but Sin City certainly does have its share of swing events: Texas Station, The Cannery, Red Rock Resort, Tuscany and Stoney’s all host branches of Vegas’ swing family. Because large, available banquet rooms are hard to find, and since the swing dancers aren’t big drinkers, the scene is a little more guerrilla, but the Aruba is a good place to start. Like with selecting a religious congregation, one must go and find one’s crowd. In fact, a few dancers direct me to a by-donation swing class/ministry at the First Presbyterian at Charleston and MLK!
As he dances me around the room, I try to keep pace with my partner Daniel. “You modern, independent women—you all want to lead,” he says wistfully. I’m about to agree with him, but I can’t seem to pick my jaw up off the floor and dance at the same time. Perhaps that degree of coordination comes later.