Swing Dance Your Cares Away

Chicago Swing Dance Society, founded in 1997, is now a flourishing club with weekly dances free to students.
Two dancers smile and practice their steps while others partner off in the background.
Photo by: 
David O'Brien
Swing dancers often say that there are no mistakes in swing, only variations.
May Huang
Third-year CSDS co-president

It’s Saturday night. From the open windows of Ida Noyes Hall, the soft noise of a crowd, accompanied by upbeat jazz, pours out onto the dark street. Inside, dozens of dancers take the floor. Even in the coldest depths of winter, the Chicago Swing Dance Society warms the night with a vibrant, effusive community, where absolute beginners and seasoned-swing professionals danced hand-in-hand.

UChicago students can attend these weekly swing dances for free, and droves of them consistently do. The packed evening begins with an hour-long lesson taught by the group’s leadership board. After the lesson, an open dance continues well into the night, giving attendees the opportunity to meet new people and exchange moves and styles with each other. Now the city’s longest-running non-profit swing organization, CSDS draws dancers from far beyond campus, making it a great way to engage with the broader Chicago community.

CSDS had its humble beginnings back in 1996 when then first-year medical student Christopher Yee began teaching swing dance lessons to fellow students in I-House. The following year, Young-Jin Kim, AB ’97, officially founded CSDS as an RSO. That’s when the group began their weekly social dances, known as “Java Jives.” Though now located in Ida Noyes, the original dances took place in C-Shop in the Reynolds Club, which inspired the name of these high-energy evenings.

“Since I’ve been at UChicago, I’ve seen Java Jives grow exponentially,” said third-year CSDS co-president Abbie Reeves. “Our DJs have improved, our attendance is up, and the overall level of dancing is higher.”

CSDS even took a group of dedicated dancers to a workshop in Purdue, Indiana, last quarter to perfect their skills in a versatile and energetic style of swing known as Lindy Hop. Reeves cited this trip as a big step in skill and community building for the club.

A crowded Ida Noyes Hall full of students swing dancing.Photo by David O'Brien

According to Reeves, UChicago  students are always ready for a challenge. “People tend to appreciate super-technical explanations during classes—dance theory, rather than dance practice, if you will,” she said. “I am always delighted at the enthusiasm and perseverance of our students, and it makes me so happy when I see people mastering a new skill.”

Even as CSDS’s dedicated dancers advance their moves, those who have never set foot on a dance floor shouldn’t feel intimidated by the masters. The RSO welcomes dancers of all levels, and any beginner is sure to find a friend at their side and rhythm in their feet with a little confidence and determination.

“You need to be open to learning,” Elsa Carlson, fourth-year CSDS board member, says in her advice to new dancers. She stresses that regardless of age, gender, or experience, beginners can easily step into either dance role: the lead, who directs the steps of the dance, or the follow, who responds to the directions of the lead. What’s most important is developing a sense of security and respect between partners.

“Dance is a conversation, and it can be between any two people,” she added. “It's important to listen to your partner—make sure they're comfortable, accommodate to their level.”

But with all of the distractions of college life, is now really the right time to learn this seemingly antiquated style of social dance? Third-year co-president May Huang certainly thinks so, and she encourages everyone to try it out. “There are lots of things you should start doing when you’re young,” she said.  “And dancing is definitely one of them.”

Two Hyde Park swing dancers.Photo by Dennis Wise

Besides providing a welcome break from her studies, Reeves says swing has been transformative for herself and her friendships. “Swing has taught me to be brave in so many ways, and it has helped me become a better listener and teacher in everything I do.”

Like many dancers, Huang appreciates the kind of relaxed improvisation that swing brings to her life. “Swing dancers often say that there are no mistakes in swing, only variations. All you have to do with your partner is listen to the music and make moves up as you go….As a partner dance that allows you and a total stranger to communicate and create something beautiful without exchanging a single word, swing dancing is one of the most special forms of communication I know.”

On February 3rd, 2018, CSDS will have a Java Jive featuring a live band. Come for a lesson from 7:30-8:30 p.m. and dancing from 8:30-11 p.m. Free for UChicago students, $5 for faculty and community members.

Tagged: chicago swing dance society, RSOs, dance