Fancy Footwork: Swing dancers return to the Kenyon dance floor

S wing dancing: It just won't go away.

It's swept the country and now it's sweeping Kenyon. Perhaps "sweeping" is a little dramatic, but with an estimated one hundred students paying dues this year as members of the College's newly established Ballroom Dance Club, there's a trend at hand.

As a national phenomenon, the revival of swing has been brewing since the middle of the decade, but it was the 1996 movie Swingers and the now-familiar Gap "Khakis Swing" commercials on television that gave the trend its most prominent exposure.

Things took off at Kenyon last spring with the overwhelming success of "Harlem Comes to the Hill," a weekend of swing-dance lessons and history, featuring Frankie Manning, the eighty-three-year-old Tony-Award winning dancer who popularized the Lindy Hop in the 1930s. Sarah Blick, assistant professor of art history and one of the weekend's organizers, said the attendance was mind-boggling, with capacity crowds at a series of five dance lessons and anywhere from three to four hundred people at the weekend's public dance finale on a Saturday evening.

"We were hoping for maybe fifty attendees," says Blick. "Not only did a lot of Kenyon students attend, but people came from as far away as Cleveland, Columbus, even Pittsburgh."

Around the same time as the Harlem weekend, students began making plans to form a ballroom dance club for the 1998-99 academic year. The success of the club is reflected in the awards the dancers have taken at two collegiate competitions, their performances at various campus events--including a halftime show for a basketball game and a performance for the College's Board of Trustees--and several campuswide dance weekends in the spirit of "Harlem Comes to the Hill."

The president of the club, Elizabeth E. Walkenhorst '01 of Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, attributes the interest in ballroom dancing, which includes many dance styles other than swing, to several factors.

"I see it as a return to classicism. This is the stuff our grandparents were doing," she says. "I think we've passed the grunge stage now. I'm noticing what I think is a cyclical trend back to a more classic kind of style. I don't know, maybe people just realized that jumping up and down means you don't get to touch your dance partner very much!"

For Blick, who has been swing dancing in Gambier, London, England, and Minneapolis, Minnesota, her foray into the arena of ballroom dance has been one of self-discovery and liberation.

"We were always the typical overeducated, academic nerds who never danced," says Blick of herself and her husband, John Pepple, an affiliated scholar in the classics department. "There was no dancing at our wedding. We'd always been the people who stood on the sidelines saying, `We wish we could do it, but we can't.'"

When a friend finally convinced them to hear his swing band in 1994, that all changed. "It's such a thrill. I hate exercise, but when we dance, I could do it for hours, even though I'm tired and my body is sore. We started this before the Gap ads hit, and you know, I think it's the first time we've ever been ahead of a trend."

Andrew W. Shannon '99 of Parkersburg, West Virginia, a psychology major with a black belt in tae kwon do (and a Phi Beta Kappa key that he earned as a junior), says his involvement in the Ballroom Dance Club is a good way to interact with other people. "When I go to parties now, just bouncing in time to the music doesn't cut it," he says.

Walkenhorst wonders if the ballroom dance craze isn't on the downswing, due to a smaller-than-anticipated turn-out for the club's April 18 session of swing-dance lessons, provided in part as a precursor to the campuswide Presidential Ball held the following weekend. While she says it's too early to forecast any general lack of interest, since she feels students tend to be busier and less enthusiastic about things in the spring term than the fall, when the club's first swing dance grew a large crowd, she'll be interested to see what kind of response the club receives next year.

In the meantime, club members will continue to work with Jeff Stein, manager of the Fred Astaire dance studio in Westerville, Ohio, who periodically comes to Gambier to give lessons, and practice for competitions, performances, and the love of dancing.

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