Thank you, Hieu.
When I go dance, I walk away remarking on how nice the family time was. It’s like being home – an atmosphere full of love, hugs, and support, with the added benefit that this family is always growing. Whether at events or right here in Minneapolis, these are the bonds that are formed in the fires of practice, progress, success and failure, experimentation and cooperation, and a unifying love of the dance. They feel battle-forged, time-tested, strong. And they make any and everything a more enjoyable experience.
This weekend, I had the opportunity to see that community that ushered into my life the era of West Coast Swing open its doors to the greater WCS community. It was SWINGesota’s first workshop weekend, the brainchild of Hieu Le, Chris Kempainen, Bonnie Inveen, Amy Laederach, Joanna Lowinger, Renae Ward, and the rest of the SWINGesota community. The promise of this truly unique workshop weekend – bringing in both Markus Smith & Trendolyn Veal from D.C. and Kevin Kane & Shantala Davis from the Bay Area, two dance partnerships with tremendously different and inimitable styles – is what kept me in Minnesota this summer, and what provoked me to think about spending the summer doing dance – and it stood toe to toe with any WSDC event I’ve been to all summer because of the core values reflected within its construction and execution.
The four pros we brought in pretty much never left the social dance floor. They stayed as late as the latest dancers, and they openly and actively encouraged people to dance with them. I twice had phenomenal dances with Shanti after we both realized we were jamming out to a particular song. This weekend had seven tremendous workshops – and a special track for advanced/all-star dancers too – but workshops are nothing without the collaborative environment that we come to love on the social dance floor where we implement what we’re learning. After all, to better our ability to collaborate, communicate, and create with and react to music is why we learn. It’s because it evokes some kind of incredible joy – visceral, emotional, performative, any or all.
Sometimes, this doesn’t always come through. Sometimes, somewhere along the line, it becomes about the points or the scoresheet. Sometimes it becomes about politics, or reputation, or overcoming something within oneself or to someone else. And sometimes there is such a stark divide between why certain dancers do it and why others do it – whether it be a leveled distinction or an emotional/experiential one, that the dance family can divide itself.
This could not be further from the truth at SWINGesota. The competitions we had – an intermediate and under open J&J and an advanced-allstar spotlight J&J – were judged quickly, left little to no stress to our minds, and had the feeling of true J&J – the opportunity to dance with someone you maybe don’t dance with all the time, to play around and have a good time sharing what you both love. I was lucky to draw someone amazing and we happened to place in the Intermediate/Open J&J, but I didn’t even want to see scoresheets. It’s about the dance, not the competition. I had fun. We created something special. That’s what matters. According to a source, Markus and Tren said in an advanced/all-star workshop that they hadn’t looked at scoresheets in “years.”
Everyone has their own way of going about things, and I’m not going to preach one side over the other – I am a pathologically competitive human being who would not be pushing himself as hard in WCS if there was not a distinct and rewarding competitive element. But I believe that one of the prevailing themes from the weekend is that the dance – those moments, those windows of opportunity, the unique pleasure to create something with someone that is so fleeting yet often so beautiful – is first.
As the dance wound down, I told Shanti how much I appreciated them staying out and dancing with us. She said simply “It’s what got us here. Staying out late, dancing with everyone. We’re not going to forget that.”
When we dance together for the love of the dance, we create a stronger and more active community. We learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and we learn and grow from working with people outside of ourselves. This is an amazing and unique opportunity that we have as dancers to get to know people we simply wouldn’t ever have known before. We experience differently, we feel differently, we create differently. We are thrown together at wildly disparate points in our lives and let the highs and lows of everyday life drift away as we dance together and experience someone else. And in that, we can find things in each and every dancer on the floor by which we can be excited or thrilled or surprised.
We brought in pros who dance by sensation, who take inspiration from dancing in the mirror, who aren’t afraid to get a little weird or a little intense because that’s what the moment calls for; what the dance is telling them is right. That’s something SWINGesota has always championed, and that individual openness and expression is what caused me to really dive headfirst into this dance in the first place.
There was perhaps no single greater indicator of what kind of community this is than the back half of the Advanced/All-Star J&Js. Every Wednesday night at SWINGesota’s weekly dancing, Hieu or Chris or someone will put on a “Challenge Song.” This song is weird, at least as constructed by WCS standards. We’ve had the Pokemon theme song and long slow instrumentals and everything in between. The second song for each spotlight J&J was a Disney song, something not necessarily ever danced to in WCS comp but absolutely thrilling to see people have a blast with – and wow, did it ever emphasize partnering. To see leaders of our community just make having fun their top priority was an absolute thrill and frankly pretty adorable.
And when your instructors do it, and your community faces do it, everyone starts doing it. They remember why they love the dance.
In this summer of intense training and competition and experience, this was a vacation with my dance family, in which I remembered why I love this as much as I do, and what made me realize this was my #1 passion. I think this was true for many others as well.
So where do we go from here? SWINGesota will only grow, and we have to decide where we set our focus.
But I know that no matter what my next year in Minnesota holds, I know that every Wednesday there is a vibrant community under an hour north absolutely full of life, and love and respect for the dance, where I can feel like family with everyone sharing their love of the dance.
This weekend was the pinnacle of that communal dream brought to life. It was an honor to see the community that I call home breathe such life into the dance, and to see everyone bring their best and most excitable self.
If you’re ever in Minneapolis, come dance with us on Wednesdays. You’ll see what I mean. There’s a Swingesaurus in all of us.