Caitlin Bullerkist remembers the first time she’d ever heard of swing dancing. She was in her first year at the University of Alberta, and was perusing the annual clubs fair looking for a ballroom dancing club to join.
“I ended up running into the swing booth. I had no idea swing dancing even existed,” she says. Swing-Out Edmonton — the swing club at the U of A — was holding an introductory dance the week before the ballroom club started up for the year.
“I went to swing dancing, fell in love with it, and never even bothered going to ballroom after that.”
Now in her fourth year, Bullerkist, 21, is the president of Swing-Out Edmonton. While swing dancing recalls the simpler times of decades gone by, Bullerkist says that its popularity has exploded over the past couple of years. Today, the club, which started in 2001, hosts regular dances every couple of weeks — up from just one a semester two years ago — and eight-week beginner and intermediate classes each semester. This past September, 157 people registered for the classes, the biggest turnout in the club’s history and almost double the number from the previous fall.
“It’s great in that it gets you away from studying and you have to take a break from your homework, and you get some physical activity. But at the same time, there’s such a social element to it. You meet a lot of people,” Bullerkist says.
Meanwhile, sunlight quietly spills through the floor-to-ceiling windows on the upper level of the Sugar Foot Ballroom on a Friday morning as a contemporary dance group rehearses a routine set to soft music. This serenity is a stark contrast to the scene that unfolded in the former Strathcona Presbyterian Church, just south of Whyte Avenue, the evening before, and will unfold again this evening and the next.
On Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, the ballroom is home to social dances hosted by the Sugar Swing Dance Club. On Saturdays, 100 to 150 people will come out to do the jive, the Charleston and the Lindy Hop to music from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.
Since Birkley Wisniewski started up Sugar Swing in 2005, he too has seen swing’s popularity grow; five years ago, the numbers for Saturday dances were about half of what they are today. The Thursday and Friday dances didn’t even exist then, but today the club draws 20 to 30 dancers for the former and 40 to 80 for the latter.
Much of that growth, Wisniewski says, is due to having a building to call home.
“It gives people a place to go, and it allows us to do so much more. I’d say it’s infrastructure, of all things, that’s the main reason it has grown here and become more prominent,” says Wisniewski, 34, although he notes that the club has a short-term lease on the old church.
Another aspect of swing’s popularity is the fact that all ages and skill levels are welcome at dances — the Sugar Foot Ballroom doesn’t serve alcohol, and dancers describe the local swing community as very welcoming. People can even arrive without a partner, as plenty of folks there are willing to get out on the floor.
Wisniewski estimates that Edmonton’s swing dance community has the highest number of participants in Western Canada, and is probably among the top 10 in North America. Cities like Seattle, Los Angeles, Houston and Washington, D.C., might have two or three times the dancers, he says, but those scenes have been established longer.
Martin and Sandy Romanow, both 61, have been swing dancing for about seven years now. In that time, they’ve travelled to cities like Seattle and New Orleans for workshops and dances, but they’ve also seen plenty of world champions come to Edmonton to check out the local scene and give lessons.
“We’re kind of known as a mecca,” Sandy says, adding that a visitor from Sacramento, Calif., once told her: “The further north you go, the better the dancing.”
Since they started, the Romanows have been busy spreading the word about swing dancing. They attend dances at Sugar Swing regularly, and they’ve even had neighbours over to their house, teaching them the basic steps in the kitchen before heading out to a social dance.
“[A neighbour said] he only thought this happened in movies. He couldn’t believe Edmonton had this every Saturday night,” says Martin.
The basics of swing dancing aren’t that complicated: step-step-rockstep, just like most of us learned in the dreaded dance module of junior-high gym class. But once you have the basics down, there are all sorts of advanced steps, moves and twirls that can be peppered into routines.
“Once you take that first step, you see that it’s easy. Not necessarily easy to dance, because, like anything else, you have to work at it. But it’s an easy thing to get caught up in and you want to improve,” Martin says. “You’ve just got to take that first step.”