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Swing State

Vermont's West Coast Swing scene blossoms in Burlington


Published September 19, 2012 at 9:31 a.m.

  • Matthew Thorsen

Nothing is quite as thrilling as being asked to dance. But, if you don’t frequent formal dances and you’re not in middle school, it can be a woefully rare occurrence.

Unless you find yourself at a swing-dance convention, as I did last weekend, when some 200 dancers from around the region flocked to the second annual Vermont Swing Dance Championships at the Hampton Inn in Colchester. As a newcomer to the competitive-dance scene, and fresh from a viewing of Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom, I half expected to find a convention hall filled with bedazzled bras, big hair and backbiting competition.

I couldn’t have been further off base (although I did spot two women sporting sexy, sheer tops over “statement” bras). The New England swing-dance scene, unlike Luhrmann’s fictional Aussie ballroom community, is made up of down-to-earth types of all ages, and they seemed to be in it simply for the love of dancing. And did they ever dance, under dimmed chandeliers, for three days straight last week.

Vermont’s swing scene hasn’t always been so vibrant. Karen Graham, a Ludlow-based dance instructor who organized last weekend’s event, began swing dancing in the Upper Valley in 1996. “I was bored,” she said with a smile. “Single and bored.” When a newspaper ad for a swing-dance class caught her eye, she decided to give it a try.

Graham was hooked. “I was so intrigued by it, the whole world,” she said. She began teaching in Ludlow, Rutland and Middlebury, and attended swing events around the country. But there were no “official” competitions in the region — meaning none sponsored by the World Swing Dance Council, which awards points that allow dancers to advance through levels. So Graham started one. This official championship, she said, “puts Vermont on the map.” She’s already gearing up for next year’s event, at Stratton Mountain Resort.

By 8:30 on Friday night, the dance floor at the Hampton Inn was filling up. But there was half an hour to kill before the first competition was scheduled to begin. So I popped into the room next door, which was lined wall to wall with dance shoes for sale: gold lamé gladiator sandals; black cowgirl boots; candy-colored, strappy pumps. The pros will wear out a pair of these soft, flexible, suede-soled shoes in just six to eight months, explained Melody Carr, a North Carolina dancer who sells shoes at weekend events like this one around the country.

She grabbed a plain black sandal from the discount table, and I tried it on for size. When I reflexively apologized for the rankness of my feet, which had been simmering all day without socks in my old Converse All Stars, Carr laughed. “We’re dancers,” she said proudly. “We know stinky feet.”

Then Carr took me out to the dance floor for a test drive. The basic step in West Coast Swing — as opposed to East Coast Swing, or Lindy Hop, which wasn’t part of last weekend’s event — goes like this: walk, walk, triple-step; slow, slow, quick-quick-quick. I got flustered, but Carr was encouraging. “Regardless of how much you know, there are plenty of leads out there who will dance with you,” she assured.

Back in the shop, Jo Ann Carino, a Massachusetts-based dancer and professional literacy coach who helped Graham publicize the event, had just bought a new pair of caramel-colored sandals. Carino, 60, began dancing seven years ago. How did she get into swing? “Well, I got divorced,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to dance, but my ex-husband was never interested.”

Carino came to West Coast Swing the way many people do: She started with the Lindy Hop. But once she discovered the more improvisational West Coast version, she didn’t want to go back. “There’s an elasticity, a rubber-bandy quality about [West Coast Swing],” Carino said. “It’s a style of moving that lends itself to a lot of creativity.”

That creativity was on full display at Friday night’s competition, which began with a showcase of regional pros. To the uninitiated, it was an explosion of hip swirling, deep dipping and unbridled chemistry. Unbelievably, none of it was choreographed.

When Montréal dancer Estelle Bonnaire and her partner took the floor — to a song the DJ had chosen at random — they moved with such fluidity, it was as if they were two sides of the same body. With her black hair, feather earrings and slow, teasing hips, Bonnaire was captivating. Another Canadian dancer, watching, leaned over to me and whispered, “This is the couple that’s going to win.”

When most people think swing, they think big-band music. But here’s the other cool thing about West Coast Swing: You can do it to anything, contemporary pop music included. Case in point: One pro couple performed Friday night to Carly Rae Jepsen’s incessant song of the summer, “Call Me Maybe.”

The competition continued with a wild event called “Three’s Company,” in which one man leads two women simultaneously. “I wanted a signature competition event,” said Graham, noting that this one isn’t actually recognized by the World Swing Dance Council. Official competition rules still require that a couple consist of one man and one woman, with the man leading and the woman following.

But at the Hampton Inn, Scott Chilstedt twirled two women like spinning tops. Chilstedt, who was dressed entirely in black — from his thin mobster tie to his suede dance shoes — is largely responsible for the growing West Coast Swing scene in Burlington.

Over the past year and a half, the 29-year-old IBM engineer has been offering Burlington Westie classes and dances at North End Studios. Cool but unpretentious, enthusiastic but far from nerdy, Chilstedt strikes just the right balance to appeal to a wide range of students. And he has infused the local scene with a healthy dose of sexiness. As he declares on his website, “West Coast Swing is the most fun you can have with your clothes on.”

Three years ago, Chilstedt was a grad student in Illinois, “buried under work,” he said. “I needed to balance out my life.” He discovered West Coast Swing and became addicted. But when Chilstedt moved to Burlington after graduating, the closest Westies he could find were in White River Junction. Teaching in Burlington “was a selfish thing,” he said. “I wanted someone to dance with.”

The competition wrapped up at around 10:30 p.m. on Friday, but then the night really began: Dancers flooded the ballroom floor, while others took the elevator down to the more intimate blues room.

I had never heard of blues dancing, so I followed Chilstedt downstairs, where he and a friend from Montréal demonstrated. “The guy-who-doesn’t-dance shuffle is basically beginner blues,” explained Chilstedt with a smirk. The steps are simpler and slower, and, except when the leader is twirling or dipping his partner, dancers stay in a tight embrace.

The dancing continued until 3. “Late night!” I remarked to a group of chattering dancers riding the elevator back up to the ballroom. They all laughed. “That’s early!” one woman exclaimed. At her last competition, she added, everybody danced until 7 a.m. Then they had breakfast, took a power nap, strapped on their dancing shoes and started all over again.

So it was no surprise, when I returned the next morning at 10, to find the ballroom packed — and hopping. So was the room next door, where participants in a beginner class were learning the basics of leading and following. “That’s pretty good,” I heard an instructor say. “Now do it with your eyes closed.”