When asked how he became interested in swing dancing, University of Wisconsin–Stout student Ian Offerdhal grinned, his expression growing mischievous.
“My freshman year, I was in a scuba class,” begins Offerdhal, “I thought, ‘Hey, that girl’s cute,’ and I asked her what she was doing that night. She said she was going to Swing Club. I said, ‘What a coincidence! That’s exactly where I’m going.’ Of course, those supposed plans were created on the fly.”
But now, several years later, Offerdhal is vice president of the club. He often attends the meetings clad in a neat suit and clearly happy like the other members for a fun Wednesday night spent with friends.
It’s true that swing club meetings typically boast an impressive crowd of students who are always smiling and ready to laugh, but people who attend the meetings with romantic ambitions, like Offerdhal, usually find that they stay on as members, captured by the infectious, jiving spirit of swing dancing.
“It’s definitely different than ballroom dancing,” said Bria Mertz, president of Swing Club. “You’re not as close as you are in ballroom, which can intimidate people, and swing dancing is really easy to learn.”
Mertz emphasized that for swing dancing, unlike ballroom, a partner is not required and neither is experience. Each swing club meeting contains a lesson, sometimes with guest instructors, and the basic “rock step” is always taught. The four-count step takes only minutes to learn and is the foundation for the entire dance—this is why an absolute beginner can feel comfortable dancing with an expert, as long as they both know the rock step.
“The most significant challenge for both men and women,” Mertz said, “is learning their respective roles as leads and follows.”
Mertz explained that the club makes a strong effort to host guest instructors, because once people become comfortable with the rock step, they can experiment with aerials, including lifts and tosses, or they can delve into Lindy Hop, the proud poppa of swing dancing that features an eight-count rotational rock step as its foundation. Lindy Hop was popular in the 1920s and ‘30s, which evolved into swing during WWII.
“It was an emotional release at the time,” said Jake Hipke, Swing Club event coordinator. “It took people’s minds off war.”
Even now, he thinks that the same reason applies for its popularity among college students.
“It’s a stress reliever,” Hipke said.
Swing dancing is the ultimate casual dance, but it takes concentration. It’s easy to see stress melting away as students focus on working through new moves together.
“Everyone’s friendly,” said Meghan Olson, a club member in training to be president, and it’s common lore among swing dancers that they’re a generous group. Participating students are always willing to help, on and off the dance floor, and they don’t care who you are so long as you’re a good sport.
Swing dancers don’t just do swing, however. The UW–Stout Swing Club explores everything from Latin dance to traditional ballroom. Once you have some experience in swing, even ballroom won’t seem so scary.
There is even a thriving swing dance culture in the Twin Cities that students can explore. One of the more renowned venues is TC Swing in Minneapolis, run by Terry and Cindy Gardner, who occasionally come and give lessons at the UW–Stout Swing Club.
“One of the best parts of teaching is working with all the different college swing clubs,” said Terry Gardner. “I love seeing their confidence levels get stronger in the dance and knowing that will cross over into all aspects of their life.”
TC Swing offers a Late Night Swing on Thursday nights from 10:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. that is perfect for both beginning and experienced swing dancers. Terry Gardner began dancing in 1997, and he urges young people to give swing dancing an early chance in life.
“College students should try swing dancing because it offers exercise, fellowship, a social outlet and is fun. All of these are positive reasons, and it is within a safe and accepting environment.”
Stout Swing Club is always free, and is a great place to experience such positive benefits. There are only a few stipulations, Offerdhal explained.
“We only have three rules at swing club,” he said. “Rule one: don’t smell. Rule two: don’t smell. Rule three: don’t drop the ‘follow.’”
Easy enough. Only one more piece of advice, from the immortal big band musician Duke Ellington: “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” It’s a mindset as much as a dance.
The Stout Swing Club meets every Wednesday night from 7:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. in the Ballrooms in the Memorial Student Center. The meetings are free to attend and neither a dance partner nor previous dance experience are required.