Reviving the true spirit of
by Dino Bonačić
Joseph Sewell and Stephen Atemie are both engineers by trade and swing dancers by calling. “There’s some secret connection there, it seems like a third of all swing dancers are engineers,” laughs Sewell, who first discovered his love of dancing in the early 1980s. Growing up in Birmingham, he was submerged into groovy moves by doing jazz funk, dub, popping and breakdancing. But it wasn’t until a decade later when a group of his work colleagues tricked him into a jive and swing dance event at the local pub in Hampshire that he saw a glimpse into his future. “By the end of the night, I was hooked,” he admits. Similarly, Atemie was brought up in a Nigerian family that always celebrated the presence of music. The first time he took a dance class wasn’t until his University days when he thought learning a ballroom dance could be a fun social experience. After a few times, the sense of excitement evaporated. That is until 2013 when he started working and was pushed into coming to a swing dance lesson with a friend. “As I was approaching, I could hear the music and it reminded me of the first time I heard Hey Pachuco, which was in the movie The Mask. […] I really loved the music and just kept going since.” Today, Sewell is a full-time dancer and educator who, as a founder of one of UK’s leading swing and jazz dance organisations Jiveswing, is working hard on reviving the rich heritage of swing dance and all of its numerous strains, including Charleston, Balboa, Shag, Black Bottom, Cakewalk, Blues… One of the most dominant of those genres is Lindy Hop which, like all swing styles, finds its origin in African American culture, primarily the Savoy ballroom of Harlem. The legends that popularised this unique mash-up of moves in the 1930s were the likes of Al Minns, Frankie Manning, Norma Miller and Mama Lou Parks. Also known as the granddaddy of swing dances, Lindy Hop is unique for its combination of solo and partnered moves in a blend of improvisation of traditional African-American dances and the eight-count structure of Euro-centric partner dances. But in the century since its emergence onto the scene, the balance between these two variants has changed drastically, causing both the narrative and style to go through numerous iterations.
After the closure of the Savoy ballroom in the late 1950s, the popularity of Lindy Hop was on the decline as the style became strictly reserved for a small circle of social dances. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the dance had its mainstream revival in the United States – thanks to a Gap Advert and an episode of the sitcom Friends that followed. Back then, high street chain Gap was known for its signature TV ads showcasing different genres of dance, and one of them happened to be a Lindy Hop routine to Jump, Jive, An’ Wail. Soon after, the ad was quoted in an episode of Friends which saw Monica and Chandler prepare for their wedding. “The dynamic started to change from a small nucleus of white people to having a massive influx of people, but still predominantly white. More people started coming onto the scene in the early 2000s, when I was travelling around the world. But I was still generally the only black person there,” remembers Sewell, who left his full-time job as an engineer and decided to spread the word of swing dance at the time. In the UK, the story follows a similar pattern of Euro-centric values being favoured over the original, African American ones. “Terry Monaghan who helped bring swing dance into the UK in the 1980s was a white professor. The Rhythm Hot Shots, who were one of the first European Lindy Hop groups, were all white. A lot of the people who helped drive the dance forward were white,” Sewell explains. “It’s not unreasonable to assume that if it’s the white people who have helped to elevate it, it’s going to be white people dancing too. I have no problem with that, but I have a problem with most people not understanding the history of where the dance comes from.” In order to preserve the true origin story of the dance which is somewhat forgotten today, Sewell recently launched a project called Swingopedia, an educational online forum allowing swing dancers, teachers and fans to learn about history. “In less than two weeks, it brought together over 4000 people from all over the world and country. We meet online and discuss different artists – going way back from the 18th century right to modern days. We want to make sure that people are aware of the roots of the dance, but also other dances as well, and having a fun time,” he says.
And while Atemie started his Lindy Hop journey a couple of decades after Sewell, their experiences weren’t too dissimilar. “When I got into the scene, the demographic was predominantly caucasian with maybe a few non-white dancers I could always instantly recognise. There are several elements that shifted the dynamic towards that – the resources and the finances of the people who are actually able to create their scenes, fly teachers all over, nurture their communities and teach a certain way. Also, it’s the style of teaching which changed to make it more accommodating to the new demographic, especially with cultures that don’t have the background where they’re constantly dancing.” Today, Atemie is trying to lean back into his first love of the improvisational aspects of Lindy Hop and its other original features. “It’s a slightly weird dynamic where the dance is moving and growing into something quite far-removed but still defined as an accurate representation of the original thing. That’s where the confusion comes in.” In addition to being a teacher, Atemie is a board member of Collective Voices for Change, an organisation that seeks to encourage the voices of black people and people of colour and address the issues of racial inequalities and cultural appropriation within the swing dance scenes. “We are trying to highlight some of the issues we have in society at large, as well as the microcosm of the [swing dance] scene. We’re trying to challenge them and truly make it as inclusive as possible,” he says. “The history that is actually taught about it is often skewed and vague. The mainstream perpetuates a false narrative that White people came along and saved the dance as if the Black communities stopped doing it after the 1940s. When in fact they were still dancing both professionally and socially at home and in their communities through to the 1980s.” As some of his biggest inspirations, Sewell notes the Nicholas brothers, who broke major grounds by becoming some of the top dancers in the film industry during the Golden age of Hollywood, in addition to Leon James, Al Minns and Frankie Manning. For Atemie, it’s another classic that takes the prize. “[1941 film] Hellzapoppin’ where Whiteys Lindy Hoppers are performing is still iconic and sticks in my mind for its sheer brilliance and electrifying energy. It’s coming off the screen. I only watched that film a few months into dancing and that’s still one of my favourites.”
As educators and dancers representing two different generations, Stephen Atemie and Joseph Sewell are reviving the true values of Lindy Hop, as seen in those steamy nights at the Savoy ballroom which you can experience in Mura Dehn’s seminal 1987 documentary The Spirit Moves. Sewell himself had been taught and inspired by the OG group including Norma Miller and Frankie Manning, and claims those experiences as some of the most meaningful in his career. He quotes Miller, who passed away in 2019, as one of his main vocal role models who shared a lot of the stories from back in the day. “She loved the fact that, 90 years later, this dance keeps going. And if we can keep doing it for another 90 years, that would be great. We’ll be the old-timers!”
Credits: Photo by Turkina Faso