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.