‘Big band’ era arrives in SeoulSo what’s the hippest dance move around town?
Is it the waist-twirling with hands in the air like you just don’t care hip hop? How about the sports dance where swingers sway and slide across the floor, or the techno dance that has a look that says, “Don’t touch me I’m too cool”?
At Club Fiesta, a small underground bar across from the Konkuk University gate, nearly 120 people have packed in on a Tuesday night to jive to swing jazz music.
Everyone except a handful on the sidelines cooling off by sipping some lemonade was jittering and kicking their feet in midair, not to mention pushing into each other, wiggling and jiggling.
After half an hour you can practically taste the dancers’ salty sweat, sense the heat coming off their bodies. Some are breathing heavily, but that doesn’t stop them from shaking their body. Even those on the sidelines stay immersed in the jive mood, beating their feet to the music.
Alas, nobody here sails through the air, a regular sight in 1930s American dance halls, where this dance style hit its stride and folks jived to tunes like “Sing Sing Sing”, “Leapfrog” and “In the Mood”.
Most swing dancers in Seoul say the move demands exceptional technique, and only can be seen in professional performances, not dance clubs, because of the risk someone will get injured by hitting a low-slung ceiling.
For years, hip hop and techno dance were the undisputed kings of clubs and dance halls. Swing dance was an as-yet unheard of term in Seoul.
But Seoul’s youth have caught a serious case of swing fever.
“Many people start off learning salsa, but once they witness swing dance they are usually mesmerized by it,” says 27-year old Lim Gyu-heon. “Since then, hardly anyone dances the salsa.”
Ms. Lim, a former women’s magazine reporter, got into the swing as well, swing dancing about a year ago.
“Back then I had a lot of stress,” Ms. Lim says. “I wanted to take up a hobby so I logged onto a Web site, Daum, and typed in ‘sports.’”
The list that popped up contained more references to sports dancing than typical athletic games. Ever so eager to relieve her tension, she enrolled in two clubs ― one for sports dancers, another for inline skaters.
“At first I thought I was learning the salsa but it turns out I was learning swing dance,” Ms. Lim says. “Ever since then I have been addicted to this dance and I have been dancing at least once a week.”
Once Ms. Lim puts on her flat jazz shoes and slips into her “wrap” skirt around 7 p.m. on a dance night, she’s in for the haul; these nights typically extend well beyond midnight.
For some, long evenings of sweaty, invigorating dance have led to romantic interludes. Reports of swing dancers of the opposite sex pairing up off the dance floor are not uncommon. “Some succeed in marriage,” notes Ms. Lim.
Consider Lee Sung-hyeon. The 32-year old employee of an international parcel delivery service met his wife at a swing dance club about a year ago. They tied the knot this March.
By the time he met his wife-to-be, Mr. Lee had been swing dancing for almost two years, so had
“My wife came to a swing dance club to learn how to dance,” recalls Mr. Lee. “I went up to her and started to teach her and the more we danced the closer we became. And later, as you see we got married.
Aside from low-heeled footwear, the swing scene possesses no particular dress code. Some dance with shorts, others don baggy jeans.
Tonight, Mr. Lee’s wife has not come, on account of having worn high heels to work. Does Mr. Lee’s wife worries about her husband dancing with other women at the club?
“No,” Mr. Lee affirms. “Many people think there’s a lot of physical contact in swing dance but it’s not true.”
The advantage of swing dance, Mr. Lee contends, is that you can boogie with the opposite sex even if you don’t date. Mr. Lee notes that once college graduates segue into the work world, making friends is more difficult. Swing dance scene can liven up a dull social life for newly minted wage earners.
“It’s a great way to meet girls,” Mr. Lee says, adding “you can learn a lot more about the other person if you dance with that person.”
Count another ex-bachelor as getting hitched as a result of swing dance. Lee Jee-hoon, 32, will walk down the aisle in 10 days. “I was one of the volunteer dance teachers and my bride-to-be came in as a student,” Mr. Lee says. “She was actually a student of another instructor but we soon became good friends and here we are ready to get married.”
One of Seoul’s first students of swing, Kim Byeong-su traces the lively dance’s invasion to three years back, when a Korean named Nah Hae-seok learned some moves in the United States and organized free lessons at Boramae Dance Sports Hall in southern Seoul.
Earlier on, Mr. Kim had strutted to the more staid dance style of salsa.
“Three years ago I had enough with spending nights after work drinking alcohol and shooting billiards,” Mr. Kim says. “I wanted something else and I started [dancing] salsa. But one day by accident I was surfing the Internet and noticed that there was a free lesson on swing dance.”
He caught the bug, dropped salsa, and the rest is history.
The urge to swing dance pulses so intensively through Mr. Kim’s veins that he needs at least five doses of dance a week.
“I don’t really dance at work but when I hear some swing jazz, I can’t help but tap my feet and follow the beat with my heart,” Mr. Kim says.
The 31-year old’s girlfriend, on the other hand, remains a committed salsa nut.
“Sometimes we dance swing together but she says it’s too much of a workout so she prefer dancing salsa,” Mr. Kim says.”
Mr. Kim’s reputation for kicking his heels has even leaked to his office. He says his supervisor asks him at times to perform for him. Even his older brothers and sisters urge him to entertain them, but he just shrugs them off, refusing their wish because “you can’t dance alone, you’ve got to have a dance partner.”
Once he got into the scene, Mr. Kim rented the movie “Swing Kids,” which centers around German youth during the Nazi era of the late 1930s, when dancing swing was banned.
“I could totally understand the [movie] characters,” Mr. Kim says. “I now understand how they wanted to express their freedom through swing dance.”
While still relatively cloistered, the scene is bound to expand in the future.
On Sunday, the “Swing Fever in Korea” festival gets going at 4 p.m. at Jangchung Stadium, in the Dongdaemun section Seoul. At least 1,000 dancers are expected to boogie to the tunes of a swing band on the premises.
“Swing is all about jazz and freedom,” suggests Mr. Kim. “And since everyone wants to break free, swing dance is simply catching on like wildfire.”
Mr. Kim, who’s seated at a long sofa against the wall, is interrupted by a girl who, though still panting, asks him if he wants to dance.
Mr. Kim jumps to his feet and wastes no time in wiggling and jiggling to the deejay’s old-time rhythms. “Usually it’s the guys that ask the girl,” Ms. Lim says, adding “It doesn’t matter if you really know them or not. It’s just dance.”
by Lee Ho-jeong