It’s been two decades since the neo-swing dancing scene spread like fire through the metropolitan dance clubs of North America, and the same scene that took hold in Victoria is still going.
On a recent Monday night, about 40 people gathered at the Norway House on Hillside Avenue. Forty is a down night for the weekly swing session, the “hangout night” for the town’s more serious jitterbugs, said organizer Kevin Savage of Red Hot Swing.
The consensus is, not only has swing dance moved into Saanich, but it’s clearly here to stay.
Saturday nights fill the converted barn at Lambrick Park, the Bert Richman building at Gordon Head Recreation, with 80 to 150 people (live bands play to a bigger crowd once a month). Some of the dancers are the same people who joined the UVic ballroom dance club in the 1990s, when Big Bad Voodoo Daddy was on the radio and Vince Vaughan was ducking into back-alley bars to chase women in Swingers.
“I remember September of 1998, we had enough people to fill the SUB utility building, it was wild,” Savage said.
There are still those who dress up in the vintage look every week, but a lot of that is played down. The pop culture sentiment may have changed, but the music and the dancing hasn’t.
“Once a month we have a live band, those nights get pretty busy,” said Savage. “There are still some who dress up every week, there are still skirts, but there’s some in T-shirts and jeans. It’s the only place you see skirts twirl, and it’s kinda cool.”
Until the last two years there were still swing dancing nights in local bars. But it’s not the draw it was.
Despite that, modern swing survives in Victoria, thanks in large part to Kevin and his wife Christabel, who’ve made Red Hot Swing their living. There are 81 people signed up in their current Swing One dance class, a six week course. And more come for the 8:30 p.m. lessons before the regulars take the floor at 9:30 on Saturday nights.
“It’s best when there’s two dance nights a week, whether of not we have to organize them,” Savage said. “If that’s what’s needed, that’s what we’ll do. There’s no point in us offering lessons if there’s no place to go dancing.”
Savage started with many others in Victoria, joining the UVic ballroom dancing club in 1997 when the trend first took hold. At the same time, downtown clubs such as Millenium (it was underneath Swans) dedicated the place to swing on prime weekend nights, no less.
Though locals have relied increasingly on the Savages to provide a venue and uphold the genre, Victoria isn’t a bastion of swing dancing. It continues to exist in Vancouver, Seattle, and most big cities.
The Savages are also not the only place to find swing in town. John de Pfyffer was Christabel’s and Kevin’s first instructor in the late 1990s and is still going, running ballroom dancing (including swing) on Friday nights at the Victoria Edelweiss Club in James Bay.
Swing itself is a catch phrase for a series of dances. The most accurate term for what Red Hot Swing teach is Jitterbug, a family of dances from the 1920s to the 40s, Savage said. There are three main styles within that family, mainly Lindy Hop, the Charleston and the Balboa, but there are others as well, he added.
How it returned to Saanich, just a mile from where it blew up with the UVic ballroom dancing club 20 years ago, is a matter of finance.
“We are lucky to have a great relationship with Saanich,” Savage said. “We’ve moved from one dance hall to the next, they raise the rent, and we have to find another option. When we ask Saanich for something, it get’s done, it’s great.”
Kevin and Christabel first started teaching Montreal and returned to Victoria in 2004. To this day, People still ask Kevin about his weekly dance night at Upstairs Cabaret in 2004.
“It was only six months but people still ask me about it.”