Once a week, Northern Nevadans of all ages dance their way back to a simpler era.
Their time machine is the classic wooden dance floor at the Darrell Dunkle American Legion Hall near the University of Nevada, Reno, campus. The old building has a fireplace, an American flag, soft lamp light, a seasoned Cable-brand spinet piano and folding chairs lining two walls. But there are no wallflowers here.
Visitors are greeted by Catherine Lowe, a petite 26-year-old in a pencil skirt, navy floral blouse and ballet flats. She welcomes the dancers who pay $10 to learn the steps to the Lindy Hop, Charleston, the jitterbug and other classic swing dances popular from the 1920s to the 1940s.
So how did a 20-something woman get involved in reviving dances that were popular in her great-grandparents’ time? Lowe discovered the group in 2017 while attending UNR and living in the neighborhood.
“I actually didn’t dance much as a child,” Lowe said. “I came across this group, on the one-year anniversary of them teaching in Reno.”
What she saw looked new and exciting—not old and outmoded. The history of the dances also was fascinating.
“(The Lindy Hop) grew out of Harlem, of the ballrooms there, primarily from the Black dancers, who were dancing to jazz, which was originally a Black art form,” said Lowe, who was impressed by the energy she saw on that first visit. “They did some crazy tricks. It wasn’t like a formal ballroom-y sort of thing; it was people mostly hanging out with their friends, and showing-off to each other. They would improvise some crazy steps, and (perform) all these aerials—very energetic. It has this feeling of flying. A very joyful dance, for sure.”
Lowe wanted to fly, too. And she did, learning the dances and cutting a rug about once a week, until the COVID-19 shutdown in March 2020 shuttered the hall.
The Northern Nevada Lindy Hoppers were forced to separate and isolate. For two years, the hall was silent on Wednesday nights. “That was such a difficult time,” Lowe said. “When we shut down, we thought it was just going to be two weeks, or a month. When we stopped dancing in-person, we tried to do some things online—some teaching—but it became clear that this was going to be long. We just sort of dropped-off. It was a really rough time. Dancing’s very important to me, personally, and for a lot of people here. So it’s really, really good that we’re up and going again.”
The dancers returned on May 4, three weeks before World Lindy Hop Day. (Yes, that’s a thing.) Once again, the jitterbugs could join hands, move to fast tempos, and look their partners in the eyes without having to stare at a computer monitor. It was immeasurably liberating, Lowe said. As they danced the jitterbug, Charleston, Balboa and the collegiate shag, the men and women got their groove back. It’s more about fun than form as they cut loose on the pine floor.
The Lindy Hop, the group’s namesake, is always a favorite. The dance was named in honor of Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 historic first flight across the Atlantic Ocean. The Lindy merges elements of both partnered and solo dancing, incorporating the movements and improvisation of African-American dances along with the formal eight-count structure of European partner dances. Those influences are apparent in the Lindy’s basic step, the swingout. In that open position, each dancer is generally connected hand-to-hand; in its closed position, leads and follows are connected as though in an embrace on one side while holding hands on the other.
“We take from the spirit of the music, and bring that into our dancing. Jazz musicians will improvise, show off, do all sorts of things,” Lowe said. “We have that same sort of culture. We’re definitely not trying to do one thing, exactly correct, every single time. It is about expression, having fun and connecting with the music, and your partner. Together, you create something new.”
On May 25, the eve of World Lindy Hop Day, at a table at the front of the room, Kevin Merkling set up a laptop loaded with a swing-dance playlist, and a big speaker. Merkling, a local architect, is one of the Lindy Hoppers who rotate DJ duties. “Everybody’s got their own taste in music, so it allows (variety),” he said. “That way, you’re not winding up with the same songs being played. We get something new, something different, something to make you think about the music, because it’s an important part of the dance.”
Merkling came to swing dancing by way of the earlier ballroom dances like the waltz and foxtrot. About five years ago, he began dancing with the Northern Nevada Lindy Hoppers after seeing social media posts about the group. He stopped by on a Wednesday night—and got hooked.
“I fell in love with it. It’s what I do most of the time now,” Merkling said.
Newbies are welcome; the first hour on Wednesdays are lessons, often led by Emily Jackson. At the May 3 session, Jackson, 37, wore wide-leg black trousers, a floral blouse and suspenders. She sported tweed flannel wingtips and had a flower in her hair. She is an Indiana native, a Purdue University graduate and a UNR biology professor. Jackson clapped her hands to bring the meeting to order, and the dancers responded in kind. Jackson demonstrated the steps for the jitterbug slowly; crucially, the rock-step, with her heel poised above but not touching the floor, is a key beginning of the swing dance.
“This is our pulse, our heartbeat,” she said, as the seven men and four women followed her steps in unison. Once they got the gist of the dance, Jackson cued up a song from her phone, and picked up the tempo. In the center of the floor was a dark-haired man wearing a red buffalo-check shirt, black pants, black boots and a black hat—clearly no stranger to the jitterbug.
“You wanna be pulsing the whole time when you’re doing this,” said Justin Siao. He rock-stepped to the rhythm, as dancers watched his footwork. The mood in the room juke-joint-jumped up a level. There’s something about the evocative rhythm, full orchestra and post-Depression lyrics that make it impossible to sit still, especially when people’s heels and toes start to leave the floor.
“Even on days when I don’t feel like dancing, I just listen to the music all night,” Merkling said.
At the end of the song, Jackson looked at the dancers and posed a question that might make a wallflower feel self-conscious: “Are you ready to dance with other people?”
They were. Couples paired up, ran through the steps, switched partners and repeated the dance. “OK, everybody, introduce yourself to your new partner,” Jackson said, and then went over the placement of the dancers’ hands, arms and feet while executing a righteous jitterbug. “Everybody OK with the mechanics, and ready to pick up the pace?” They were.
On cue, Siao launched into a countdown. “Five, six! Five, six, seven, eight!” he shouted. The pairs of dancers moved more fluidly. “We don’t make mistakes dancing—it’s a variation!” Jackson said. “We are allowed to use the entire room, so please, let’s expand the space!”
That’s the part of the night where folks loosen up, feel more comfortable, and (maybe) get the steps down. One man changed from sneakers to real dance shoes before returning to the floor. The music stopped; dancers rested; and Jackson dished out compliments.
“If this is your first time, I have good news—you just danced an entire song,” she said.
As the evening progressed, big band numbers maintained the mood, and Jackson danced the Charleston as Clay Mitchell, 43, watched the action. Mitchell, who grew up in Sonoma County, moved to Reno a decade ago and became a founder of the Northern Nevada Lindy Hoppers.
“My wife, Cullen, and I started (the group),” said Mitchell, whose tall frame and muttonchop sideburns confirm his dedication to a bygone era and the timeless dances. “Both of us had been dancing for 25-ish years. We discovered it in high school, back during the last swing revival. So, back in the late ’90s, there was kind of the Gap khaki swing, and the retro, kind of neo-swing.
“Really, what brought on the revival was that mainstream music was going towards grunge. Punk rockers wanted to rebel against that, and so they chose to take their punk-rock energy and put it into their grandparents’ music. It had a little more rock sensibilities, but it still had the swing vibe to it.”
Mitchell cited neo-swing standouts: Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and Brian Setzer. He and Cullen, who have four children, taught the old-school dances for many years.
“Right now, I’ve stepped back a little bit,” he said. “We ran the dance here for 3 1/2 years, with the assistance of a lot of (these) people. When we got shut down by COVID, everyone’s lives took different directions, and ours was such that we couldn’t really carry it. I ran for office in 2020—I’m a county commissioner in Storey County, and that’s a bit of a commitment, the drive down the hill. When we got here, there was no ‘vintage swing dancing,’ which is what we call our styles.”
The dance group has a lively soul, nurtured by the Mitchells.
“One of the things that we’re most pleased about is the community that’s developed around this dance. It’s a specific subset of partner dancing, and there’s a reason we chose a social hall, as opposed to a ballroom,” Mitchell said. “That’s the vibe we wanted. We prioritize fun, enjoying yourself and social connectivity, over doing it right.”
There is a right way to execute the steps, he said, and while dancers are encouraged to excel, self-expression is most important. “We’ve been missing that social connectivity,” Mitchell said. “I don’t know of a lot of activities that connect good, healthy physical activity, mental challenges—trying to understand and learn new things—and the social aspect, together, in as effective a way as partner dancing, and particularly the Lindy Hop and jitterbug.”
Mitchell added that because COVID-19 remains a threat, anyone interested in participating in the group is free to wear a mask, avoid physical contact and partner rotations, and take whatever precautions make them feel comfortable. The Northern Nevada Lindy Hoppers took their time returning to public dancing, he said.
“We waited a little longer to get going than other places, because we wanted to get clear of (those restrictions), and allow the social aspect of it to be front-and-center,” Mitchell said.
And this hoofer’s favorite dance?
“Definitely Lindy Hop—the granddaddy,” Mitchell said. “I have never found another dance that combines an efficiency of motion, and gives you a flexibility to express and create with a partner in the same way. (It) has a structure, but then it really is about a conversation within the dance and improvising, for the most part. I love a lot of the other vintage swing dancing, but blues dancing is what got me, and what carries me through. I have to say … that connection is what I’ve missed the most.”
At the first gathering in two years, Mitchell and Lowe skillfully showed off their Lindy Hop skills. The demonstration was aimed at inspiring wallflowers to give in to the infectious music and get on the pine dance floor.
“Once you get into it, dancing just fulfills so many needs,” Lowe said, after she showed off impressive aerials while dancing with Siao. “You’re out there; you’re learning something new; you’re exercising; you’re meeting new people; you’re connecting emotionally; you’re expressing yourself artistically. It’s just so many things all at once. It’s so fulfilling.”
For more information, visit www.facebook.com/RenoSwings.