line the walls of a former church, built in the 1870s, in Pigtown, but the purple and magenta silks hanging from the rafters indicate that it isn’t exactly serving an ecclesiastical purpose these days. Still, the people who dance at the Mobtown Ballroom, which occupies the space, approach it with something akin to religious devotion. Nina Gilkenson, one half of the duo that owns the dance hall, is careful to be respectful of the original designs, though she is the first to admit that she and co-owner Michael Seguin are not knowledgeable of all of the religious significance.
"I was like, 'Michael, why are there two Jesuses in that one?'" she says, referring to the stained glass. "And he was like, 'one of those is John the Baptist.' And I was like, 'Oh! Right. They're in the water. OK.'"
Seguin, a former classics student, may know a bit more about iconography, but Gilkenson is an expert in Lindy Hop, the original style of swing dancing from the '20s-'40s (which encompasses everything from East Coast Swing to dances like the Texas Tommy), and the primary form of dance offered at Mobtown. She teaches the Lindy nationally and internationally—she says she travels outside the U.S. to teach about every four weeks. And she co-runs the International Lindy Hop Championships.
Despite her international prominence on the Lindy scene, Gilkenson is unpretentious and right at home in the sometimes-ragged neighborhood of Pigtown as she sits, feet up, at one of Mobtown's round tables in her tank top, black pants and flats, and dark-rimmed glasses. She speaks with animation and a knowing smirk. Perhaps this unaffected, youthful spirit comes from starting out early. Her career began when she was just 14.
Born in Houston, Texas in 1984, she moved with her family to Silver Spring, Maryland only two years later. She attended her first swing dance at age 12, followed by weekly trips to Glen Echo Park, a former amusement park. The next year she signed up for classes, and also began learning from dance greats such as Gene Kelly and Jewel McGowan through VHS tapes and the miracle of a VCR with "slow-mo."
"When I first started dancing—I feel like I'm a thousand years old when I'm about to say this—there was no YouTube!" Kids traded dance clips on tape through the mail. She says her Jewel McGowan tape "would snap and break because I would watch that 45 seconds over and over and over again."
She competed in the first American Lindy Hop Championships in 1998, and, after winning her division, she was asked to teach classes—in Houston, Texas.
"I didn't have an email address or anything, so they called me on the phone and I was like, 'you know what, I'm 14. I can't really do this.' And they were like, 'Well you can bring a parent if you want.' So my mom was like, 'Sweet, let's go to Texas.'"
Her mother was a ballerina and performed on Broadway, "so for her it was like, yeah, this is just what you do." One job turned into another for Gilkenson, and soon enough she was teaching full time—though she still worked a variety of odd jobs to pay the bills.
"I think laser hair removal was my favorite," she says. "Not because it was the most fun job in the world, but it was certainly the most interesting."
In 2007, she bought a house. "I bought it at the height of the housing bubble, so . . . we're gonna be there for a while," she says, laughing. "I wanted to have like, a big, old house, which now I'm realizing is a crazy idea."
But that house, which anchored her to Baltimore, persuaded her boyfriend, Seguin, to move from Seattle to Baltimore. The push to open Mobtown Ballroom came when Gilkenson had had enough of working for others and Seguin realized he would not have many opportunities in Baltimore within his field of classics.
The first step was just taking over for Dorry Segev and Sommer Gentry, local do-it-alls who were running swing-dance classes they couldn't handle anymore. They taught at venues throughout the city, but Gilkenson had her eye on Mobtown's church building, which had been vacant for five years.
Luckily, the swing-dancing scene in Baltimore was thriving, drawing dancers and live bands from all along the east coast. But, as the name indicates, they still have strong ties to the local community. Next Saturday, the ballroom will host Baltimore soul crooner Bosley, who's liable to bring his '40s swing influence to the Second Annual Black Cat Ball to benefit the Edgar Allan Poe House.
"I think that's what's nice about the scene here, has always been that the focus has been not about . . . being the best dancer in the world, and it's also not about being like, the smartest Lindy Hop historian," she says.
In 2011, Gilkenson was finally able to quit all of her day jobs and open the Mobtown Ballroom, which has helped to bolster the already vibrant scene.
"A lot of dances are held in like, dance studios—like small rooms with mirrors on the walls and like, fluorescent lighting, and they like, put out pretzels, you know what I mean?" She is quick to say there is nothing wrong with that, but stresses that Mobtown is not that place.
"This is like the 1930s equivalent of going to a club."
This identity got extra reinforcement when Mobtown got a liquor license in July and subsequently opened a bar. They have plans for massive expansion with a bigger bar in the back building.
"Just another 12,000 square feet, that's all!" Gilkenson jokes. She hopes the bar will open up the ballroom to a wider audience, given the social connections between drink and dance. One such audience is the salsa community. Mobtown used to have salsa nights, but they were never as successful.
"The swing dancers are like, 'there's a bar? How exciting!' And the salsa people were like, 'Unless there's a bar, I'm not coming.'"
The plans to have a bar, however, have only recently been finalized. Gilkenson calls Mobtown "quite possibly . . . the least well-placed building in the entire city to get a liquor license."
Mobtown, a 1930s dance hall in a church building, happens to be across from a church, located in an old 1930s theater, violating a law against having a liquor license within 300 feet of a church or school. Incorrect zoning due to its church days meant the building also needed to be rezoned as a business. After several years and many letters to area churches, organizations, and community members, leniency was granted, allowing the bar to serve alcohol.
Now it's just a matter of readying the space—which Gilkenson is used to by now. She built the current bar in Mobtown, and she also made its floor-to-ceiling red velvet curtains.