Baltimore swings A growing number of people are discovering or returning to an earlier style of dancing. 'The '90s bore us,' says one.


This young lady has got the swing-era look down pat. From the tips of her black-and-white shoes to the top of her black pompadour hairdo, she seems turned out for an evening in the 1930s or '40s. Her deep-blue dress has padded shoulders to give her body more body.

For colorful contrast, the dress has big red buttons. For that matter, this dame also has big red lips. And her husband is no slouch. He looks natty in his fedora, vest and vibrantly patterned tie.

"We're into vintage things," Samanta Sargeant, 23, says before embarking on another retro spin around a Catonsville dance floor.

"The '90s bore us. We used to be into the '60s, but now we're more into the '40s," adds her husband and dance partner, John, also 23, and a Fort Meade resident when he isn't following the local swing-dance circuit.

Just as the dance hall they're in -- the Avalon Studio of Movement and Dance on Frederick Road in downtown Catonsville -- is located in a building that has housed everything from a bank to a karate studio to a ceramics studio over the years, dance trends can go off in some pretty unpredictable directions. Otherwise, how else to account for folks in their 20s trading in the anarchistic dance moves of contemporary grunge rock for the fast-paced but tightly controlled partnering of swing music?

This couple is especially enamored of the Lindy Hop, which is considered the original swing dance. Coming out of Harlem in the 1930s, the Lindy Hop has an eight-count basic step that incorporates the six-count patterns common to various forms of swing dancing.

Besides the Saturday night dances at Avalon Studio sponsored by a group called Swing Baltimore, there is a second swing organization in the area, the Friday Night Swing Dance Club, which divides its dances between the Tall Cedars of LebanonHall in Parkville and the Boumi Temple in North Baltimore.

Although the Saturday night dances typically draw several dozen people and tend to be purist in nature, the Friday night dances are larger and musically a bit more eclectic. At a recent dance at the Tall Cedars hall, where photographs of Tall Cedars' potentates flank the stage like perpetually vigilant chaperons, a crowd numbering in the hundreds has been pulled together by its love of swing.

The dancing and socializing bring together Baltimoreans of varying ages and ZIP codes.

"I grew up in the '60s, when people danced by themselves. I like swing, where a couple can dance together," says Ronnie Green, 44, of Owings Mills. She laughingly adds that "most men can't lead. It's rare to find somebody that can lead and knows what he's doing."

She's chatting at the moment with a friend she knows through the Friday night dances, Darren Ashley, 29, also of Owings Mills, and he soon proves on the dance floor that he can lead just fine, thank you. In fact, he partners a number of women in the course of the evening. "I've been studying different forms of swing dancing and am really dedicated," says Ashley of his busy night on the dance floor.

Such partner-switching is normal etiquette in swing dancing. During the dance lessons offered for an hour before the band starts playing in Parkville, the instructor is constantly telling couples to change partners and introduce themselves to other people. It's a low-pressure way to meet and mingle.

Another attraction of both these Friday and Saturday night swing dances is that they're both smoke- and alcohol-free.

"The dancers are there to dance, not to smoke or drink," observes Charles Bangert of White Marsh, who came to the Friday night dance with Cathy Keller of Kingsville. Both widowed and 55, they appreciate a well-mannered night out.

Swing dancing also pulls a family crowd, which can't be said for many forms of dance.

"This is our first time here. My 15-year-old daughter just wanted ,, to try it," says Barb Feirtag, 41, of Lutherville, as she looked around the Tall Cedars hall. "I like it that swing is coming back and you can dance with a guy again."

However, her husband, Dan, 45, hangs his head as he says: "I had hoped to watch the NBA playoff game tonight. I have no dance ability at all." Their daughter, Jess, smiles as she volunteers stories illustrating her dad's inability to swing-dance.

While the Feirtags are curious newcomers, there are some impressive swing veterans moving around the dance floor. Positively bursting with energy are David Joseph, 65, and his wife, Suzanne, 50, who regularly make the trek to this Parkville venue from their home in northern Virginia. They met at a swing dance in the Washington suburbs and wed a few years ago in what was the second marriage for both.

"From the first time we danced together, I knew," he says, and she adds without missing a beat: "The first time he asked me to dance, it was as if we'd been partners forever."

Besides these well-established Friday and Saturday night dances, there is a recently launched "Fridays Swing!" every Friday evening starting at 5 p.m. at South Harbor Pier, at 500 Harborview Drive, just off Key Highway. This is an upscale, outdoor happy hour offering a free buffet, cash bar, free dance lessons and live swing bands. Aleck Schleider, president of Cameo Caterers, says swing is hot now, and he wants to build these harbor-side happy hours around it.

Nobody needs to tell Chuck Alexander that swing is on the upsurge. The founder and still the moving force behind the Friday Night Swing Dance Club, he has seen its mailing list grow from 100 to 4,800 addresses in the past eight years.

In addition to the dances held at Tall Cedars of Lebanon and Boumi Temple, Alexander teaches swing dancing classes on the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus. And with the new owner of the Boumi Temple, Loyola College, planning to raze the temple this fall, he's scouting around for another ballroom; ideally, he'd like to build a ballroom designed with swing in mind.

Alexander emphasizes that besides being a delightfully vigorous kind of dance, swing is a wholesome way to mix with the opposite sex. "The singles bar scene can be bad news," he says. "A lot of women today are divorced or single, and for them a swing dance is a safe event. There are no snakes crawling around or drunks to harass you."

Concurring is Leslie Coombs, the president of Swing Baltimore, which has been sponsoring dances since 1988. Its regular venue, the Avalon Studio of Movement and Dance, is also where Coombs runs a professional dance studio.

"Swing is a wonderful way to be physical with the opposite sex in a complimentary manner," she says. "You have three minutes on the dance floor with a person of the opposite sex, and that's the extent of the relationship, with nothing expected or presumed. You're having a good time and can let it go and be on a friendly basis with a lot of people without feeling like you're on the make."

Other local teachers of swing dancing agree that more and younger people are expressing interest in a dance form that peaked in the late 1930s.

"Swing and salsa are the two most popular forms of dancing now," says Barbara Pattillo, co-owner of Towson Dance Studio. "And we're getting young people in their 20s and 30s who want to learn how to do it. They're interested in partner dancing -- leading and following. It's more complicated than the freestyle dancing they grew up with. The man has to lead and can't just wing it. The average person is very mechanical at first with the foot patterns but gradually becomes more expressive."

"I get a lot of people who never touched each other before when they were dancing, but now they come to me and say they need to learn how to dance for their wedding," notes Jackie Marhefka, who has been teaching dance at Essex Community College for 35 years.

"I'd say 90 percent of the men are probably dragged to dance classes, but they come back. It's a good investment for a young couple, because it's something they can do until they're 85 years old."

Where to swing

These are the swing dance venues in the Baltimore area:

The Friday Night Swing Dance Club sponsors dances at both the Tall Cedars of Lebanon, at 2501 Putty Hill Ave. in Parkville, and the Boumi Temple, at 4800 N. Charles St. in North Baltimore. Dance lessons are 8 p.m.-9 p.m., and the bands perform from 9 p.m. to midnight. The band Tropicombo plays for a Latin dance tomorrow at the Boumi Temple. And this week there is also a Saturday event, when the Sevilles play for a "Prom Night" at the Tall Cedars; prom dresses and tuxes are encouraged. Admission for all dances is $10, $8 for members. Call 410-583-7337.

Swing Baltimore holds its dances Saturday nights at the Avalon Studio of Movement and Dance, at 624 Frederick Road in Catonsville. Lessons are Saturday at 8 p.m., and the dances run from 9 p.m. to midnight. Performing Saturday are Rick Serfas and the Soul Providers. Admission for all dances is $10, $8 for members. Also, Swing Baltimore offers a Thursday mix of swing, jump blues and R&B; at Avalon from 8:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Admission is $3. Call 410-869-9771.

"Fridays Swing!" takes place at South Harbor Pier, at 500 Harborview Drive off Key Highway. The Friday happy hour runs from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Free buffet, free dance lessons, cash bar and live swing band. Call 410-385-4111.

Pub Date: 6/25/98

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