West Coast Swing in TO!
“West coast swing was such an unknown entity for such a long time,” says Julie Epplett, founder of TO West Coast, a dance organization that offers lessons in this engaging but relatively unknown dance style.
“You couldn’t even use the word swing because people would visualize Lindy Hop, East Coast Swing, Jive or Jitterbug- which is not West Coast Swing at all. So until people can actually see it and go; ‘Oh I see. This is the song from the radio. You mean you can partner dance to this?’”
The dance is decidedly cool. It’s the sultry shuffle from Pulp Fiction when Uma Thurman’s character sashays coyly around John Travolta. Throwing around terms like “basic whip” and “sugar push”, the dance has a vague 1950′s vibe but is adaptable to nearly any slow-paced modern music. Epplett has participants in their 20′s and those in their 70′s. It’s a highly social dance form that she didn’t initially latch on to.
“I had a friend in NYC, I’d go down and visit her. She told me she was doing this thing called West Coast Swing, and I’d heard about it – I’d actually heard negative things about it. I heard how hard it was.” She met someone who asked her to dance and she couldn’t follow.
“It’s true. And he was just like; ‘don’t you West Coast?’ And I thought, well I’m not going to West Coast if those are the kind of people who are going to do this dance,” she scoffed. “Really!”
Eventually though, it found her.
“We went to Denim and Diamonds (on Lexington in NYC) it had a disco ball shaped like a saddle. It was a real country bar in the city. John Festa was teaching west coast swing. It was something like ten dollars, and you could get a half hour beginner class, and then there was a half hour break, then there was a half-hour intermediate class, then you got half off your first drink ticket. I saw John Festa dance the dance, and I thought, Oh my God! I have to find this.”
She searched Toronto when she came back and found a teacher through the Toronto Swing Dance Society. After training for a couple of years, he announced he was leaving and she was devastated. ”I cried when he moved back to Vancouver, and he said “You know Julie, you can teach this dance.” She decided to give it a go. She attended every workshop and event she could across the US and Canada. She’s been teaching out of Dovercourt House for the past six years.
The bright, expansive second-floor space of the Dovercourt House quickly fills on a chilly spring evening with men in their business casual shirts and slacks, and women with breezy blouses and open-soled, heeled sandals. The sandals are typical, although “some have started to wear TOM’s, which is kind of strange,” says Epplett. The dancers have been at this particular class – High Definition – for six weeks, and their intuitive steps denote a high caliber of instruction. Epplett actively participates, while her other instructor, Shelly, corrects participants’ form.
“I try to get into the rotation of the dance, either as a leader or a follower, and Shelly steps in and looks. So we get the two things – kinesthetically, I give feedback and then Shelly’s got such a great eye – she can see things going on that I can’t always see.”
The tone is jovial and light-hearted. People are focussed on learning correctly, but more importantly, they are there to socialize and blow off some steam. The dancing style lends itself to a moderated, sustained pace throughout the evening. It doesn’t quickly exhaust like the frenetic East Coast equivalent.
Shelly has been teaching dance for 15 years. Although she started with jazz, “just by default, I ended up dropping all the others, because I was so fascinated with this. It took all my focus.”
The pair quickly launch into various forms, with the women creating sweeping arcs with their toes across the floor. The dance is understated and casual, and the continual swapping of partners ensured that you had remain adaptable to different styles.
There is no cap on class size, they simply fit in as many as they can pack in. “It’s danced in what we call a slot, so we can fit a lot in,” says Epplett. The room quickly fills up. Free West Coast Swing dancing is available the first Tuesday of every month at Dovercourt House.