Yale group puts its energy into having a swinging time

For some, it's a little bit like turning the clock back to a fun and frolicking era. For others, its main appeal lies in the music, or the focus that is required as one does such moves as foot sweeps, knee slaps, pivots and "Suzie Qs." Seventy-nine-year-old Roger Loiseau of West Haven contends that it "sure beats" riding a stationary bicycle or walking on a treadmill.

Most especially, everyone agrees, dancing the lindy or the jitterbug as part of Yale Swing & Blues (YS&B) is a swinging (and hopping) good time.

Nearly every Sunday, about 50 dancers — some novice and others experienced — gather at the Afro-American Cultural Center for a free YS&B practice session, at which they can learn or perfect their dance moves and have the opportunity to try them with partners. The weekly session is just one of the offerings of YS&B, which also hosts monthly swing dances, weekly dance classes, periodic workshops and the occasional "lindy bomb," where dancers — sometimes even in retro garb — show up uninvited to another event on campus or in the Yale neighborhood to showcase their skills. Anyone is welcome to join YS&B, whose members include students, staff, faculty and others — of all ages — from New Haven and elsewhere.

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"We are a very inclusive dance community with a wide range of people, including some from neighboring communities who have been dancing for 10 or 20 years," says YS&B president and Yale junior Rosalind Diaz. "Besides dancing, an important part of our mission is to make ties with the New Haven community."

At a recent Sunday practice, Diaz looks like one of the more experienced dancers on the floor, but she has only been dancing swing and blues since coming to Yale. She took a couple of lessons and began attending the weekly practices. There, she says, "I found YS&B such a welcoming and open-hearted community, and people kept coming up to me and asking me dance!"

She appreciates swing and blues dancing, in part, because it is a welcome change from other activities in her routine, she says.

"I'm an English major, and I tend to be a pretty intellectual person," Diaz explains. "Discovering that my body could be a kind of artwork, could be expressive, was exciting for me. I also love the way the music sounds. Dancing is a way to be closer to the music and to listen to it intently, and to express what I hear through my body."

Diaz is among the YS&B members who help teach newer dancers the moves of swing, and is especially fond of teaching the dance club's "Boot Camp," a two-day, intensive introduction to swing and blues.

"As improvised partner dances, a big part of learning swing and blues is learning to communicate with another person without using words," comments Diaz.

Peter Molfese, a postdoctoral associate at the Yale Child Study Center who serves as an instructor at many of the Sunday practices, enjoys teaching beginner students such swing dances as the Jitterbug Stroll. He has been dancing since high school, and says that he joined YS&B because "it provided an easy way to meet people." He, too, appreciates the variety of music to which the dancers can move — from Ella Fitzgerald to Lou Rawls to Bonnie Raitt to Norah Jones — as well as the easy-going atmosphere at YS&B events.

"We're a non-competitive, non-performance group," says Diaz. "Everything we do is simply for learning or for fun."

Diaz and other YS&B dancers say that the informality of swing and blues dancing makes it "accessible" to everyone, as well as less dependent upon having opposite-sex partners.

"You don't have to come to our events with a partner, and very often members of the same gender dance together," the YS&B president says. "Everybody dances the way they want."

Some members of the group, such as School of Nursing student Lizzie Wytychak, say they experience the greatest freedom of movement while blues dancing.

"During our Sunday practices, the blues dancing starts around 9:30 p.m., after swing," Wytychak says. "I stay for that. Blues dancing has fewer set steps. It's a very open, free-flow style of dancing with a lot of room for creativity."

YS&B uses deejayed music for some of its events, but live music is featured at most monthly dances and other events, and sometimes dancers "dress up in their 1920s best," Diaz says.

Quite often, members of YS&B also travel together to other swing dance events in the state or elsewhere in the Northeast.

"I love the sense of community I've discovered through my involvement with YS&B, " says Diaz. "I travel a lot to dance, and I've learned that you can walk into a swing dance anywhere and all of sudden you have a whole new group of friends."

Loiseau is one of the older members of the group, but that doesn't stop much younger dancers from inviting him to swing during a recent practice.

"It's terrific aerobic exercise," he says during a break. "If you like the music, as I do, it generates good chemicals in your body. It's healthy."

Moments after the break, Loiseau is doing some nimble footwork on the dance floor with a Yale graduate student, to Frank Sinatra's "I've Got You Under My Skin." His is just one of many smiling faces as he swings.

"We can teach you how to dance in a weekend," says Diaz of YS&B, "and then you can spend 20 or 30 years working on it — and loving every minute while you do."

For more information on YS&B, including a list of upcoming events, visit www.yaleswingandblues.org. On Friday, Nov. 12, YS&B hosts "Yale Swing & Choose," a dance to raise awareness of the de-gendering of dance roles and to welcome members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community into the YS&B dance scene. It will feature a beginner lesson at 8-9 p.m., a live band 9 p.m.-midnight, and a blues after-party to follow. The dance will be free for beginning dancers; $5 for others, and takes place at the Afro-American Cultural Center, 211 Park St. Weekend workshops for beginner and intermediate dancers will be offered on Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 13 and 14.

— By Susan Gonzalez