Back in the mood
Chattanooga’s swinging again, led by the MillennialsWe innocently strolled through an entrance into Eastgate Town Center, on our way to see a show at Ensemble Theatre of Chattanooga—but no sooner had we set foot inside than we were plunged into a whirl of people in vintage costumes literally kicking up their heels.
I knew this could not be part of the ETC show, which had nothing to do with dancing. So what was going on here?
Well, as it turns out, Eastgate Town Center has now become a hotspot for the return of the swing dance scene to Chattanooga. And the people Lindy Hopping everywhere? Young, full of energy—and, apparently, born to dance.
Cameron Gaul runs Chatterbugs, one of the two groups staging monthly events at Eastgate. The 20-something describes the events as “a laidback, creative environment. You don’t need to bring a partner,” he says, explaining that before each dance session begins, there is an hour of instruction for people just learning Chatterbugs’ favorite step, the East Coast Swing. “It’s a uniquely American style and an easy step to pick up,” he says.
In Pennsylvania, where Gaul hails from originally, “There is a big ballroom and Lindy scene,” he says. “When I came to Chattanooga, I figured there would be one here, too.” Instead, he found interest, but not too much actual dancing going on. He threw a dance-themed house party, which was a huge success, and then, after attending ETC’s “Bizarre Bazaar” fundraiser, realized that Eastgate Town Center would likely be a perfect venue for bigger events. “The floors were good and the rent was affordable,” he says. Chatterbugs began to cut a rug.
Erin Sizemore helps facilitate and hosts UTC’s Chattanooga Swing Society, the other group staging events at the mall. “I learned to dance at Shirley’s in East Brainerd when I was in high school,” she says. “Then a group of us started the UTC Swing Society about 18 months ago.” Sizemore says that interest in the dance forms popular in the 1920s-40s has been revitalizing since the 1990s. “It’s part of the retro movement,” she explains. “A lot of us enjoy reliving that era, which seems happy and simple. People were energetic and optimistic.”
Though it’s absolutely not mandatory, many participants dress in vintage clothing to add to the ambiance; men in bow ties and slicked-back hair and women in the figure-flattering styles of those decades.
The Swing Society meets weekly and members travel to other cities to recruit teachers for their events. Like Chatterbugs, an hour of beginner’s instruction is offered before each dance event. “Basic swing is very easy and after you learn the steps, you can improvise,” Sizemore says. Most of the attendees at Swing Society events are college-age students, but organizers welcome people of all ages. “We’ve had people bring their kids to learn to dance,” she says.
Newly elected president of the UTC Swing Society, Jordan Grindell is also one of the founders of the organization. “I’m an outdoorsy guy, I love rock climbing, but I also love to dance,” he says. Grindell’s interest began his junior year in high school when he helped organize a swing dance for his sister’s wedding.
Now he instructs beginner-through-advanced level six- and eight-count Lindy. One of things he loves about it is the community atmosphere the events foster. “Many people have told me, ‘I was kind of in my own shell’ before they started dancing. This is a way to get out of your own little bubble.” Gaul, Sizemore and Grindell all emphasize that although the dances are obviously social events, most people just come to dance. “When you swing dance with someone, you’re just having fun dancing together,” says Gaul.
“You can talk to someone you don’t know…you make a lot of friends,” says Grindell.
He’s discovered that not so many years ago, Chattanooga had a very active swing dance scene, and he’s traveling to Nashville, Knoxville and even outside the state to recruit teachers for the events, and also to network Chattanooga’s reviving scene back into the loop. Technology is helping as well. “I’m using the MeetUp app to start a swing dance group,” he says. “We’re linking with people from surrounding cities to let them know about our events, and letting our people know about theirs.”
Alicia Anderson, event coordinator for the mall, could not be happier so much fancy footwork is taking place at Eastgate Town Center. “It adds to the energy of revitalization that’s going on here,” she says. “The setting is lovely for it: vaulted ceilings, wood floors. Many people still have no idea how much is happening with the MidTown renewal movement—events like this are a big part of it.”
Both Chatterbugs and the UTC Chattanooga Swing Society use recorded music with DJs at this point, but both would look forward to having live music be a part of their events as well. Both are reaching out to musical groups in the area that might be interested in participating.
The swing dance profile is growing: Jordan Grindell points out that the UTC Swing Society group recently did several performances at the former Rave Theater (now Carmike’s East Ridge 18) when Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” opened.
Both groups plan to continue making their events very affordable, with the $5 entrance fee covering as much as four hours of instruction and dancing at the 7-to-11 p.m. events.
Themed events are also coming (see sidebar for some in the near future.)
Sound fun? Don’t be shy. No time like the present to revisit the dance past.
Time to Swing
UTC Chattanooga Swing Society:
June 29 7-11 p.m.: Blues Dance
July 13 7-11 p.m.: Comic Book Superheroes Theme
Both events: Eastgate Town Center, 5600 Brainerd Rd.
Visit facebook.com/chatterbugsdance for more information on upcoming Chatterbugs events.