NewsApr 6, 2018

The secret language of swing

Lesley’s Swingin’ Lynx swing dance course and student club inspire confidence in the classroom, on the dance floor and beyond

Professor watches as students dance in swing dance class in dance studio.

There’s an effervescent energy radiating from a University Hall dance studio on Monday nights, thanks to the Swingin’ Lynx.

The two-credit course is offered every fall semester, part of a growing movement to foster a unique educational experience through the art of swing dance.

In addition to the joy and skill of dance, Swingin’ Lynx incorporates physics, anatomy and physiology and mindfulness studies. And the sense of community generated by the program is transformative for students.

“I’ve met my best friends,” said junior Elizabeth Lloyd, president of the Swingin’ Lynx student-run dance club. She took the class her freshman year and then became a teaching assistant (TA) for the course. “I came here thinking I was going to be solely on the Lesley Dance Team, but then I took this class my first semester and I realized I could really like this.”

Students pause for a laugh during swing dance class in dance studio.
Junior Elizabeth Lloyd with Associate Professor of Psychology and Swingin' Lynx leader Neal Klein.

Led by Associate Professor of Psychology Neal Klein, the 14-week course enrolls between 30 and 50 students and teaches the fundamentals of swing, but also digs deeper into why the body moves the way it does and how that movement is affected when working with multiple partners.

Senior Adaire Bane was hooked the instant she saw a Swingin’ Lynx demonstration during a Psychology and Applied Therapies programs open house.

“I felt enlightened and inspired that I would be able to reintroduce dance into my life,” recalled Bane, a former dancer and Community Coordinator for the Swingin’ Lynx club. “I signed up for the class the moment I could my first semester at Lesley in the Fall of 2014. And became a TA for the following year.”

Nearly all of the TAs are current students or alumni, and their experience helps students to understand the challenging concept of “lead/follow” in partner dancing.

On top of the Monday classes, swing students complete five evenings of social dance and six lessons outside of class time, adding consistency and momentum to their practice.

“It’s so much better to have the lessons and dance nights in addition to class so we can really teach those concepts,” Klein said. “After the semester, every student has enough of a dance vocabulary that no matter where they go after that, the terminology makes sense.”

From ballet to new best friends 

For students who have been immersed in traditional dance disciplines, swing is often a newfound social endeavor.

“What I love so much about this dance, coming from the world of ballet and jazz, is the sense of community,” reflected Lloyd, the Swingin’ Lynx president. “I love the support that comes with this community. It’s so loving and all of the TAs care about the dance and each other, and you can feel it in the room.”

Lloyd, who is majoring in expressive arts therapy and business management, also helps run Triple-Step Thursdays, which are swing dance lessons and social dancing led by the student club.

“My whole schedule has revolved around dance. It’s really influenced every part of my college experience,” she said. “If I end up staying here after I finish school, it will definitely be because of this community and family here.”

“You’ve seen ‘Indiana Jones,’ right? I want to see that whip!”

Klein uses his knowledge of swing dance technique to encourage students to think differently about the way that they observe the world around them. The group studies and practices West Coast Swing, a partner-dance style rooted in Lindy Hop that allows the dancers to improvise as they go along and is often done to a variety of music including pop, rock, R&B and hip hop. With steps like the “whip” and the “sugar push,” the language of the movement also takes on a life of its own.

Students partner-dancing in swing dance class in dance studio.
In swing class, students present a portion of their final exam through dance.

“From week one, it is like learning a new language,” said Klein.

It takes a few months for students to fully understand the terminology and develop the body awareness.

“Part of it is language and part of it is anatomy and physiology,” he said. “If we’re asking someone’s bicep to be parallel to the ground, do they know where that is? Do they know where their [lateral muscles] are? When you’re leading and following, you forget what you see in front of you and lead with your partner’s lats.” 

Students count the beats of the music while scrutinizing their partner’s movement in order to proceed in the correct direction themselves. The style isn’t choreographed – it’s based on a series of learned steps put together in an order that’s up to the dancers. Repetition is key, with some steps repeated up to 10 or 12 times and then critiqued by Klein and his teaching assistants.

“The best thing you can do is treat every movement as if you haven’t done it before. We call ourselves ‘ambi-dance-trous’ (a play on ambidextrous),” said Klein, meaning that all students can take the lead as well as follow their partner. “It’s more tactile than cognitive.”

Connecting coursework and finding confidence

Students make connections that transcend basic dance steps. They high-five after each completed sequence and reflect on their movement before changing partners and beginning again.

These reflections often manifest in other aspects of their lives, primarily through confidence.

“Swing dance has been more than just an experience,” said Bane, who is earning a bachelor’s degree in expressive arts therapy with a specialization in holistic psychology. “It has been a place of strength, and a driving motivator for me to love and accept myself and my journey -- to feel loved and accepted by others who share this journey with me. West Coast Swing has served as a constant reminder of my goals for who I want to be and what I want to offer in the future to others. As a therapist that guides others to find themselves through the arts.”

Students high-five each other in a dance studio during dance class.
Senior Adaire Bane (pictured left) high-fives her partner at the end of a routine.

Students have different ways that they take what they’ve learned physically or psychologically in class out into the world. For Bane, sharing her love of dance with new students is a highlight.

“My favorite thing about being a TA is offering students an opportunity to learn and grow and thrive in dance as I have,” she said. “Dance is something that binds us together and allows us to witness each other as people with a soul that moves in a body. Seeing people fall in love with dance, seeing it heal them, is such a gift.”

University Swing and other next steps

In addition to the fall semester class, Klein encourages dancers and swing enthusiasts of all levels to attend lessons and social dancing on Wednesday nights at the Cambridge Masonic Hall at 1950 Massachusetts Avenue. Born out of the need to move and dance outside of class, Klein and his students found a venue and now host upwards of 120 dancers a week.

“It’s a huge room, and it’s so full of energy,” Klein said. “We’ve having fun, we’re moving, we’ve got great music and the vibe is good. Our Lesley personality is the baseline because you have people who are into education, into expressive arts therapy, into psychology, and we bring energy that with us.”

Professor shows students correct body placement during swing dance class in a dance studio.
Klein demonstrates correct placement to the leaders.

On campus, Lloyd will continue teaching on Triple Step Thursdays and plans to bring a group down to Hartford, Conn. in May for “Swingin’ into Spring,” a weekend of social dancing, lessons and competition. Looking ahead, Klein, Lloyd and the rest of the Swingin’ Lynx are seeking to build a network of swing clubs among different universities.

“Having more and more universities with swing clubs is the goal so that when we get together there’s a whole new social gathering,” said Klein, “We have a name, University Swing, we have a website, and we’re starting to work on how many different universities can be a part of this group over the next two or three years.”