Local Wire

Real Swingers

It's the bee's knees, daddy-o.

I love to swing, but I can't dance. I can't swing dance, either. But here I am at a VFW hall on Thomas Road in central Phoenix on a Sunday evening, taking a swing dance lesson and getting ready for some move called "the sugar push," which sounds to me like something kinky you'd do with a candy cane.

Hardly. The move consists of six basic steps, with the man leading his female partner in and out of the "slot" (again, sounds kinky, but it's just a word for the rectangular area the couple's dancing in). Now, I can sort of bob my head and jerk along to most types of music, but I suck at ordered steps and sequences, and I hate following leads. When I do go out and "dance," it's usually headbanging to some heavy metal band or "pogo-ing" (which is just jumping up and down) at a punk rock show. Neither of those "dances" requires a partner.

Put me with a partner, and I make that famous scene from Seinfeld, where Elaine is dancing like a short-circuited robot, look like something out of Soul Train.

So when I decided I wanted to check out this weekly swing dance shindig that The Greater Phoenix Swing Dance Club hosts every week, nobody wanted to go with me.

Toxic JuJu had to work, Bones and Chazz planned to be nursing hangovers, and CooKie had to barbeque naked with a harem or something. (Funny, none of my friends tried church as an excuse.) I think another reason I couldn't corral some company was because everybody assumed that only old fuckers swing dance at the VFW and that the whole thing would be boring. They were wrong on both counts.

So I'm alone tonight, which ends up being a great idea, because it turns out that lots of people come here by themselves, and many of them are young and good-looking. The first thing I see when I enter the dance hall for the 5 p.m. "beginner" dance lesson is one of the hottest chicks I've ever seen. She looks about 25, and she's tall and lithe, with short, spiky blond hair, a cute pixie face, and lascivious hips that move like she should be doing salsa instead of swing. She's one of several people here who are obviously under 30. There is also the more "mature" crowd, but the age range is broader than you'd expect. Many people in my age group told me they come every week.

This "beginner" swing dance lesson lasts until 6 p.m., and then there's an hour-long "intermediate" lesson, followed by open dancing from 7 'til 10. The first 30 minutes of the class feels like some sort of sociology lesson — the man leads, the woman follows, and "if the ending changes, it's because the man has done something to make the ending change."

"She follows what I do," continues the male instructor, who looks like some weird hybrid of Bob Hope and Mr. Rogers. "The only time she can go off and do her own thing is if I hold her hand up and say, 'Play.'"

The fellas outnumber the ladies about 3 to 1, so we have to rotate partners, and I have to dance with a bunch of different men, which is weird for me because I stopped dating men more than 12 years ago.

But that's not really the problem. The problem is that I was paying more attention to the babes than to Bob-Hope-Rogers, so I have no idea what I'm supposed to be doing now. And, as previously stated, I can be clumsy in close quarters with people. As my father used to say, I'm "all assholes over elbows." I knew there was a chance when I showed up here that I'd be writing later about how I busted my shin, broke my toes, and poked some old dude's eye out.

As I prepare to dance with a middle-aged guy with an Australian accent who keeps calling me "Mickey," I just keep thinking, ladies lead with right foot, end on left foot. I'm not thinking about turns or being led or any of that stuff, so while he's got my hand, trying to pull me into an "underarm pass," I'm just counting and marching in place, trying to land on the right foot, which is the uh, left foot, in this case. Luckily, I've got two of those.

While I'm dancing with a short, gray-haired guy in glasses who keeps calling me "Vickie," we both step in the wrong direction while trying to do the "tuck turn" and stomp on each other's toes. Thankfully, no one made me feel more stupid than I already did. But I definitely needed a cigarette break.

Inside the VFW bar, I start chatting with Hank, the super-friendly bartender. Hank says this place is packed every Sunday, but that the real action doesn't start until the free dance. That's when the real good swing dancers hit the floor, dressed to the nines. "You watch, this place is gonna be on fire," Hank tells me. "You'll learn more from 7 to 10, just dancing, than you will from these lessons."

At about 6:45, the regulars start filtering in. Before it gets too packed, Hank gives me a tour of the building. He tells me that the main part of the building, where the veterans hang out, was built in 1921, and it used to be a cathouse. The VFW hall in the front, where everybody's dancing, was built in 1975. "We get all kinds of people coming here for the dance, from millionaires to janitors," Hank says. "Barry Goldwater used to come in here and dance all the time."

By 7:30, I see what Hank means. The ballroom is full, and there's an eclectic mix of folks on the floor, from attractive young women in heels and leopard-print outfits to senior citizens in sleek black suits. Oddly enough, it's the older women doing the sexier dancing and making supermodel faces, while the young'uns look unsure of their steps. The music is surprising, too — while this is West Coast Swing, which I expect to be set to old-school swing music by people like the Dorsey Brothers and Glenn Miller, the soundtrack consists of everything from Santana to Etta James.

I didn't feel like dancing much (probably because I didn't drink any alcohol), but I did get asked by a way cute college kid with a blond goatee and bright blue eyes, which was nice. It felt like my seventh-grade dance all over again, with me standing off in a corner nursing a soda, and some nice young man coming over to introduce himself. Except that this nice young man doesn't have a mullet, and the song that's playing isn't Mötley Crüe's "Dr. Feelgood."

I was having more fun just watching people, especially the hot chicks. Too bad there's a whole "Jack and Jill" standard in swing dance, 'cause I'm really more of a Joey.

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Niki D'Andrea has covered subjects including drug culture, women's basketball, pirate radio stations, Scottsdale staycations, and fine wine. She has worked at both New Times and Phoenix Magazine, and is now a freelancer.
Contact: Niki D'Andrea