By SHIRA DICKER
THERE are swinging parties in Manhattan nearly every night. The trick is in knowing where to find them.
Take a recent Thursday: Sandwiched between a Blarney Stone and a liquor shop on Eighth Avenue just south of Penn Station and up four flights of stairs was a scene invisible to most New Yorkers. Wild and sweaty, loud and crowded, it featured scores of smiling, ever-shifting couples energetically executing the kinetic choreography of the Lindy Hop, the Charleston, the jitterbug , the Balboa, the collegiate shag. They danced East Coast and West Coast styles and bluesy New Orleans freestyle.
This party, the Frim Fram Jam, is a weekly event organized by the local chapter of a national swing dance network called Yehoodi, after “Who’s Yehoodi (Yehudi)?,” a song popularized by Cab Calloway. Held at a studio called You Should Be Dancing and drawing more than 150 people a week, the Frim Fram Jam is a popular destination within a throbbing, thriving urban subculture: Manhattan’s swing-dance demimonde.
The scene is the recent revival of a phenomenon that started quietly in New York in the mid-1980s, waxed and then waned and grew popular again in the decades that followed until the best swing-dance spots were forced to close for lack of revenue in the new century.
Now enjoying a renaissance that began around three years ago, the current swing-dance milieu consists of a network of clubs, events, instructors, dancers, D.J.’s and bands. It is characterized by its own celebrities, etiquette and conventions, and enabled by social networking, particularly the New York City Swing Dance Group of MeetUp.com and Yehoodi.com. This scene is scored by composers whose names form the spine of the Great American Songbook: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, George Gershwin, Benny Goodman, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Isham Jones and, of course, Cab Calloway.
While the summer cultural landscape of Manhattan offers popular events like Midsummer Night Swing at Lincoln Center and Swing Moon Dance at Pier 84, the city’s swing dancing truly comes to life when the weather turns cold and the action moves indoors.
Within the cozy confines of clubs like Sofia’s at the Edison Hotel and Swing 46 (the only place of its kind with live swing music every night), the casual rec-room atmosphere of the Frim Fram Jam, and the sumptuous, large-scale weekend parties in community centers, this spirited social subculture thrives.
At the intergenerational Frim Fram Jam in early December, energy surged through the room when Gordon Webster’s cover of the Andrews Sisters’ hit “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön” went on the turntable at 10:25 p.m., by which time people had been dancing strenuously for more than two hours. From his booth, the D.J. and Yehoodi music organizer Ryan Swift noted the fresh excitement. “Man, I feel old,” said Mr. Swift, who is 34. “There are plenty of kids here, but look at some of these old folks dance.”
One of the “kids” was Elaine Silver, 23, a regular. Before graduating from Columbia University Ms. Silver was an organizer of CU Swing, a student group. Now a champion dancer, she founded Swing and Dance with her dance partner, Adam Lee, to teach and promote the form. Mr. Lee, a 32-year-old graduate student in music at New York University, said he helped create the current swing-dance craze in Beijing.
Trim and energetic at 63, there was also Eugene Hammond Jr., a retired postal worker known as Ice. Mr. Hammond showed up at the Frim Fram Jam around 11 p.m. in a black suit, cobalt-blue shirt, red tie, brown-and-white vintage cap-toe oxfords, accessorized with a beige felt fedora and a large cross on a chain.
“I’m here tonight,” proclaimed Mr. Hammond, who is known for executing sharp, staccato moves. “But I’m dancing somewhere else in this town every night.”
Many of the same people turn up at the different dance spots, among them Swing 46. And almost everyone shows up at the Swing Remix dance parties at the JCC in Manhattan on the Upper West Side, lively events that happen four times a year.
The unwritten rule of these dance parties is “to say yes to anyone and to smile regardless of what your partner does,” said Kristen Spillane at Swing 46 on a recent Tuesday night, as George Gee and his band struck up “It Had to Be You.”
If you say yes often enough, you are likely to find a partner who assumes the role of personal instructor. Alazar Deas, a counselor and therapist in his 50s who favors snazzy hats, is one. Mr. Deas often dances with one woman for several consecutive numbers, offering understated advice: “Relax. Keep it small. Keep it cute. You’ve got to feel the music.”
The scene is a return, if only for one night, to a less virtual time, an era when social lives were conducted in person, said Paolo Lana, one of the catalysts of the swing renaissance and a founder of the Swing Remix with Spencer Weisbond.
“Maybe it’s because of shows like ‘Dancing With the Stars’ or maybe it’s because people are trying to have healthier lifestyles,” Mr. Lana said. “Maybe it’s because they are trying to get away from electronic devices or they are craving face-to-face contact, but swing dancing is suddenly catching on in New York after a slump.”
Because there is a place to dance almost every night, it’s possible for Mr. Hammond and others to conduct their social lives entirely through the portal of swing. Dancers swarm to Sofia’s to catch Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks on Mondays, leaving Tuesdays for George Gee’s manic band at Swing 46, when teachers from Dance Manhattan provide free lessons. The Cotton Club’s Monday-night swing dancing with live music is legendary. West Coast swing is taught every Wednesday at Dance Manhattan. Thursday is the Frim Fram Jam, and then it’s back to Swing 46 for the Friday-night parties, always with a live band.
The biggest monthly dances happen on Saturday nights. These include the Swing Remix and the New York Swing Dance Society’s bash at St. Jean Baptiste Roman Catholic Church, whose trademark is the Shim Sham Shimmy, a line dance. Mr. Lana and Mr. Weisbond created Swing Remix in 2007, after the closing of several clubs offering swing dance to live orchestras. While attendance was anemic at first, nearly five years later the parties draw hundreds and are de rigueur for any serious participant. The events are not only big; they are meticulously programmed. For starters, they feature a different band every time. Over several hours the demographic shifts strikingly. Early hours feature singles and middle-aged Upper West Siders in their motto T-shirts and baggy chinos. Then the hip young arrive in force, tearing up the floor with their retro clothes, geek-chic eyewear and low-slung moves. Just when the crowd seems to be settling on its identity, slick men in “Saturday Night Fever” gear accompanied by glitzy girlfriends appear, taking over the floor with showy footwork. Later on, looking like time travelers, cool cats from Harlem show up in fedoras and spats, making everyone else seem hopelessly out of step.
Among the coolest is Tommy Tucker, 77, noted for his sly style and vintage caps. Mr. Tucker, retired from a Veterans Affairs job, has been a social dancer for years, he said: “The Cotton Club. Tia. Swing 46. Swing Society. Anywhere there’s swing, I go.”
With the arrival of each new contingent, the party shifts in tone and appearance. The dance numbers are punctuated by contests and exhibitions in the middle of the floor. Patrons arrive with water bottles and towels and take frequent breaks to hydrate and wipe down. It is not gauche to be drenched in sweat; by the end of the evening many people appear as if they have jumped into the JCC’s pool, fully clothed.
“It’s not just a kind of dance, it’s a whole culture,” said Aileen Tretter, a hospice social worker who attended the November and December Swing Remix events. She considers the dances a healthy antidote to her emotionally draining work.
Mr. Tucker similarly finds the parties therapeutic. “It’s like a medicine,” he said. “If you be angry with the world, just come here and dance until it’ll go away.”
The swing-dance social world is an extremely fluid and democratic fellowship. Women ask men to dance and vice versa. Partners switch with every song. One might arrive with a significant other or alone. Just as older people dance with youngsters, one can expect to see same-sex as well as male-female couples. Markedly absent is the supremacy of the ultrabeautiful or the ultrathin. People who are plain while standing on the sidelines are often transformed into dynamos of charisma on the dance floor. Those who are heavy execute complicated moves with grace.
It is a must in this realm to visit Swing 46 at least once. On a recent Tuesday night it teemed with dancers and dinner guests as the band began to play “In the Mood.” A blond woman in a calf-length peach dress and upswept hairdo took to the floor with an African-American man in jeans and a button-down vintage shirt, while George Gee shouted from the stage, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing!”
Stepping Out With Style
Swing Dance Night, Cotton Club, 656 West 125th Street, Harlem; (888) 640-7980; doors open at 8 for dinner, music begins at 8:30; cottonclub-newyork.com; $25.
Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, 8 p.m., Sofia’s Restaurant, at the Edison Hotel, 221 West 46th Street, Manhattan; (212) 719-5799,myspace.com/vincegiordanothenighthawks, sofiasny.com; $15 cover and $15 food-and-drink minimum.
TUESDAYS AND FRIDAYS
West Coast Swing class, 8 p.m. (no classes until 2012), Dance Manhattan, 39 West 19th Street, 5th Floor, Chelsea; (212) 807-0802, dancemanhattan.com.
Frim Fram Jam, dance lesson at 8 p.m., dance begins at 9 p.m., Club 412, 412 Eighth Avenue, at 31st Street, Fourth Floor, Manhattan; yehoodi.com/frimfram; $8, dance lesson is an additional $4.
New York Swing Dance Society dance, one Saturday a month (check Web site for details); lessons begin at 7 p.m., dance begins at 8, St. Jean Baptiste Roman Catholic Church, 184 East 76th Street, Manhattan; (212) 696-9737, nysds.org; $15, $11 for students and seniors.
Swing Remix, one Saturday a month ; workshops and lessons begin at 6:20 p.m., dance begins at 8:30, JCC in Manhattan, 334 Amsterdam Avenue, at 76th Street; (646) 233-3338, swingremix.com.
Swing classes, beginner: 7:30 p.m., advanced beginner: 8:30, JCC in Manhattan, jccmanhattan.org; $108 for a six-class series for nonmembers, $93 for members.
Changing events at Swing 46, 349 West 46th Street, Manhattan; (212) 262-9554, swing46.com.
Also mentioned in the article:
NEW YORK CITY SWING DANCE GROUP OF MEETUP.COM meetup.com/swingdancing-82.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: December 30, 2011
An article last Friday about swing dancing in Manhattan misstated the surname of the musician whose cover of the Andrews Sisters’ hit “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön” was played at the Frim Fram Jam in early December. He is Gordon Webster, not Walker.