A group of nervous first-time students gather around the edge of the dance floor, watching a class of more advanced swing dancers with curiosity. All eyes are fixed on their footwork and the way they move into twirls and bops. When the time comes for the beginner class to start, the first-timers are stiff and self-conscious, but instructors BreAnna Morris and Joshua Aughenbaugh are their perky cheerleaders, guiding them through their first “rock steps” and “triple steps” into swing dance.
The students are all ages. Most are dressed in jeans and casual tops, and on their feet, sneakers, flats and boots that will hopefully move easily across the large wooden floor. Some come alone, others as a couple; all are told to rotate partners with each song (though it’s not enforced). Those who catch on quickly help others who are struggling with the steps; instructors also keep an eye out to see who needs extra help. Soon, missed steps lead to laughs and smiles that quickly take over the students’ faces as they discover moves they didn’t know they had and begin to enjoy moving to the music. High-fives take place between all the pairings after each song finishes.
“I love seeing people fall in love with the dance,” says Morris, who’s been teaching at Swingin’ Denver for almost two years. During the class, she takes a moment to educate the students on the origins of swing dance, which began during the jazz age in Harlem in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s with the Charleston and the Lindy hop and later saw a resurgence in the 1980s and ’90s.
Swingin’ Denver dance school was formed in 2014 by internationally known swing-dance instructor Kenny Nelson, who moved from Kansas City to Denver after discovering the city's swing scene through the Denver Lindy Exchange event and a friend in the swing community. “I wanted a stronger scene than where I was. I thought Denver would be the place for that, and it was.”
Prior to moving here, Nelson traveled the world teaching swing. He knew he had something to offer from his experiences. “There wasn’t an organization in Denver that allowed teachers control over what they taught. I knew that in order to be happy, I needed to start my own venture.”
He and his wife, Jessica, whom he met at a dance camp during his travels, began Swingin’ Denver by offering beginner and advanced classes. It has since grown to offer several levels of classes, with various styles of swing. “What’s nice is that once you reach the upper levels, it’s not always the same stuff. They refresh the material so you learn new things," says longtime student Jaimielyn Burke.
Students often repeat classes, particularly the beginner level, in order to become secure in their footwork. And if they want to practice outside of class, Swingin’ Denver also hosts a series of events, including the Wednesday Night Hop on the first and third Wednesday of each month. The event will re-launch on February 7 at a new location — VFW Lodge No. 1, in the Santa Fe Art District.
Nelson’s goal with Swingin’ Denver’s classes and social events is to not only tap into the existing swing scene, but to grow it. “We try to really be involved in the Denver community as a whole. I want new dancers, and I want to introduce people to swing music.”
He does this with a for-hire performance group of professional-level dancers called The Ladies and Gentlemen, and by striking partnerships with venues and local bands in order to bring swing dance to unexpected places. Over the summer, Swingin' Denver did a series of events with Little Man Ice Cream, and Nelson often tag-teams with musical acts such as La Pompe Jazz and Jeremy Mohney. His dance team will bust out a demonstration of awe-inspiring swing moves as the band plays, inspiring people to join in, both on the dance floor and during classes.
“I want to attract the people who go to these places, because they are people who love going out, especially to bars, breweries, wineries,” says Nelson. “Those are people who would be good at dancing and supporting the venues.”
Swing dance also provides a way to get out and meet people. With Denver’s booming influx from other cities, it’s a struggle that most newcomers can relate to. “Some of my first friends and closest friends in Denver are people I met in the swing scene after I moved here two years ago,” says Burke. “When you go out to the social dances, you see a lot of the same people from the classes. Friendships form really quickly because you already have a common interest. All it takes to be part of the community is to love to dance. That’s the only thing that matters.”
Swingin’ Denver’s Speakeasy Soiree takes place January 20 at the Hangar at Stanley, 2501 Dallas Street, Aurora. Tickets are $20, VIP $50. For more information about classes and upcoming events, visit Swingin' Denver.