From June 2019
By Kate Blankinship
Each Saturday night, students and Chicago community members gather on the third floor of Ida Noyes to partake in Chicago Swing Dancing Society’s (CSDS) weekly Java Jive. CSDS is a Registered Student Organization (RSO) at UChicago that started in 1997, making it the oldest existing swing dancing organization in Chicago.
Today, the club is run by a small board composed of undergraduate students. Third-years Michelle Chong and Medha Goyal are the current presidents.
Chong started swing dancing the summer between freshman and sophomore year at the urging of Goyal, who convinced her to adventure to Millennium Park for a summer swing dance.
“I’d been trying to convince people to go and Michelle actually bit at the bait, actually came with me,” Goyal said.
Chong and Goyal both joined the board because they wanted to have a larger role in planning CSDS events. The RSO’s most popular event is the Java Jive, which starts with a short lesson to get newcomers up to speed.
Second-year Alice Johnson had never danced before attending her first Saturday night Java Jive.
“I sort of just showed up to a dance and fell in love with it,” Johnson said. “I totally learned how to swing dance here at the University.”
In addition to introducing students to partnered dances that developed in the early ’20s and ’30s with traditional big band swing jazz, CSDS also provides an opportunity to socialize each weekend.
“If you are new to campus, the weekends can get kind of lonely. But the fact that we have a regular Java Jive that’s free every Saturday is really good for getting out,” Chong said.
In addition, about half of the forty to sixty regular attendees are community members, giving students the chance to meet individuals outside of their typical circles.
For Goyal, interactions with new people are a part of swing dancing. Goyal described swing dancing as a three-minute non-verbal conversation with someone else, whether it is a friend or a complete stranger, and the tone for each conversation is set by live musicians CSDS often invites each week.
“It’s a way of expression that speaks to me,” Chong said. “You have this music you’re responding to. You have also these people you’re responding to. But, at the same time, when you add all these together, the sum is not just the sum of the parts, it’s something more.”
CSDS also takes steps to ensure inclusivity and to break away from traditional dancing roles, with the male as the lead and the female as the follow. Instructors make an effort to minimize established gender roles and give voice to both the lead and follow roles when teaching swing. They emphasize following as a skillset rather than a passive endeavor and encourage followers to add their own flare.
“You feel empowered. It’s also about emphasizing consent. You have the power to do things or not,” Goyal said.
Teaching swing in such a way is a conscious decision by the board, as they know that “there’s so much more you can get out of dance than just performance,” Goyal said, highlighting that weekly social dances enable more socialization that a once-a-quarter performance.
Like Chong and Goyal, Johnson became a board member as a second year. “I just love Java Jive so much that I wanted to help keep them going,” she said. “I wanted to have the opportunity to be in a community with people who are really serious about swing dancing.”
The board works together to keep up their reputation as a friendly and accessible swing community that started over two decades ago, meeting every two weeks to go over quarterly goals and classes. In addition to Java Jives, CSDS organizes longer series classes that run from four to five weeks. In Spring Quarter, CSDS ran a five-part balboa lesson for students and community members. Balboa is a comparatively niche branch of swing dancing known for its close embrace and fast tempos.
CSDS also hosted larger events, such as their live band night when they invited jazz musician Jacob Sanders and his quartet to play. More than one hundred people came to the event to see Sanders—one of the more famous swing jazz musicians today.
Many of these 100 people, though, also come every week. CSDS fosters a loyal support base that is always open for anyone to join.
“It’s so physically freeing while also social at the same time,” Johnson said. “It’s a chance to let go of whatever school work or worries you have at the time and just have fun with other people.”