Over the hill and onto the dance floor: Swing dancing is for all ages in Ottawa

You won’t hear sacred music on Friday nights in the basement of St. Joseph’s Parish in Ottawa—unless you consider Benny Goodman and Count Basie saints. Their jazzy big band hits play until just past midnight and are accompanied by the shuffle and bang of swing dancers’ feet.

Almost every Friday night, the Ottawa Swing Dance Society rents out the Parish’s basement to host their social swing dances.

For an admission cost of $8, they offer two hours of dance lessons with volunteer teachers and three hours of dancing.

Verona Burk, one of the honorary lifetime members of the society, has been attending the Friday night dances for almost a decade. She refers to herself as “over the hill,” and yet, she can be seen on the dance floor all night.

“The amazing thing is that [the dances] cover so many ages,” she said. “I’m one of the oldest, but the bulk are university students. In fact, [the society] tries to be near the campus because of the students.”

Her eyes light up when she speaks of the young dancers, calling them “special.”

Week after week, Burk said she is amazed by their willingness to dance with her and the other older members of the society.

She said she takes great pride in helping get the “first-timers” onto the dance floor, remembering how nervous she was when she first began.

“I try to dance with the new ones, just to get them started,” she said. “A lot of them will apologize profusely. But if you can get them coming back, then they’re way ahead of me on the dance floor.”

In 2015, Statistics Canada announced that for the first time in the country’s history, there are more Canadians over the age of 65 than under the age of 15.

The proportion of seniors in the country’s population has been steadily growing since 1960, increasing from eight per cent at that time to 14 per cent in 2009. This increase is caused by the baby boomers—the demographic group born in the post-war period between the years 1946 and 1965.

As they reach retirement age, leisurely pursuits like swing dancing become a larger focus in their lives.

Rania Tfaily, an assistant professor in Carleton University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology, said the role of the senior in society has changed dramatically with the rise of technology and economic changes. This change affects their role in intergenerational relationships.

“Seniors can still pass on traditions and stories, but that is very different from the type of knowledge they would have passed [in previous generations], which would have been essential to how you conduct your livelihood,” she said.

Tfaily added because there are more seniors than youth in society, there will be an increase of seniors who will not build intergenerational relationships with youth in the family sphere—where they were traditionally found. Instead, youth-senior relationships will have to be created in outlets outside the home.

“Companionship is extremely important, and without that we see decline [in seniors],” she said.

The Ottawa Swing Dance Society has created an outlet for those relationships with their Friday night social dances since the main focus of swing dancing is socializing. Most social dances involve partner dances, but group line dances can be seen as well.

Sebastian Echegoyen, a first-year pre-health sciences student at Algonquin College, said he started attending the Friday night dances four years ago after losing a bet with one of his friends who was a regular.

“The punishment was that I had to come to swing at least three Fridays in a row. For the first three nights I didn’t do the lesson, I didn’t dance. I just sat in a corner and watched. On the fourth night I decided to give the lesson a try,” Echegoyen said. “At the time I was very shy. But I loved it, and I’ve been coming ever since.”

He said the swing community has a friendly nature that helped him “come out of [his] shell.”

“I will dance with older people because I find they bring so much more to the table. They’ve had such a life experience—they’ve lived a lot, even just listening to them talk. For me, coming here is a fun time, so older people aren’t a problem.”

-—Sebastian Echegoyen, first-year pre-health sciences student at Algonquin College who goes swing dancing

“It’s such an open environment, and nobody is judgemental,” Echegoyen said. “We have people from age 14 to 87 here. You have all kinds of ages and life groups, it’s just a variety of every kind of lifestyle.”

When asked about spending a Friday night out with older individuals, Echegoyen said it doesn’t bother him.

“I will dance with older people because I find they bring so much more to the table. They’ve had such a life experience—they’ve lived a lot, even just listening to them talk,” he said. “For me, coming here is a fun time, so older people aren’t a problem.”

Before the social dance begins, fedora-clad Tom Kelly can be seen on the floor sidelines, practicing his moves.

When Kelly moved back to Ottawa after living in the United States for 30 years, he said the first thing he did was Google where to swing dance in the city. He found the society, and has been attending their dances ever since.

“As a very soon-to-be senior, I love to see a lot of young kids here,” he explained.“Probably 50 per cent [of the dancers] are 30 and under. We even have a few folks that are older who come out to dance, which is beautiful. The diversity is wonderful.”

At one point during the dance, it becomes “Shim Sham” time, and people crowd onto the floor.

The Shim Sham, originally created as a grand finale tap dance, was turned into a line dance for the international swing community in the 1980s.

Jimmie Lunceford’s “ ‘Tain’t What You Do (It’s The Way That You Do It)” blasts from the DJ’s table, and just like that, the dancers come to life in unison.

On any given night it’s not unusual to see a high school student dancing next to a recent senior, or a university student dancing next to a near-centenarian.

In the commotion of the dance, the lyrics are hard to make out.

“‘Tain’t what swing do, it’s the way that you swing it,” Lunceford sings.

But to take one look at this group of dancers from every walk of life, in solidarity, is to know that maybe it is what swing does.

“The amazing thing is that [the dances] cover so many ages. I’m one of the oldest, but the bulk are university students. In fact, [the society] tries to be near the campus because of the students.”

-—Verona Burk, an honorary lifetime member of the Ottawa Swing Dance Society

– Graphic by Christophe Young