Swinging Northern Ireland
Eve Rosato joins the old school dance revolution with the Bellehoppers and Swing Belfast
We’re in the midst of a revolution, a modest revolution perhaps, but one that has a boogie-woogie soundtrack and is most certainly apolitical. I’m referring to Northern Ireland's growing infatuation with swing dancing.
In many ways it’s an underground movement at present, but pull back the curtain and you will discover a vibrant, sepia-toned world of happy faces, fancy threads, uptempo tunes and syncopated moves.
In Belfast alone, there are lots of swing-related events taking place each month, from beginners and advanced classes to socials and club nights. The jiving community of dancers who regularly attend such events are, of course, nostalgic for the era of the Charleston, the Shag and the Lindy Hop, and they take to the floor with wild abandon.
The Bellehoppers are a group made up of Jacinta Morris, Marie McCrory and Jenna Roddy, who came together, as McCrory puts it, through their 'mutual love of the music and fashion'. Their enthusiasm for dance is infectious: 'We got together and used to travel to London, Dublin and Galway for workshops and eventually qualified as teachers so we could share swing with others.'
The Bellehoppers now run classes out of the Crescent Arts Centre and organise regular club nights at the Black Box in Belfast, as well as performing at events. Speaking of the early days of their formation, Morris recalls 'it took a little while to take off, especially the partner classes. There were never enough men. Getting men to dance is particularly hard in Northern Ireland.'
That said, there are now many more men attending Bellehoppers classes than Morris expected there ever would be, and Roddy claims that their club nights are now 'about 50/50, gender-wise'.
Dance is, of course, not for everyone. Classes can often be tetchy environments, places for some to show-off and others to feel frustrated and clumsy. Observing one of the Bellehoopers' classes, however, one cannot help but get caught up with the sheer joy of it all – the smiles on the faces of teachers and participants alike are broad and genuine.
'If you watch people in a swing class, they’re smiling. You don’t see that in other dance forms,' says Morris. For the Bellehoppers the buzz word is 'fun'. Roddy asserts that their version of swing is 'so creative, you have the freedom to make-up your own moves. We don’t teach choreography, we teach social dancing. You enjoy yourself, the music is fantastic and you can’t listen and not be happy.'
The feedback from participants backs this up. Fiona, 24, from Belfast, describes swing as 'pure enjoyment'. Jenny, meanwhile, a burlesque dancer in the city, adds: 'The whole era and style is gorgeous. You get a taste of the whole culture. It’s everything – the music, the clothes – it’s all part of the experience and you can really throw yourself in.'
It's true that the swing craze is about more than dancing. Fashion is central – there are victory rolls, red lips and pocket watches. 'Swing can become a way of life,' McRory explains. 'As it has done for us. It’s a social life, a hobby. You can even go on holiday based on swing. It’s the best de-stresser.'
Relieving the pressures of everyday life seems to be a recurring theme in swing. There is something in the movement and the music that takes people out of themselves and gives them a sense of freedom. This notion is reiterated by another Belfast swing dance collective, Swing Belfast. Sharon Matchett, one of its founders, describes swing 'a drug, a happy pill'.
Moreover, it seems that swing is not just a panacea for the young and fit. The style of dance allows for participants to move at their own individual pace and according to their own abilities. 'There are no age restrictions,' says Matchett. 'If you want to do it, there is nothing stopping you.'
Swing Belfast – established by Matchett, Richard Turner, Bahia Ma'ani and Adib Ma'ani-Hessari – also perform, run classes and organise club nights. Much like the Bellehoppers, they offer a variety of classes at different levels. Matchett observes that 'in the past two years, numbers have almost doubled'.
This spurred the group to do a survey, asking class members what drew them to swing. Matchett recalls that 'the top answers were the fashion and music, that is their catalyst, but the dance tends to take over in the end'.
Interestingly, Matchett highlights that Swing Belfast 'don’t feel that swing has reached its peak' in Northern Ireland. This opinion seems to be shared by the Bellehoppers. Morris adds that 'in the 1980s swing exploded and died down, and now it’s slowly but surely picking up again'.
So, for those interested in joining the swing dance revolution, Swing Belfast host a 'Mess Around' on the first Saturday of every month, and the Bellehoppers and Swing Belfast both currently have classes for beginners and others ongoing. Visit both of their websites for more information and to take part.
And what of the future of the movement? Is it a fad, or can we expect to see more finely-dressed chaps and chicks dancing away the night? The Bellehoppers’ McCrory thinks so. 'There is timelessness to the style and the music. In 100 years, someone will still be playing this music and using these moves.'