The Johns Hopkins Gazette: January 19, 1999
Jan. 19, 1999
VOL. 28, NO. 18


Getting In The Swing

In the cold of winter, the latest dance craze heats up Homewood

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Homewood campus is all but deserted on this cold Thursday night, save for a few well-wrapped souls who are making their way into Levering. Once inside, familiar faces greet one another and mingle, while the rest file directly into the Great Hall.

Just before 5 p.m. a rather sizable crowd has gathered, 80 in all, and the large room fills with talk and the shuffling of feet resonating upon the wood floor. The majority of the group are students, eager to get started with the night's activity. A woman with a headset gets their attention.

"All right, let's get started," says the woman, who is dressed in narrow white pants and a big pink sweater. "Girls over here, and boys over there." The group obliges, and, reminiscent of a high school mixer, the two sexes face each other from opposite sides of the room. Now it's time to do what they came here for: dance.

The woman with the headset is Joanne Houlahan, a full-time faculty member in the School of Engineering's Computer Science Department, who for the past six years has been teaching a swing dance class during intersession. Typically the class has averaged about 40 to 50 students, but this year Houlahan certainly has her hands full because right now swing (in case you slept through 1998) is the latest craze.

It may be the popularity of bands like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Cherry Poppin' Daddies, or it may be those omnipresent Gap ads on TV. But whatever the reason, the resurgence of swing music brought a record number of would-be dancers to intersession swing classes.

The past year has witnessed a great resurgence in the type of music and dance referred to as swing, or the lindy hop and jitterbug as it is also known. One reason is the popularity of swing bands such as Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Cherry Poppin' Daddies and the Brian Setzer Orchestra, all of which appeal to the college crowd. Another is that advertising types are jumping on the swing bandwagon, as the dance is prominently featured in several television commercials, most notably the Gap spot where khaki-clad dancers jump and flip across the screen.

According to Houlahan, swing certainly has the country's attention.

"It's hip. Right now it's a big music trend, and it doesn't seem to be dying," Houlahan says. "What some people don't know is that swing has been around the whole time; it really never went out. It's just that younger people are doing it now."

That young crowd is well-represented in Houlahan's class. The 80 registered students represent the largest enrollment she has had. Houlahan begins this night's class, the second of six, by having each side practice the basic swing footwork: two triple-step combinations followed by a rock step back and one foot forward. In unison, the female side of the hall goes first. Houlahan smiles as she stands in the middle of the dance floor shouting "triple step, triple step, back, step" through a microphone, which is connected to a boombox she uses to amplify her voice and play the music.

"Boys, don't they sound like a herd of buffalo?" she cracks. Right now she puts up with the heavy stomping, but she says that by the end of the classes everybody will have learned to be lighter on their feet.

Most of the students she gets each year are not seasoned dancers. The only requirement, Houlahan says, is the ability to walk. Despite their inexperience, Houlahan says that many come to the course wanting to emulate the type of swing dancing they have seen in movies and music videos, such as tossing partners into the air or flipping them over their backs.

"People want to dance like on the Gap commercial," Houlahan says. "But I warn them that we're not learning to throw each other around. You have to learn to dance on the floor before you begin to toss. They also need to learn that to do the trick moves and the aerials you need to have very precise timing."

The origin of swing-type dancing dates back to the late 1920s, in big cities such as New York. One variation on the East Coast was known as the lindy hop, which later evolved into West Coast swing. It is often associated with the big bands that were popular in the 1940s and '50s, and with the zoot suit, which has found a popularity with Generation X--though Houlahan points out that the zoot suit was neither the common dress of the day nor required swing dance attire.

Houlahan's own dancing interest took root around 1990, when a friend got her interested in swing dancing. She says it was fairly easy to pick up and later decided she wanted to teach it. Through her local dancing she met Chuck Alexander, a businessman, who also wanted to teach dance. Together, they went to the Student Activities Office and proposed that they teach an intersession swing class at Homewood in 1992. It's been going strong ever since.

Houlahan, who also teaches swing and Latin dance in group and private lessons around the Baltimore area, estimates that in the past six years she has taught thousands to swing. She says she loves to teach and remarks that for students, learning to dance is more than just a way to pass the time during intersession. "It's fun, it's aerobic and it's very interactive. You get to meet so many people."

As for the many men the class attracts, Houlahan says that learning to dance certainly doesn't hurt their chances to land a date. "Every woman would rather date a dancer than a non-dancer," she says.

For much of the time in class Houlahan has the students dancing in pairs learning the basic steps. As in most dancing, the male leads, she says, and because swing is a partner dance, it's important that the students learn how to lead and follow appropriately. The partners are almost always connected with one hand, and it's the rocking back and forth that provides the momentum with which people "swing" each other across the dance floor.

This ability to coordinate the steps with a partner seems to be the biggest challenge for those in the class this night.

"The turns are hard," says C.G. Moore, a student in neuroscience at the School of Medicine. "It's hard linking turns with the footwork because you start to turn and then you lose your place."

Moore adds that switching partners all the time--as Houlahan is having them do--does help novices pay attention to what their partners are doing. "You get a feel for how different people dance and don't fall into any particular pattern," he says.

By the end of the class the students are crowding closer to Houlahan in the center, and many of the frustrated frowns have turned to smiles as the would-be dancers appear to have started to get the hang of it.

Houlahan says that is typically how a class goes. "All of sudden a light bulb goes on over their heads: Now I got it," she says.

Those who "got it" on this night danced out the doors. Literally.

More about Houlahan's dance classes can be found on the Web through her home page at