West County Swing Keeps the Dance Shoes Tapping
Two groups offer swing dance to the community.
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made it glamorous.
Reality television made it gossip page fodder.
Somewhere in between, folks like Ray Hassan of Maryland Heights discovered the real beauty of dancing.
Hassan, 52, moved to the St. Louis area four years ago from Kansas. He wanted to meet people and make friends, but didn't want to wander bars or night clubs.
In Kansas, Hassan dabbled in country dancing, but heard the popular way to groove in St. Louis was swing dancing.
St. Louis even had its' own brand of the dance called Imperial Swing.
A group of "street dancers" created their own unique version of East Coast Swing back in the 1960s and 70s, says Bud Waters, president of West County Swing Dance Club.
The group danced in the clubs and dance halls throughout the city. One of their favorite spots in north St. Louis County was the old Club Imperial, which gave the new dance style its name, says St. Louis Imperial Dance Club's treasurer, Carol Rodney of Chesterfield.
Waters, 60, says that today, most local swing dance clubs teach the Imperial Swing wraps, turns and walks created by the group back in the 1960s and 70s, plus the basic East Coast Swing dance steps.
Eight not-for-profit swing dance clubs in the St. Louis metropolitan area belong to The Midwest Swing Dance Federation, a collective organization that represents roughly 3,000 to 3,500 swing dancers, Waters says.
"St. Louis is such a hot bed for swing dancing," Waters said.
The West County Swing Dance Club, founded in 1986, has 900 members and draws 350 to 400 dancers every Tuesday at their weekly dance at Concord Farmers Club.
The West County club hosts "Rollin' on the River" every Labor Day weekend at the Westport Sheraton. For the last 14 years, the event has attracted roughly 650 people from 22 different states, Waters says.
"Rollin' on the River is one of the largest social dance events in the country," Waters says. "There's no competitive dancing at the event - it's just to promote the style of dance and a fun four-day social dance event."
St. Louis Imperial Dance Club, founded in 1973, is the oldest club in the area. They meet Wednesdays at Sportscafe in Bridgeton.
Both clubs tend to draw dancers from ages 28 to 80, with the average age around 56, Waters says. With the popularity of shows like "Dancing with the Stars" and "So You Think You Can Dance," swing dancing attracts people of every age.
"We have noticed that there is a strong fan base for those programs," Waters says. "It has had an impact on organized club dancing."
All eight local dance clubs work together to promote Imperial swing dancing and various other forms of dance. Through the Midwest Swing Dance Federation, they get together monthly to compare schedules and support each other, Waters says.
Dancing passion seems to go hand-in-hand with the clubs' social aspect, as members become like a big family. They celebrate birthdays and holidays at weekly events.
For members like Hassan who are looking for a way to socialize, Waters notes that dancing is both physically active and inexpensive.
"It's nice and safe, and it is not smoky and a bar scene," Waters said. "You can come by yourself or as a couple."
Lessons are offered for all skill levels, and most experienced dancers are kind to those who are still learning, Waters says.
"We're just having fun and try to teach courtesy and respect," Waters said.
The clubs welcome everyone, even those who would rather just listen to the DJ than get out on the dance floor. The music is an interesting mix that ranges from Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" to Lady Gaga's "Pokerface".
The dancers do have a knack for enticing onlookers to get in on the "swing" of things. When the skirts start twirling and the feet start flying, it is hard to sit still.
"Whether the individual wants to become really good at it and even compete, or they just want to learn something new and have fun, there's something available for everyone," Waters says.