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  • Writer's pictureBenji Schwimmer

Remembering Our Black Swing Pioneers

To the #Swing #Dance Community

Something has been weighing heavily on my mind for quite some time. And sadly I don’t feel like I’m the best person to say this because I’m very aware of the power of my position and it’s privilege. So please take this for what it’s worth and understand this is just a thought and only speak for myself here.

Recently, I was judging a very high level Jack and Jill competition. To my joy, it was the first time in memory that I saw more people of color in the deus sitting before me than not. It sparked a thought in my mind that maybe some of you don’t know....

Swing dancing was created by African-Americans.

I want that to and sink in for a moment. For many years now since I’ve been competing I’ve noticed less and less people of color successfully competing in swing dance competitions and their associated events. We so often forget that there are well over 30 styles of swing in the world, some danced to this day and predominately only African-American communities such as various forms of Hand #Dancing and Chicago Steppin’.

It’s not very often that in more of the globally popular forms of swing you see a prominent presence of dancers of color which saddens me deeply. I’ve always been one to believe that in the swing dance community that we’ve done well in honoring our elders. We have many Walks of Fame, Halls of Legends and special awards that honor those that came the generation before us. Of course, deservingly so! However it’s very rare that I see a worthy recognition of those that came before the very legends we put on a pedestal. Do I think it’s racism? No. Do I think it’s blatant cultural appropriation? No. Not really. But I do think for most of us dancers that have been around for a few decades were able to speak directly to some of these great legends that came a generation before us but never had the great privilege of meeting those that came before them. Before YouTube. Before videos and DVDs, all we have are very few faint photographs to get a sense of who these people were.

Every year now I make a pilgrimage to North Harlem in New York City. 596 Lenox Ave between 140th and 141st streets where the Savoy Ballroom once stood. If you haven’t read about the Savoy, I strongly encourage you do. It was there that the very first cultural hub of swing dancing was born. It was during a time of great depression poverty racism and a lack of equal rights for all participants that entered said ballroom. Through great oppression and a deep desire to find community and escapism the most amazing style of partner dancing that has ever existed in this world was created: #Swing.

I hope this doesn’t come off as if I’m standing on some sort of soapbox and preaching. Rather I would hope that for those of you as passionate about this dance as I am can you take a moment and reflect about how much your dance tribe means to you and to remember that when times get tough and we get frustrated and confused with results or points and status in this dance - to think about the beauty that came from dancers just like you who suffered so much more.

I visit the now placard where the Ballroom once stood every year as a very small way to just say thank you to many of these unsung heroes and legends of mine and yours. I hope that every time we triple step that part of their passion, creativity; originality and influence inspires us and anchors us in a state of gratitude and light.

I feel humbled to be a blip on this rich history of Swing Dancing and hope that we can continue to appreciate what we have and realize that it’s from the labor of love of so many great and wonderful African American geniuses that came before us.

No matter your political views, I hope we can remember our legends of color and honor them daily and be more inclusive through whatever means we have. Lest we forget...

Swing For Life


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