I’m ready to go out on a limb and propose that one of the most fun experiences you can have in this city happens in the rec room of a Brookside church. Stay with me here. You’ll have a chance to prove me wrong starting November 20, when The Oklahoma Swing Syndicate (TOSS) retakes the high-gloss gym floor at Southminster Presbyterian. After a year and a half without their usual jam-packed dances—social distancing and social dancing just aren’t great partners—TOSS is carefully bringing back the Lindy Hop, the Charleston and the Shag for Tulsans to enjoy.
Didn’t know there were jam-packed vintage swing dances on Brookside? Well, here’s what you’ve been missing. TOSS is one of Tulsa’s hidden gems, recognized by UNESCO as a cultural heritage preservation organization for its continuation of the authentic legacy of popular dance from the 1920s to the 1940s. Founder Rita Robbins (by day, a consultant in the neuroscience of learning and a former master trainer for Microsoft) and her husband came to swing dance from martial arts as a way to improve their rhythm and coordination, then fell in love with it. (“We're like, swing dance doesn't hurt!” she said.) They studied with the late swing legend and Lindy Hop pioneer Frankie Manning and other masters of the form in Europe and the U.S. before starting their own Tulsa nonprofit. Thirteen years and around 500 public dances later, the organization continues to bring in expert teachers and foster advanced dancers, as well as being a welcoming, multigenerational, inexpensive, diverse place for total newbies.
That link with the original lineage makes all the difference. After all, this style of dance has its roots in 1920s Harlem, and TOSS is dedicated to passing on not just the dances that were developed then, but the culture and spirit of the events themselves. “We do not allow dance snobs,” Robbins explained. “Knowledge is not king. If you're there, you're there to share. That's the way the Savoy Ballroom was organized and Birdland and all the different places in New York.” Volunteer teachers of all ages lead the beginner classes that open every TOSS event, introducing the same basic movements to everyone, as well as some fundamental safety protocols—and then the whole room becomes a social dance zone, with people at many different levels trying out the moves. (Highly experienced dancers are encouraged to hold off on bringing too much heat until later in the night—and newcomers are encouraged to ask, “Okay, can you show me how to do whatever it is you just did?”)
But, you say, you’re not sure you can even tell your right from your left when you’re in motion? In other words, the idea of swing dancing is completely out of your comfort zone? Perfect. Take some inspiration from Jordan Hunter, who had never danced before he first showed up at TOSS. Now he’s the organization’s board president and has competed in vintage dance events all over the world.
“I got involved with TOSS and swing dancing as a whole in January 2017, I believe,” Hunter told Root. “Me and two other friends had made a list of things we wanted to try together in the coming year, and one of my friends wrote down swing dancing, which held no particular interest to me, but I came out to his first class to be supportive and ended up getting hooked. I had no dance background at all coming to TOSS, but the community and focus on fun made it really easy to keep coming back every weekend.”
Hunter is a freelance UX designer and often visits new cities to work remotely. “A great way to integrate yourself with a new community is by micro-communities, like the swing dancing community (which has dances in most major cities across the world),” he said. “My last trip took me to Berlin for three months, where I danced and worked remotely, helped teach in a local dance school, and met many lifelong friends. Dancing has opened up a lot of doors for me as I travel. It's really a perfect hobby for the digital nomad or young professional.”
There’s no specific body type, gender or age requirement for swing dancing. There are some basic steps to learn, but nothing is choreographed. You don’t even have to come with a partner. TOSS welcomes everyone—but it’s probably most fun for folks who can laugh at themselves. “You’re putting yourself out there a little bit, and you may be critical. I always say, your worst enemy is yourself,” Robbins told Root. “If you make a mistake, make it epic, laugh like a hyena, learn from it and just keep going! You'll see people completely blow it on the dance floor and they're over there just belly laughing. I mean, bent over, slapping their knees. If you have an epic mistake, you're going to have an epic reboot.”
Another TOSS regular, Laurel Ryan, gave Root a sense of how it really feels to do this. She’s the Community Engagement Manager at 108 Contemporary and described herself as “enough of a jazz nerd that I teach and emcee at swing dance events around the country.”
“I often describe swing dancing as jumping rope while holding hands with someone else, but it is far more than my favorite form of exercise,” she said. “My brain comes alive when I lindy hop. How can I show my partner what I enjoy about the music? How can I play off of my partner to show them what I enjoy about their dancing? How will my partner react if, instead of doing a well-known move, I throw in ‘Thriller’ choreography? Swing dancing releases endorphins through physical activity, dopamine when I plan my next fancy footwork, serotonin when the fanciness in my mind translates to my feet, and oxytocin as I dance hand in hand with another person. In what other hobby could I get such a complete dose of happiness neurotransmitters?”
Simply put, swing dancing is a tried-and-true way for people to find some happiness in hard times. “In the heyday of Harlem,” Robbins said, “people sometimes hosted dances in their houses. They made them really accessible financially to everybody, because it was a place to come and just have fun and forget your sorrows—come on and get happy, you know? We kinda need that again.” Those good feels are the real deal, and so are the (often unspoken) communication skills that can come from learning to lead and follow on the dance floor.
“Oh my gosh, you can sweat like nobody's business doing this stuff, but you're having fun and it's good for your brain,” she continued. “When teaching people, especially couples, we continually express that you don't judge each other, you just give open and honest feedback. ‘That didn't work.’ ‘I either didn't hear you or I don't understand.’ But it doesn't mean you're doing it wrong or bad.”
As TOSS starts back up again, they’re taking it slow, kicking things off with this Saturday’s dance and hoping to do another event for New Year’s Eve. (Masks are required, but not vaccinations, though they are encouraged.) It’s a volunteer-run organization, so if you’re interested in helping at the registration table or with setting up and tearing down, they’d love the assist.
“Regardless of whether you think you can do this or not, it's our job to prove that you can, and to offer you a really good time,” Robbins said. “A lot of the people will just want to sit and watch. That's cool. But if you want to try it, we’re here to show you how simple it is. And we can get you on the dance floor in 30 minutes, having fun with no judgment.”
Vintage Swing Dancing
3500 S. Peoria Ave.
7-7:30pm: Beginner Class
7:30-10pm: Social Dancing
Student Guests: $5.00
Student Members: $3.00
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