A Blast from the Past: As the world becomes an increasingly harder place to live in, there’s a yearning for a simpler time where we left our troubles at the door.. and man led woman onto the dance floor
By: Audra Roslani, Photos: Edmund Lee
It’s Friday night and I’m parked outside the New Star Studio in a quiet corner of Taman Desa, just outside the bustling city of Kuala Lumpur and wondering what I’m getting myself into. Dressed in an A-line high-waisted skirt paired with a button up blouse and a pair of flats – far from my usual jeans and sneaker combo, I was anxious for the clock to strike 9pm for my first try at doing the Lindy Hop.
I don’t know if it’s because I’m dressed in a certain way (or the fact that from my car, on my left I can see a Chinese altar in front of a massive tree facing an entertainment joint with a live band belting out pop tracks), or because like ghosts from the past, men and women dressed in their 1940s best – vintage dresses and polka dotted skirts, neckties and suspenders — start appearing on my right and disappear into the studio above the pub, one by one – it’s like I’ve stepped into some sort of twilight zone. This wasn’t a typical Friday night out, that’s for sure.
I make my way up and I meet Joanne Khoo, the manager of LindyKL, who is bubbly and welcoming as she shows me around the studio and introduces me to a few of the group’s members. With an air of excitement as more people turn up, it does seem like most of them know already know each other so I’m feeling a little out of place, but not uncomfortable.
In general, there has been a resurgence in bringing back social dances from the sultry moves of salsa and its subgenres to the more classical waltzes and variations of ballroom dancing, yet the Lindy Hop community in Malaysia is enjoying its early years and finding its way to cement itself as a wholesome, clean way to have fun and meet other like-minded individuals.
What started in Harlem, New York City in the late 1920s with heavy influences of jazz and falling under the swing dance family, the Lindy Hop’s roots come from the African American community which, coupled with the musical innovations of Louis Armstrong, provided a means of brief escapism during the time of the Great Depression and enjoyed its golden era thanks to The Savoy. It is here that dance superseded race, gender and social standing.
When asked if she felt that this was a representation of what was happening in our current economic and political climate, Joanne explained that it was a different social narrative for our generation.
“Malaysia today, I feel, has become very passive. Malaysians want to do things where they ‘receive’, rather than be active. Dance is something that requires you to be very active and you have to put yourself out there. So it changes that kind of lifestyle, you feel more involved,” she says.
“Also, I think people just enjoy the revival of being vintage, especially with the whole hipster movement going into full swing.”
In just three short years since she and her boyfriend Lionel Tan had started LindyKL (having branched off from the original group, KL Swing), they now how a community of about 60 to 80 people.
“Back in the day we started with six or eight people that would come for our socials, and there were times where we couldn’t even last until midnight since some nights there’d be nobody. But we started giving classes, and encouraged our students to have their own personal goals and they just loved it. They kept coming back – it’s a word of mouth thing, you like it and you tell your friends about it.”
Lionel, an engineer, had picked up swing dance classes while he was studying in America whilst Joanne, a finance manager, had picked it up later in Vietnam where she was transferred for work. It was only natural progression that the dynamic duo would come back and bring their passion for dance to the masses.
“When Lionel and I started this, we just had one goal; which was just to make people happy,” said Joanne. “..and to enjoy dance!”
In 2011, this passion project of theirs started as a fortnightly filler class at another studio in Bangsar and eventually turned into a regular class every week thanks to the good reception. Today, they have regular performance nights outdoors at Publika to give their students more exposure, as well as to create more awareness for the community.
“In KL as a whole, there are at least 200 to 300 people who know how to swing dance or have done classes from both communities,” she explains.
“The community is really small, so we all go to each other’s socials but as with any establishment, we cater to different customers, so to speak. At LindyKL, we are very performance oriented and as much as possible we try to encourage our students to have performance goals.”
Joanne teaches beginner workshops over the weekend with two 3-hour classes on Saturday and Sunday, which would equip even those without any prior dance experience to be able to move and dance in just one weekend. This prepares you for the socials that happen every Friday night, which consists of a short free taster class – in case you’d like to bring a friend to try out, and is followed by three hours of social dancing after.
“There isn’t a syllabus, it’s very much a social dance and kept very casual,” Joanne explains. “In three to four months (after signing up for classes), you’ll be very comfortable dancing on the dance floor. We don’t do this for profit, so we make it very accessible and we’re very relaxed. It makes us happy that something we are doing makes other people enjoy doing the Lindy – and if we can just continue making people happy, I think that’s just a goal that we’ve achieved.”
After my 30-minute taster class, I’m bopping about expertly and getting asked by boys to dance as each new song rolls in. It takes me awhile to let my guard down and remember that I’m not at some dingy nightclub, and as soon as I do – I’m having quite the wonderful time, being lead on the dance floor by spiffily-dressed gentlemen. Even when I’m not dancing to the sounds of Edith Piaf’s Je Ne Veux Pas Travailler, I’m enjoying swooshing my big skirt around and it isn’t long until that weird sense of déjà vu hits me again. Just like an extra in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, I’m transported back to the past – short of meeting Lindy Hop greats such as “Shorty” George Snowden and Frankie Manning – but I decide to fully embrace the moment and just go with it, tapping my feet as I go along.
No partner? No problem!
Worried that you’ll not have anyone to dance with? Fret not, as bringing a partner is completely optional. Part of the beauty of joining the LindyKL community is meeting new people and expanding your social networks after all!
Grace Look, 27, says that the infectious vibe makes her smile each time she watches other people dancing, from the first day she saw the Lindy being performed live.
“I love the music, I love the people and I just love the feeling of happiness this dance brings,” she says. “I found some really good friends through dancing and that’s one of the reasons why I love swing dancing – it’s because of the people, it’s because of the community. It’s a very welcoming and cheerful kind of group so I think if there’s one thing that I’ve gained from it.. are really good friends.”
“For the ladies, if you like your sneakers I don’t think there’s any other dance out there that encourages you to wear sneakers and pretty skirts together in a combo!” – Grace Look
As for Raj Rissu Rajandran, 27, he enjoys the fact that Lindy allows you to express yourself in a manner that’s unique to you and very much revolves around your personality.
“When I first started dancing Lindy, I noticed that there was a very different style to it compared to other dances like salsa and ballroom dancing – it had a very upbeat feel to it. You can basically just goof around if you want and throw anything into it, and I enjoy that aspect of the dance,” he explains. “It allows me to be creative, and it allows me to be crazy and go all out.”
“It’s definitely more sociable and it’s a great way to stay in shape, especially if you dance to the intensity of the song. With higher BPMs, it’s a good cardio workout if you ask me!” – Raj Rissu Rajandran
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