Blues Dancing – Will it take off here?

Posted on: Sunday, Mar 9, 2008

So the latest craze (one of the latest crazes) in the U.S. is Blues Dancing. It looks to me like the swing dancers of the ’90s have aged a little and their knees are giving them a bit of jip. Hence the sensual and highly charged Blues Dancing. Looks good to me, but I doubt that it will fit in with the staid and unrhythmic bouncing of the usual Brits. Read more below…..

There are two ways to trace the emergence of the recent fad called “blues dancing.”

First, the historical route.

Back in the early part of the 20th century, as blues music slithered its way up the Mississippi River, people would head out to the tin-roofed juke joints and blues halls, get liquored up and then make an evening of hip-grinding dancing whipped up by the lyrics and licks of the bluesmen.

But homage to history is, most likely, not the real reason young people are now grinding out their own blues.

Many of the first fans (they started in earnest about 10 years ago) say blues dancing was a result of people getting tired at swing dance parties.

The mid-1990s swing revival, sparked by bands such as Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and The Brian Setzer Orchestra, popularized “dance exchanges,” which could last all night long.

At 6 a.m., after the dancers had worn themselves out on structured lindy hops and airborne tosses, their movements were minimized to spaghetti-limp swaying, or barely visible weight changes.

Modern blues dancing, still mostly undefined, has been a growing phenomenon in Austin, Dallas, San Francisco and Seattle.

Despite Memphis’ historic connection to the blues, it’s just now catching on here. Thanks are due to a couple of swing dancers who, this time last year, started NewVo Blues, a club of like-minded movers who get together to dance to Memphis’ most famous resource.

This weekend, the group will host “Bluesalicious,” the first major gathering of blues dancers in Memphis. More than 120 people are registered for the conference, many from out of state.

Defining “blues dancing” is a regular challenge for NewVo Blues co-founder Sarah Beth Larson, 32, a technical writer by day.

“It’s an exchange of energy,” she says, in a nutshell. “You’re feeding off energy — the energy of the musicians on the stage and your partner’s energy. A good dance is when I can close my eyes and feel that emotional connectedness.”

A slow dance might have the sensual grace of a tango, while a faster dance resembles swing without the acrobatics.

“There are actually a lot of different forms of movement in blues dancing,” Larson said. “It’s not as rigid, which makes it easy to get started with.”

Blues dancers meet regularly on the first and third Thursdays at Neil’s, where the Memphis Blues Society holds open jam sessions, free of charge.

The dancers arrive around 9 p.m., eager to work up a sweat to whatever the rotating line up of guitarists, harmonica players and singers serve up. There are surprisingly as many men as women on the dance floor, and no one keeps the same partner for long.

While most can swing to an uptempo tune, a slow blues song is more likely to get people out of their seats. They notch into each other, the weight shifting to their hips and legs. Experienced dancers can improvise off a guitar riff as if they had the notes memorized and the steps choreographed.

“Blues is very liberating,” said Mike Tinsley, 30, who works with computers. “For guys, especially, if you have the right attitude, go out there with a smile and confidence, then people will want to dance with you. For the novice, it might just be some stepping from side to side, but there is a technique to it. It’s the one place where a computer geek with virtually no social skills can learn the moves and be able to dance with the most outrageously attractive women because they love to be asked to dance.”

Tinsley met his wife at a swing dance in Knoxville.

While blues dancing is known for its sensuality, instructors insist that it’s not the same as sexuality.

In fact, the first few times she tried it, blues dancing gave Candace Gustine, 27, an icky feeling.

“I was having bad experiences at first because my partners didn’t know better,” said Gustine, a graphic designer. “A lot of blues is slow dancing. Guys can be creepy when they’re not assertive, like a dead-fish handshake.”

The co-founder and instructor of NewVo Blues says fundamentals are essential.

“Blues dancing draws from lost of different forms,” Gustine said. “But really a lot of it has been defined over the last 10 to 15 years. We’re defining is as dancers and teachers.”

With training in ballet, Robyn Wolfe, 24, takes to the dance floor with exuberant precision, and is a favorite partner of the better male dancers.

“In swing, you want a partner who knows the right moves,” she said. “But in blues dancing, you need a partner who has an ear for music. Musicians tend to be pretty good at it.”

Participants comment on the intense personal connections made within the brief span of a blues song.

“It’s a three-minute relationship without the sex,” joked Patrick Warren, 38, from Austin, Texas, who will deejay a “Jack and Jill” blues dance competition Saturday in Overton Park as part of Bluesalicious.

“I started in 2002, dragged kicking and screaming to my first swing class by my ex-wife,” Warren said. “I really feel like blues is my kind of dancing. You feel like you’re one of the instruments.”

At Neil’s, Warren doesn’t linger on the sidelines for long. As the band decides on the next tune, he interrupts the conversation with “If this dance is slow, I’ve gotta go.” It is, and he does, taking a woman’s hand and leading her to the foot of the stage.

Larson and Gustine say Memphis should be a natural draw for blues dancers across the country, and hopes to get more locals active.

Live music is preferable to recorded tunes, and the city has numerous blues venues to dance to.

At the same time, Larson said, NewVo Blues is just as likely to host dances and classes at private homes, where the compact style of movement can be done in smaller spaces. There, the music ranges from Charley Patton to Jimi Hendrix.

“We create a lot of sweat together,” Larson said. “But it’s a good, communal sweat.”

You can see some blues dancing on’s favourite site YouTube.

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