Swing dancers step back into bygone jazz era

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 January, 2012, 12:00am

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It's a wet Wednesday evening in Hong Kong's financial district, but in an underground bar, the dance floor is packed with people reliving a bygone era.

Vintage jazz is playing over the speakers while about 20 couples dance gracefully across the smooth wooden floors, swirling to the moves of the Lindy Hop, a popular style of swing dancing.

Interest in swing dancing has grown from just a handful of enthusiasts a few years ago to a dedicated group who meet weekly. This weekend, an international swing festival attracted about 200 people from across Asia to the city.

At the centre of this budding dance floor movement is Karen Tong, a 30-year-old lawyer who was introduced to swing dancing while studying at university in London.

In 2006, Tong returned to Hong Kong and was keen to start a social dance group, but this proved difficult. 'It was a real struggle in the first few years, but it's grown from two people to four, to me calling others to come down. And now, we have about 50 who come every week.'

Hong Kong Swings meets every Wednesday night at Grappa's Cellar in Central and from 8.30pm, there's a free lesson to welcome beginners such as Joe Wong, who recently moved from America to the city to work in finance. 'Some friends mentioned it might be fun so I came, and it was pretty good,' Wong said.

Tong said while the swing dancing community was smaller than the tango or salsa groups, it was a varied mix of locals and expatriates, including teachers, lawyers and bankers.

'The music is old-fashioned so people either like it or they don't,' she said. 'It's a silly dance and different to salsa, which is sexy.'

Over the past few years, more people had been showing interest in swing dancing, with hundreds joining classes, she said.

'It's not the easiest dance to learn, but once you know the structure, a lot is improvised,' she said. 'People make mistakes all the time, but the spirit of it is to make your partner laugh or to surprise them.'

Those at the festival, which ends tonight with a party in Central, include dancers from Shanghai, Beijing, Taiwan and Vietnam. Tong said swing dancing was becoming increasingly popular in Asia, with the largest community in South Korea.

In 2010 the government organised a big band festival and brought some of the world's top swing dancers to the city, sparking more interest.

Philippe Crompton-Roberts, 43, was among the first members of Hong Kong Swings, and he now performs as a disc jockey at their weekly gatherings, playing music ranging from big band tunes to early rock and roll songs. 'But the main era is from the late 1930s to early 1940s, so Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong all feature,' he said.

'Swing dancing is a very relaxing activity especially as Hong Kong is a very stressful city,' he said.