October 08, 2019

American Folk Dance? Ukrainians Can Swing It.

American Folk Dance? Ukrainians Can Swing It.
Swing dancing at the “Made in Ukraine Festival.” Swing dancing may not have been made in Ukraine, but Ukrainians have certainly made it their own.
  Hot Boogie Club | Facebook

For most Russophiles, the Russified foreign word “boogie-voogie” brings to mind cool-cat wiggling from the hit movie Stilyagi (Hipsters), about youth counterculture in the Soviet 1950s. I too had this assumption when I heard an announcement for American “boogie-voogie” while I was eating Geogrian grilled mushrooms at – ironically – a “Made in Ukraine” festival in Kyiv. I jumped up from my picnic bench and glanced over at the dancers, who were halfway through the first song, and saw that they were, in fact, swing dancing. 

Despite its title “You Love to Boogie-Voogie,” this song from Stilyagi doesn’t even have the right meter to actually swing dance. It’s a good song and great movie in its own right, though. / 30Avesta | Youtube

This weekend, October 4-6, over 100 swing dancers from all over Ukraine (plus at least six other Eastern European countries) will converge on Kyiv for the fifth annual October Boogie Fest. It is hosted by the Hot Boogie Club, which holds dance classes and various other events year-round, including a swing party on a boat - which I attended in July. Our double-decker boat drifted down the Dnieper River, past nude beaches and lush green islands uninhabited except for other nautical partygoers blasting outdated Russian pop, and was filled with dozens of young people in bow ties, knee-length skirts and pinstripes, blasting very different music. In the dim blue light, the most talented members tossed their partners in the air like figure skaters, seamlessly switching between the roles of leader and follower. (Traditionally, the man leads and the woman follows; the top dancers of both genders, with a twinkle in their eye, enjoyed subverting expectations and sometimes danced with same-gender partners.)

Women swing dance in Ukraine
Two women triumphantly end their dance in the competition portion. We voted for the final winner of the American folk dance competition with bubliki (small, round, crunchy Ukrainian snacks), and, if that’s not a blending of cultures, I don’t know what is. / Hot Boogie Club | Facebook

Ukrainians swing dance exceptionally well. The average dancers are notably better than those I have seen Baltimore, Boston and Chicago. Perhaps this is due to the region’s strong dance culture. Ballet is an Eastern Europe stereotype, but dance is not limited to the tutu-wearing elite. In an average small town in Ukraine – Myrhorod, for instance – the main restaurant is filled with spontaneous, age-unrestricted weeknight dancing, and all teachers and students participate in biannual choreographed showcases, waltzing at graduation. And don’t take my word for it: Ukrainians have won the Swing World Cup many times. This year, they hosted the European Youth Championships.

Star Ukrainian dancer Tetyana Georgiyevska and her Norweigian partner were the European Champions this year. (Head to 9:30; link preset for this time.) DanceSportTotal | Youtube 

Still, dance talent can be applied to many dance styles; so why swing, specifically? Actually, swing is not the most popular dance that the Americas gave Eastern Europe. According to Serhii Bezuhlyi, an instructor and administrator of Hot Boogie Club, salsa and tango are even more popular in the region. However, he said that Ukraine’s swing dancers, who are drawn by the liveliness of the style and the ability to improvise, are exceptionally devoted. One newer member I spoke with said that she had tried the Latin dances, but preferred swing because she got hit on less; the community is really in it for the dance.

Ukraine certainly does not have a monopoly on swing talent in Eastern Europe. Russians make a strong showing at the Swing World Cup, and there are swing dance communities throughout Russia, including Moscow, St. Petersburg (several), Yaroslavl, Yekaterinburg, Kazan, Tula, and Sochi. Based on Vkontakte (the Russian Facebook equivalent) subscriber numbers, St. Petersburg seems to have the most active community by far, with over 14,000 members in at least three active groups. In other cities, numbers are closer to 300-500. Lithuania also has some of the best swing dancers in the world; at least four Lithuanian dancers were highly ranked in the finals of the International Lindy Hop Championships last year. 

Swing dancers in St. Petersburg
Dance in full swing on the streets of St. Petersburg this summer. / Dance School Boogie-Voogie Lindy Hop Swing Dance RRJ | Vkontakte

American swing dance may not be the most popular form of foreign folk dance in Eastern Europe, and Eastern Europeans are not the only good foreign swing dancers. Yet their modern (yet retro), imported (yet locally adapted), practiced to excellence (yet improvised) styles forge a welcoming, fun community. They may not be dancing their stilyagi grandparents’ boogie-voogie, but that only makes them more true to the spirit of the stilyagi, which literally means “those with style.” Eastern European swing dancers, revelling in the remote borderlands of what is “in style,” certainly have their created own style: American dance with a new (swing out, lift and) spin.

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