When you Hear the Term "Swing", What Does it Mean to you?

Swing is Dance

Danced mainly to the swinging style of jazz music from the 1920s-40s, lindy hop is a free, improvised dance with an emphasis on music, rhythm and groove. Slow and sassy or fast and raw, with both partnered and solo elements, it has African-American roots and originated in the Harlem ballrooms of New York in the 1930s.

Jazz dance has its roots in the 18th century as a way for African slaves in America to keep their culture close. It has African heritage of rhythms and percussion, singing and dancing about daily lives and call and response as communal emotional expression, elements that can be found in work songs, spirituals, blues, jazz, and dance. The dance was traditionally celebratory, but when Americans restricted the slaves from their drumming and dancing, they began to meet in secret, giving rise to street dances influenced by jazz music and ragtime. The group of dances we do – known under the general umbrella term of Swing Dance, or also known as Vernacular Jazz Dance, include the Lindy Hop, Tap, Charleston, Black Bottom, Cakewalk etc.

Swing is Music

Swing jazz – the popular music of the 1920s-40s – is exciting and playful, rich and rhythmic. From the days when people packed dance halls to hear the best bands to dance to, such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, this music really, really makes you want to get up and dance. The famous Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, New York was where people flocked to dance and party to the top big bands of the day, where its electrifying battles of the bands and popular Saturday night dance competitions pushed good dancers to greatness.

Swing is Community

Locally, Hong Kong Swings is an open community promoting swing, a style of rhythmic jazz music and dance most popular in the dancehalls of the 1920s-40s. It is run by volunteers who love swing for the social culture, history and sheer fun of it, and always welcomes new members. The Lindy Hop is the most widely danced swing dance around the world today, and is the main focus of the Hong Kong Swings community. It is danced both partnered and solo.

I am also a performer, community organiser as well as dance teacher. As co-founder of Hong Kong Swings and organiser of the Hong Kong Swing Festival, I started dancing swing in 2001, teaching since 2006 and instantly fell in love with the energy and happy nature of the dance.

Swing dance as an art form, and as a community, can bring such good.

It allows you to be at one with the music, and jazz is so interesting to move to, especially of the period that we dance to, generally American swing jazz music of the 1920s-40s. In jazz, there is shape and form and rhythm, and yet the embodiment of jazz is improvisation – jazz musicians that master their art let their instruments converse with each other, weaving in and out, each having a place and a turn within the story, within the structure. As a dancer, your body is an instrument too, becoming the visual embodiment of the music.

The thing I love most about swing dance is how it brings people together. We must put down our phones, put down our cares, and be right in the moment. For three minutes (the typical length of a song), you must give your full attention to yourself, the music, and to your partner.

Firstly, yourself and the music. You’re listening to the rhythm, the music, and the feeling it invokes in you. You must listen to yourself and your emotional response to the music – is it playful? Joyous and celebratory? Does the song carry sorrow or speak of hardship? Does it hope?

If you are dancing with a partner, you must also listen to your partner, connecting through touch, sight and sound, being conscientious and responding to each other. I mentioned that your body is like an additional instrument, and so - like the music itself – when you dance with a partner you must communicate to create something together through improvisation. You converse, making ideas and taking suggestions, all within an agreed structure and form to hold it together. Like the musicians who take turns to do their solos, then come together, in the dance too each person is given places to speak, and places to listen.

It’s a beautiful thing that you can create something unique together with another person, and that this is possible perhaps even without having met or danced with this person before. This is possible because you are creating together. The particular form of swing dance allows substantial flexibility and freedom to express, while following the same agreed framework.

Dance requires you to be fully present with yourself, your partner, and the music. In this age of busy-ness, where so often our bodies are doing one thing while our minds are elsewhere doing something else, it is a gift to take the time to be so fully present. I encourage everyone to take the time to dance because it clears so much in your mind and body.

As a community organiser, I try to encourage an environment where people have a safe, regular place where they feel freedom to express themselves, feel a connection to other people, and be part of a supportive group. My wish is to create a place where you can put down your cares for a while and immerse yourself in music and dance. It’s simple, it’s wholesome and inspires good creative energies. In this fast paced city lifestyle, it's like a drink of water or a breath of air, a needed pause. I urge everyone to try it as a way of taking care of yourself and others, mentally and physically –music, dance to get your blood flowing, being surrounded by others who will lift you up. In our Hong Kong Swings community, people come for all sorts of reasons – not just to dance, perform or compete but also to listen to jazz music, to meet friends, to keep in shape, to simply have a place to wind down regularly. There is a place for all of that, and we welcome everyone as long as we all respect others. Because we are volunteer run, there are also opportunities to contribute to the community and even learn new skills in the process (DJing, teaching, admin and event and media production).

In the words of Mae West, “I’ll try anything once, twice if I like it, three times to make sure.” Hong Kong Swings holds free intro classes every week, and studio classes. We will welcome you!



Legal Consultant, Axiom

Karen Tong is a legal consultant for Axiom, with particular experience in licensing, media and technology. She is also a swing dancer since 2001, teaching since 2006. She is a co-founder of Hong Kong Swings and organiser of the Hong Kong Swing Festival.