In 1928, two Black dancers in a dance marathon in Harlem — George Snowden and Mattie Purnell — broke away from each other to throw in some solo freestyling. With that, they started the process of creating one of the most popular swing dances ever: Lindy Hop.
It obviously spread from Harlem, and today exists across the country, including in Denver. The dance — along with swing music itself — has ebbed and flowed in popularity over the last few decades, but the fast-paced swing-outs and stomping beats have held onto Denver, developing a small community that’s easy for beginners to start in and experts to explore.
“I think there’s a lot of room for growth to provide many opportunities for people that want to dance,” said Kenny Nelson, founder of Swingin’ Denver — a swing school and local dance party hoster.
Nelson himself has experience teaching around the world, but the last eight years he’s been teaching Lindy Hop across Denver and hosting social dances from the Mercury Cafe to the Savoy.
The current big three places for Lindy Hop in Denver, according to Nelson, have been the Mercury Cafe, the Savoy and the Turnverein as they are what have survived the ebb and flow.
“The Mercury Cafe got its start in the '90s when neo-swing was happening, and they’re the one place that remained when everyone else was gone…it kind of all fizzled out,” Nelson explained. “I mean, it went with the ebb and flow of popular music. The pop bands tried to grab that sound and it lasted for a bit, but it didn’t last.”
The Mercury Cafe now hosts the teaching and party-hosting group Swing Nights twice a week, every Tuesday and Sunday evening, with Ceth Stifel teaching many of the classes from beginner to intermediate. “The Merc,” as it’s also called, has a live band almost every Sunday as well.
The Turnverein, a 5,280 square foot ballroom, hosts a broader range of dance classes from many different teachers like argentine tango and general ballroom, but also a free Lindy Hop class at 7 p.m. every Friday and a dance right after.
Nelson himself found a home at the Savoy near Five Points in the city, where he teaches beginner and intermediate classes and hosts a live band and dance on the first Wednesday of every month.
Music is, of course, a central aspect. The right variation in tempo, a swinging sound that will convince dancers onto the floor, mixing songs from well-known to gems — all harder than it may seem.
“Swing dancing is inevitably tied to the music, having some music that is really good and swinging, and DJs that are paying attention to the dance floor is very crucial for having creative dancing,” Nelson said.
He describes a talent loss around 2008 and 2012 though, in DJing, dancing, and teaching, but has seen it start improving since 2013.
“I really feel like, in certain areas, live music has stepped up, and it’s great, whereas DJing definitely hasn’t come back,” Nelson said. He references some of the bands that he’s hosted before like La Pomp, that play “swingin tin-pan standards” and “soulful originals” according to their Instagram, putting them in a category “of the new current bands, with younger members, who are really talented and really hard-working.”
In terms of the stability of the scene now, it’s hard to tell.
“It’s kind of hard to get the complete pulse post-pandemic on the scene here. It certainly feels like it’s getting more stable,” Nelson said, pointing to venues having live music again as a promising step.
The dance’s history as a Black dance is a focus Nelson tries to give when he teaches.
“There’s been a lot of international conversations around the role of teaching, how we ought to be teaching, and how we can best respect the fact that we are teaching a Black dance — how can we best provide solid representation and appreciation for the dance,” he said. “I still think there’s lots of room for improvement there too.”
Specifically, the idea that the dance had a “revival” is what is pushed back on. As Nelson puts it, it “presents a whitewashing of the current popularity of swing dancing - i.e. it paints a picture of an activity ‘saved’ from extinction by white people, rather than a living art form still practiced within Black communities."
Within Denver though, it is far from extinction or needing to be saved. Tuesday nights at “The Merc,” Friday nights at the Turnverin, and Sunday nights back to “The Merc” again, Lindy Hop is going strong in the city and welcomes beginners, experts and intermediates all alike.
Take a hop, skip and a jump into the city and see what you can do to the tune of “swingin tin-pan standards.”