by Barbara Sherf
With the Papal visit expected to cause traffic and transit problems in late September, members of the Philadelphia Swing Dance Society (PSDS) have pushed their dance schedule back to this Saturday, Sept. 19, at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill,8855 Germantown Ave.
Ambler artist John Bieniek, 76, was on hand for the August dance as he wanted to connect with his “second family” before his early September heart surgery. As he sat on the sidelines, Bieniek said besides the dancing, the people-watching is pretty good.
“I love the diversity of people here, and they are all so bright and from different walks of life. You never know who you are going to meet,” Bieniek said. “I dance when I’m happy, and I dance when I’m sad. When I leave I’m always in a great mood, even if it’s just watching.”
Long-time member Warren Wilson sat behind a table at the August event, taking payments and urging the first-timers to get into the hall to take some lessons prior to the dance. As a group of 20-year olds entered, he noted that the PSDS is seeing a younger audience take an interest in swing dancing.
“If there are 150 people in attendance, I’d say two thirds of them appear to be in their 30s or younger,” he said, noting that the style, price and social media have drawn newcomers into the group. Wilson is among a growing number of volunteers who turn out to keep costs down as the PSDS is a non-profit organization.
“When there is live music, the bands are paid and halls are rented, but the people who do all of the organizing and other work are not compensated,” added Wilson.
Lee Salinis, 29, a Germantown native now living in Roxborough, came to the dance solo and volunteered as a way to make sure she didn’t back out. “I decided to volunteer with refreshments in order to get me through the doors. It worked. Everyone was so open and willing to dance and teach you.”
PSDS President Jim Kitch noted that years ago a group known as the Magnificent Seven returned from a Washington D.C. Swing Dance Council’s annual “Savoy Swings Again” weekend and decided that swing dancing was a must-do in Philadelphia.
“The first dances were held in individuals’ homes before a real dance with live music was held in November of 1987,” he added, while serving as DJ for the evening.
“The fastest growing dance in this area is known as ‘Lindy’ or ‘8 Count,’ which is a bit more involved than jitterbug,” Kitch said. “West Coast swing is done to slower songs and is much more involved.”
Mt. Airy residents Peggy Leiby and Rett Turner volunteered to give step-by-step instructions to an attentive audience. The pair met at a dance at the church in 1995 and became both dance and life partners.
Leiby, 64, suggests that couples split up and learn dance with different partners. “You become a better dancer and build your skills,” said Leiby, who left corporate America and started clogging at the age of 45. “It’s great exercise, and you meet some really neat people.”
By popular demand, Leiby and Turner started teaching dance classes on Wednesday nights earlier this month at Allens Lane Art Center and will continue holding the classes through the end of October.
Sarah Hibbs, 19, and Joshua Ramirez, 21, both of Northeast Philadelphia, said they felt intimidated until they took the dance lessons.
“I really recommend the lessons to anyone. It was very helpful and we will be back,” said Ramirez, who was invited by his buddy, Nate DeSanta, 21, and his friend Evelyn DaSilva, 19, of Northeast Philadelphia.
“We were looking for something to do as a couple that was fun and different. This is really good for a couple to become more in tune with each other while getting a workout. Plus, if you have a student ID you get $5 off,” DeSanta chimed in as the group took a break for refreshments. The regular price is $15 ($10 for military) and includes free non-alcoholic refreshments and the lessons.
Drexel Medical School student Christina Vojtek, 24, was back for a second time, and brought her boyfriend to try it out. “I love to swing dance. It’s a great stress reliever and gives me a break from the books,” she said, while taking a quick water break and watching her boyfriend attempt a few moves with another dance partner. “Basically, if you are asked to dance, you should accept. It’s one dance, and it’s just common courtesy to say yes unless you really are out of your league with the type of dance.”
Bensalem resident Kim Birkett, 36, was a first-timer at the August event who said she would be back. “I had taken dance lessons as a child, and I feel in step to the music,” said Birkett, who considers herself a convert to swing music. “It was fun, and the lessons were great. You will see me back.”
As for Bieniek, his first words in the Recovery Room post-surgery were: “Get me back out on the dance floor. I’m ready.”
Organizers noted that the Sept. 19 dance at Widener Hall, 8855 Germantown Ave., features strong air conditioning and a live DJ. Live bands will resume at the October events, and on Nov. 14, the City Rhythm Orchestra will play at the Commodore Barry Club for the PSDS’ 28th Anniversary Dance.
Beginner lessons start at 7 p.m., and dancing is from 9 to midnight. More information at www.swingdance.org or 610-676-0123 or 215-629-2344.